One of the tactics new atheists (i.e., those who think drink the infantile swill of Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Dan Barker, Bill Maher or Jerry Coyne as if it’s the Kool-Aid of Jim Jones) employ that just aggravates me more than the Seahawks not giving the ball to Marshawn Lynch at the goal line in the Superbowl is defining atheism as a “mere lack of belief in God.” Frankly, it’s intellectually lazy, intellectually dishonest and utterly unacceptable.
Isn’t this assessment a little uncouth and uncivil, Modus Pownens? Well, those who claim to have the market cornered on reason and wax on about how they sit at the intellectual big kids table in contrast to us delusional, superstitious faith-based types should behave as exemplary masters of incisive and profound erudition. If you talk big game and belittle, you better bring it. If you’re a superior thinker, conduct yourself accordingly. And those who repeatedly lord their alleged cerebral advantage over others yet continually produce hollow rhetoric deserve to be exposed similarly like the ancient sophists were appropriately trivialized by Socrates. In the words of Bill Vallicella: “Civility is for the civil.”
Now that that’s out of my system, I don’t think of myself as Socrates. I’m no more intelligent than the average person, and I’m always still learning and refining my views and argumentation. However, it’s no braggadocio for me to claim that I’m more initiated in “the love of wisdom” than the typical online, armchair philosopher of religion. I’m far from an expert, but my prowess in the subject likely extends beyond my undergraduate minor, as I’ve taken non required upper level courses in ethics and metaphysics and continue to keep my skills sharp by reading the writings of professional philosophers when I can. I present all this modestly, yet accurately, as I’m about to put this irksome meme — because that’s what it really is — into the ground.
Let’s start with the commonly articulated reasoning to this claim of “lack of belief” — if any is given at all — which is based in etymology. Basically, it’s the prefix “a” refers to a lack thereof, and “theism” means belief in God, ipso facto, atheism is a “lack of belief” in God with no positive beliefs of its own. Apart from the latter part of the conclusion being patently false as atheists appeal to positive claims about reality when they argue for atheism against theism, the breakdown of the word is equally egregious.
Theism also isn’t strictly confined to meaning a belief in God, as the suffix “ism” has other connotations. As per Wikipedia, “Ism is a derived word used in philosophy, politics, religion or other areas pertaining to an ideology.” By their nature, ideologies or philosophical positions are not devoid of beliefs. But more importantly, theism, loosely speaking, can and has been accurately defined to remove belief from its articulation to the philosophical position that God exists. If atheism is derived from how theism is defined as the New Atheists seem to do, then why can’t atheism, loosely speaking, be expressed as the antithetical philosophical position that God does not exist?
Moreover, the more we scrutinize here, the New Atheists’ semantic game appears more and more questionable. Even if we define theism in the terms of a belief in God, beliefs are often held by philosophers to be propositions, meaning they express statements that are either true or false. As atheism is held in direct opposition to theism, yet if it is a “lack of belief,” then it can’t be either true or false. But this can’t be right, as it doesn’t square with the behavior of atheists, who maintain both the claim that God does not exist — and by extension, atheism — is true and conversely the claim God does exist — and again by extension, theism — is false. Simply, “lack of belief” is a psychological state or a property. A property is not the sort of thing that can be true or false. Atheism clearly is considered to be either true or false. It’s not a property like having blueness or sadness, and anyone who argues otherwise clearly brings into doubt as whether or not they should be taken seriously.
What’s also worth talking about is the host of ideologies and positions that feature the suffix “ism.” Why are these never defined as an “absence of belief” in something? Conservatism isn’t considered the “absence of belief” in liberalism and vice versa. Likewise, communism isn’t deemed a “lack of belief” in capitalism, and we can go on indefinitely. What about atheism makes it different than every other “ism” out there? Even in the case of positions that make statements about what or what not exists, the position defending the negative claim is never defined as a “lack of belief.” In philosophy, nominalism is the view universals don’t exist, but it is never posited as being a “lack of belief” in universals. It seems to me, the new atheists reek of special pleading.
Then there’s philosophy of religion and philosophers of religion. Shouldn’t the very discipline and its experts, the people whose livelihoods are based on their ability to think critically and be rational, likely know what’s best? Here’s some quotes:
Atheism is the view that there is no God.
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.
An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.
Bertand Russell, the father of analytic philosophy
I anticipate there will be those who will bring up strong/weak varieties atheism. Oh, I’m well aware, but I find the strong and weak forms of atheism as problematic to establish a presumption of atheism not only for the above reasons, but it also obfuscates perfectly good terms like atheist and agnostic, puts an unreasonable burden of proof on the theist and distracts what’s at issue, i.e., whether or not God exists.
I suppose I always can redefine theism as the lack of belief in metaphysical naturalism and see how the atheist likes it.
That’s only fair, right?