Atheism is NOT a “lack of belief”

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.

Matt McCormick

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

J.J.C. Smart

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?

Modus Pownens


21 thoughts on “Atheism is NOT a “lack of belief”

  1. Okay, I apologize for this first post and promise I’ll make a real one later, but I wanted to share. I was following reading your newest replied in askthebigot’s ‘Patricia’ article and thought you were criticizing me with the post starting with “David,”. I was really surprised and was wondering what I said that was wrong when halfway through, I realized you were talking about david0296, and not me. (Sam is technically one of my names, but David is a much closer name for me.) I actually chuckled when I caught it.

  2. That is fair. Have you tried it out on an atheist? Preferably one who won’t snap back and will take it as an intellectual challenge?

    By far, this superior attitude boggles me, especially from academics who should know better than to act like schoolyard bullies. Then again, the second biggest claim of Atheism, that one could be good without God, is another strange argument to me because I’ve never heard of any serious dedication to mastering morality. Morality doesn’t come naturally to humanity. Selfishness does, so at best, your average person is morally neutral. Except many critics of the God of Christianity call him evil for not constantly intervening in our lives, which means that anytime anyone has purposely avoided helping someone in trouble (no matter the reason), then they have committed an evil act. You’d think they realize that would make most of humanity evil except for the ones who consciously fight against that self-centeredness.

  3. You mean basically called them out on such rhetorical subterfuge? Not really for a couple reasons. I’m always looking for intellectually honest atheists to spar with, but they’re hard to find. It takes a few exchanges and a few posts of their for me to be sure — though after one, I have a pretty good idea. Secondly, I can’t help myself at times and pick fights with those who aren’t worth fighting. These militant atheists, in addition to their inappropriate amounts of venom in their discourse, typically like to throw the kitchen sink at me and it become nearly impossible to have a productive dialogue with such types. They over-generalize, don’t argue univocally by conflating terms like religion with Christianity or philosophical theism with Christianity or Christians with Christianity, hardly ever define what they mean, throw numerous red herrings in there, etc. So I first have to sift through everything to get a sense of what they’re arguing, and I have to pick and choose what to respond to. It takes a lot of effort on my part, and I doubt I ever really make them to stop and think and re-evaluate their position or themselves. Indeed, when these types of atheists accuse the religious for being dogmatic, in many ways, they merely describe and indict themselves.

    Well, for many philosophers, atheist and theist alike, goodness and value die along with God, which makes having any realist system of ethics difficult to get off the ground. Sure, they can act good, but theoretically speaking, they can’t account for why helping the old lady cross the street is good. It’s been my philosophical experience, the atheists philosophers in the golden age of atheism (Nietzsche to Quine) didn’t even try to ground goodness. Their accounts either made morality nonsensical and right and wrong were just expressions of approval or disapproval (yay! or boo!) or when it wasn’t nonsensical, moral statements were always considered false. Both cater to what generally would be characterized as moral nihilism. For the atheists who do try to say goodness is just a natural property of the world, there are serious problems with that position like with what’s commonly known as the is/ought gap or naturalistic fallacy that they are sort of committed to try to overcome based on other philosophical assumptions they assume are true, or it starts to resemble a lot like theism. Granted I’m no expert, but I have yet really seen a compelling atheistic moral realism that can ground goodness.

    Arguments from evil, like the one you allude to, usually suffer from projecting an expectation that an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing being must abide by our moral standards when we are so epistemically limited. As I understand it, academic philosophers have given up on the logical problem of evil as being a strong critique of theism because there does not appear to be what’s known as an implicit logical contradiction between being omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

    I apologize if I got a little technical with the philosophy, but I hope I answered what you’re asking, Sam or David, or whatever you want to be called, haha.

  4. On WordPress, I’m Sam because I really like the username I’ve come up with, corny as it is. And you’re not too technical. It’s only when you dive into the deep end of the philosophy pool and start using the truly technical terms that it becomes difficult for me to follow. Been awhile since college debate class and all that.

    Something I wish most atheists would realize is how shallow (?) they act when they say they can be good without God. Historically and culturally that is. The Golden Rule of Atheism seems to be ‘Do none harm’. Yet, even that vague system of morality does nothing but take Christian moral guidelines and try to kick out Christianity. Imagine how diverse the structures of morality can and have been. To a samurai or a viking, you pretty much said something that was anathema to their way of life.

    “My honor hinges on my ability to slay my enemies, what do you mean I’m not allowed, who are you to tell me that?”

    Perhaps we should be grateful that most people don’t realize the full consequences of relativism.

  5. I am forever amazed at the god-believers who continually wish to hang a rather unnecessary label on atheists over the is belief/no- belief issue.

    It really is so simple: It probably went something like this; more or less.

    The Theist came first and said: ”All this is God, this, is!”
    And the Atheist said : ”Got any evidence?”
    And the Theist said: ”I have faith, and evidence.”
    And the Atheist said: ”Cool! Show me.”
    And the Theist said : “Here. I have all this scripture and other Holy Stuff.”
    And the Atheist said. ” Is that it ?
    And the Theist said: ”What more do you require? What other evidence will make you believe.”
    And the Atheist said: ”Well, a bit more than that rather silly book and your faith. Who the heck walks on water?”
    And the Atheist sad: ”Burn the heretic!”

    It’s not that we single out your god for any special treatment. Although in the blogosphere he ..oops. sorry, He … does seem to turn up more often, does He not?
    We simply feel the same about all of them. The evidence for every single god every mentioned, created, dreamed up sucks, and does not warrant any serious consideration.

    Get the picture? 😉

    Oh, and if you are genuinely looking for intellectual atheists to ”spar with” maybe you ought to start by asking yourself a few questions concerning archaeology and the Pentateuch?
    A great place to find out just how intellectual the average Abrahamic god-believer really is.
    Look forward to ”sparring”. 😉

    1. Thanks for stopping by,

      “I am forever amazed at the god-believers who continually wish to hang a rather unnecessary label on atheists over the is belief/no- belief issue.”
      It’s just a matter of intellectual integrity and ensuring the playing field is fair. And by conceding this does nothing to make atheism any less or more likely to be true. It’s not a big concession.

      As for your little mock dialogue, it depends on what the atheist considers as evidence. So what qualifies as evidence? What makes something knowledge? While we’re at it, let’s make a distinction: Theism does not necessarily entail religious belief as in one of the three Abrahamic monotheisms. One can be a rationally affirmed theist without being a Christian, Jew or Muslim, so appeals to scripture are not pertinent as of right now. Secondly, you claim, “The evidence for every single god every mentioned, created, dreamed up sucks, and does not warrant any serious consideration.” That’s a pretty bold, sweeping assertion. Again, what sort of evidence are you looking for? Because I guarantee God, as in the the three major Abrahamic faiths or defended by the likes Augustine, Aquinas, Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides, St. Anselm and by many other theists all the way up to today, is nothing like Zeus, Osiris, Thor, Ganesha, Quetzalcoatl etc. The fact you think they’re comparable and prone to the same type of “evidence” betrays that you don’t exactly get the picture.

      My background isn’t in biblical exegesis or biblical archaeology, so I’ll leave it to you to ask whether or not I think the Earth was created in six 6 days or questions of that variety.

      1. The question asked regarding what evidence I am looking foralready suggests of an agenda on your part, as if you are marshaling your troops to fend off the usual barrage of non believer arguments with philosophical debate.
        I would say, imagine I am a professional historian ( I ‘m not ) and approach the task of convincing me the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth was a genuine historical person.
        If you can do that, I will personally nominate you for a Nobel price, but without a shred of contemporary evidence I believe your work is already cut out for you.

        The place to start is the Pentateuch.
        As pretty much every genuine biblical schilar and archaeologist , and even most rabbis, consider the Pentateuch Historical Fiction then the question you should be asking is how does this impact Christianity?
        Bearing in mind the character Jesus of Nazareth referred to characters such as Moses and Abraham as real people.

        Address this issue to your own satisfaction first with utmost honesty and integrity then maybe we can discuss other issues – if they even remain relevant.

        1. Ah, Arkenaten, I was wondering when we’d run into each other. Good to meet you, face-to-face-ish.

          And I agree that discussion is best done with cordiality, however, I must ask that you disarm as well. Your initial post came off as very aggressive and did little to help start a peaceful foundation. I suggest a reset.

          On to the rest of your post…
          “I would say, imagine I am a professional historian ( I ‘m not ) and approach the task of convincing me the biblical character, Jesus of Nazareth was a genuine historical person.
          If you can do that, I will personally nominate you for a Nobel price, but without a shred of contemporary evidence I believe your work is already cut out for you.”

          As someone who is trained as a professional historian, I admit, I’m a little boggled. The field of history, in general, already recognizes the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. The current debate is not whether he exists, but how much do we actually know of him. So, your position has already pushed you to the edges of historical positions that aren’t recognized as mainstream. May I ask what brought you to this position? Furthermore, you’re last sentence contained this phrase ‘shred of contemporary evidence’.

          What is contemporary evidence? You’ve asked for the historical proof of Jesus, which, by definition, is located in the past. I’m really confused, can you help me?

          “The place to start is the Pentateuch.
          As pretty much every genuine biblical schilar and archaeologist , and even most rabbis, consider the Pentateuch Historical Fiction then the question you should be asking is how does this impact Christianity?
          Bearing in mind the character Jesus of Nazareth referred to characters such as Moses and Abraham as real people.”

          Again, you’ve established an extreme position that is not supported by mainstream history. The debates are typically about just how much of the Pentateuch is true as opposed to being true at all, especially the timelines. We have scrolls and archaelogical evidence from B.C. dates, so I’m at a lost on how you can say ‘every genuine biblical scholar and archaeologist’ is against the Pentateuch.

          Are you thinking about the supernatural elements (which are in heavy dispute) or the historical elements (which are in light dispute)?

          I simply need more information before I can continue.

        2. Is your initial challenge also not motivated by an agenda? Why am I compelled to play only by your rules? For your stamp of approval? I’m pretty sure nothing I would say would convince you to bestow such a thing unless I said atheism is true, Christianity is false, etc.

          However, as a token of good will: Jesus is well recognized as a historical figure, as Stalwart Sam points out. Even Bart Ehrman, no apologist for Christianity, finds new atheists’ obstinance to not grant this point perplexing?
          Now that’s twice in two different fields (philosophy and history) that your assertions seem to be rejected by critical and well thought atheists and non-theists, who make their living on being well-versed about these matters. How are your kindred spirits incorrect, according to you?

          Secondly, you’re again being vague about the Pentateuch. What about it? Are you referring to the Documentary Hypothesis? Moses and Abraham as composite characters? I fail to see how this draws any real blood against Christianity. Explaining how the Bible came to be has little to no bearing on whether the content of its most important claims are true or false. The truth of Christianity hinges on whether or not both theism and the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection are true. The rest are in-house issues, working out the details as it were among the body of believers. How we interpret the Pentateuch falls into the details. So, even if I were to concede that everything in the Bible about Moses and Abraham did not happen like the Bible says it did, like the Plagues, for example, so what? This is no contradiction that the Bible is divinely inspired as the Word of God. You seem to think theology derived from the Biblical chronological narrative must essentially be derived as literal, spacio-temporal history. But this is such a skeptical, narrow lens, it practically begs the question. I don’t see why Christianity is pidgeon-holed to this framework like you assume.

          You sort to have to buy into the system already for the nitty-gritty of Bible to be relevant. Therefore, the questions about how we interpret certain sections of the Bible is for us believers to determine. We’ve been doing it at least as far back as Augustine, who wrote on whether or not we should take Genesis literally. So I suggest marshaling your troops and replying to what constitutes as evidence, if you’re serious about dealing a damaging blow to the basis of Christian belief.

          As for Jesus’ referral to Moses and Abraham, they’re more details. If you think Jesus referring to them as historical figures if they’re not somehow impugns his divinity, I again don’t think this follows. Jesus spoke in terms that the Jews of his time would understand, and Moses and Abraham were very familiar to those they preached to. Whether or not they were exactly as a Torah recorded them as, again, is irrelevant.

          1. This comment is way too long to bother responding to, and quite frankly the argument has been made and demonstrated.
            Now you are simply clawing at straws.

            The Pentateuch is historical fiction. If you are unable or unwilling to draw the relevant conclusions, so be it.

            Enjoy the delusion.

  6. Yet, it is by studying history that I can confirm that Jesus was a historical person. Second, my religious belief should have no bearing on the objective evidence for the existence of Jesus. It’s either there, or it isn’t, regardless of my personal life. And you may call be Sam or David, though Mr. Mysterious is a cool name too.

    The New Testament has one of the best pedigrees when it comes to ancient documents. Many scrolls and pieces of scrolls (and the like) have been discovered and dated up to the first century. Those same ancient documents, when translated, shared a great deal of language with contemporary and past Bibles. (Though, I will grant you, it isn’t perfect, we’re missing a few words here or there.)

    So, based on the archaeological evidence alone, if one discounts Jesus, then we must also discounts Buddha and Socrates and a lot more, but I’ll leave it there.. Would you prefer links for supporting evidence?

    1. May I ask what qualifications you have as an historian?

      There actually is no supporting evidence, merely hearsay.
      Let me repeat. There is no contemporary evidence for the character, Jesus of Nazareth.

      What ”evidence”were you considering, by the way; Josephus or Tacitus?

  7. Once again, you’ve demanded information that is not relevant to the topic at hand, though I understand what you mean contemporary evidence….

    And…and…I’m quite flabbergasted. How many historical figures did you just ‘delete’ off your records by that definition? You’ve ‘deleted’ Socrates, whom we only know from Plato, who wrote nothing about him until after Socrates’ death. You’ve ‘deleted’ Buddha and Confucius, along with any historical person who didn’t happen to have anything written about them, while they were alive. Are you prepared to make an argument that these three historical persons never existed, along with all of the others?

    Not only that, but I’ve seen your reply to Modus, and you can’t even make a proper counter-argument, ignoring your fellow Atheists to hold onto your position, which increasingly looks poorly reasoned.

    I took so long to reply because my free time abruptly became extremely limited. Now that I’ve finally posted, I see no point in continuing this debate because you will not even hold yourself accountable to the proper respect and procedures necessary for an intellectual debate. Until you’ve demonstrated that you can follow the structure of a debate and can the proper courtesy to the opposing side, I will take my exit.

    1. As someone who is trained as a professional historian,

      I have asked twice now and still not received a reply regarding what qualifications you hold.
      Doctor Richard Carrier, for example, is an historian. Do you have similar qualifications or are you trained in a similar field?

      As far as I am aware any professional historian will know exactly what is meant by the term contemporary evidence and especially where it relates to the character Jesus of Nazareth, which is why it is surprising you would even raise the topic and simply not acknowledge that there is no contemporary evidence for the character Jesus of Nazareth.

      Furthermore, a professional historian would not raise the issue of Socrates in the same breath as Jesus of Nazareth and would know the reason why not as well.

      Also a professional historian would acknowledge that the Pentateuch is historical fiction.

      So I am wondering if perhaps you may have an apologetic agenda rather than an historical one? If I am wrong then I apologise.

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