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Is atheism merely a “lack of belief in God”?18 min read

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Many times, when I attempt to critique atheism, the atheist will accuse me of the straw man fallacy, accusing me of expanding my definition of atheism beyond the humble simplicity of a mere “lack of belief in God, nothing more, nothing less.”

Of course, before entering into discussion, it is a good idea to define our terms and come to agreement on them, but I take issue with this definition for two reasons. As I’ve mentioned previously, an overly reductionist definition can be a Stick Man fallacy, which leaves out important distinctives, making the definition ambiguous. This leads to unfruitful discussion and hiding places for the one defending such poor definitions. Let me outline the problems with this approach, using the “lack of belief in God” as a perfect example of this fallacy.

1. Ambiguity

The first issue I have with this defintion is that it can include both agnostics, who lack a belief in God but are unsure or uncommitted to a conclusion on the matter, and hard atheists, who make a positive claim that there is no God. It’s the difference between claiming the existence of God is improbable vs. impossible.

1.1 Necessary v. Sufficient Belief or Disbelief

Another way to say this is that lack of belief in God is a necessary element for atheism, but it is not sufficient, since atheism also makes a positive claim of disbelief in the existence of God. However, atheists have some responses to this.

The first is to claim that I am making a category error. They claim that agnosticism (literally “no knowledge”) is a claim about knowledge, not belief. Atheism, they claim, is a claim about belief. However, if that were true, then I would say that answers to both categories must be listed in your definition if we are to have a fruitful discussion, which means we now have four possibilities, not one.

1.2 Psychological v. Philosophical Atheism

Perhaps the best way to describe the problem is that there are two definitions of atheism – pyschological and philosophical.

The word “atheism” is polysemous—it has multiple related meanings. In the psychological sense of the word, atheism is a psychological state, specifically the state of being an atheist, where an atheist is defined as someone who is not a theist and a theist is defined as someone who believes that God exists (or that there are gods). This generates the following definition: atheism is the psychological state of lacking the belief that God exists. In philosophy, however, and more specifically in the philosophy of religion, the term “atheism” is standardly used to refer to the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, to the proposition that there are no gods). Thus, to be an atheist on this definition, it does not suffice to suspend judgment on whether there is a God, even though that implies a lack of theistic belief. 1

In this view, the “lack of belief” is merely a personal statement of one’s individual mental state, and not a declaration of reality. The latter, however, is what most people of faith are addressing in argumentation – the claim that “God does not exist” – an unprovable statement of faith equal to “God does exist.”

2. The Spectrum of Atheism

We all know that there is a bit of a spectrum between mere lack of belief and hard disbelief – these are often called soft and hard atheism – again, believing the existence of God is improbable v. impossible. So let’s explore if this knowledge/belief distinction helps define atheism.

The problem with this approach is that:

  1. if the atheist claims sufficient knowledge, they seem to be making a statement of belief (which aligns well with the atheist’s claim that atheism is a statement of belief), but claims sufficient evidence, or *lack* of evidence, which is an absence of evidence fallacy, as defined by atheist Carl Sagan (“The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”).
  2. there is never enough evidence to disprove or prove the existence of God, so all claims of sufficient knowledge are faith statements,
  3. the mature believer is still a believer, and does not claim irrefutable evidence, but only evidence sufficient to prove to them the probability of God, not the verity.

So to sum up, I think that the atheist claim that agnosticism and atheism are separate categories is a decent claim, but this does not make the claim that atheism is merely a “lack of belief in God” a useful, unambiguous definition, nor does it change the fact that atheism is faith claim, not a knowledge claim supported by irrefutable evidence.

2.1 Possibility v. Probability

Another way to approach the necessary agnostic/atheist distinction is to suppose that agnosticism admits that God is improbable, but not impossible. Hard (real) atheism claims that the possibililty is so low that the existence of God is negligable, i.e. impossible. Now perhaps the practical distinction between negligable and impossible is unimportant, but the logical difference is vast. The latter is defintiely a statement of faith.

So perhaps a more exact definition of agnosticism v. atheism would be to say

  1. Agnosticism claims that the existence of God is possible, though they lack belief
  2. Atheism claims that the existence of God is so improbable as to be practically impossible.
  3. Hard atheism claims that God does not exist. It is impossible

That way, they can avoid the faith claim of the non-existence of God.

3. What atheists hide from when using this definition of atheism

For one, atheists can dodge the accusation that hard disbelief as a leap of faith, hiding behind the simple “lack of faith” definition. Essentially, they can hold to a hard atheist faith claim while hiding behind an agnostic claim of simple lack of belief. In reality, they also have a positive disbelief, which they avoid claiming.

Secondly, they can avoid the real world and historic implications of atheism, namely a necessary commitment to subjective morals and an inability to ontologically ground their moral claims, and the inevitable slide to autocracy in atheist governments. In addition, it is hard to avoid the devaluing of human life under atheism.

4. Atheism’s Necessary World View Partners

I agree that a narrow definition of atheism does not specify answers to the questions of government, origins, morals and ethics, or human value. However, I would argue that both history and logic would argue that such a stance (a) denies logical congruence with some views, and (b) may logically require or result in commitments to specific views of origins, morality, ethics, and human value.

4.1 Atheism and Subjective Morals

Of the four main philosphical arguments for theism, the Argument from Morality is perhaps one of the more pursuasive. The traditional syllogism goes like this:

  1. If moral absolutes exist, God must exist (as an external authority and referent)
  2. Moral absolutes do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

However, since atheism rejects God, even if it claims that objective morals exist, it presents no external referent to appeal to – so in its view, all morality must be subjective and therefore based on societal aggreement. Naturally, this discussion is a bit of a rabbit hole.

There are counterarguments to the claim that atheism demands moral relativism or subjectivism. Briefly:

4.1.1 Who Decides what is Good?

The proposal that society can determine what is good (for humans or nature) demands a definition of good (usually by what leads to life and enjoyment, short or long term), but this confuses epistemology with ontology (how we define and know what is true v. how we ground what is true), and of course, not only is the majority often wrong about morality, the subjective default is a utililitarian ethic which has many practical problems including guessing at possible unknown outcomes to determine which persent action is good. Regardless, claims that atheism can engage an objective morality seem weak.

4.1.2 Is all morality objective, or just some?

One common misunderstanding when claiming objective morals is taking this as an all or nothing claim, forcing such a position to exclude situational morality or gray areas. For example, if someone says “lying is objectively wrong,” a situational retort could be “what if the Nazis are asking you if you are hiding Jews?” Is it wrong to lie in that situation?

Black and white thinking would suppose that if you allow for lying in this situation, then morals cannot be objective. But that is untrue. Exceptions do not disprove the rule, and the black/white thinking is reductionistic and guilty of the fallacy of bifurcation or the false dilemma.

Those who claim objective morals admit that there is a gray area (see this discussion of the biblical principles of navigating gray areas) where the situation and/or the conscience should be the guide, but this probably does not mean that torturing children is ever justified.

4.1.3 The Subjective Apphrehension of God’s Voice

Since what we know of God or his supposed ethical rules is all transimitted to us through humans who must subjectively hear from God, isn’t even Biblical morality subjective? The answer is yes and no. Practically, you could argue that the subjective nature of hearing from God means that all such hearing is unreliable and cannot count as an objective measure or confirmation. But conceptually, the proposal of an external God defining and confirming objective values means that at least theoretically, theists can ground their claim, while atheists don’t even have a theoretical model to ontologically ground objective morals.

4.1.4 The difficulty of proving objective morals

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. (Preamble to the Declaration of Independence)

This is one of the most brilliant statements of objective morality to ever be penned. Let me unpack what it says about objective morality, and how it is assessed.

  1. Self-evident: Moral truths, like the existence of God, are not directly provable by empirical observation. You must make certain foundational assumptions. The assumption here is that we must use faculties other than experimental evidence and reason to assess morality – namely our intuition (what is true and false) and conscience (what is good or bad). In this light, the phrase “self-evident” may be expanded to mean “self-evident to all whose faculties are working properly.” That is, if you don’t recognize the reality of objective morals, you’re just broken and we can’t fix it for you or prove it. As Alvin Planting might say, such beliefs are properly basic.
  2. Endowed by their Creator: In addition to emphasizing that rights do not come into being by the fiat of the state, but are intrinsic to creation and given by God, this phrase also highlights that God is the external arbiter that such claims are objectively true, not mere subjective consensus or opinion. (For those who at this point want to bring in the Euthyprho Dilemma, let me say that I consider that argument easily defeated by the goodness of God, as argued by Augustine, Anselm, and more recently by William Craig).

4.2 Atheism and Statism

A simple description of Why Atheists are Inevitably Autocrats goes like this:

  1. God is not the arbiter of the ultimate good, but rather man.
  2. Since the authority of God is removed from both the definition and the enforcement of morals, the state assumes this position.
  3. Since there are no limiting principles under atheism for government, and as argued below, the value of the individual is almost always subsumed under a utilitarian communism (benefit of society is supreme), atheism ends up being statist, removing what it considers moral miscreants, and kindness is downplayed as cowardice and weakness in defending the majority:

While balancing the demands of reason and kindness are most certainly laudable, in practice, atheists leave out kindness because (1) it gets subsumed into their goal of benefiting all of humanity by getting rid of the problem people (like religionists), and (2) because their reason answers to no absolute principles or God, save it’s own supreme reasoning. 2

Naturally, there are atheist responses to my claim that the most congruent government structure for atheism is some sort of communist statism. They might argue that a combination of libertarianism and humanism might make atheism congruent with our representative republic, or with a Parliamentary system, or any other secular system. But I would merely respond that while atheism is not incongruent with other more liberal systems of government, it is most easily and logically connected to an authoritarian state due to it’s denial of divine authority and objective morals, and that when we look at the history of atheist government regimes, this is exactly what we see. Let’s also remember that Christianity is congruent with, if not demands a separatino of church and state powers.

4.3 Atheism and Darwinism

Strongly implied under atheism is materialism and naturalism, and at this time, evolution is the only marginally credible naturalistic theory of origins. You would be hard-pressed to find many atheists who believe in any other story of origins, and this is because the naturalistic assumptions of atheism demand adherence to a naturalistic origins story – so no intelligent creator (though really smart aliens could have created us ;). 3

There are, of course, theists who believe in evolution, but atheism’s presuppositions deny any other modern solution. And this required comittment to Darwinism has intellectual and practical consequences, the chief of which is the devaluing of human life.

4.4 Atheism and the Devaluing of Human Life

Again, you could argue that atheism is not incongruent with some sort of humanism, but in and of itself, just like with its inevitable and easy fit with statism, atheism’s Darwinistic commitments make its most likely companion such ideas as the devaluing of humans from above the value of animals down to being of equal value, if not lesser value due to our “parasitic” abuse of nature.

This devaluation of human value, coupled with the utilitarian devaluation of individual rights under the communal systems of government most congruent with atheism, leads to the justification of such cruelties as the abortion of “imperfect” children, support for “favored races” (as Darwin called it in the title of his infamous Origin of Species), eugenics, and even slavery. 4

5. The Unnatural Isolation of Atheism from Reality

All of Section 4 above argues that atheism does not stand in isolation from logical commitments to related ideas, no matter how much an atheist would like to disassociate themselves from statism, subjective moralism, and social Darwinism. Of course, I am not saying that every or even the majority of atheists are statists, racists, or social Darwininists. However, I would say that if they are not, they are being illogical, if not ignoring both reason and history.

Again, note that I am not saying that only atheists do terrible things in history, since religionists, especially Islam, have done horrific things. What I am saying is that those who seek to hold on to what are essentially the Judeo-Christian values of prioritizing human life, the equality of all mankind, and objective morals must do so AGAINST the logical flow of ideas from their assumptions. Statism and social Darwinism are not abuses of atheism or contrary to it (as cruelty is to the teachings of Jesus), they are the most likely logical outcomes.

5.1 Avoiding the fact that all reality is connected

My contention is that one of the main reasons that atheists cling to the simplistic “lack of faith” definition is precisely *because* they are avoiding the obvious logical and historic implications of atheism. But all disciplines of truth are describing one, integrated reality. If an idea must be isolated and disintegrated from other disciplines in order to maintain its verity, it can’t really be true. Conversely, if it integrates well with cruel or false systems, it should be equally suspect.

6. Summary

Many modern atheists like to claim that atheism is merely “a lack of faith in God.” Nothing more or less. But this convenient definition is unhelpful, if not dishonest because:

  1. It is ambiguous and allows hard atheists to hide in agnosticism, avoiding the reality that hard atheism is a faith comittment, not something provable.
  2. Its oversimplicity avoids the reality of its logical and historic association with other unsavory ideas such as the the evidential problem of objective morality (our experience supports the idea of objective morals, which are self evident), the devaluation of humanity, statism, and social Darwinism.
  3. It unnaturally isolates atheism from criticism by disintegrating it from other disciplines of truth.

In addition, trying to avoid the agnostic/atheist distinction by claiming they are of different categories only supports the idea that atheism is a belief, independent of knowledge. And this does not clear up the difference between a lack of belief and hard disbelief, or the problem of possibility v. probability. Even if you believe that the existence of God is for all intents and purposes impossible, you can’t actually claim it as provable.

In the end, my main contention is that this definition, while true, is incomplete, unhelpful, and in many cases, disingenous in its avoidance of reality.

  1. Atheism and Agnosticism ([]
  2. Why Atheists are Inevitably Autocrats ([]
  3. Did aliens start life on Earth? New study makes surprising claims about how life evolves ([]
  4. Evolution and Social Darwinism in Civil War Reconstruction ([]