Defining Atheism

(It looks like I’m doing that thing where I blog more frequently again. I blame the nothing-to-do regions of Austria, personally.)

The atheism versus theism “debate” is not really a debate at all. The sides are not opposing. Claims are not always being made on both sides. Theism is a claim that a certain Being exists. The exact nature of that Being changes from theist to theist. Sometimes the theist hold the Being to the account given in a favoured Book; sometimes the audience allows the theist to play fast a loose with what God is. But atheism is not the counterclaim. Atheism is peer-review.

While many theists like to make any self-proclaimed atheist* defend a positive position, all an atheist really does is review the arguments and the evidence. If, after the evidence and the arguments are brought forward, a person can still claim “I don’t believe the fundamental claim that there is a God” they are an atheist.

* I hate the term “self-proclaimed”. It allows this “you called yourself an atheist, now you must defend the claims I think an atheist should make” argument. But in this context it is right, it is self-reported data in a setting where I discuss defining the word. But that takes me to the question of whether usage is definition when it comes to language, and I can’t be bothered with that now.

Many people have tried to force atheists to defend the position that God does not exist. I offer to do that to any robustly defined God, and I think I can do it with off-the-shelf arguments like the Problem of Suffering or the Hiddenness of God or, one of my favourites, TheoreticalBullshit’s Kalam Cosmological Argument against the Existence of God. I’ve not been offered a robust definition of God yet that doesn’t fall prey, irreconcilably, with some stock argument against theism. But I have come up against a great number of woolly definitions of God that bend, deflate and collapse very readily when given a solid hit, and then claim that is the shape they always were. One of the most common ways to get a self-proclaimed atheist to assert the positive claim is to start throwing references around like an authority.

It was Anthony Flew who pointed out that “a-” means to be without, and that atheism is to be without a belief in a God. Now, I’m not just throwing around references when I talk about Anthony Flew. Read it again, I gave reasoning. However, that it was a recently discovered linguistic fact is being used to nullify the definition “lacking a belief in God”. Instead, when I claim I am an atheist, other people append baggage to me.

Take, for example, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy’s definition of atheism: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God”.  Is there anything wrong with this definition? Well, yes. And the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has not reason to have made this mistake: negation is about accepting one claim because you don’t accept its opposite. The position of “lacking a belief in God” is immediately made the positive claim—the denial of God—by the use of the word “negation”. But that’s clearly wrong, because even if the proper name for a lack of believe in God or gods wasn’t “atheism” (which it is) the Stanford definition outright denies the position can exist.

What about the otherwise oft cited definition from the credibly name Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: “The term ‘atheist’ describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists.” Yes, my brethren, that’s what I thought too. This definition of atheism is atheism as I define it: a lack of belief in God. To “not believe” is not the same as to “believe not”. Not believing is to lack belief. Believing not is to believe an opposing proposition is right.

Why can’t the definition game be over? Do theists find it difficult having a critical audience of peer-review without being allowed to tell us we’re wrong to? Do the theists hope that by telling us we’re wrong they’ll distract us from the fact their wrong (as well**)? Or is it easy to argue linguistics and then go back to your pigeons and tell everyone you humiliated the opposition (which, if I have learned anything from the internet, is akin to victory)?

** if you accept the attempts to make atheism a positive claim then it is possible that both the atheist and the theist are wrong: there is a God and She’s not the God you think She is.

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