About six months ago I had the opportunity to interact with an atheist on Twitter; our topics of discussion: Christianity, atheism, and belief, particularly the definition of atheism and its effects on the atheist-Christian dialogue. Our conversation began with a discussion on the definition of the term “Christian”; that is, to be a Christian, one must affirm certain things to be true.
As a quick aside, Max Andrews of sententias.org affirms the proposition that, to be a Christian, one must not only believe certain things to be true, but must be saved by God as well. In other words, in order to be a Christian, then P (one must affirm Christian truth propositions) and Q (one must be saved by God). Many times non-Christians (and some Christians) speak of being a Christian as only entailing P; but that is an incomplete theological definition unless Q as well. This might seem elementary but it is a fair point to make when atheists (or others) sometimes refer to themselves as ex-Christians (which is logically problematic).
Andrews’ particular definition of a Christian (as entailing P and Q) was the initial subject of our conversation. Once the atheist and I agreed upon that definition, my interlocutor then proposed that atheism is a “lack of belief”:
This seems to be a popular strategy lately among internet atheists as it allows them to deflect any responsibility to make a case for their view; and that is exactly what happened next:
In other words, the atheist says that, when compared to Christians, his group is “neutral,” i.e. believes nothing, whereas the Christian group believes something. Therefore, according to this characterization, the need to provide evidence(s) for a belief rests solely on the ones having the belief: Christians, not atheists.
Let’s just call this for what it is: A sneaky, underhanded trick of semantics that allows some atheists to weasel their way out of the difficult task of supporting their claim. Make no doubt about it, folks, atheists are doing the exact same thing that Christians are doing when it comes to belief. We believe God exists and they believe God does not exist. Both groups believe something. Any atheist that says otherwise is furthering intellectual dishonesty. Think of it this way:
- 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 the term “atheism” simply describes a lack of belief, then there can be no argument to support what is lacking. It is merely describing an absence of an opinion. Atheists, therefore, cannot support absence with any good reasons; for, in absence, there is nothing to support. This relegates their view to the same level of seriousness as an aversion to lima beans or boiled cauliflower.
- If the term “atheism” simply describes a lack of belief, then atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens went to an awful lot of trouble writing books describing their missing mental property. As a matter of fact, I’m curious how the internet atheist should interpret Dawkins’ chapter title in The God Delusion: “Why There Almost Certainly is No God”. Perhaps he should read it as: “How My Lack of Belief Explains Why There is No God”.
The point is: atheism is not a mental property nor does it describe someone’s psychology. Atheism is a proposition or a truth claim about the world; and that proposition is: God does not exist. The only way Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others can make arguments for their view is if they actually have a view to begin with. As William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland point out, “[A] redefinition of the word atheist trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view…”
As a matter of fact, the only person that can claim a neutral position on the existence of God is an agnostic. During the conversation I asked the atheist why the term “agnostic” is insufficient to describe him. Certainly the term “agnostic” travels a sufficient definitional distance, as it were, without having to create new definitions for old words. He never answered this question (even though I asked it multiple times).
I also asked the atheist to affirm or deny the proposition “God exists”:
This challenge was meant to show that the atheist still takes a position whether he wants to admit it or not. Certainly the atheist will not answer “Yes” thus affirming God’s existence. Rather, it would seem logical for him to answer “No” since atheism affirms that God does not exist. Except, my interlocutor saw his dilemma and could not bring himself to take a position; which, I jokingly suggested, probably makes him a confused agnostic. Agnosticism is the position that one can neither believe nor disbelieve in God since we cannot know whether God exists. To my surprise, however, the atheist affirmed that he was indeed an agnostic and an atheist at the same time. In essence he was taking a position while denying that one can take a position. When I tried to point out the problem with using both terms to describe himself the atheist figuratively locked his arms and shrugged.
By the way, at this point in the conversation my interlocutor referred to a subcategory of atheists where some consider themselves agnostic atheists and some gnostic atheists. This is unnecessary and totally absurd. A gnostic affirms the claims of gnosticism, which is a 2,000 year old religious belief affirming the existence of multiple gods. So, to call oneself a gnostic atheist is even more absurd than calling oneself an agnostic atheist since a gnostic atheist is one who affirms the existence of multiple gods and denies the existence of those gods at the same time. So the semantic gymnastics that internet atheists resort to in order to shrug off their intellectual responsibilities is painfully awkward and transparent.
Well, to those of us who know better, it is transparent. To a lot of these internet atheists, it is not. That is why, while I have been expressing my frustration at the strategy itself, we must remember that many of these folks simply don’t know what they’re doing. They are caught up in a pseudo-intellectual fad that allows them the opportunity to demand a lot of work from everyone else while avoiding it for themselves. The best way to point out their error is to ask crucial questions, like: “Since a ‘lack of belief’ is not a view, then why object to my point of view?” “How does your lack of belief tell you that I’m wrong?” These two questions are meant to draw out the obvious: atheists must stand on a foundational view of reality in order to argue against the theist’s view of reality. Or you can simply ask: “Why is the term “agnostic” insufficient to describe you?” Let them grapple with these questions and confront the consequences of their view in a gracious yet persistent way.
Of course, the best question to ask a self-avowed “lack of belief” atheist is: Do you affirm or deny the proposition “God exists”? If he denies the proposition then he has taken the non-neutral position that God does not exist. If he affirms the proposition, then the lion’s share of the work is already done.
*Edited on 6/14/15
 I use the term to mean a small subgroup within the broader community of atheists.
 William Lane Craig & J.P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 156.