So what about Atheism then?
Whilst moving this article from my phone to AiR, as I was re-reading and re-writing sections for typos and clarity, the dreaded atheism definition war popped into my head.
Hopefully, you understand that whilst I have a preference for Atheism as a Proposition, I agree there are multiple legitimate definitions and have been many more used throughout history. If you haven’t read or watched this yet, then please check out Evolution of Atheism.
Anyway, I figured I would consider the definition ‘Atheism is a lack of belief in God or gods’ and maybe reference the claim ‘Atheism is ONLY a lack of belief in God or gods’.
Is ‘Atheism is a lack of belief in God or gods’ Valid?
In short, yes. That statement in itself holds no contradiction. You could say ‘Atheism is a lack of belief in flat earth’ and again the definition would be valid.
From a linguistic perspective, this is yes, no maybe. The reason is, inside of the circles that use the lack of belief definition there is a definite majority there through the use. If you were to be in a philosophy class, in general, you would be told how ridiculous that use is – though in recent years philosophers have tried a softer approach saying it is a valid or legitimate definition, just not the one commonly used in philosophy.
In an open forum like Twitter, it is a point of contention. There are folks that will say it is the only definition. There are folks that say it is a definition but not a valid one. There will be folks like me that, whilst it isn’t my preferred definition, accept it as valid.
Is ‘Atheism is a lack of belief in God or gods’ Legitimate?
Yes, through common use, especially on the internet, this is a legitimate definition.
It is also:
Defined this way in multiple dictionaries.
Acknowledge in some academic work it can be defined that way.
Justifiable if the a- prefix means without (or lack) and theism = belief in God or gods.
Seen through a direct translation of the etymological root that it means without gods (although the actual use didn’t mean that).
What’s more, the ‘might makes right’ definition also prevails. Organisations like the American Atheists make claims about the definition of atheism and their position of power gets them seen as an authority on atheism, even if some actually are erroneous in their claims.
People even repeat the erroneous claim that atheism is one thing, There Can Be Only ONE!
Their perceived authority gives them power and ensures there are people who fall in line with their claims, often not even questioning them. Whilst this is problematic, it does add legitimacy to the definition.
Is ‘Atheism is a lack of belief in God or gods’ Sound?
It’s both valid and legitimate, but is atheism being described as a lack of belief in gods sound?
I think to answer that we should first understand that any definition under a microscope can have some issues, so even if we think of some issues, it doesn’t entail it not being sound. We could even have multiple sound definitions of a particular word.
So, let’s look at the issues.
-ISM doesn’t usually describe a psychological state.
There is a relationship between -ISM and -IST that is usually followed, I describe the various uses of these suffixes in more detail in ‘Why Agnostic and not Agnostist?‘ but to be brief:
When we have an -ist and -ism there is a relationship between the two.
An -ism is a distinct practice, system, philosophy etc, and the -ist is one that accepts this -ism.
e.g. Communism is a theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.
A Communist is one that accepts/practices/follows the theory of communism.
There is an -ist -ism relationship between atheism and atheist.
If atheism is merely the absence of a mental state, one cannot follow that. In fact, it raises a second issue in the fact that if atheism is described as a lack of belief in god or gods then the proper use for someone that lacked a belief in god or gods would be “I have an atheism”
In contrast to the theory or proposition gods do not exist and all that entails, we can see that one CAN accept and follow this.
Non-theism and concise positions
Non-theism already exists to describe the set of anyone not a theist. It could be there was a time when any type of non-theist was regarded as an atheist, just like our hypothetical of any type of motorised vehicle being regarded as a car, but the language has evolved. Non-theism has been around since at least 1852.
Over time there have been distinct labels that describe types of non-theist.
Agnostic: One who suspends judgement believing the proposition neither true nor false.
Ignostic: One who believes the character ‘God’ is ill-defined and therefore the incoherence renders the question about the character’s existence meaningless to consider.
Apatheist: One who doesn’t care either way if God or gods exist so doesn’t give it much thought.
Innocent: One who either has never heard of God or gods or one that lacks the cognitive abilities to consider the proposition of God’s existence.
Atheist: One who believes no gods exist.
These concise labels allow us to accurately infer what one does or does not believe about the proposition “at least one god exists” and we know they are all in the set of non-theist.
By contrast, if atheist is used to mean non-theist, we have no way of knowing anything about them other than they don’t believe in a god.
Modifiers have to then be added to the set to clarify the positions. You get agnostic atheist, ignostic atheist and so on. By doing this you’re effectively saying “agnostic non-theist” which we would think superfluous.
And what of the atheist label? Well, this then becomes a strong or hard atheist, sometimes even a gnostic atheist, though that is describing something else. And to contrast the rest, the other positions may get put in a subset of weak-atheist.
We’re adding modifiers to terms that are not needed if you use the previous positions.
What’s more, people define these terms in different ways to each other, what one person means by agnostic atheist differs from another.
So, like the car issue, even if atheism’s original use was the same as non-theism, there is now a clear set with elements that clearly and concisely describe an individual’s position towards the proposition.
Not only that, but we have confusion with the way it is defined.
Epistemic Responsibility and the choice between Contradiction or Fallacy?
Non-theism in itself has no burden of proof as it is not an active position, it is just an acknowledgement of an absent mental state. This differs from the list of positions I mentioned before, especially in the instances of Agnosticism, Propositional Atheism, and Ignosticism. They are considered positions. That means there is a particular burden. It is not the commonly thought of idea of “burden of proof” which is proving a claim, the burden of proof is a little more nuanced than that. In these instances, it is probably better to refer to it as the burden of justification or epistemic justification. The burden, then, is not to prove your position true, as in any of those positions you are not saying it is definitely true. Instead, the burden is to prove you have reasoned well to get to one of those positions. In the instance of the innocent, they haven’t taken an active position. They haven’t reasoned. There is truly no justification required.
The problem comes down to when some individuals use atheism to mean non-theist, in the sense of not believing in gods, they often do so and claim this absolves them of any BoP.
If one believes gods exist, then they don’t believe gods do not exist.
If one believes gods do not exist, then they don’t believe gods exist.
These positions are mutually exclusive.
If one suspends judgement, one considers the proposition in detail and cannot conclude either way. You don’t believe gods exist and you don’t believe gods do not exist.
Similarly, the other types of non-theist also don’t believe gods exist and don’t believe gods do not exist, but for different reasons, sometimes lacking reasoning altogether.
So, the first problem is grouping all of these types of non-theist together with the same epistemic responsibility as the innocent. That just isn’t the case.
The next issue comes down to the way this could play out.
A: Atheism is only a lack of belief in gods so we atheists have no burden of proof.
T: Oh really? Well, I define theism as the lack of belief in gods not existing, so we theists have no burden of proof either.
From here you have two options
A: You can’t define it that way, theism has to be defined as the belief gods do not exist.
Issue: This is holding atheism and theism to different standards, you’re saying that you can define atheism based on what it lacks, but theism cannot be defined that way. Furthermore, due to this imbalance, you have also held yourself to a different epistemic standard where the theist has to “prove true” even if they are only making a belief claim instead of a knowledge claim, and you absolve yourself of any epistemic responsibility.
This is known as special pleading – a fallacy.
A: Ok, fine, theism can be a lack of belief in God not existing.
Issue: When we examined the various types of non-theist there were many that held neither the belief god exists nor the belief god does not exist. They lacked belief both ways. This means that nearly all of these positions are BOTH theist and atheist.
As I am sure you are aware, this is a contradiction.
Broadened to irrelevancy and irrationality
It might seem strange but if Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods without any other qualifier, then this does result some people realising that there is a logical entailment that anyTHING that lacks a belief in gods would also be regarded as atheist.
If it is not a theist, it is an atheist they say. Not only is this a black and white fallacy, or a false dichotomy, it also poses other issues too.
Consider Aron Ra’s claim that Rock’s are Atheist. It has many of the same issues as the common claim that Babies are atheist. Babies lack the cognitive ability to understand and consider the proposition “god exists” and therefore do not hold a considered position on the topic.
A rock goes one further. A rock lacks belief because it CAN’T believe. It doesn’t have a brain. It cannot think. Under no circumstance is there any way it ever could hold that belief. Much like we wouldn’t talk about rocks in terms of political position, dietary requirements, policy they support or anything like that, we also wouldn’t talk about them in terms of mental states.
We don’t say rocks are vegan because they don’t eat meat, because they are incapable of eating.
Likewise, We do not say rocks are bigots because they don’t support equal rights because they are incapable of supporting anything.
It is not said that rocks are conservative because they don’t identify as liberal, and not just because that is a black-and-white fallacy, it’s because they cannot identify as anything.
For the same reasons, we shouldn’t talk about rocks in terms of mental states they are incapable of holding.
Aron then changed what he said. Or perhaps it would be more charitable to assume he clarified what he meant. I find it hard to accept that based on the conversations I had with him, the responses he got from people and the way he interacted with them, it truly seemed like he was claiming rocks were atheists, much like I am an atheist, except I hold the belief gods do not exist.
Since correcting Aron, he has started to say atheistic instead of atheist, so at least there was one positive thing that came out of the conversation.
So, let’s have a think about this shall we. In Aron’s world, there is atheist and theist. That means there is atheistic and theistic.
What is meant by these terms?
Theistic and Atheistic Language
When you look these terms up in many dictionaries, they often relate back to the “-ism” with a note that “-ic” is the adjective version. the -ic suffix has a few uses but it is used to turn a noun into an adjective. When we turn a noun into an adjective in this way, it usually describes something that is related to the noun, though doesn’t have to be quite as stringent in its definition.
So, from looking at this it mentioned that something related to a belief in the existence of god or gods is theistic. It doesn’t have to hold the belief itself, but essentially it is part of it. That’s why Buddhism is regarded as an atheistic religion, as belief in gods is not necessarily a part of it. An even better example would be the Church of Satan or the Satanic Temple as these are religions which are atheistic by design to try and give balance to the power religions have in places like America.
Aron’s definition of atheist, or atheistic, is anything absent of the belief in gods.
This differs from how it is used elsewhere, as I mentioned, here’s one quick example before we explore Ra’s use.
So – Ra has defined atheist or atheistic to if something doesn’t hold a belief in God or gods.
There are plenty of things that don’t hold a belief in gods.
Bibles and churches, for example. Religions themselves, as concepts, don’t hold a belief in gods. A theist in a coma with minimal brain activity doesn’t hold a belief in gods. A dead theist doesn’t hold a belief in gods. The atoms in theists don’t hold a belief in gods.
But we would regard the theist as a theist even if they could no longer believe for some reason. We would regard Bibles and churches as theistic as they are related to and/or promote belief in gods.
Believe it or not, there are other issues with the rocks are atheists thing too and @trolleydave has done a video exploring this in more detail here:
Also, if you are not following him on Twitter, you should: @TrolleyDave1971. Whilst we all post to the AiR Blog and YouTube Channel you’ll find Dave posting some interesting stuff on his own feed too.
And you can find his recent posts here:
- Me and the Skeptic and Atheist Community
- Epistemic Humility (Better Scepticism 1)
- The Gumball Analogy
- If There’s No Evidence, It Doesn’t Exist
- In Response to Daniel Goldman on Belief
So, is ‘Atheism is a lack of belief in gods’ a sound definition?
- It’s overly broad, especially as there are concise terms
- Broadness leads to a lack of clarity
- It is open to fallacy and/or contradiction
- It can be used to reach ridiculous positions such as rocks are atheist
- It can be used for dishonest reasons, such as trying to avoid epistemic responsibility
- It doesn’t work as well with the -ISM and -IST relationship
With those issues in mind, and I haven’t even gone into detail about all the possible issues, even though that definition is both valid and legitimate, I can only conclude that use of atheism as a lack of belief in gods, especially if that is the only component required, is not sound.
People often talk about things like linguistic validity or legitimate definitions but those are not really things within the field of linguistics. Linguistics is most concerned with utility and conformity to syntactical structure and acceptance of a use.
When people are using terms like valid and legitimate to talk about definitions, they are most likely talking about terms being accepted within a particular group. They could also be alluding to a word evolution from its root and if it makes sense or if it’s a wild leap away from this. (e.g. The multiple definitions of atheism all have a link to the root, switching to atheism = cheeseburger doesn’t really make sense).
When I analyse language, I do take into account the utility and commonality of a particular use, but I also take into account other elements. I try and make sure a definition isn’t overly broad, that it isn’t open to fallacy, and that it doesn’t have multiple definitions within a single group that all think they are using the same definition.
This is, of course, a complex way to examine language and perhaps too much work for many. It definitely is in the day-to-day but it is why I make the effort to stipulate my usage and analyse the terms I use frequently. It is why I have spent so much time looking into the history of atheism and undertaking discussions with people about why they prefer a particular definition. It’s why I write articles and do videos trying to explain the different ways people use terms and put forward my preferred uses when appropriate.
Hopefully, you’ll at least see that there are at least many uses of words that might be “valid” or have utility but that doesn’t always make them the soundest use, even if, contextually, it might be the most appropriate.
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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