A discussion involving Aron Ra, centered around the definition of atheism, blew up on Twitter the other day. Generally, it is not a discussion I tend to get involved in. That is not to say that I have not got into discussions about how it is defined, it is just to say that for the most part I will avoid getting into the discussion.
There are several reasons for this, some of which will be covered in this series of articles. However, this discussion on Twitter was slightly different, and one that I feel needs to be addressed. The conversation was centered around the ‘lacktheist’ definition of atheism, and who or what is to be considered atheist. The claim, as the title of this piece might allude to, was that rocks are atheist. A back and forth then ensued for a couple of days both defending and arguing against said claim.
It is not the first time I have heard this claim of course. There are other atheists that have made the claim, ranging from people in Facebook groups to YouTubers like BionicDance. This time around though it was a slightly bigger name than those that I have previously seen arguing this position. A name with a lot more influence in the atheist community, as could be seen by some of the responses in the various threads and tweets that spawned from the original claim.
That name being Aron Ra. It is this fact that caused me to feel like it is important to respond to the claim and some of the arguments that were made. This article is the first part in a series discussing Aron Ra’s argument, as well as ‘lacktheist’ and ‘rocktheist’ arguments in general. We will begin first with a quick discussion on defining atheism, and claims of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ definitions.
One of the problems surrounding this ‘rocktheist’ discussion is the exclusivity claim made by those that promote the ‘lacktheism’ position to the definition of atheism. Aron Ra makes a similar claim of exclusivity (Ra, 2019). His claim being that atheism is just ‘a lack of belief in god’, and any other definitions are incorrect (Ra, 2019). Including the definition as laid out by Paul Draper in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for atheism and agnosticism (Ra, 2020a). Herein lies a problem though, what right does Aron Ra, and other ‘lacktheists’ and ‘rocktheists’, have to claim that only their definition is the correct one?
Consider for a moment that it is not the only definition in existence, and in fact has only become a popular definition in recent times. Previously, atheism was generally defined as the claim that God does not exist. This definition still exists in contemporary times also. Aron Ra himself admits that this definition exists also, it is just that this definition is ‘wrong’ (Ra, 2020a). There are many theists that define it this way, and there are also many atheists that still hold to this definition.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines atheism in this way, as do many philosophers (Draper, 2017). In the paper ‘Atheism’, CM Lorkowski states that ‘strictly speaking, an atheist is a person that actively denies the existence of the God of theism’ (Lorkowski, 2013). In 50 Voices of Disbelief we find Michael Shermer stating ‘According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), our finest source for the history of word usage […] Atheism is “Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God”’ (Shermer, 2009).
Now, one might be forgiven for thinking that this is leading into an argument for the exclusivity of the above definition. That is not the case, however. The above is simply to show that atheism is not just ‘a lack of belief in god’. There have been, and still are, other ways of defining atheism. Definitions which are still adhered to by some atheists.
The above definition is also the definition that many theists hold to as well, as can be seen by the many times we see the questions akin to ‘can atheists prove God does not exist?’ in Facebook groups, on Twitter, and in apologist videos on YouTube. In terms of numbers, considering how many theists hold the above definition, along with the number of atheists that hold to the above definition, there are probably more people that define atheism in the above way than in the ‘lacktheist’ way.
There can be only one (definition)
This brings us back to the question of what gives the ‘lacktheist’ and ‘rocktheist’ the right to claim that their definition is the only correct definition. After all, Aron Ra called the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy wrong, and said that they were defining atheism incorrectly (Ra, 2020b). The American Atheists website also claims that the ‘lacktheist’ definition is the only correct definition also (American Atheists, n.d.). As do many ‘lacktheists’ in general.
Any religious apologist that uses atheism in the sense of ‘belief there is no God’, the ‘lacktheist’ will then argue that the apologist does not know what atheism is. When the apologist responds with sources that define atheism in the sense of ‘no God’, the ‘lacktheist’ will often argue that the apologist’s sources are wrong. It is the atheist that gets to define what atheism is, not anybody else.
So, perhaps here we have our grounding for the ‘lacktheists’ claim of authority over the definition of atheism? Well, no, this cannot be the grounding for that authority because the ‘lacktheist’ also tells other atheists that they are using the term incorrectly. The atheist that holds to the ‘there is no God’ definition is also told they should be holding to the ‘lack of belief’ position.
Meaning that those atheists that hold to the ‘there is no God’ position are not entitled to define what atheism is. Not for the ‘lacktheist’, and not even for themselves. What, then, gives the ‘lacktheist’ the authority to declare that only the ‘lack of belief’ definition is the acceptable and ‘correct’ definition?
It is just what the word means!
One of the most common responses to what gives the ‘lacktheist’ the authority to claim the correctness of their definition of the word atheism is that it is simply what the word means. There are generally several paths that this can take. One argument that is often made is that the word has always meant this. Ignoring the obvious etymological fallacy of this claim, any honest journey through the history of the word atheism will soon show that the word has not always meant ‘a lack of belief in gods’.
The honest investigator will soon find that it is a polysemous word. A word that has had, and does have, multiple meanings. This means that this argument cannot be what gives the ‘lacktheist’ the authority to claim exclusivity to the meaning of the word ‘atheism’.
Another popular argument is that the definition comes from breaking the word down. It is how language works that gives the ‘lacktheist’ their authority in claiming ‘a lack of belief in gods’ as the authoritative definition of atheism. The argument is based on the idea that the prefix of ‘a-‘ in the word atheism means ‘without’ or ‘not’, so therefore the word atheism means ‘not theism’ or ‘without theism’.
The argument then becomes anything that is not ‘theism’ is therefore ‘atheism’. The same holds true for the word ‘atheist’. The prefix of ‘a-‘ in the word ‘atheist’ means ‘not’, so therefore becomes ‘not theist’. Therefore, anything that is not theist is atheist. This argument is also one of the arguments that is used to support the claim that the word atheism has always meant ‘lack of belief in gods’.
This appears to be the stronger argument, and is also the same argument used by Aron Ra on Reason Advocates and his supporters on Twitter (Ra, 2019). As this is the stronger of the arguments, and is the argument used by Aron Ra and his supporters on Twitter, then this is the argument that we will use here. Something that may shock supporters of Aron Ra’s stance, and something that will be explored here, is that this is also how it is interpreted when using the ‘God does not exist’ definition. For now, let us continue with our examination of the ‘rocktheist’ and ‘lacktheist’ stance.
Atheism as ‘Without Theism’
Let us begin by expanding on the usage of the terms ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’ by the ‘lacktheist’. As we have seen, the ‘lacktheist’ breaks the word ‘atheism’ down to mean ‘without theism’ or ‘not theism’ based on the ‘a-‘ prefix in the words (Ra, 2019). Generally, they use the term in the sense of ‘without theism’. This can be deduced from the idea that the ‘lacktheist’ most often defines the word ‘atheism’ as ‘a lack of belief in gods’.
Meaning that the usage of the term describes a lack of a property, or being ‘without’ the property of ‘belief on gods’. The definition can be further supported by the idea that the ‘lacktheist’ defines ‘atheism’ as ‘the default state’ for any object. It is considered the ‘default state’ because belief in gods is a property that has to be acquired, giving us further reason to conclude that the word ‘atheism’ is being defined in terms of ‘without’ rather than ‘not’.
We can also see from the definition that the ‘lacktheist’ uses that they use the term ‘theism’ to mean ‘belief in gods’. If the definition that the ‘lacktheist’ uses is ‘a lack of belief in God or gods’, and the ‘a-‘ prefix is used in terms of ‘without’, then ‘theism’ here can only mean ‘belief in god(s)’. Just as the term ‘atheism’ is being used to describe the lack of a property, the term ‘theism’ is being used to describe the existence of a property. That property in both cases being a belief in god(s).
Further evidence that the term ‘atheism’ is being used in the sense of ‘without’, and in the sense of a description of a property, is that the ‘lacktheist’ does not refer to a theist as ‘atheism’. Which would be the case if the prefix ‘a-‘ was being used in terms of ‘not’. For if ‘theism’ refers to ‘belief in god(s)’, and ‘atheism’ refers to anything that is not theism, then a theist would be atheism. A person that believes in god(s) is not the same thing as the actual belief itself. Therefore, it could only be referring to a property, rather than object. Meaning the prefix ‘a-‘ could only be referring to a property an object contains, rather than an object itself.
So, from this breakdown of the word we can see how the ‘lacktheist’ gets to the definition they use. Their usage is determined by whether or not an object contains a particular property, with that property being a belief in God or gods. The property is defined by the term ‘theism’, and the fact that it refers to a lack of the property is determined by the prefix ‘a-‘. There may be some ‘lacktheists’ that disagree with this breakdown of course, but most will break the term down as is shown above.
For those that disagree with the above breakdown it is on them to show not only how the above breakdown differs from their own, but also show how it makes any difference to the argument that follows. Now that we have seen how the ‘lacktheist’ derives their definition and usage from the word, we are left with one burning question. Does this breakdown give them authoritative use of the word? Does the way they derive the definition give them the authority to say that other usages are ‘wrong’? Or that the word ‘atheism’ only means this particular thing?
Atheism as ‘Not Theism’
In order to answer these questions, we must explore another definition and usage of the term ‘atheism’. As stated earlier, the term ‘atheism’ is also defined as ‘the denial of the existence of God’ (Shermer, 2009; Lorkowski, 2013; Draper, 2017). Just as the ‘lacktheist’ gets their usage by breaking down the word, the atheist that uses ‘atheism’ in this manner does similar. However, rather than just breaking the word down, there is a logical process used to derive the meaning of the word. Through this logical process the word is given its meaning, and is used to describe a stance rather than a simple description of a property or lack of property. What is meant by this?
Many ‘lacktheists’ may actually be able to relate to this more than they first imagine. We will often here the ‘lacktheist’ argue that atheism is a single response to a single question. That question being ‘Do you believe God exists?’. With the argument being that if you answer yes then you are a theist, and if you answer no, then you are an atheist.
The usage being discussed here begins in a similar way, except the question is ‘Is it true that a God exists?’. In this usage, theism is concerned with the answer yes, and atheism is concerned with the answer no. This usage is also concerned with answers such as ‘I am not sure’, or ‘the question is unanswerable’, or ‘the question is unintelligible’.
Now, we could make an argument here for why this version is more logical or less logical than the ‘lacktheist’ definition. However, there are already plenty of arguments out there describing why it used that way, and arguments from each side for why their usage is the more logical one.
There are excellent arguments that can be found here on Answer in Reason, the argument can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry for Atheism and Agnosticism, and there are videos from YouTubers such as Steve McRae. If you are interested in the logic behind it then it is highly recommended to visit those other sources. What we are concerned with here is whether or not the ‘lacktheists’ breakdown of the word gives them authoritative use of the word, and the right to claim other definitions are wrong.
As stated previously, the prefix ‘a-‘ can mean both ‘not’ and ‘without’. The ‘lacktheist’ uses it in the sense of ‘without’, whereas this in this usage it is defined in terms of ‘not’. If we return back to the question being asked in both senses here, we can see how the word is broken down to mean ‘not. In the ‘lacktheist’ account of ‘atheism’, the question being asked is ‘Do you believe God exists?’. When the individual responds with ‘no’, then they can be considered to be ‘without’ belief.
Whereas in this account, the question being asked is ‘Is it true that God exists?’. In this account, theism can be considered the answer ‘God exists’. If we take the prefix ‘a-‘ to mean ‘not’ in this instance, then atheism can be considered the response ‘not theism’. In other words, it is the response that theism is not the answer, or theism is not true.
Which One is Authoritative?
This brings us to something of an impasse then. The claim from the ‘lacktheist’ that they are the ones that are interpreting the ‘a-‘ prefix correctly does not hold up. As can be seen, those defining it in the sense of ‘God does not exist’ are also using the prefix correctly. This means that the claim by the ‘lacktheist’ to authoritative use of the word, and the right to declare others wrong, cannot be derived from ‘correct usage of the ‘a-‘ prefix’. Meaning that when people like Aron Ra, American Atheists, and other ‘lacktheists’, argue that atheism only means ‘lack of belief in god’ because that is what the word breaks down to are making an erroneous argument.
There is nothing from the way that the ‘lacktheist’ breaks the word down that gives it any kind of authoritative usage. At best it can be argued that it is a legitimate interpretation of the word, and a preferred usage. It cannot be argued that other usages are ‘wrong’, or that those who define it as ‘God does not exist’ are wrong. So, if the way the ‘lacktheist’ breaks the word ‘atheism’ down does not give them the authority to declare other definitions to be wrong, from whence comes the authority?
As was shown earlier, it cannot be from the idea that atheists get to define what atheism is. Aron Ra declared the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry to be wrong, and the Stanford Encyclopedia entry was written by an atheist philosopher. If their status as atheists does not give them the authority to claim other definitions wrong, and their breakdown of the word ‘atheism’ does not give them the authority, what then gives them the authority to declare other definitions to be wrong? What gives them the right to declare their definition ‘the only game in town’?
Theism is a Question About Beliefs
One way that Aron Ra attempted to show that the ‘lacktheism’ definition is the only right one was to try to discredit the definition put forward in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article about atheism. As stated previously, the definition of atheism as ‘a denial of the existence of god’ begins not with the question of whether the individual believes in a god, but with the question of whether a god exists. Theism is the affirmation of the proposition ‘God exists’, or the positive response to the question ‘Is it true that God exists?’. Atheism is the disaffirmation of the proposition ‘God exists’, or the negative response to the question ‘Is it true that God exists?’.
However, the definition as put forward by ‘lacktheism’ asks a different question. It asks the question ‘Do you believe in god?’. For the ‘lacktheist’, atheism is the negative response to that question. Which is the criticism that Aron Ra levies at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article. Aron Ra states that he ‘saw a huge flaw at the onset’ because of this difference (Ra, 2020b). Strangely, he states that ‘it can also be that’ also, in reference to the SEP entry (Ra, 2020a).
Meaning that Aron Ra is both saying that it is correct, and it is also wrong; and then arguing why it is not a correct usage. However, we are back to the problem we have been discussing so far, the problem of authoritative usage. Aron Ra declares that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is wrong, and asking the wrong question in order to be considered a true definition of atheism.
Yet, as show, there is nothing that gives them the authority to say that the question is incorrect. There is nothing in the way words are defined, or the way the word ‘atheism’ can be interpreted, that states that it cannot be concerned with the ontological status of God. There is nothing that gives them the authority to state that theism is ‘only concerned with belief in God’ either. ‘Belief’ here referring to a psychological state, rather than the propositional content of the belief.
When one digs deeper into theism, they will see that it is not concerned only with beliefs in the sense of a psychological, but concerned with arguing for the actuality of God. Theism is concerned with the propositional content of the belief, it is concerned with the ontological status of God, and the truth of the existence of God. Hence why there is also definition of atheism, as ‘not theism’, that is concerned with the ontological status of God too, and the truth of God’s non-existence. More will be discussed on this in a further part.
It’s All Subjective, Man
Aron Ra, and other ‘lacktheists’, can argue that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is asking the wrong question according to their definition of course. It is, after all, using the word in a different way to the way the ‘lacktheist’ uses it. They can also argue that those atheists that hold to the ‘God does not exist’ definition are also asking the wrong question according to the way they use the word atheism.
Again, those atheists are indeed using the word in a different way too. What Aron Ra, and other ‘lacktheists’, cannot argue is that those other atheists are using the word in ‘the wrong way’. All they can argue is that those other atheists are using the word in a way they do not prefer. The same holds true in reverse too also, of course.
The ‘lacktheist’ uses the word ‘atheist’ in the way that they prefer, and the other atheists use the word ‘atheist’ in they way that they prefer. Each group finds their usage the most logical. Neither group can claim authority over the definition. Each group can put forward an argument for why they prefer it that way, and why they think their usage is the most logical usage. The groups can put forward why they think the other groups usage is less logical too of course, and can even try to convince the other group why they should adopt their usage.
Perhaps one day there may even be a unitary definition, but as it stands now that is not the case. The word atheist is polysemous, there are different usages in effect. When in discussion we should use the agent’s preferred usage of course, but that holds for all sides. The theist should use the atheists preferred usage.
However, the ‘lacktheist’ should also too, and that is not just the case with other atheists. It should not just be other atheists that they are arguing are using the word ‘wrong’. They should also not be telling agnostics that they are using the term incorrectly, or that there is no such thing as an agnostic. Agnosticism has a long history, and the word has been used to describe a particular stance for a very long time. Longer indeed than the ‘lacktheist’ and the ‘agnostic atheist’ definitions have been in effect.
The ‘agnostic atheist’ could argue that they find the agnostic label to be illogical, but not wrong. Which is the discussion that the various groups should be having with each other. The discussion should not be about who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’, but about the problems we see with each other’s definitions, or arguing for why we use our particular definitions.
As can be seen from the above argument, there is nothing that gives Aron Ra, or other ‘lacktheists’, the authority to declare any particular definition of atheism to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It cannot be argued by said group that it is atheists that have the right to define the term ‘atheism’, as Aron Ra and other ‘lacktheists’ reject the definition put forward by atheists that hold to the ‘God does not exist’ definition.
Aron Ra also declared that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Atheism and Agnosticism to be wrong, and that entry was written by an atheist philosopher. So, unless the argument being made is that only Aron Ra, American Atheists, or other ‘lacktheists’ get to define atheism, it cannot be the atheist identity that gives authority to a definition.
We have also seen that it cannot be the way the word ‘atheism’ is broken down linguistically, or the way it is interpreted, that gives Aron Ra and other ‘lacktheists’ the authority to declare that other definitions are ‘wrong’. There is nothing that gives them the authority to declare that only their definition is correct. In both the ‘lacktheism’ and the ‘philosophical atheism’ sense, the word is being broken down in a linguistically correct manner. Both use the ‘a-‘ prefix in the sense of ‘not’ or ‘without’, as the ‘lacktheist’ claims the ‘a-‘ prefix should be. The difference is that both begin with a different question. One begins with a question about whether one believes, and one begins with the ontological status of God.
It was also shown that Aron Ra and other ‘lacktheists’ have no authority to declare that asking about the ontological status of God is ‘not atheism’. The definition they prefer might not be concerned with that, but that is not the same as declaring that atheism is not concerned with it. It is only to say that they prefer a version of atheism that is not concerned with it. The word ‘atheism’, like most words, is a polysemous word. One that has multiple meanings, each one valid.
There are, whether Aron Ra and other ‘lacktheists’ like it or not, atheists that hold to the ‘God does not exist’ definition. There are atheists that are concerned with the ontological status, and there is a form of atheism concerned with it. Unless Aron Ra and other ‘lacktheists’ can come up with some argument that gives them the authority to declare that only their version of atheism is the correct one, then all they should be arguing is that it is not their preferred version of atheism. They should not be arguing that the other version is ‘wrong’, or that other definitions are ‘wrong’. It skirts very closely to a No True Scotsman fallacy.
So, to conclude, Aron Ra’s argument on Twitter that other definitions of atheism are ‘wrong’, and that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is ‘wrong’, is itself wrong. Aron Ra was wrong. It may be hard for him, or his fans, or other ‘lacktheists’, to accept. However, it is the case that they are wrong to declare that their version of atheism is ‘the only true version of atheism’. They are free to argue that they prefer not to use that definition, or prefer a different version of atheism, but they overstep their bounds when they argue that others are ‘wrong’. They overstep their bounds when they argue that atheism is ‘just a lack of belief in God’.
Coming in this series of articles will be further explanations of atheism in the sense of ‘not theism’ or ‘the belief God does not exist’, further explanations of atheism in the sense of ‘without theism’ or ‘lack of belief in God’, my reasons for preferring atheism in the ‘belief God does not exist’ sense, my reasons for not preferring atheism in the sense of ‘lack of belief in God’, and criticisms of Aron Ra’s ‘rocktheist’ stance.
American Atheists (n.d.) American Atheists [Online] Available at https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/ (Accessed 10 August 2020).
Draper, P. (2017) ‘Atheism and Agnosticism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition) [Online] Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/ (Accessed 10 August 2020).
Lorkowski, CM. (2013), ‘Atheism’, Philosophy Compass, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 523-538
Ra, A. (2019) Reason Advocates [Online] Available at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/reasonadvocates/2019/06/21/is-an-agnostic-also-atheist/ (Accessed 10 August 2020).
Ra, A. (2020a) Yes, the SEP is wrong. Atheism is and always was a negative answer to “do you BELIEVE in a god”. It is not just a negative answer to “is there a god”, although it can be that too, Aug 8 [Twitter]. Available at https://twitter.com/Aron_Ra/status/1292225075270299648 [Accessed 10 August 2020].
Ra, A. (2020b) Yeah, I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition of atheism and saw a huge flaw at the onset. Atheism is not a negative answer to the question, “is there a god”. It is a negative answer to the question “do you BELIEVE in a god”. Huge difference, Aug 7 [Twitter]. Available at https://twitter.com/Aron_Ra/status/1291645222544453633 [Accessed 10 August 2020].
Shermer, M. (2009) ‘How to Think About God: Theism, Atheism, and Science’, in Blackford, R. and Schuklenk, U. (eds) 50 Voice of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists, Chichester, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., pp. 65-77.