The Problem With Defining Atheism as the “Absence of Belief”

In most apologetics and philosophical discussions regarding the nature of worldviews, Atheism has often wrongly been defined by those who wish to show that Theism is inadequate on the grounds of establishing its own burden of proof. One skeptic 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 (G. Smith, ‘Atheism: The Case Against God’; p. 7, cp. 1979; Promotheus Books).

The problem with this definition (see his chapter on Atheism) is that Atheism presupposes Theism. In other words, atheism is the default position while theism attempts to challenge the status quo. However, this is most notably not the case. The status quo does not presume “an absence of belief in god(s)” while theism challenges that quo.

If we have the proposition “God does exist”, we must consider whether or not it is true, and if it is true, it must also be capable of being false (Wittgenstein). For instance, it may be the case that the universe was created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of millions of years built into our memories and thus we wouldn’t recognize it. However, how might we falsify that claim?

The problem with claims such as the memory and age example is that they cannot be falsified, so we have no reason to consider them. It is not the case that they are presumably thence false, but that we can employ all the bearing of possibility we like, but if it cannot be falsified, then it is essentially meaningless to consider it.

So then, the issue with the proposition “God does exist” is that one who takes the affirmative position (assuming that we are taking the correct definition of ‘God’) is known as a theist, while one who takes the negative position is known as an atheist. If the atheist (or say, a skeptic of the proposition before us) were to say that he cannot be expected to disprove the existence of God, then he is mistaken on that accusation.

For, considering a given proposition (e.g. “God exists”) to be false means that some counter-factual of that proposition exists against the truth hood of that proposition. These counter-factuals could take the forms of reduction ad absurdum arguments (assuming the idea of God as true, while using some other claim [particularly His attributes] to serve as a contradictory to God’s existence), the problem of evil, or what have you.

What might a reductio argument against the existence of God look like? The famous example of the rock God could/could not create. Can God create a rock so big that He cannot lift it? If He cannot lift it, then He is not all powerful. If He cannot create it, then He is still not all powerful! You can see here in this argument the opponent assumes that God exists, but is using another claim (i.e. God’s omnipotence) to serve as a contradictory.

The problem of course with that argument, is that it is inconsiderate of a few things. Particularly, (i) God’s infinite nature and (ii) God’s bounding by logical necessity. In other words, God cannot create more than what is already infinite (i.e., Himself).

Back to our discussion then, that the proposition “God does exist” can be taken on a few positions as true (traditional theism), false (atheism), or personal ignorance of the matter (traditional agnosticism; of course, there are references to agnosticism, but we will stick to the traditional definition for sake of demonstration). To suggest that atheism then is the default position, as we often hear that “we are all skeptics at birth”, is not a proper definition of skepticism that I think the skeptic wishes to employ.

According to that definition, where skepticism is most noticed as early as the stages of infancy, then you are not talking about skepticism, but simply ignorance. Babies are not skeptics in regards to the proposition of God’s existence, and they should not be used to substantiate the position of more physically mature skeptics/atheists.


  • Can Theism be Falsified?

As stated before, Theism could be falsified if one could show the concept of God to be incoherent (an example would be if the omniattributes were not able to be held together in a way that was not contradictory). Another possible falsification as said before is the problem of evil, particularly the logical (e.g. Epicurean Paradox).

I do not think that these challenges achieve a level of falsification that would show theism as logically incoherent or what have you, but if they were shown to be true problems for theism, this would be a form of falsification. Also, Christianity could be falsified by showing that the resurrection of Jesus did not happen, Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14.  Again, I think the supporting evidence defeats this challenge, but the possibility of falsification does exist.


5 responses to “The Problem With Defining Atheism as the “Absence of Belief”

  1. As one who has been very frustrated by demands that theists shoulder all burden of proof on anything related to this topic, thank you for going through this.
    I particularly loved the contrasting skepticism with ignorance. That often gets overlooked.

    • ” frustrated by demands that theists shoulder all burden of proof on anything related to this topic”

      If you are making a claim, why shouldn’t you shoulder the burden of proof?

      • That isn’t particularly the position we’re suggesting. Any claim to knowledge requires some form of justification (i.e. reasons for holding that belief). As such, a given proposition like that of “God does exist” can be taken on from a few different perspectives; affirmatively (requires support), negatively (requires support), and then sort of agnostically (doubt doesn’t particularly require reasons for support since we are only addressing ignorance on the matter).

        In other words, Theists are not the only ones making a claim. Since however, I would agree with you that those who further a claim (especially in science) should be expected to meet a criteria of proof, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude atheism.

      • “should be expected to meet a criteria of proof, but that doesn’t necessarily exclude atheism.”

        It would depend on the specific atheist and what that specific atheist believes.

        I, for example, disbelieve the claims of the believers. That isn’t a claim in itself, that’s a response to other claims.

        I might make a statement about my belief in certain supernatural things, but I would never claim to have absolute knowledge of such, and only hold my opinions on the matter.

  2. I do happen to agree with you, and the source I cited in my post (George Smith) also points this issue out in his book. Particularly, that atheism doesn’t necessarily entail some worldview by default (nihilism, existentialism, etc.). However, atheism is still a claim to knowledge that requires justification.

    However, there is also a problem with defining atheism as “the denial of a claim”, because atheism in and of itself is not a counter-factual to theism. It offers counter-factuals to certain theistic claims (that God intervenes in human affairs, that God exists beyond the faculties of nature, etc.). In other words, atheism can provide reasons as to why theism is false, but as it stands, atheism cannot be substantiated with that definition. Which in turn, if theism is rebutted by the atheist, does not even qualify the atheist as an atheist! He has just merely rebutted theism.

    You might preform the discourse of an atheist by attacking theism, but at bottom up, you would have to be an agnostic in regards to the proposition, “God does exist.”

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