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35 comments | Thursday, August 17, 2006


Atheists differ in many ways. To attempt to say that atheists believe “X” is most likely painting with a wide brush. We often try to put the atheist into a conforming box that may not comport with their specific presuppositions. Moreover, atheist may argue differently on subjects like morality, logic and other things that ground their unbelief. However, being an ‘atheist’ means a certain thing—namely that they deny the existence of God or gods.

Often, when I engage an atheist concerning God’s existence, I am often told that the person making the claim bares the burden of proof. However, what the atheist fails to realize is that we are both making a claim on the subject. The Christian claim is (1) God exists and the Atheist claim is (2) God does not exist; thus, both the atheist and theist hold a position on the proposition of God’s existence. Therefore, each side of the debate shoulders a burden for their own position and does not exclusively rest on one side.

There is a primary tactic that the atheist may try to avert their side of the burden. Primarily, they redefine the term “atheism” to “no belief” in God. In this post, I will demonstrate the classical definition of “Atheism” and how the evasion to shoulder their burden is fallacious.

‘Atheism’ as the “absence of belief” in God

Many atheists are stating that they “lack a belief in God” or have an “absence of belief in God” or they state that they have “no belief in God”, or they state that they are ‘without a belief in God”. In fact, it’s becoming more popular the more it’s tossed out. No thanks to Gordon Stein, he states the position as follows (emphasis mine):

The average theologian (there are exceptions, of course) uses 'atheist' to mean a person who denies the existence of a God. Even an atheist would agree that some atheists (a small minority) would fit this definition. However, most atheists would strongly dispute the adequacy of this definition. Rather, they would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important. Denying something means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular concept. To be without a belief in God merely means that the term 'god' has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief.

When we examine the components of the word 'atheism,' we can see this distinction more clearly. The word is made up of 'a-' and '-theism.' Theism, we will all agree, is a belief in a God or gods. The prefix 'a-' can mean 'not' (or 'no') or 'without.' If it means 'not,' then we have as an atheist someone who is not a theist (i.e., someone who does not have a belief in a God or gods). If it means 'without,' then an atheist is someone without theism, or without a belief in God. [Gordon Stein (Ed.), "An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism," p. 3. Prometheus, 1980.]

Definition Problems

The “lack of belief” definition of atheism is a problematic definition for several reasons. You will not find this definition of atheism (at least now) in any reputable dictionary. The lack of belief definition is far too broad in scope. A “lack of belief” (arguably) can be attributed to agnostics, babies, aardvarks, goldfish (name your animal/pet) and perhaps even rocks. Come to think of it, my old shoe on the patio has a “lack of belief” in God. Besides, none of those would identify as an ‘atheist’ [—though my shoe is not talking to me right now (I’ll update)]. You see, the “lack of belief[ism]” brush is far too wide.

Even if the “lack of belief” definition was adopted, who would know what someone meant when they said they were an atheist? One wouldn’t be able to tell if they never thought of the proposition “God does [or does not] exist” or if they were undecided on God’s existence, or if they thought God’s existence cannot be known, or affirmed that God does not exists. Hence, the “lack of belief” definition is entirely inadequate in identifying what the hell an ‘atheist’ is.

Grammatical Efficacy

Another deficiency with a “lack of belief in God” is the grammatical structure. What you find is that atheists who abide in “lack of belief” are simply *shifting the location of the negative* in this sentence. So, the atheist is basically stating that they *don’t believe* in the existence of God—thus, they still have a *negative* within the statement. (See Kenneth G. Wilson’s demonstration of the grammatical shift of the negative in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Under the explanation of “raising.”

One can demonstrate that the change in definition still does succeed in averting a *position.* For example, take a look at the following examples:

(i) “I don’t believe my wife is at work” is equivalent to “I believe my wife is not at work.” It doesn’t follow that I don’t have *any* beliefs about my wife being at work.

(ii) “I don’t believe they made reservations for dinner” is equivalent to “I believe they did not make reservations for dinner.” It doesn’t follow that I don’t have *any* beliefs about their reservations for dinner.

(iii) “I don’t believe he ran the entire way home from practice” is equivalent to “I believe he did not run the entire way home from practice.” It doesn’t follow that I don’t have *any* beliefs about him running home from practice

(iv) “I don’t believe ‘atheist’ means ‘lack of belief’” is equivalent to “I believe ‘atheist does not mean lack of belief.” It doesn’t follow that I don’t have *any* beliefs about atheists ‘lack of belief’

(v) “I don’t believe in the existence of God” is equivalent to “I believe that God does not exist.” It doesn’t follow that I don’t have *any* beliefs about the existence of God.

As demonstrated, ‘Atheists’ are not approaching this issue with a blank slate, they come to the table *with a belief* about the existence of God—not the lack of one. Stating that they “lack belief in God” will not avert their own standpoint on God’s existence. They have a belief about the proposition of God’s existence; if they had “no belief” they wouldn’t self identify as “atheists.”

What’s interesting, is that you will even find the lack of belief definition and etymology on wikipedia and answers.com (but if answers.com [which usually just uploads wiki] says it--it *must* be true, right?—wrong and wrong again). Wikipedia and answers.com are good resources, but they both have their limitations and set backs. Before I examine the etymology of ‘Atheism,’ lets take a look at how *reputable* dictionaries and encyclopedias define the term.

Classical ‘Atheism’

Despite the popularity of a “lack of belief” definition for atheism, there is a more formidably understood and classic definition of Atheism—one that is held by the majority of the population. Atheism is the: “belief that there is no God.” You will find this definition in the following dictionaries and encyclopedias:

  • Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology
  • Etymological Dictionary of English Language
  • The Academic American Encyclopedia
  • Random House Encyclopedia
  • Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
  • Oxford Companion to Philosophy
  • The World Book Encyclopedia
  • Encyclopedia Americana
  • The Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Encyclopedia of Religion
  • The Funk and Wagnall's New Encyclopedia.

To illustrate some online examples as well:

  • The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition states that Atheism is: “denial of the existence of God or gods and of any supernatural existence, to be distinguished from agnosticism, which holds that the existence cannot be proved. The term atheism has been used as an accusation against all who attack established orthodoxy, as in the trial of Socrates. There were few avowed atheists from classical times until the 19th cent., when popular belief in a conflict between religion and science brought forth preachers of the gospel of atheism, such as Robert G. Ingersoll. There are today many individuals and groups professing atheism. The 20th cent. has seen many individuals and groups professing atheism, including Bertrand Russell and Madalyn Murry O’Hair.”

  • Merriam-Webster Online states that an Atheist is: “one who believes that there is no deity.” And Atheism is: “a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity.” And Disbelief as: “the act of disbelieving : mental rejection of something as untrue”

  • Dictionary.com states that Atheism is: 1“Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods. 2. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.” And an Atheist is: “One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.” And Disbelief as: “Refusal or reluctance to believe.”

As it can be seen, the classic understanding of “Atheism” and Atheist” is a denial that God exists—Not a “lack of belief” in God.


Atheists like Stein and much of the online community also like to argue the etymology of “atheism”. What’s stated, roughly, is that ‘a’ means ‘without’. By attaching ‘a’ to ‘theism’; one is ‘without-theism.’ After arguing this position, then, an ‘atheist’ is just someone who is ‘with the absence of theism.’ Another prominent atheist, George Smith makes the same argument in Atheism: The Case Against God, when he writes, ". . . the term 'a-theism' literally means 'without theism,' or without belief in a god or gods. Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief . . . If we use the phrase 'belief-in-god' as a substitute for theism; we see that its negation is 'no-belief-in-god.'"

From the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘a’ is: “prefix meaning "not," from Gk. a-, an- "not," from PIE base *ne "not" (see un-).” In addition, ‘no-gods,’ or ‘godless’ is the more logical outworking of the etymology of atheist/atheism. And it makes no sense for an “-ism” to be a based on a lack of belief.

Atheist Theodore Drange, in his article, Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism, describes the problems of the alleged “without” etymology of ‘atheism.’

Sometimes the use of the term "atheism" to mean "lack of theistic belief" is supported by an appeal to etymology. For example, Martin, in [Atheism: A Philosophical Justification.], says the following:

"In Greek a' means without' or not' and theos' means god.' From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God.[4]"

This argument is rather unsatisfactory for at least two reasons. First, it is not completely clear that the correct translation of the Greek prefix "a" is "without." It might also mean "no," in which case "a-the-ism" could be translated as "no-god-ism," or "the view that there is no god." Note that there is no "ism" in Greek. Second, even if the etymology of the word "atheism" did indicate that it once meant "without belief in God," that is still not a good guide to current usage. It is quite common for words to acquire new meanings over time. It seems far more important what people mean by a word today than what it once meant long ago.

Another argument sometimes put forward is that we should ascertain what the word "atheist" means by taking a poll among atheists. But that is an unclear suggestion. How are we to decide who is an atheist (and thus to be polled) prior to ascertaining what the word "atheist" means? Let us assume that the poll is to be taken among all those native speakers of English who are not theists. It is still not clear what the result of such a poll would be. I have never seen any statistical result presented on the matter. My conclusion here is that no good case has ever been made for using the word "atheist" in the sense of "one who is without belief in God."

So again, we see that ‘atheism’ is not the absence of theism, but the denial of it.

Equivocating Definitions

In order to avert the burden of proof, some atheists have changed the definition of atheisms to a ‘lack of belief.” This attempts to put the atheist in a non-affirming position and shifts the burden *to the person making the claim.* However, as we have seen, both the atheist and theist are bringing claims to the table and each must defend those claims.

The problem with the “lack of belief” position is that it conceals the atheist’s true position. While asserting that they “lack belief”, they are truthfully holding to the classical position in their philosophy (see above). In their writings, they are demonstrating their rejection of Gods existence (sometimes dogmatically); however, when challenging their position, out comes their ‘sudden’ lack of belief on the issue. In one side of the mouth their parading their disbelief, and on the other side of their mouth their denying *any* belief. For people who are in “absence of belief in God”, they sure do have plenty of ‘opinions’ about the matter. In other words, their equivocating the two definitions of atheism to suit their purpose of evading the burden of proof. This method of argumentation is dishonest and should be pointed out.

The Logical problem of ‘Atheism”

Now that we have cut through the language game, we should note that the classical definition of atheism can put the atheist in a predicament. Some might assert that to be an atheist, you must be in the position to prove a universal negative. Now, I happen to think there is a way out for the atheist. But for dogmatic atheists who pontificate the non-existence of God (there out there), there is a logical dilemma. If all possibilities for the existence of God can be exhaustively enumerated; you can prove the universal; however, you can’t do this when dealing with the proposition of Gods existence.

The atheist then, is philosophically naïve to assume that they can disprove Gods existence. However, the atheist does not have to assert a universal negative to maintain their atheism. An atheist can maintain that while God's existence *cannot be logically or empirically disproven*, it is nevertheless *unproven.* With this qualification, the atheist is not committing a logical fallacy and still maintains their atheism. However, as we can see, the atheist as well as the theist both has a position on the proposition of Gods existence—and therefore, both shoulder the burden of proof for their position , since the Law of the excluded middle does not apply in this situation.


It’s common today to see atheists avert their own burden of proof. One tactic the atheist has done to is to re-define atheism from the “belief that there is no God” to the “lack of belief in God.” However, the re-definition of atheism is fallacious and still fails on its face to avert their burden of proof.

If the atheist says that God’s existence cannot be proven, he’s assuming that the Christian has no proof or that all his proof is wrong, which is the very thing the atheist would need to prove (and thus he’s begging the question). In addition, for the Christian theist, to deny the idea of God is to deny the actual existence of God no matter what language game you want to play. It isn’t good enough for the atheist to say that they ‘lack belief’ of God *therefore* they are denying nothing about "Gods" actual existence. By self definition (no matter how you slice it) atheists must examine all of reality (within their epistemological realm) to evaluate the concept of God. In summary, neither the atheist nor the Christian is “neutral” in their approach to the question of God’s existence.

In summary, neither the atheist nor the Christian is “neutral” in their approach to the question of God’s existence.

The question of God’s existence is not acontextual. Atheism and theism arise from alternative systems of belief. Each system of beliefs includes presuppositions about reality, knowledge, and how we live our lives. Thus, each system of belief must be argued for—no language game will change that.

Some atheists do acknowledge that both the atheist and theist bare a burden of proof when arguing the existence of God. Jeffery Jay Lowder comments in the article Is Atheism Presumptuous? A Reply to Paul Copan (2000):

In a recent article, Paul Copan challenges Flew's presumption of atheism, calling it "presumptuousness." According to Copan, "the atheist also shares the burden of proof" because "atheism is just as much a claim to know something ("God does not exist") as theism ("God exists")."[3] I agree with Copan that anyone who claims, "God does not exist," must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, "God exists."

Both atheist and theist have knowledge claims that must be argued for. Evading the burden of proof demonstrates the weakness of ones own position. It’s high time that atheists who ‘lack belief’ own up on their burden as well as the theist.

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3 comments | Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Protheism has been barren lately. I am probably writing this to myself because I don’t have any narcissistic delusions of a readership audience. I feel no need, nor do I ever care to develop the need, to post-for-the-sake-of-posting. In fact, I post specifically for my own edification, to reserve my thoughts and have a creative outlet whereby I can look at myself some years down the road and say, “I was like that”? Yes, I do anticipate the retrospect shock from the preservation of my pedantic personality ;-} Also, I’ll admit, my memory aptitude seems to be plummeting; so some post are to “back-up” my thoughts. And who am I kidding? I am just opinionated I suppose!

Truthfully, I am not getting tired of blogging at all. There are a million things I want to post about, but getting to posting is the problem. Though blogging brings me joy, it comes after God, family, work, school and reading. School has opened a big can o' whop a** on me lately and I find that even though I have much to say—my mental jive is spread thin, or perhaps there isn’t enough grey custard juice to keep the rapid synapses in my brain firing. Moreover, when I do find a moments passing, I find myself enjoying someone else’s writing. Other people are so much more interesting than I am and periodically, I can scrape just enough time to agitate someone here and there.

I do plan to continue posting, whether or not it will be anything of value is debatable. So, if I am not just a brain in a vat; if there is actually anyone out there and you’re not just an automated virtual personality, this site is far from dead.