One of our more popular posts at A Clear Lens is entitled “Why Atheism Is Not a ‘Lack of Belief’” where I provide a rationale for why the relatively new definition of atheism as a “lack of belief” is flawed. This caused quite a bit of consternation among some atheists on social media with comments ranging from How dare you tell me what I believe? to How dare you disagree with my dictionary? Since there were quite a few responses in this regard I decided to write a follow-up entitled “’Atheism’ Is Like the New ‘Literally’” where I dealt with some of those more common rejoinders. In both posts my contention was clear: defining atheism as a “lack of belief” is mischaracterizing the atheistic enterprise (whether advertent or inadvertent).

An interesting fact that seems to be lost in this discussion is that this disagreement over the definition of atheism does not split evenly down the line – Christian vs. Atheist. Many atheists also reject the “lack of belief” characterization. One of the better examples of this comes from a post entitled “Is a ‘lack of belief’ the best we can do?” where the atheist author lists his own reasons (similar to the ones I provided) why his fellow atheists should reject this definition once and for all.

“[There] seems to be a confusion between the folk concept of ‘belief’, and it’s more precise philosophical definition. The folk concept is something like ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof‘. The philosophical definition is something like ‘a mental state that represents a state of affairs which is accepted as true by the believer’”

He’s absolutely right. In other words, the proper understanding of belief is that it is an assent to a thought about reality being a certain way. Given this proper understanding, the author writes:

“The only time someone can be said to have a lack of belief regarding a god is before they’ve heard the claim for one. In some minimalist sense this person is an a-theist, but that’s an extremely weak point to hang one’s hat on. After hearing it, they can accept, reject or mull over the claim undecided. But lacking a belief about it is no longer open to them.”

True. To assent to a particular proposition, which is what both sides are doing with regard to the God question, is to believe already. Even if someone is undecided (i.e. agnostic), he is still oscillating between belief in a reality where God exists or does not exist. The author also argues:

“If a mere ‘lack of belief in god’ is sufficient to be an atheist, then babies are atheists. You might say “yes, they are, or at least were before religion got its mitts on them!” But on this definition chimps are also atheists. As are dolphins, dogs, and doors. They all lack belief in a god. You might object that the ‘thing’ has to be capable of beliefs at all to prevent the ‘door’ from making this absurd (that’s going to be a problem for anything that is defined in purely negative terms). But suppose I grant that point, even though it seems extremely ad hoc. Are you comfortable calling a dog an atheist? If so, are you just as comfortable calling a goldfish apolitical? Calling the ants in my garden a colony of atheists feels like a misuse of words to me, because this word – defined in this way – picks out any conscious thing on the planet as its referent. That’s a huge net.”

That sounds familiar! This is what I said in “Why Atheism Is Not a ‘Lack of Belief’”:

“If the term “atheism” simply describes a missing mental property (i.e. a lack of belief), then the definition is too broad to be meaningful. Given this new definition there would be no difference between an atheist and the armchair he’s sitting on; that is, an armchair also lacks a belief in God just like the atheist.”

If your definition of atheism cannot meaningfully distinguish between a human being and an armchair, something’s wrong.

While I do believe that many atheists are furthering the “lack of belief” definition because they don’t understand what they’re doing, I also suspect that a number of them are furthering it because it allows them to shirk the responsibility of making their own case in support of their view. This is what another atheist author suspects as well:

“I have a hard time thinking that all such people who claim they merely lack belief in gods and don’t disbelieve really carry through on this suspension of belief mindset. It’s certainly not evidenced in their statements or their behaviors. Their abstract epistemology, their gestures at austere humility, and their leeriness of adopting philosophical positions or being subject to the burden of evidence for having done so, are each constantly undercut by their behaviors of actually making positive metaphysical arguments, refuting positive religious beliefs, and treating religious notions as ludicrous to the point of being beneath worthiness of belief by any rational person. Mentally they seem to operate indistinguishable from atheists like me who admit that our attitude is one of thinking we know there are no personal gods.”

Exactly. I’ve yet to meet a “lack of belief” proponent that does not go on to make some kind of case for why the notion of God’s existence is either incoherent or has no evidence to support it. Every time they do that they don’t seem to realize that they’ve argued for their view of reality (where God does not exist) and given reasons to back it up. But that’s all I’ve been asking of “lack of belief” atheists, that they stop claiming they’re neutral and start developing arguments to support their view.

Apparently, I’m not the only one.

12 COMMENTS

  1. It’s a lot more complicated than that lets on.
    I don’t believe in a God. But, I can’t formulate an argument against a God because I don’t know what -you- mean when you say God. It’s a broad, vague, publicly amassed dodge. The arguments I might use against my grandma’s God are not the same arguments I would use against a pantheist.
    I can’t claim to know your God doesn’t exist, because the word “God” is so poorly defined that there is no substantive point to argue against: it’s like nailing jelly to a wall.
    What’s stranger (to me, at least) is that having this broad definition of a God is deemed a good thing. People don’t tend to talk to each other about defining a God, just why they think It is great. So, I could argue with you, give a good rebuttal to a point you’ve offered to define a God with, and your friend could walk in and say that has nothing to do with God.

    M position is this: I lack a belief in a God. If I am talking to someone who maintains an airy fairy definition of a God with no real substance, I maintain a lack of belief in a God. If someone gives a substantive definition of a God I evaluate that position. So far, I have remained an atheist. There are many people to whom, thanks to their definition of a God, I actually believe their God doesn’t exist.
    But, in general, I’m still nailing jelly to the wall.

    • Ok, fair enough, Allallt. You need a definition of God in order to weigh in. Sounds like you agree with the first atheist who said, “The only time someone can be said to have a lack of belief regarding a god is before they’ve heard the claim for one.” But once you’ve heard the definition, you no longer lack a belief. You either assent to it being true of reality or to its being untrue. Or if you’re agnostic you are noncommittal to one particular side. That’s the point that the atheist is making, and I think he’s absolutely right.

      By the way, are there really a large number of unique definitions of God floating around that you haven’t heard yet? I traded in comparative religions with my first degree and I’ve yet to hear a characterization outside the range of the major ones.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • I think it odd that people are so willing to not describe agnostics as people who ‘lack belief’. But, okay, I’m willing to wear the label if that’s the language you use out here.
        And yes, the definition of God changes to suit the criticism levelled at it. Or, it stays so broad as to be meaningless. Take the ‘uncaused first cause’ for example. Forget, for a moment, that modern cosmology doesn’t have an absolute beginning, so this isn’t necessary and that causality doesn’t make sense in the pre-time environment being proposed [/note to self]. If that’s the definition being offered, can impersonal physics be considered God — if that’s what we discover the answer is?

  2. Does one need to actively disprove the existence of pixies to reasonably aver a lack of belief in sprites?

    [i][O]nce you’ve heard the definition, you no longer lack a belief. You either assent to it being true of reality or to its being untrue. Or if you’re agnostic you are noncommittal to one particular side.[/i]

    One can acknowledge the concept of a belief without holding that belief.
    One can withhold belief without declaring disbelief (in lieu of subseqent confirming data)
    The term agnostic does not denote some middle ground between belief and disbelief. Theism speaks to belief, gnosticism speaks to knowledge; they are two separate categories.

    I understand the reticence and outright refusal to bear the onus of proof regarding deities; it is an untenable position in quotidian reality. How does one distinguish between a deity which is undetectable from a deity which does not exist?

    You guys have been at this for thousands of years and still can’t manage to get things straight amongst yourselves. I’ll be waiting over here.

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