In the previous part of this series we looked at the problems inherent in the idea of stating that the word atheism can only have one definition, and arguing that everyone must use one particular definition. In this part of the series we will look at the various ways in which atheism is defined, using the works of writers like Lorkowski, Walters, Flew, Draper, and some others. It will not be argued here that a particular definition is what must be used, or that other definitions must not be used. All that is intended in this article is to show the various ways in which atheism can be defined. Aron Ra’s article defending the use of atheism as ‘lack of belief in gods’ and as the original, and only, definition also included a brief history of atheism. This article will not, but there will be a look at the history of atheism in the next part.
Atheism is just a ‘lack of belief in Gods’
There will be many contemporary atheists arguing now that atheism, defined as ‘a lack of belief in gods’ is a more than suitable definition. It, after all, covers all forms of atheism, and all those that identify as atheist are included by this definition. Based on this unitary notion alone, should this not then be the de facto standard definition? As Walters states, ‘[t]his is a decent enough definition, but it’s not very helpful if the point is to analyze philosophical arguments for and against atheism’ (Walters, 2010, p9). Another problem to be found with this ‘lack of belief’ definition is that it is too broad, and does not help us distinguish between different kinds of non-belief (Walters, 2010).
Many contemporary atheists will now be arguing that this is a misunderstanding of the ‘lack of belief’ definition. That we do indeed have a way of distinguishing different forms of non-belief. It will be argued that the ‘gnostic’ and ‘agnostic’ modifiers are the way to distinguish between various forms of non-belief. The ‘gnostic’ modifier is a way of distinguishing the atheist that does not believe in God and also knows there is no God, and the ‘agnostic’ modifier tells us that the atheist in question does not believe in God but is also unsure of whether God exists or not. After all, the Greek term ‘gnosis’ (γνῶσις) is ‘knowledge’. So, surely this is the perfect way of identifying the various forms of non-belief within atheism?
Problems with ‘agnostic atheism’ and ‘gnostic atheism’
Well, not entirely, and for several reasons. Consider the atheist that believes there is no God. Neither the ‘gnostic atheist’ or ‘agnostic atheist’ definitions used by those that use the ‘lack of belief’ definition fit said atheist. One might claim here that the atheist that believes there is no God falls under the ‘gnostic atheist’ category. However, the atheist that believes there is no God is not claiming to know there is no God. It is right there in the way the atheist is defining their atheism, it is simply a belief that there is no God. So, we can see that ‘gnostic atheist’ does not define them. What about ‘agnostic atheist’ though?
Again, not entirely. The atheist that believes there is no God will think it is true that there is no God, but may not be 100% certain. They may be convinced that there is no God, and say that they hold a certain level of psychological certainty that there is no God, but still have doubts. Believing something to be the case does not mean that one is stuck in that position, that one is not open to new evidence, or that one is 100% certain it is the case. There is no claim of knowledge. It simply means that they think it is the case that God does not exist. So, ‘agnostic atheist’ in the sense that the atheists defining ‘atheism’ as a ‘lack of belief in God’ also does not cover this position.
The problem of ignosticism
Then we also have a situation like ‘igtheism’ or ‘ignosticism’. Ignosticism and igtheism are the idea that the concept of God is inherently incoherent, and ambiguous (Wikipedia, 2020). The ignostic holds the idea that there simply is no discussion to be had about the idea of God, because it is all meaningless until a coherent definition can be provided. For the ignostic, defining God in the sense of ‘lack of belief’ is to give the idea of God too much credit. This definition of atheism concedes that there is some legitimate concept of God to lack a belief in, which the ignostic does not concede. The ignostic does not ‘lack a belief in God’, they do not even think discussion about God is meaningful. There simply is no reason to consider the idea there could be a God to lack a belief in.
A category error
As we can see then, those who use the terms ‘agnostic atheist’ and ‘gnostic atheist’ and claim that these two terms cover all forms of atheism are wrong. There are categories of atheist that are not properly covered, and the term is also used to cover categories that should not be included in atheism. In essence, it commits a category error. This category error shows that atheism is not the entire set of non-belief as some might claim, but is instead included in the entire set of non-belief. Atheism is but a subset of non-belief, it is not non-belief itself.
Atheism is not a unitary set
We can also see from the use of ‘agnostic atheism’ and ‘gnostic atheism’ that atheism itself is not a unitary set. There is not one single type of atheist, even according to the standard of those using the ‘lack of belief’ definition. Atheism is not only a type of non-belief, but there are also several subsets of atheism proper (Walters, 2010, p11). Atheism as a ‘lack of belief in God’ is simply one of the subsets of atheism proper. As could be seen from looking at how the ‘belief that God does not exist’ version of atheism does not fit into the set of ‘lack of belief in God’ atheism. So, what are some of the other subsets of atheism? And what else fits into the set of non-belief?
Let us first start with a simple example of another type of non-belief, ‘unbelief’. Unbelief is ‘an agnostic suspension of disbelief that either denies that there are good grounds one way or the other for God-belief, or holds the arguments on either side are equally strong’ (Walters, 2010, p11). In other words, agnosticism is another type of non-belief, and the agnostic is another type of non-believer. Those who argue for the ‘agnostic atheist’ position are often seen arguing that there is no such thing as an agnostic. They argue that atheism is to do with belief, and agnosticism deals only with knowledge.
Those who belong to the ‘lack of belief in God’ subset of atheism often argues for their usage of agnostic in the same way that they argue for their use of atheism. The ‘a’ in the word ‘agnostic’ should be read in the same way as other Greco-English words, as ‘without’. As the term ‘gnostic’ comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis’ (γνῶσις) meaning knowledge, the term ‘agnostic’ should be understood only as ‘without knowledge’. Ignoring the obvious etymological fallacy here, we saw from the previous part of this series that defining words in this way does not work. Words grow and change, and there is no authority that can say that a word must be used in such and such a way, except in the cases of technical terms in technical settings.
Agnostics and agnosticism
The word ‘agnostic’ is one such word. It is, like the word ‘atheist’, a polysemous term. Like atheism, agnosticism is a set, and that set contains subsets. One of the most popular forms of agnosticism is that of T.H. Huxley (Draper, 2017; Philosophy Basics, nd). Huxley originally coined his version of agnosticism as an epistemic principle, something close to (but weaker than) evidentialism (Draper, 2017). Huxley’s principle was that ‘it is wrong to say that one knows or believes that a proposition is true with logically satisfactory evidence’ (Draper, 2017). Arguing that since neither atheism nor theism has supplied adequate evidence, then we ought to suspend judgement on the issue of the existence of God (Draper, 2017).
The epistemic principle version of agnosticism can also be classified as ‘Strong Agnosticism’ (Philosophy Basics, nd). This subset also includes those who believe that the question of God’s existence is unknowable because we have no way to verify it beyond subjective experience (Philosophy Basics, nd). There is also ‘Weak Agnosticism’ (Philosophy Basics, nd). The person that falls into the category of Weak Agnosticism is the one that has entertained the proposition that God exists, but does not believe that it is either true or false that God exists (Walters, 2010; Lorkowski, 2013; Draper, 2017; Philosophy Basics, nd). In this sense of the term, agnosticism could be considered as describing a psychological state (Draper, 2017).
‘Agnostic atheism’ and agnosticism
There are further subsets of agnosticism also. For, now though, it serves our purpose simply to show that there is a kind of unbelief. One where the individual has not committed to non-belief. The ‘lack of belief’ definition of atheism is referring to the psychological state of the non-belief, and could of course be applied here. The agnostic does indeed lack a belief in the existence of god. They do not believe that the claims being made by the theist are false. The agnostic does not disbelieve the theist in the same sense that the ‘agnostic atheist’ disbelieves the theist. Instead the agnostic remains uncertain about whether they should disbelieve or believe it. The agnostic is describing a different type of psychological state to the ‘agnostic atheist’, and a different stance to the ‘agnostic atheist’. In essence, they are in different categories, and the ‘agnostic atheist’ stance does not accurately describe the stance of the agnostic.
The next type of non-belief is, of course, disbelief. It is in this set, or category, of non-belief that we find atheism. Just as agnosticism can be broken into subsets of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’, atheism can be broken into subsets of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ or ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ (Walters, 2010, p12). In the category of ‘positive atheism’ can be put those who hold an active disbelief (Flew, 1972; Walters, 2010). A ‘positive atheist’ is the one who makes the claim that God does not exist (Flew, 1972). While under ‘negative atheism’ we find those who simply have an absence of belief in God (Flew, 1972; Walters, 2010). A ‘negative atheist’ therefore being one who does not believe in God (Flew, 1972). We can also find categories like ‘local atheism’ and ‘global atheism’ (Draper, 2017).
Let us begin, then, with the idea of ‘positive atheism’, or the active disbelief in God. This can, and is, also referred to as ‘philosophical atheism’ (Lorkowski, 2013, p523; Draper, 2017). Positive atheism, or philosophical atheism, ‘claims that not only that there are no sufficient reasons for believing there is a God, but also that there are sufficient reasons for thinking no such deity exists’ (Lorkowski, 2013, p523). In this sense, atheism is defined in terms of theism. Theism being the proposition that ‘God exists’ (Draper, 2017). The theist, then, is one who believes this proposition, and theism is the propositional content of that belief (Draper, 2017). Therefore, atheism, as a response to theism, is the claim that no such god exists (Draper, 2017). The ‘a’, in this sense, should be understood as a negation of theism, as a ‘not’ instead of a ‘without’ (Draper, 2017).
Atheism as a proposition
There can only be two responses to the proposition ‘God exists’. The proposition is either true or the proposition is false. To the question of ‘Does God exist?’ can only be found two direct answers, either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (Draper, 2017). As Draper (2017) states, answers like ‘no one knows’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘the question is meaningless’, etc. are not direct answers to the question. Treating atheism in this sense allows us to have meaningful discussions surrounding the existence of God, and to argue for or against the existence of God itself (Walters, 2010; Lorkowski, 2013; Draper, 2017). Discussing it in terms of the proposition allows us to discuss the ontological status of God, and to directly answer the philosophical arguments both for and against as put forward by theologians, philosophers of religion, as well as believers and non-believers alike.
These various reasons for why atheism should be used in the sense of the belief that God does not exist give us no reason to declare that it is the only usage though. As Draper (2017) states, atheism is polysemous in philosophy too. Which is why the ‘negative atheism’ usage is just as legitimate as the ‘positive atheism’ usage. So, what is the ‘negative atheism’ stance?
As stated previously, ‘negative atheism’ is simply the absence of belief in God. Those who adhere to the ‘lack of belief’ definition will relate to this usage. It is similar, if not the same, as the usage that Aron Ra puts forwards, and is similar, if not the same, to the usage that many contemporary atheists online hold to. Lorkowski refers to this usage as ‘atheism in the popular sense’ (Lorkowski, 2013, p524). Those that hold to ‘negative atheism’ will generally argue that atheism should not be thought of in terms of a proposition at all, even if we consider theism a proposition (Flew, 1972; Draper, 2017). In this sense, atheism should be considered in terms of it being a psychological state (Draper, 2017). Antony Flew puts forward a defence of this kind of atheism in his 1972 paper The Presupposition of Atheism. Flew’s (1972) argument can also be seen influencing many atheists that hold to the ‘lack of belief’ definition.
Antony Flew and the ‘presupposition of atheism’
Flew argues that the debate about God should begin with the presumption of atheism (Flew, 1972). This argument can be seen from those atheists who argue using the ‘lack of belief’ definition in the shape of ‘atheism being the default position’. Like those contemporary atheists holding to the ‘lack of belief’ definition, we also see Flew arguing that the burden of proof lies with the theist (Flew, 1972). This position put forward by Flew reflects the arguments we see made by many atheists today that hold to the ‘agnostic atheist’ and ‘gnostic atheist’ positions, and it can be seen in many Facebook groups, many YouTube videos, and from many on Twitter.
In his paper, Flew acknowledges that the usual meaning of atheist is ‘someone who asserts there is no such being as God’ (Flew, 1972, p30). His argument is that we should start to look at atheism in a different way. Not as the positive assertion that God does not exist, but instead simply as an absence of belief (Flew, 1972). Flew argues that the prefix ‘a’ in ‘atheist’ should be read in the same sense as other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’ (Flew, 1972, p30). In other words, it should be considered as ‘without theism’ or ‘without God’. Meaning that atheist moves from a positive assertion, to simply being ‘non-theist’. Flew argues that those who assert there is no God should be considered ‘positive atheists’, and his usage to be considered ‘negative atheist’ (Flew, 1972).
‘A bit of Humpty-Dumptyism’
Flew calls this ‘a bit of Humpty-Dumptyism’, in that he is using words in a way that goes against common usage (Flew, 1972, p30). In other words, he is making words mean what he wants them to mean, rather than how they are commonly understood. It is worth noting here that Flew’s usage has gained traction among sections of the atheist community, and in Facebook groups, YouTube communities, and Twitter. As stated previously, Lorkowski (2013) refers to it as atheism in the popular sense. Why does Flew not call it ‘the presumption of agnosticism’?
Why not ‘the presumption of agnosticism?’
Flew (1972) argues that he chose not to go with agnosticism because the agnostic has already conceded that God is a legitimate concept. Flew envisages the ‘negative atheist’ to be less committal than that, and in fact be entirely non-committal. For Flew, and for the ‘negative atheist’, the debate about God should be handled in a particular way, with a focus on the burden of proof being on the believer. It is first up to the theist to provide their concept of God and defend it as coherent, and then the theist must provide sufficient reasons to believe their concept. The ‘negative atheist’ cannot, and should not, take it for granted that the theist is even operating from a legitimate concept of God.
Flew and ‘agnostic atheists’
As we can see, there are many similarities between the atheist using the ‘lack of belief’ definition and Flew’s (1972) argument. They begin with a similar definition of atheism, and there is much focus on the idea of the burden of proof. When one looks deeper into the similarities, we can see the influence that Flew’s argument had on the group, even if the individuals in the group may not know it. It also shows us that neither definition is any less legitimate than the other. Both definitions have arguments and reasons for using them.
Atheism as a polysemous term
As stated previously, the term ‘atheist’ is a polysemous one. It is a term that has multiple definitions, both within philosophy and outside of it. Both are ‘correct’ definitions, and may have their own contextual usefulness. With positive atheism being useful within philosophy and theology, and within the greater context of the debate about God’s existence. While negative atheism may be more useful in a political sense (Draper, 2017). However, as Draper (2017) states, ‘one would think it would further no good cause, political or otherwise, to attack fellow non-theists who do not identify as atheists simply because they choose to use the term “atheist” in some other, equally legitimate sense’. Something we see Aron Ra doing in his article, and something we see many other atheists that hold to the ‘negative atheist’ style definition doing also. There is a certain element within the community that demand the assimilation of all non-believers into the atheist fold, and who argue that they are atheists whether they like it or not.
‘Local’ and ‘global’ atheism
Another subset that we can consider when discussing atheism is that of ‘local’ and ‘global’ atheism (Draper, 2017). The local atheist denies the existence of one sort of god, for example the god of classical theism. While the global atheist argues that all legitimate concepts of God lack instances. In this classification one could be atheist towards a particular concept of God, like the god of Abraham, the god of classical theism, but still be agnostic towards a more universal concept of God, like the Deistic god. There are several arguments to be concerning the idea of local and global atheism. However, this article is simply to show that there is more than one definition of atheism, so it is enough to show that this subset of atheism exists. For those that wish to learn more about the idea of local and global atheism, it is highly recommended that they read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry ‘Atheism and Agnosticism’.
There is more that could be said here of course, but the point of this article was not to defend or criticise any particular stance any more than necessary. The point of this article was an exploration of atheism and non-belief. We looked at different kinds of non-belief, and why simply classifying all forms of non-belief as atheism does not work. At least not without bringing a category error into some forms of non-belief. We also saw that, despite some atheist claims that there is no such thing as an agnostic, agnosticism is a legitimate stance and agnostics hold a valid position.
It was also shown that, despite the claims of Aron Ra and some other atheists, atheism is not simply defined as ‘a lack of belief in God’; and their claim that ‘agnostic atheism’ and ‘gnostic atheism’ covers all forms of atheism and non-belief is a false claim. There are certain stances within atheism and agnosticism, and the stance of ignosticism, that do not fit within the ‘agnostic atheism’ and ‘gnostic atheism’ definitions. While ‘agnostic atheism’ and ‘gnostic atheism’ should be considered to be a legitimate subset of atheism, the ‘lack of belief’ definition is not the parent of the set of atheism. As can be seen from Flew’s (1972) argument, the ‘lack of belief’ definition itself is a subset of atheism proper.
So those that argue that atheism is ‘just a lack of belief in God’, or that ‘atheists do not believe no God exists’, or that ‘anti-theism is the belief that God does not exist’, argue from false information. They also argue falsely when they declare that agnostics are atheists, or the igtheists are atheists. These are all legitimate stances, whether Aron Ra and other atheists that argue similar to Aron Ra wish to acknowledge it or not. While Aron Ra argues that it is ‘antagonistic philosophers’ that wish to eradicate the ‘lack of belief’ definition, it can be seen from this article that this is something that only exists in Aron Ra’s imagination. It is little more than Aron Ra committing a ‘poisoning the well fallacy’.
Draper (2017), Flew (1972), Lorkowski (2013), and Walters (2010) all argue for the legitimacy of the ‘lack of belief’ definition. They simply argue that it exists in a different context, and has a different kind of legitimacy. It is people like Aron Ra, rather than ‘antagonistic philosophers’, that argue against the legitimacy of other definitions; and argue incorrectly. As Draper (2017) states, ‘one would think it would further no good cause, political or otherwise, to attack fellow non-theists who do not identify as atheists simply because they choose to use the term “atheist” in some other, equally legitimate sense’. Something those atheists arguing for the assimilation of all non-believers into the fold of atheism should heed.
Draper, P. (2017) ‘Atheism and Agnosticism’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Online]. Available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism (Accessed 4 October 2020).
Flew, A. (1972) ‘The Presumption of Atheism’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 29-46.
Lorkowski, CM (2013), ‘Atheism’, Philosophy Compass, Vol. 8, No. 5, pp. 523-538.
The Basics of Philosophy (n.d.) Agnosticism [Online] Available at https://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_agnosticism.html (Accessed 4 October 2020).
Walters, K. (2010) Atheism – A Guide for the Perplexed, London, Continuum.
Wikipedia (2020) Ignosticism [Online] 16 May 2020. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignosticism (Accessed 4 October 2020).
Rockin’ Atheism Pt 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra
In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
Descartes, Scepticism, and You