It’s the strangest phenomenon – a puerile and wrongheaded endeavor to redefine atheism is among us. There is an increasing number of atheists today who would claim that the definition of atheism is ‘the lack of beliefs about God.’ Should people be allowed to just up and change definitions of words so abruptly? And is such a redefinition of atheism as the lack or absence of beliefs about God justified? Is it reasonable?
Belief systems are typically within the purview of philosophy. That’s where they are defined, discussed and debated. It’s uncanny that taking a look at all the entries for “atheism” in the top philosophy journals yields the results it does. The entry for “atheism” in the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy reads,
Atheism (from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, ‘god’), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy actually goes a little further than just a definition and discusses atheism at length. The summary? Well, it’s quite destructive of the attempted redefinition in very explicit terms,
“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism.” Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods). [1. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/ , accessed 9/2/2017)]
Virtually all other well-known and highly-respected philosophical sources are unanimous that atheism is the denial of the existence of God and not merely the lack of beliefs about God. And so, the attempt to baptize “atheism” as a mere lack of beliefs about God is a foolishness perpetuated by internet skeptics, not professional philosophers.
Does the formation of the word at least allow us enough wiggle room to wiggle out of its classical definition to say that “atheism” is the lack of beliefs about God? First, let’s look at “theism.” The root word of “theism” comes to us from the Greek, theos, meaning God. The dictionary defines “theism” as such:
Belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.
So theism is the belief in God. Now, the English neo-classical prefix of “a-” [2. Bauer, Laurie; Lieber, Rochelle; Plag, Ingo (2013). The Oxford Reference Guide to English Morphology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780-19-957926-6] means “not.” In this context, combining the prefix with some [word] literally means “not[word].” This means that when certain words are prefixed with an “a-” the meaning of the word is reversed. This can be seen at work in similar words like, acyclic, asexual and atonal.
Examining the word, “cyclic,” we see it defined as ‘Occurring in cycles; regularly repeated.’ [3. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/cyclic]. And, naturally, “acyclic” is defined as ‘Not displaying or forming part of a cycle.’ [4. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/acyclic]. As is clearly evident, adding the neo-classical prefix “a-” before the word reversed the meaning. “Acyclic” is a negation of “cyclic.” It is not a lack of belief in cycles, but a positive statement about the negation of cycles – there are no cycles. Likewise, “atheism” is not the absence of belief in God, but the belief of the negation of God – there is no God.
Perhaps most importantly, consider how belief systems work; they lay claims about specific elements of reality. In all cases, these claims are claims about how reality is; they don’t make claims about lacking belief in any particular claim. Agnosticism is potentially the only exception. Agnosticism is the view of not knowing; it is the only system in which there is no positive affirmation about certain claims. It’s simply the position that we don’t know – it’s a claim of ignorance. Conversely, neither theism (God exists) and atheism (God does not exist) make claims of ignorance; they make claims about how the world is. If atheism were to be defined as merely the ‘absence of beliefs about God,’ then theists could just as easily claim that theism is merely the ‘absence of beliefs about the absence of beliefs about God.’
Even atheist philosophers are arguing that this redefinition of atheism is bad and they want to end this trend. [5. http://philosophersgroan.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/is-a-lack-of-belief-the-best-we-can-do/ (accessed 9/2/2017).] Christian philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig, demonstrates the sheer nonsense of this redefinition like so:
Such a re-definition trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition atheism ceases to be a view, and even infants count as atheists. One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist. [6. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/theistic-critiques-of-atheism (accessed 9/2/2017).]
Dr. Craig is right that for anyone who would take on this redefinition of atheism, even babies could be considered atheists. This would no doubt be the strangest phenomenon. On that level, as Dr. Craig rightly put it, one would need no justification to claim that God does not exist since atheism is relegated to a mere psychological state.
One who lacks a belief in something is not an atheist, but an agnostic. And if one has no beliefs about a particular topic, one has no need to provide any evidence for one’s view. It is not surprising that an atheist might try to silently demote “atheism” to a similar position as agnosticism of lacking beliefs since it’s a very convenient way to avoid having to take on any burden of providing reasons for belief in atheism – that there is no God. Although this is speculation about motive, having seen this play out in public numerous times, it is not entirely without foundation.
This is obviously not true of all atheists, but do you see how some atheists can take on this redefinition in order to avoid having to provide any leverage for atheism – that there is no God? Whether it’s grasping at straws or taking the easy way out of facing the difficult task of giving reasons for atheism, can you see how it might be attractive for atheists to redefine their terms? For all the talk that atheism is the most reasonable position, is it not an interesting irony for some atheists to dodge having to provide reasons?
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and a current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.
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