Atheism: Definition

Regarding the term atheist, there is commonly an adoption of this identity by people who don’t want to consider God, or who don’t necessarily choose to believe in a god, or any god for that matter. It is often stated as a philosophy, which acts as a barrier against the need to consider morality, origins, afterlife, etc, and serves to reject the consideration of “religion” in its entirety.

People will claim, “I am an Atheist,” and when pressed, will define it as “I don’t believe in a god,” or “I lack a belief in God.”

This is not comprehensive enough to be considered ‘atheism’, in my opinion, and is hopeless as a definition.

It is no longer a position, or viewpoint, but rather becomes merely description of your psychological state. You are stating that you, personally, do no choose to believe in a god at this time. “I don’t believe in a god” is not a truth claim about the existence of God at all, and can neither be right or wrong. It is simply a belief.

If I say, God is real. That must be either true, or false. There is no getting around it. I can believe what ever I want as an subjective individual, but the moment I make a truth statement, I have to open myself up to evidences, and the possibility that I am incorrect, based on the law of non-contradiction.

In much the same way, a true atheist could categorically state,”I believe there is no god.” This is a truth statement, which now must be verified, scrutinized, held up along side evidence, and considered against opposing views as either true or false.

This also prevents people who call themselves atheists from simply stating, “I am an atheist, prove me wrong.” In other words, “I don’t believe in a god, but you now have the burden of proof.” If the two opposing viewpoints are making truth statements, then both parties assume a burden of proof. Or else, I could just as easily state, “I believe in God, prove me wrong.”

Instead, I may say, “there is a God.” I made a truth statement. An atheist may then ask, “What evidence do you have to support that?” (For examples of evidence click here.)

This tactic of lacking a belief in a truth-claim is obvious during any research on the subject. For example, the atheists.org site asserts numerous times that a truth claim should not be pinned to the belief system. It rejects the idea of being a belief at all. Here is an except from that site:

“Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes… Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods…. Despite the fact that atheism is not a religion, atheism is protected by many of the same Constitutional rights that protect religion. That, however, does not mean that atheism is itself a religion, only that our sincerely held (lack of) beliefs are protected in the same way as the religious beliefs of others. Similarly, many “interfaith” groups will include atheists. This, again, does not mean that atheism is a religious belief.” – American Atheists, www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/

Notice the attempt to absolve all responsibility from making any truth statements, while maintaining religious protections. This is not an indictment upon atheist persons as a group, certainly not ones who are searching, studying, and determining their own belief paradigm, as much as it is upon an agreed upon definition which allows a group to straddle that line. To be simultaneously a belief and not a belief; a religion and not a religion; a people group that promotes unity and solidarity under the banner of a lack of believing. In other words, a people group who share a belief in no belief.

They state, “To put it in a more humorous way: If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.” (et. al.) This would of course hold water if persons who did not collect stamps were a politicized, and well organized people group who wrote, persuaded, and influenced the culture around them of the merits of not-stamp-collecting, as opposed to simply being people who do not collect stamps.

Imagine a group of people who have decided not to collect stamps stating , “We have more than 170 affiliates and local partners nationwide. If you are looking for a community, we strongly recommend reaching out to an affiliate in your area in order to continue not collecting stamps.”

Stating an opinion does not claim anything, or differentiate you from bananas, baboons, and babies, all who are considered atheists under the weaker, culturally accepted definition, i.e. they don’t personally believe in a god. Atheism is a truth claim, “there is no god.”

For the record, Merriam-Webster declares the definition to be a “belief that there is no god, or a strong disbelief in a god.” This is the point I am arguing here. Are we making a truth statement, or simply stating a psychological position, such as “I don’t like okra.”

No evidence for or against okra is likely to change my mind. But once we make that truth claim, we can now consider how the evidence stacks up; in the case of God, we can overlay the realities of objective moral law, design in nature, the existence of matter, the beginning of the universe, and see if science upholds the possibility that all of this was accidental and random, (a faith in and of itself).

This becomes important during debates, specifically because of the burden of proof. It is often placed upon the Christian nowadays during even civil and healthy debates, but rarely on the atheist, as if the lack of belief in a god should be obvious and universal. But, in times past, it was the other way, and belief in God was the norm, and therefore the default setting if you will. It was up to Charles Lyell and Thomas Huxley to campaign against the bible, much like Dawkins and Hitchens have done in modern times, precisely because they make a truth claim.

Remember, a true atheist must carry some of the responsibility of a burden of proof in a debate. It is not one sided. Learn to recognize the difference between someone making a truth claim, and someone just stating their opinion.

_________

Side note: Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, was a devout campaigner for Darwin, outspoken, charismatic, and he drew in crowds like a rock star of today. He actually coined the term agnostic, the West’s new faith, a word he used as a stepping stone to drive doubt against the bible, and to hoist up Darwin’s ideas of all life having common ancestors. This quote by Huxley will give you some insight into the motivation behind such claims. It is fair to say personal philosophy, and not science, drove much of the campaigning for evolution, as it still does today.

“No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man. And if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed, and our prognathous relative has a fair field and no favour, as well as no oppressor, he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried out by thoughts and not by bites.” – Thomas Huxley.

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Author: J.R. Cooper

Author, Christian Fiction, Apologetics, Creationism vs Evolution, Published with Touch Publishing

16 thoughts on “Atheism: Definition”

  1. I can’t speak for all Atheists as people define the label various different ways but Atheism in itself is just a rejection of the theist claim. One must be given a claim first before they can accept it or reject it. The person making the claim has the burden of proof. The atheist is just rejecting the claim because the burden of proof has not been met.

    As for your quote of Huxley… The quote above comes from an essay in which Huxley argues against slavery and for equal treatment of blacks and women. Did you read it or just mine quotes to fit your need?

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    1. Appreciate your opinion. That is the point of the article, and certainly people are allowed to disagree with its premise. Though I believe the burden of proof does lie with the claimant, someone stating that a theist has failed to prove there is a god does not automatically make someone an atheist. That is technically an agnostic, a term indicating skepticism, allowing for God to exist outside of the realm of knowledge of the skeptic. My assertion is just that, that a true atheist should be making a truth claim about a belief, not simply a denial of someone else’s. But of course, people are free to disagree with me.

      To answer your question on Huxley, I was familiar with the quote, as well as “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins”, along with Darwin’s “At some future period… the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider… even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”… Haeckel’s “At the lowest stage of human mental development are the Australians, some tribes of the Polynesians, and the Bushmen, Hottentots, and some of the Negro tribes. Nothing, however, is perhaps more remarkable in this respect, than that some of the wildest tribes in southern Asia and eastern Africa have no trace whatever of the first foundations of all human civilization, of family life, and marriage. They live together in herds, like apes.” all of which paint a bleak picture of the true conclusions of macro-evolution. I am grateful that he was fighting for abolition during his time, and am grateful to you for the new knowledge of his speech, and would applaud him if not for the 100+ million that suffered and died due to the result of a theory he strongly espoused that convinces one people group that they are superior over another, a conclusion used throughout the 20th century to perpetuate communism, genocide, and war.

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      1. “someone stating that a theist has failed to prove there is a god does not automatically make someone an atheist. That is technically an agnostic, ….. My assertion is just that, that a true atheist should be making a truth claim about a belief, not simply a denial of someone else’s. But of course, people are free to disagree with me.”

        True, just because a theist has failed to prove a god does not make someone an atheist. In fact, early Christians were called atheists because they did not believe in the Greek/Pagan gods.

        Why should an atheist make a truth claim about what they believe? As I mentioned, a atheist just rejects the theist claim of the theist. Atheists have many different beliefs/worldviews. Taking myself as an example, the theist believes in Creation, an atheist may believe or not believe the big bang and evolution. I may find it interesting but it doesn’t mean that is my belief.

        As for your quotes on Huxley, it won’t take me very long to pull quotes from theists or Christians during that time period that say similar things. There were many god fearing men who, even in the civil rights era, spoke against civil rights. We can certainly see through the “Trail of Tears” the work of the “White” Christians. I’m hoping you see the parallel.

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  2. An interesting take. As one of those people who self-describe as “atheist” simply because I do not believe that deity exists, I hope you’ll entertain some of my commentary on your post.

    This is not a truth claim about the existence of God at all, and can neither be right or wrong. It is simply your belief.

    That’s precisely the point. When those of us, like myself, claim to be atheists, we are not intending to make a truth claim about the existence of God or deity. We are not attempting to make a claim about reality as a whole. We are attempting to describe ourselves.

    Using an example from an open problem in mathematics, let’s say that a friend of mine were to assert that the Continuum Hypothesis is true. If I were to reply, “I do not believe you,” that does not necessarily imply that I am therefore asserting that the Continuum Hypothesis is false. The fact of the matter is that the question is as yet unanswered in mathematics, and I will not believe any claim regarding the truth or falsity of the Continuum Hypothesis until such time as I have been convinced through appropriate demonstration.

    The existence of deity is no different. I do not believe claims that God exists. This does not necessarily imply that I therefore assert that God does not exist. I do not believe any claims as regards the truth or falsity of the position until I have been convinced of the veracity of those claims.

    This becomes important during debates, specifically because of the burden of proof. It is often placed upon the Christian nowadays during even civil and healthy debates, but rarely on the atheist, as if the lack of belief in a god should be obvious and universal.

    I’m of the opinion that the burden of proof is always upon the claimant. Regardless of the word by which one labels oneself, if one makes a claim then one should be expected to offer support for that claim if one would like others to believe it.

    So, if a person were to claim, “There is no God,” or “Christianity is false,” or “Theism is silly,” or any of a host of other claims which I’m sure we’ve both heard from Internet Atheists a million times, I will certainly agree with you that the burden of proof for those claims lies on the one making them. On the other hand, if someone says to me, “God exists,” and I reply, “I do not believe you,” then I do not have any burden of proof. If that person then continues to offer evidence in support of her position, I still do not have any burden of proof; however, if I would like to engage in any sort of meaningful dialectic with that person, then I do have a responsibility to respond to that evidence. So, for example, if my dialogue partner were to raise the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument in support of her claim, I might respond that I see no reason to believe that the universe is a contingent entity. She might then offer her reasons for taking such a position, and I would respond to each of them in turn.

    Similarly, if I were to make a claim, I would expect that the burden is on me to support it. For example, one philosophical and theological claim which I regularly make is that “timeless causation” is an entirely incoherent phrase. If my dialogue partner replied, “I do not believe you,” the onus would be on me to support my position. Then, my partner would respond to each of my further points in turn, and this process would repeat until we either came to agreement or to an impasse.

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    1. excellent points. I published before I was done hashing this one out, and have made some tweaks, but I enjoyed your commentary. I agree certainly that it is up to the claimant to bear the burden of proof, absolutely. I would propose, since you said “I do not believe claims that God exists. This does not necessarily imply that I therefore assert that God does not exist”, that this would place you technically in the category of agnostic, defined as skeptical, but certainly possible. I think agnostic more correctly defines most. If what you say is true, and it is possible for a god to exist outside of your current sphere of knowledge, but you simply haven’t been convinced by the data so far, then, I would say agnostic might be a better fit, if we were inclined to categorize the position. Thoughts?

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      1. Thanks for your quick response!

        I would propose, since you said “I do not believe claims that God exists. This does not necessarily imply that I therefore assert that God does not exist”, that this would place you technically in the category of agnostic, defined as skeptical, but certainly possible.

        In general, people like me use definitions for “theist” and “atheist” which are not mutually exclusive with “gnostic” and “agnostic.”

        For example, when I use the term “theist,” I mean it to refer to a person who believes that deity exists. When I use the word “atheist,” I mean it to refer to a person who is not a theist. The focus of these terms is on a person’s beliefs. In contrast, when I use the terms “gnostic” and “agnostic,” I use them to focus on a person’s knowledge, rather than beliefs.

        So, I tend to describe myself as an agnostic atheist. I do not believe that deity exists, but I do not claim to know that deity does not exist. Similarly, I would label someone who claims to know that God does not exist as a “gnostic atheist,” as this describes both her claims about knowledge and her description of her beliefs. In exactly the same way, I might discuss an “agnostic theist” or a “gnostic theist.”

        (As an aside, I am aware that this can invite some confusion as regards discussion of the historical Gnostic cults from the early centuries of Christianity; however, I do not think that it is very difficult to recognize my modern use of “gnostic” as distinct from “the Gnostics.”)

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      2. I follow, and thank you for the clarification. I suppose, that is sort of the premise of the article, which you are certainly welcome to disagree with of course. My contention would be that one who states an atheist is simply a non-theist is not making a truth claim. A truth claim would, in my humble opinion, take one from a position of indifference, or skepticism, and force them to tackle the data at hand, come to logic based conclusions, etc. For example, if both sides agree the universe had a beginning, a skeptic may say, I don’t know, but I am unconvinced. Where as an atheist may now have to state, if there is no god, then matter had to have come from nothing. A truth claim forces a person to rise above the position of skepticism. Skepticism is perfectly acceptable, of course, I just do not think it fits the definition of true atheism, is all. Also, on a side note, I appreciate your politeness, and tact. It is refreshing, and much appreciated.

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      3. Thank you! When I engage with others on the Internet, I truly am looking to have a meaningful and irenic conversation. There is far too much vitriol and elitism on both sides of the discussion, which only serves to widen the divide rather than to help anyone to understand anyone else.

        So long as a person is clear as regards his definitions and does not engage in equivocation, I have no problem with anyone defining a term as he sees fit. My only problem with the whole focus on the definition of “atheism” is that it is very often utilized for fallacious equivocation. For example, when I say that I am an atheist, by which I simply mean that I am not a theist, it would be at best misleading and at worst deceptive for someone to claim that I must be mistaken since I cannot prove God’s nonexistence, which is necessary for an atheist (that is, one who asserts God does not exist). The word is the same, but the meaning is entirely different. To paraphrase the old adage, it’s like comparing oranges (fruits) and oranges (shades of color).

        I’ve often chided other atheists for a similar offense on their part. I’m sure you’ve encountered people who say that “faith” is defined as something like, “blind belief without, or in spite of, any evidence.” That is not what most Christians mean by “faith.” It’s certainly not what I meant by “faith” when I was a Christian. So, when a Christian says, “I have faith in God,” if an atheist replies, “See, you’re admitting that your belief is without evidence!” then that atheist is committing an equivocation fallacy. Again, comparing oranges (fruits) and oranges (shades of color).

        In general, if I am responding to a position proffered by someone, I try to adopt that person’s definitions. So, if I am responding to a Christian extolling the virtues of faith, I would operate on that person’s definition of faith. Similarly, I would hope that someone responding to a position held by a self-described atheist would utilize that person’s definition of atheist in the response.

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      4. as it is said, “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” Defining the terms of the problem is key. I appreciate your willingness to consider the definition of others during debate. As this was a persuasive attempt, folks certainly do not have to agree with the definition I have proffered, though I do feel it is worthy of consideration. But, having been engaged in many debates, both online and in person, I was addressing a very real and lopsided issue regarding the creation vs evolution debate, in my opinion. The attempt here is to offer consideration to even the playing field, if you will, and as stated, to point out the difference between making a truth claim, and simply being a skeptic. I would likewise go round and round with someone who, as you said, is mis-defining “faith”, or “sin” or any other word. I suppose I would certainly try to respect your’s or someone’s opinions, but I don’t necessarily see it as deceptive or misleading to not adopt someone’s definition. I think disagreeing can be done without vitriol, and with mutual respect. I don’t expect atheists to agree with any of my blogs. It would be strange for me to expect that on almost any level.

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  3. It’ s always interesting that a Christian must often try to redefine words to try make a coherent argument again atheism. They can’t honestly argue against it.

    It is a fact that I do not believe in any gods. I can show evidence that indicates that no god defined by humans exists. And I can point out that most of the “evidence” that theists present is the same arguments that all theists present, which means that they can’t show that their particular god exists. In that the morals that Christians have had has changed over time, the argument from morality fails; you have no one “truth”. The argument from design can postulate a designer, but not the one you claim to worship. The cosmological argument that the universe had a beginning also fails since the universe may have had more than one beginning, we simply don’t know. And again, most if not all theists make the same claim. Add to that the fact that the laws of physics may be eternal, and we don’t need a god at all.

    In that even Christians can’t get other Christians to agree with them, why should I believe any of you when you all have the same poor arguments?

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    1. I appreciate your thoughts. In actuality, non Christians residing words often, e.g. evolution has undergone many different explanations. But, I get the point, which is why I acknowledged the standard definition in my article. I do not however, acquiesce to the premise that I need to redefine anything to have a coherent argument against atheism. It is something I can in fact argue against. Regardless, the premise here is specifically the implied burden of proof. Also, I would point out that upon further study, you’d find that there is also not any solidarity within the study of evolution either, (neodarwinism vs Lamarckism for example), so as we all work towards truth through reason and interpretation of data, it does no good in my opinion to categorically state you can’t believe any Christian world view for that reason. I would consider many arguments for macro evolution feeble and poor at best, if not downright embarrassing.

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      1. evolutionary theory doesn’t claim to be some mystical truth either, JR. To try to compare and excuse the disagreements of Christians is rather disingenuous. And Lamarckism has long been disproven. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamarckism Why you would try to claim otherwise seems to indicate that you are ignorant of the status of research or you are hoping I am.

        You might consider whatever arguments you like to be “feeble and poor at best, if not downright embarrassing”. In that you seem to be ignorant of the status of Lamarckism, there is no reason to think your opinion to be correct about evolution. I always find it interesting that creationists like yourself have come to accept evolution, but you have to try to call it “micro evolution” to still cling to your creationist myths. In an earlier age, creationists wouldn’t have accepted that, showing that religion follows science and reality, never the other way around. But please do tell me what these arguments are that you find so “feeble”. I am curious if you can explain what they are and why they fail in your estimation. I’d also like to know what evidence you think you have for your version of your god, that isn’t the same argument used by many other theists.

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      2. I enjoy the conversation, and other people’s opinions. I understand it is an emotional topic, and feathers can be ruffled, and certainly don’t expect agreement from everyone, especially from the opposing viewpoint. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate you reading what I wrote. I think being free to write and discuss is important, and for that, I appreciate you, and liked your comments.

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