Hi all—been tied up recently and unable to write anything worth posting. The past few weeks I have found myself frustrated by the continual lack of understanding what atheism is by both theists and some new to atheism. There are many ways that this can manifest itself. For the purposes of today’s post, I am reposting something that I wrote for Martin Pribble’s blog a while back. It addresses many of, but not all of the frustrations I have been feeling recently. If you are not a reader of Martin’s blog, this will be the first time you have seen this post, as I have never published it elsewhere prior to today. ,
What is Atheism? Why The Definition Matters
A few months ago Martin Pribble was kind enough to write a guest post for my blog. His post was called “Fear of Atheism”. You can read it here if you like. It is an excellent post that seemed to cause some controversy with a theist blogger. I do not want to rehash all of that today. I bring it up as a springboard to a topic that has been bothering me lately. It seems to me that most of us atheists know what the word “atheism” defines. That is a good thing. The problem lies in the fact that many theists do not understand the word. I would posit that the failure to understand what atheism means is at the heart of many debates between theists and atheists. It is also clear for anyone who spends some time on reddit’s r/atheism (and other places on the web,) that many new atheists also are not sure what atheism means. They often ask questions in some form of “I do not really believe in god…now what do I do?” The answers are often helpful, but not always. I wanted to take a few moments to shed some light on this topic as it seems important if the atheist movement is to move forward.
Atheism, in its most basic form is not a belief. In fact, it is the absence of belief. This is something that many of us realize but often concede when debating with theists. There is a major difference between a belief and the absence of a belief. Atheists are not people who believe that gods do not exist. Atheists are people who do not believe in the existence of gods. The difference between those two sentences is profound. (These definitions were taken from George Smith’s “Atheism: The Case Against God”—it is well worth a read if you have not done so). I want to spend a few minutes looking at the difference between those two statements.
The false statement, “Atheists are people who believe that gods do not exist” is a statement of positive belief. If I say to you, “I believe that gods do not exist” I am making a statement of belief. You would be well justified to then ask me, “Well, RB what evidence do you have to support that belief”. This would put me in a troublesome spot. It is widely acknowledged that at this point in time it is not possible to definitively prove that gods do not exist. Perhaps the most famous iteration of that position is Richard Dawkins’ scale of belief where 1 is a theist who “knows” gods exist and 7 is an atheist who “knows” gods do not exist. Dawkins identifies himself as a 6. There is no concrete proof, at this point in time that proves gods do not exist. In my 20 years of being an atheist, I have yet to meet anyone who claims to be an atheist who is a 7 on Dawkins’ scale. The person that this false statement describes rarely exists, if he/she exists at all. If a person with this belief were encountered, they would be dismissed by most atheists as irrational and incorrect. For theists to attack this (wrong) definition of atheism is nothing more than attacking a straw man. This (wrong) definition is not atheism, it is lunacy.
The second statement above, “Atheists are people who do not believe in the existence of gods” has a very different meaning. To follow the same line of thinking from the above paragraph…If I say to you, “I do not believe in the existence of gods” I am not making a statement of belief. I am stating the absence of belief…there is no positive belief that requires proof in my statement. The next logical question for you to ask me would be, “Well, RB why do you not believe in the existence of gods?” My response would be, “Good question. I do not believe in the existence of gods because a)there is very little evidence to support the idea that gods exist and b) the evidence that is put forth has quite a bit of holes in it.” The conversation from this point can then become a debate about the theories for the existence of gods.
At this point it becomes necessary to discuss the idea of the “burden of proof”. Without question, the person who is making the positive claim has the burden of proof. This is why the above definition and distinction of atheism becomes important. If we have a person that is one hundred percent convinced that god does not exist—a 7 on Dawkins’ scale—that person would assume a burden of proof. However, that is not atheism. That is irrationality and ignorance. That person is an extremist on the opposite end of the scale of the theist. Likewise, the theist always has the burden of the proof. It is the theist that is claiming that gods exist. That is a positive belief that requires evidence. The vast majority of atheists listen to that evidence and they reject it. They do not make a positive statement of belief. They are simply rejecting the reasoning of others. Atheism is not a belief. Atheists do not get off the hook that easily though. If we are going to reject the arguments for deities, we had better be able to explain why we reject them. If we cannot do that, we do not win the debate. Our burden, if you will, is to be able to explain the holes in the theists “proofs”.
These distinctions are quite important. When I surf various atheist and theist blogs, reddit, and other areas where debates between atheists and theists occur it seems as if this distinction often gets lost in the shuffle. The accomplished apologist is quite adept when it comes to shifting this burden of proof. Be aware to not let that happen. The ignorant theist is often unaware that the shift of “proof” they are seeking is incorrect. Be aware of that as well. Almost every debate that I have stumbled upon between a theist and an atheist, where the atheist has struggled, these two things manifest themselves. The atheist has either allowed the burden of proof to shift and/or is not able to successfully argue why the position of theist is full of holes.
If, as an atheist, you find yourself arguing with a theist who is trying to shift the burden of proof and does not understand what atheism is, stand your ground. Be able to explain the difference between what atheism is—the absence of belief, and what it is not—a positive belief. Be able to explain why the theist has the burden of proof. This can be challenging. One of the key arguments theists make is that the atheist position is just a “cop-out”. That is fallacious and shows a profound lack of knowledge in the logic required to have this debate. Stand your ground. If you get nowhere then walk away. You are wasting your time dealing with an irrational person. Irrational people are not worth the time to debate. Rational theists often relish the opportunity to prove their deity exists.
If, as an atheist, you find yourself unable to point out the flaws in theists’ reasons for the existence of god, you probably should not be debating theists. We hear all the time that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods. This is true. It is nothing more than that. However, as an atheist, we should be able to express why we have a lack of belief in gods. After all, atheism is not irrational, as many theists try to claim. There are very rational reasons why atheists do not believe in the existence of gods. Stating those reasons, in reference to a theists’ claim for a deity is not making a positive statement of belief, but it is expressing a rational explanation of where the theist goes wrong. There are many reasons why someone may define themselves as an atheist. Each atheist should be able to express those reasons. If the atheist cannot do that, they should not be out seeking converts to atheism, but should be reading and studying their own reasons for being an atheist.
The correct definition of atheism matters. Theists often try to discredit us with nonsense that is in no way implied in the definition of atheism. In this century it is important that the atheist movement progress. All around us, we see fundamentalist theists attempting to wrest power from governments. If successful, the future looks dim. Civil rights would be curtailed for certain groups and scientific inquiry would be in serious jeopardy. It is paramount that we atheists make ourselves heard and stand up for what is right. Things like science and social justice, while not a part of atheism, are subjects that many of us feel strongly about. In order for us to be able to push for the non-atheist societal and political goals that many of us possess, we will need to fight against theists who have the opposite goals. This will require us to understand what atheism is, it will require us to force theists to understand what atheism is, for no other reason than to disallow theists from defining and marginalizing us. That is why this piece was important for me to write. I am sick and tired of hearing from theists that “As an atheist I must be ________”. No. As an atheist I am a person who does not believe in the existence of gods. I will not let the theist falsely define me or this debate any longer.
Now that the debate is properly defined and framed, the next step, at least for me, is to express why the battle between theists and atheists needs to happen. I have written a post on my site that goes in conjunction with one. You can read it here: Why It Is Important for Atheists To Speak Up.
Thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments.
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