How should we define the concept “atheism”?
One source for defining atheism can be found at The Secular Web. On this page, Michael Martin is approvingly quoted in his definition of atheism:
“most atheists…would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important. Denying something means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular concept. To be without a belief in God merely means that the term “god” has no importance, or possibly no meaning, to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief.”
To say “atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief” is a very careful and strategic definition. But nevertheless, it still may be an entirely accurate definition for how most people understand what it means to be an atheist.
This definition has a number of advantages:
For one, it implicitly places the burden of proof on the theist, as from the vantage point of atheism, rationally compelling evidence in favor of theism is lacking.
Second, it means that the a-theist has no position which can be argued against. Instead of a positive affirmation of “here is what I believe” we are left with “I have an absence of belief.”
Given this definition, the defense of atheism follows two primary lines of reasoning:
- Your arguments in favor of theism or a certain religion are insufficient to convince me.
- You cannot argue against my position because I don’t have one.
For atheists who strictly and consistently hold to this narrow definition of atheism, it really limits the conversation. When one person doesn’t have a belief on the subject, it makes a two-way exchange of ideas much more difficult. At the same time, an interesting conversation still remains about whether or not Christianity is true. You may find our resources on the cosmological, teleological, or moral arguments for the existence of God, or evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, to be a great next step.
However, I find that many atheists not only reject the existence of God, but they also strongly affirm that all that exists is the natural world. There’s matter, energy, and space-time, and that’s it. This positive belief, in turn, is also often paired with the affirmation that science is either a very significant or the primary means of gaining a correct understanding of our universe.
So, in an effort to clarify my terms, to the degree that these three statements:
- I lack belief in God or gods,
- I affirm that the natural world of matter and energy is all that exists, and
- I strongly value science as a means of knowing what is real,
represent a broadly atheistic understanding of the world, I believe my blog fairly discusses atheism and its implications.
For the atheists who deny, say, statement #2 or #3, I respect that you have a different understanding of atheism than I do. Given the incredible diversity of belief in the modern world, defining a term like “atheism” is a challenging and difficult task. I’d love to hear from you and understand what you believe to be ultimately true.
To further the conversation, I’ve written a series of articles on atheism. I hope you enjoy them.