Understanding Atheism

Though I am not one, I would agree that atheism is a heavily misunderstood position (and I do apologize if you find that to be an understatement) in some apologetics-oriented discussions. It is best however when discussing with unbelievers (particularly atheists) to not let us first assume some definition of atheism and suppose that it is a universal proposition held by all atheists. Though rightfully there is in fact a definition to atheism, some secularists have tried to distract us from what the proper or tangible definition of atheism really is.

For example, according to Richard Dawkins’s moderately recent and infamous book, “The God Delusion” (2006), we are offered mere probabilities regarding beliefs about God:

  • Strong theist: 100 per cent probability of God.
  • Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist.
  • Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning more towards theism.
  • Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic.
  • Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning more towards atheism.
  • Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist.
  • Strong atheist. (see p. 73 of ‘God Delusion’; Mariner Books)

According to Dawkins’s reasoning, “…the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis like any other. Even if hard to practice, it belongs in the same TAP (or Temporary Agnostic in Practice)… as the controversies over the Permian and Cretaceous extinctions. God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice” (Ibid. 72-73).

Of course, with this reasoning considered, Dawkins seems to have the proposition “God exists” as a kind of open question, where beliefs about that proposition are merely tips of the scale. Strong theism (100%), theism (about 75%; more than 50 less than 100), agnosticism (50%), agnostic atheist (about 25%), strong atheism (100% against the proposition).

I have met a few atheists who not only subscribe to “The Dawkins Scale”, but also consider themselves to be a mixture of beliefs. For instance, one skeptic I shall never forget once told me that he doesn’t (or couldn’t) know if God existed, but he does not believe that God does exist. As such, he may agree to the following statement:

“I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” (Ibid. 73)

Other examples of obscure definitions of atheism could be seen with the magician Penn Jillette and his new book, “God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales“ (2011) which are echoed with this tradition of equating atheism to some kind of ‘agnostic ignorance’. He writes:

One attack I’ve heard theists make against atheists is, “So you atheists think you know everything? You think science can figure out everything? There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt…” That quote is from my good friend Mr. Straw Man, but it’s an idea we hear all the time: atheists are arrogant and don’t think they need god, because they’ve got it all figured out. I think people who make that accusation are confusing style with content. I’m a loud, aggressive, strident, outspoken atheist, and I’m an asshole – but what I’m claiming is not in any way arrogant. It couldn’t be more humble. It’s just “I don’t know.” (xvi, cp. 2011; Simon and Schuster Publishing)

It may be shocking to see that I actually completely agree with Penn here. Humility in the answer “I don’t know” is perhaps the best and closest position to take in regards to a negative of the proposition “God exists” (however, it should be noted of course that “I don’t know” is not a negative, but it still functions as not an affirmative, so excuse my semantics for now). My only problem here is that if Penn Jillette is functioning off of this sort of practice to life’s metaphysical questions then he shouldn’t subscribe himself to atheism. His description here is at best a solid agnosticism.


II. Proper Descriptions of Atheism

George Smith in his atheological volume “Atheism: The Case Against God” (1979) gives a sympathetic discussion to how to properly understand atheism. He writes:

The prefix “a” means “without,” so the term “a-theism” literally means “without theism”, or without belief in god or gods. Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist… Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief (p. 7, cp. 1979; Promotheus Books).

Just shortly hereafter, Smith quotes Austrian-philosopher Paul Edwards in his “Some Notes on Anthropomorphic Theology”, where he has often been quoted before (see “Theology and the Body” by Robert Hannaford; cp. 1999, pg. 45). Paul writes:

First, there is the familiar sense in which a person is an atheist if he maintains that there is no God, where this is taken to mean that “God exists” expresses a false proposition. Secondly, there is also a broader sense in which a person is an atheist if he rejects belief in God, regardless of whether his rejection is based on the view that belief in God is false. (S. Hook, ed., Religious Experience and Truth, cp. 1962 – also, G. Smith on pg. 7-8)

And lastly, I highly agree with Smith when he finishes:

“Theism” and “Atheism” are descriptive terms: they specify the presence or absence of a belief in god. If a person is designated as a theist, this tells us that he believes in a god, not why he believes. If a person is designated as an atheist, this tells us that he does not believe in a god, not why he does not believe. (Ibid. 8)


2 responses to “Understanding Atheism

  1. Hello! How do you do? SoundEagle would like to congratulate you on making clear distinctions between, and definitions for, Atheist and Theist, though you might want to consider defining Agnostic, Anti-theist, Deist and Religious.

    It is very unfortunate that too often even those who claim to believe in and adopt the scientific method still cherrypick the data and refuse to examine contrary evidences. They fail to understand and address many valid points, perspectives, domains and dimensions, and hence it is impossible for them to evaluate and change their standpoints, approaches and behaviours. You might have heard of this quote:

    For those who do believe, no proof is necessary.
    For those who don’t, no proof is possible.

    All in all, it is important for, and also courageous and admirable of, us to confront these sensitive and polarising issues amidst social prejudice, ignorance and bigotry, to have lived an examined life, and to be inquisitive and open-minded. Perhaps some of us could take comfort in the fact that in recent years, the Catholic Church has had to accept evolution, though on a theistic basis.

    For one of the most recent takes on atheism, visit http://www.thesixwaysofatheism.com.

    • Hello SoundEagle, and thank you for your comment.

      My post was in response to the misunderstood definition of atheism, not necessarily in expositing the other views available (agnosticism, deism, etc.). Often atheism is concentrated of its true and historical definition; here I was addressing the proper case.

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