This is my first post on the subject of atheism and theism. The first thing I want to get out of the way is to define the word atheism.

Once and for all, atheism, is, at minimum, the lack of belief in the existence of any deities or gods. It does not require that one believe that no god(s) exist, or that one assert certainty that no god(s) exist, despite many theists (usually evangelical Christians) assertions to the contrary. A few atheists will assert a belief in the non-existence of any god(s), or assert it with certainty, but they are few and very far between. Some theologians or apologetics teachers try to make this kind of argument look more clever. From Hank Hanegraaff:

Atheism positively affirms that there is no God. But can the atheist be certain of this claim? You see, to know that a transcendent God does not exist would require a perfect knowledge of all things (omniscience). To attain this knowledge you would have to have simultaneous access to all parts of the universe (omnipresence). Therefore, as an atheist, to be certain of this claim you would have to possess Godlike characteristics. Obviously, mankind’s limited nature precludes these special abilities. The atheist’s dogmatic claim is therefore clearly unjustifiable. The atheist is attempting to prove a universal negative. In terms of logic this is called a logical fallacy

Um, nice try, Hank. Atheism means this: a = without; theism = belief in God(s). Let’s consult the dictionary. Like many other words, atheism has more than one meaning.

  1. the doctrine or belief that there is no god
  2. disbelief  in the existence of a supreme being or beings (emphasis mine)

You see, for Hanegraaff’s assertion to carry any weight, the first definition would have to be the only definition of atheism. It would have to be true of all atheists. Many theists still insist on definition #1 applying universally to all atheists even after it has been pointed out that most atheist don’t frame their stance like that. Most atheists, if presented with compelling, independently verifiable evidence, would reevaluate their skepticism.

Atheism is the opposite of theism. The divide between theism and atheism is a question of what one believes,  not what one claims to know.  The question of what one claims to know is a question of whether one is gnostic (claiming knowledge) or agnostic (disclaiming any knowledge or certainty). An atheist who states he isn’t absolutely certain is an agnostic atheist. The small number of atheists who claim certainty are gnostic atheists. One can also be an agnostic theist (believing in a deity but not claiming any certainty), or a gnostic theist (claiming that a deity exists and that they are sure of it).

It is apparent to me that with some theists, particularly some evangelical Christians (not saying all), that there’s a vested interest on their part for the first definition of atheism described above apply universally to all atheists. They need it to be true so that they can more easily make atheism look unjustifiable. If they can’t rely on definition number one being the only definition, then they have a much harder time trying to shift the burden of proof on those who are skeptical.

The assumption is that belief in God is the default position, that God’s existence is self-evident, and therefore the onus is upon those who question that to prove their claims. This is probably because most people believe in some sort of deity, and in America, most believe in the Christian God. But Bertrand Russell put it so well a long time ago when he said

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time

To hold a doctrine that no god(s) exist is sufficient to be an atheist, but is not necessary. All atheist lack belief  in God(s). Not all assert that none of them exist. Those who don’t believe in Allah, or Vishnu, or Thor, do you feel the need to disprove the existence of those gods? If not, why do you insist the burden is on us to disprove yours?

Advertisements