Atheism: A Lack of Belief (Revisited)

In the past, I have written quite extensively on the issue regarding proper definitions of atheism and what it means to provide sufficient justification for holding certain claims to knowledge. In respect to The Problem With Defining Atheism as the “Absence of Belief,” and even The Village School of Atheism, there is an interesting aspect of certain literature in defining atheism as a “lack of belief in God,” and not so much an affirmative in its own right. As I have often quoted before, George H. Smith has once written:

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. [1]

Smith even later throughout the book writes that “[t]he atheist is not obligated to answer arbitrary assertions, unproven assumptions and sloppy generalizations concerning the nature and consequences of the atheistic position. Atheism is the absence of belief in a god, nothing more” [2]. To give another example, Annie Besant in her short essay Why I Don’t Believe In God has written that “the Atheist makes no general denial of the existence of God” [3].

Thus, the theist is presented with this form of atheism that suggests it is no affirmative position in respect to the proposition, “God does not exist”, but is rather a “null hypothesis”, or default position, until a God such as the God of theism is defined – to which then, the idea is considered incoherent or unintelligible. However, this definition of atheism according to such a form, carries with it a few problems in terms of trying to escape a justification.

Denials Presuppose Knowledge 

For those that are often familiar with my writing, presuppose is a word I rather like for several reasons. As we walk through my exposition of atheism understood in this incorrect fashion, I will explain why.

First, I have written elsewhere that atheism according to this definition presupposes theism. Otherwise stated, atheism is the supposed default position while theism attempts to challenge that status quo. However, as it seems to me, 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.

Secondly, that particular definition would apply not simply to human beings with a cognitive nature, but even to inanimate objects that possess no affirmative knowledge on the subject of God’s existence. So, for example, beings like that of chairs, kittens, staplers and even infants are all considered atheists since they too contain no intelligibly cognitive position on this subject. However, this would go on to take some form of psychological subjectivity, or ignorance, to be blunt. I do not think atheists want to be made inseparable with ignorance if they are suggesting “that we are all born atheists” – since, babies are ignorant regarding the existence of God, not atheistic.

However, another particular problem arises once the atheist begins to deny the reasons offered by the theist in respect to God’s existence. According to Smith’s thesis in his book, he is suggesting that “the critique of theism is the defense of atheism” (Smith, 17). However, since the atheist is offering what are known as “counter-factuals” in respect to the theist’s arguments, and maybe even God’s existence in general, he is offering reason’s for the position that he holds – namely, that God does not exist.

The issue comes down to this: given a wide range of phenomenon (contingent beings, beauty, morality, consciousness, etc.), the atheist’s position is that “God” is either (1) not an adequate explanation of those phenomenon or (2) not a coherent explanation of those phenomenon. However, we must ask then, if not God, then what is an (1) adequate or (2) coherent explanation of those phenomenon?

Covering a Series of Phenomenon

The interesting thing is that I am perfectly willing to let the atheist say he does not know of an (1) adequate or (2) coherent explanation of those given phenomenon; that the issue is simply a mystery. However, it is inescapable that the atheist must concede to the fact that those phenomenon still require an explanation. Even more so, that those phenomenon as a collectively taken set cannot contain in themselves the explanation for their own existence – in other words, providing a naturalistic explanation of natural phenomenon begs the question. The implications of this simply suggest that there are wrong ways to go about explaining those phenomenon.

Respectively, the God of natural theology is the theist’s explanation of those phenomenon. Not that he defined that God into existence to make things easier, or that with a Christians framework he sort of naturalized God without explicitly calling him “Yahweh”. No, the theist is simply saying that in light of the range of phenomenon that we see before us (contingent beings, consciousness, beauty, morality, reality, etc.), this is the kind of being that would exist: a First Cause, Designer, Moral Law Giver, etc. Thence, to commence with Thomas Aquinas’s famous conclusion once we understand that there is a “First Cause”, a “Designer” and so forth: “this all men speak of as God.”



  • George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Promotheus Books: 1979) p. 7
  • Smith, 7
  • Quoted from Gordon Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism (Promotheus Books: 1985) p. 31

3 responses to “Atheism: A Lack of Belief (Revisited)

  1. This is a very lucid response, I’d say.
    I find it common that self-proclaimed atheists will insist on this definition, presumably to avoid any burden of proof, while simultaneously making statements that presume naturalism or physicalism.

    I don’t think one needs to be a theist to find this an anti-intellectual approach.

  2. One can easily not believe in something (I’m using the to accept a proposition as true definition of belief) on the basis of no evidence or there are more plausible explanations (to them at least).

    Most atheists, at least in my experience, are agnostic atheists or “tea pot” atheists if you will, although the latter has it’s issues. Not accepting a proposition as true due to a lack of evidence or whatever reason does not necessarily presuppose any extensive knowledge in other explanations or theism in particular. It is not anti-intellectual to choose to not believe in something that is without evidence (whatever those standards may be).

  3. Pingback: Christian Worldview Series #3: Atheism | The Peripatetic Blog·

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