For as long as humans have been shaking their fists skyward, the term ‘atheist’ has been used to describe a belief that there is no God. However, since the popularisation of New Atheism a decade or so ago, there has been a concerted attempt – a revisionist attempt – by some atheists to redefine atheism as ‘a lack of belief’. In other words, for these atheists, atheism is not a positive belief that God does not exist, but rather something that entails no belief at all – it is simply a lack of belief.
The reason for this is simple: defining atheism this way makes it easier for the atheist to defend their position because there’s nothing to defend. You don’t have to defend a non-belief. And if there’s nothing to defend, you don’t have to shoulder the burden of proof.
If I were an atheist, however, I wouldn’t go down this path. Not only is this definition a departure from the language that we’ve all agreed on – the same language that allows us to have fruitful discussions – but it’s intellectually dishonest. It’s dishonest because there are only three possible answers to the question “Does God exist?”
“I don’t know” (agnostic)
By replacing this common sense and historically-understood definition with a convoluted and self-serving one (“I’m a freethinking open-minded anti-theistic accommodationist explicit uppercase agnostic-Atheist… or “bright” for short!”) is just linguistic legerdemain that helps no one, least of all the atheist.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s no such thing as a ‘lack of belief’. There is. For example, when it comes to which is the best curling team in Uzbekistan, I lack a belief. I have no information on the subject, nor do I care to find out. I genuinely lack a belief in the Uzbekistani curling scene.
But if you’ve ever listened to an atheist – particularly of the Stetson-wearing, goateed YouTube channel variety – it quickly becomes obvious that they don’t behave like they lack a belief about God. They have lots of beliefs about God, so much so that they write book after book, participate in debate after debate, and create YouTube video after YouTube video to espouse them. They even have their own logo! Now, I don’t know about most people, but I’ve yet to create a logo to express a lack of belief, and – having never had a skunkweed habit – don’t have the desire to.
Now, if an atheist wants to say, “I don’t have a belief in God” – that’s fair enough. They don’t have faith in God because they don’t think that God is real. But that is not the same as saying, “I don’t have a belief about God”. They do have a belief about God – lots of them – chiefly that God doesn’t exist. And if you hold a belief, and there is a justification for holding that belief, then you ought to be forthcoming about it.
But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of defining atheism as a lack of belief is that a lack of belief describes a psychological state; it tells us absolutely nothing about whether God exists or not. In other words, if atheism is merely a lack of belief then toasters, USB sticks, chickens, and my cat, John Knox, are also atheists since they too lack a belief in God. It also means that atheism can never be true or false (because only claims can be true or false), rendering it meaningless and, let’s be honest, a bit boring.
To be clear, I’m not saying that atheism is a religion – that job goes to Humanism – but it is definitely a belief, meaning that atheists – along with Christians, to be fair – must shoulder the burden of proof to support their position. If an atheist asserts – as they do – that only natural and material things exist, then they need to make a persuasive and principled argument for how immaterial things like logic, consciousness, evil, morality, mathematics, etc. are the accidental byproducts of exclusively natural causes.
Unfortunately, many of the atheists that I’ve engaged with – as lovely as they all are – seem most comfortable when critiquing the beliefs of others than when offering a robust defence of their own. This, I suspect, is because they know they can’t, for the more we learn about the complexities of the natural world, the more implausible a purely natural explanation becomes. In fact, a purely natural explanation for all of reality is, in theory, impossible because anything capable of creating nature would have to come from outside of nature and would be, by definition, supernatural – hence the desire to retreat to a boutique definition of atheism.