Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Atheism: A Belief or Lack of Belief

Atheism, according to the dictionary, [1] is "the theory or belief that God does not exist."

Recently I have been involved in some discussions with people regarding atheism.  On one side of the discussion are Christians and other religious people.  By and large they posit the aforementioned definition of atheism.  On the other side of the discussion, however, are some atheists.  By and large they view their atheism as a lack of belief, rather than a belief.

Admittedly, I am speaking in generalities and have failed to provide a fully nuanced discussion about the subtleties of the discussion.

Regardless, I would like to hear your thoughts.  As a Christian or religious person how would you define atheism?  As an atheist how would you define atheism?


[1] Brian Westley aptly pointed out that not every dictionary provides this particular definition. However, many that I consulted provided this definition or something akin to it; which is why I have used it as a starting point for our discussion.  If you think this definition is incorrect, I would be interested to hear your thoughts or see what dictionary (and definition) you would suggest that I use.

21 comments:

Brian Westley said...

First, you should say "according to *A* dictionary;" there are quite a few out there, and some have better definitions than others.

For example, your dictionary talks about a particular god, instead of the more correct and more general "god or gods" (or goddess or goddesses). In short, your definition is assuming monotheism, and even a particular sort of monotheism, is true. Not exactly a neutral source.

As an atheist, I would simply define "atheist" as "not a theist." Someone who is not a theist is an atheist, just as something that is not symmetrical is asymmetrical. The a- prefix means "not."

Atheists don't believe in any gods; you believe in one, but none of the others (Zeus, Shiva, etc). As the already-old saying goes, when you understand why you don't believe in those other gods, you'll (probably) understand why I don't believe in yours, either.

Imperfect Church said...

thanks for your reply brian.

just a few thoughts in response to what you wrote.

first, i consulted a number of dictionaries. the vast majority of them used the definition that i included. so the definition that was originally provided was a widely available and often noted definition.

second, i appreciate how you define "atheist." it is simple, yet informative.

third, your quotation of the "already-old saying" interests me. do you know who it is attributed to? and, might you be willing to further explain what you mean by it?

Aaron Bonham said...

I would probably be best defined as agnostic, but was raised a Christian and identify with Christians, and portions of the Christian mission, and I still hope that there are certain aspects of Christianity that have some truth to them.

I don't necessarily think it's fair to characterize atheism as a form of religious belief. Since Atheism is in fact a lack of belief in a God or Gods, and many would extend that to the supernatural in general. To say that they have a belief is to suggest that they have extended beyond the observable world in order to draw that conclusion, when in fact they have done the opposite, they have determined that they can not believe in something that can not be observed.

Although, there is an inherent belief here that the ability to observe something (either directly or indirectly) is a means for determining whether something exists. I would call that a belief, but I would also say that it's a belief shared even by theists (for the most part).

Brian Westley said...

The quote is from Stephen F Roberts,
found here.

As for dictionary definitions, a lot of them use bad definitions because they reflect both popular usage of a word and the views of the writers; an ancient Roman dictionary might define an atheist as someone who does not believe the emperor to be "God," lumping both Christians and today's atheists under "atheist."

I don't think subjective definitions that assume a particular worldview help in understanding other worldviews outside of them. A definition of atheist that assumes monotheism to be reality (or even the norm for comparison) simply isn't neutral.

Strictly speaking, someone who only believes in a monotheistic female goddess fits your definition of atheist, since they don't believe in "God", but a goddess. Depending on the ungiven definition of "God," a polytheist could also fit the definition of atheist if they believe in, say, two exactly co-equal gods, if "God" implies one being supreme to all other beings. And so on. It just isn't a very useful definition.

Imperfect Church said...

brian... thanks for the link. also, thanks for the thought-provoking response regarding the working definition of atheism that i provided.

it does seem that based upon the definition that i have included someone who worships a goddess would be considered to be an atheist.

that, coupled with your definition of an atheist being someone who is "not a theist," leaves me with much to ponder.

Imperfect Church said...

aaron... you describe yourself as an "agnostic." for those that might read this blog and your comment- how would you define the term "agnostic"?

my other question pertains to some of what you have said regarding atheism being a lack of belief. you mention that atheists reject the supernatural altogether (at least that is what it seems you are saying)- to that end, i would ask: what about those atheists that posit the existence of aliens, parallel universes, etc.?

would such people not be true atheists?

any thoughts or continued dialogue would be helpful.

Samuel Skinner said...

Agnosticism is a stance on knowledge. What Brian is saying is that he lacks a belief in God, but he doesn't have enough knowledge to completely disprove the concept.

Supernatural refers to things that violate natural laws- things like casulty, thermodynamics, and the like.

Aliens do not violate any such laws and neither do parallel universes. In fact, aliens almost certainly exist.

Alternate universes however are an unfalsifiable idea and thus many rationalists object to the idea. If there was a method generated to see if they exist, than they would become an empirical problem, and thus acceptable to rationalists.

Atheism only applies to the belief in Gods. One can be a supernaturalist and an atheist. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a good example.

However, the belief in the supernatural isn't rational, if only by definition- scientific laws are so called because there are no exceptions. If there is an exception, than the law is wrong.

Imperfect Church said...

samuel... thanks for the clarification.

i'm still mulling things over and trying to make sense of what is being said. as someone who is not an atheist, i want to be sure that i understand (accurately) that point-of-view.

i like you reference to sir arthur conan doyle and would have to agree with you that in him we find a belief in the supernatural. i am not well-read regarding his religious underpinnings. i know that he at one time had been a catholic and that towards the end of his life he acknowledged and wrote about spiritualism. as to his being an atheist, i will have to trust you about such things at this present time.

aaron, however, seems to indicate that atheism is largely based upon the observable, which leads many to reject the supernatural altogether (if i understood what he said correctly).

if that is the case, which it may well be, am i to understand that there are atheists who posit the existence of the supernatural as well as atheists who reject the idea of anything beyond the natural world?

Aaron Bonham said...

Agnostic means that I think we can't know with any certainty whether God (or Gods etc.) exist. Which means, I don't believe we can verify whether such beliefs are true. To that end, I am unable to say that I know God exists, but it does not mean I don't know what I think or believe.

I was saying that many, but not all, atheists will also reject ideas of the supernatural using the same criterion as they do for God. However, there are exceptions who violate my definition of atheism, but in their cases I would say that their beliefs are not derived of atheism, but something else, they just happen to be atheists on the God issue.

Imperfect Church said...

aaron, thanks for responding with some clarifying comments.

i am rereading what you have posted and was curious if you would be willing to answer a few follow-up questions for me:

1. you indicate that you were raised and christian and identify with christians- was it the inability to verify the existence of God that led you to become an agnostic?

2. you mention that even as an agnostic, you identify with christians and elements of the christian mission- what aspects would these be?

3. in your mind, what sets an agnostic apart from both christians (on one hand) and atheists (on the other)? i ask this, because in many cases it seems as if christianity and atheism are presented as polar opposites, with agnosticism lingering somewhere in the middle.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog - I like the pictures of the church spire. A question for you:

I don't collect stamps, but I don't consider myself an "aphilatalist". Likewise, I have no interest in God. Why should I then think of myself as an "atheist"?

Richard Hooker

Imperfect Church said...

richard, thanks for the feedback.

as to your question- it's a good one.

in response, i would ask: who or what would you like to think of yourself as?

i would also ask: as someone who believes in the triune God, what would you refer to me as?

Aaron Bonham said...

(attempted) answers to your questions:

1. I would start to say that it's the inability to verify the truth of religious propositions regarding God, Jesus, heaven, hell, etc. that led me to firmly declare that we can't know for sure.

2. My family and friends are predominantly Christian, and I attend church from time to time, and even view Jesus as an example of how to approach the idea of God. Not the born again salvation part (which I'm not sure we can attribute to Jesus anyway) but the part about relating to other people, caring for the 'least', offering grace to people who wrong you.

3. I suppose it depends on how you define Christians or Atheists. I'm don't refer to myself as an athesit because I maintain hope that perhaps there is something more than material existence. I differentiate myself from Christians because I don't think that many of the Christian propositions are true, I think if there is a God, He would be far more universal and the whole notion of being born again seems kind of arbitrary to me. I guess in a way, it can be thought of as in between faith and atheism, at least in my case.

Anonymous said...

"as someone who believes in the triune God" I would call you a Christian.

As for "who or what would you like to think of yourself as?" From a Christian perspective I would be an apostate. I don't define myself with reference to a particular faith or ideology, but as constantly learning. I am slightly impatient with the anti-religious work of Dawkins (D) and Hitchens (H) because it presents itself as "embattled" and, as a strategy, this is not something I think of as particularly productive. The embattled disposition is endemic to conservatism and Christians sometimes think of themselves as embattled when they understand themselves as "the remnant".

I would say that I am confident in myself and generally at peace - religion and arguments about whether there is or is not a God just don't matter to me. This is partly a matter of self-definition, but I only have the luxury to define myself this way because I am lucky enough to live in a predominantly secular society.

Richard Hooker

Erp said...

I'm inclined to the lack of belief definition but am aware that there are multiple definitions of 'God'. I've met some people whose definition of 'God' is to equate it with the universe, nothing supernatural. I'm not atheistic under that definition of God, but, I doubt many Christians would consider that a legit definition of God. Then there are the panentheists.

I'm also inclined to prefer the adjective, atheistic, to the noun, atheist. My being atheistic is only a small part of what I am not; while for someone who is Christian or Muslim that is often a big part of what they are.

Culturally I'm a Christian (and an Anglican/Episcopalian Christian at that) in that I'm familiar with that religion's literature, rituals, music (e.g., Christmas carols), and history. This makes me somewhat different than someone from a Muslim or Jewish background who lacks a belief in God.

You describe yourself as believing in a triune (three in one) God. What other attributes do you think God has? Do you subscribe to the Nicene Creed (with or without the filoque) or another creed? Does God intervene supernaturally in the world?

RH said...

erp puts it well:

My being atheistic is only a small part of what I am not; while for someone who is Christian or Muslim that is often a big part of what they are.

I think this is key, and one reason why there is an important disanalogy between the atheist and the religious.

Imperfect Church said...

Richard, thanks for your thoughts and the transparency with which you write.

In many ways, your assessment of yourself brings to my mind the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While imprisoned, by Hitler's regime, he penned a poem called "Who Am I?" (which is included in his Letters and Papers from Prison ). The poem talks about his quest for identity. He goes through a gamut of opinions that others have about his identity, ultimately settling on this one- "whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine."

Obviously, that is not the conclusion that you have come to. However, you have rejected some of the possible titles that people have suggested, "atheist" apparently being among them, and have settled upon the term "apostate" which you feel adequately describes who you are.

Moreover, I greatly appreciate the fact that you are always learning. I try to as well. Admittedly, I am a Christian; yet far from everything I read or watch is Christian. As I've already mentioned, I'm going to read Dawkin's The God Delusion . Currently, I'm reading through some of Bart Ehrman's work regarding the historicity of the Christian Scriptures.

Imperfect Church said...

Aaron, I would like to respond to some of the things that you wrote. In doing so, I have copied your posts in bold and will respond with my questions and thoughts in plain font.

1. I would start to say that it's the inability to verify the truth of religious propositions regarding God, Jesus, heaven, hell, etc. that led me to firmly declare that we can't know for sure.

To begin, let me thank you for your transparency.

A follow-up question would be: You said that you have declared that we can not verify or know the truth of some religious propositions regarding a host of things, that being said- Do you still posit that some of these things might exist or be true?

2. My family and friends are predominantly Christian, and I attend church from time to time, and even view Jesus as an example of how to approach the idea of God. Not the born again salvation part (which I'm not sure we can attribute to Jesus anyway) but the part about relating to other people, caring for the 'least', offering grace to people who wrong you.

Aaron, you seem to have a high, and rather favorable view of Jesus. Without delving into the discussion of being born again, I would ask two questions:

1. As someone who cannot verify certain propositions regarding God and Jesus, heaven and hell; why is it important to you that Jesus models how to approach "the idea of God," as you put it?

2. When you attend church, do you feel out-of-place or made to feel unwelcome because you do not believe as others do?

3. I suppose it depends on how you define Christians or Atheists. I'm don't refer to myself as an athesit because I maintain hope that perhaps there is something more than material existence. I differentiate myself from Christians because I don't think that many of the Christian propositions are true, I think if there is a God, He would be far more universal and the whole notion of being born again seems kind of arbitrary to me. I guess in a way, it can be thought of as in between faith and atheism, at least in my case.

Once again, Aaron, thanks for attempting to answer my questions. Admittedly, some of them come across as being "loaded." However, I am asking in an attempt to learn and stimulate ongoing dialogue.

In this last comment, you seem to place yourself in the "faith camp," as some would call it. If I understood you correctly, would you be willing to speak a little more about two things:

1. Why faith matters.

2. What has led you to take such a step/leap of faith.


Thanks! I'm looking forward to your replies.

Imperfect Church said...

erp, great post! thought-provoking and challenging. as i've done with aaron, below you will find some segments of your response (in bold) and my responses in plain font.

Culturally I'm a Christian (and an Anglican/Episcopalian Christian at that) in that I'm familiar with that religion's literature, rituals, music (e.g., Christmas carols), and history. This makes me somewhat different than someone from a Muslim or Jewish background who lacks a belief in God.

You describe yourself as being atheistic (a word that you chose over the term atheist). In this segment you go on to describe yourself culturally as being a Christian.

I am struggling with this assessment for a couple of reasons. First, you assert that Muslims and Jews lack a belief in God. Knowing, to some degree the beliefs of Muslims (in large part thanks to an inner-faith dialogue that I was able to take part in), I am rather certain that there would be many who would disagree with you on that point. The term "Muslim" itself is used to describe someone who adheres to the religion of Islam. Etymologically speaking, it is a word rooted in the notion of "one who submits to God." While this God is different from the ones that Christians believe and have faith in, I find it hard to come to your conclusion that Muslims do not believe in God.

Moreover, as someone who has studied Judaism and her history, it seems impossible to assert that the Jewish people do not believe in God. Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures, which reveal the God that the Jews worship and have relationship. What is more, the God of the Jews is the same God that those of the Christian faith worship. A major difference being that Christians believe Jesus is the Son of the God (which is revealed in the OT) and that it is through a relationship with Jesus that we also enter into relationship with God the Father.

Second, I am intrigued by the idea that you identify yourself as being culturally a Christian. Such a notion, I'll admit, seems strange to me. It seems strange based upon your atheistic underpinnings; but it seems even stranger given your definition and explanation. According to your definition, because I know Jewish history, the Torah, prophets, customs , religious feasts and customs- I could culturally consider myself Jewish. Moreover, because I like the music of Radiohead, know the lyrics, and the history of the band- I could culturally consider myself a Radioheadian.

My intention is not to come across as degrading or antagonistic towards what you have written. Logically, however, I am having trouble making the connections. If you could further explain and possibly help me to better, and more fully, understand the point that you are trying to make- it would be greatly appreciated.

You describe yourself as believing in a triune (three in one) God. What other attributes do you think God has? Do you subscribe to the Nicene Creed (with or without the filoque) or another creed? Does God intervene supernaturally in the world?

Erp, I would be more than happy to answer your question. However, it is very general, in some respects (see below), and before writing a theological treatise I would like to be sure that I am answering the questions that you are really asking.

First, I do believe in the triune God that is revealed in the Christian Scriptures.

Second, you ask about the other attributes that I believe God has. When speaking of attributes do you mean things such as loving, kind, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love; or are you talking about omniscience, omnipotence, etc.?

Third, I come from a Wesleyan/Arminian religious heritage (which means I have a great deal in common theologically with Episcopalians and Anglicans). As such, I do "subscribe," as you put it, to the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds. As to the Nicene Creed, I know and recite the one without the filioque.

Finally, I do believe that God intervenes supernaturally in the world. My thoughts on the subject are akin to those expressed by C.S. Lewis in his book Miracles .

Erp said...

My apologies for not being clearer. By someone of Jewish or Muslim background who lacks a belief in God, I didn't mean someone who was currently a Muslim but rather someone who was raised in a Muslim culture. Jewish is a bit trickier since you don't cease being a Jew when you cease being a believer. Certainly religious Muslims believe in one God (it might be more of a question whether all religious Jews believe in God as orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy in Judaism).


Second, I am intrigued by the idea that you identify yourself as being culturally a Christian. Such a notion, I'll admit, seems strange to me. It seems strange based upon your atheistic underpinnings; but it seems even stranger given your definition and explanation. According to your definition, because I know Jewish history, the Torah, prophets, customs , religious feasts and customs- I could culturally consider myself Jewish. Moreover, because I like the music of Radiohead, know the lyrics, and the history of the band- I could culturally consider myself a Radioheadian.


It is more than a matter of knowing about it but of being immersed in it. You know about Judaism but unless you grew up learning Jewish folklore, attending High Holy Day services, celebrating Passover (in however a half hearted manner your family might have done so) or later immersed yourself in it, you aren't culturally Jewish. The same for Islam. You may know about it but unless you lived within it even though not agreeing with all the beliefs you aren't culturally Muslim.

I'm culturally Christian (Anglican/Episcopalian variety) because I grew up within a community that accepted Christianity as the norm. The seasons of Advent, Lent, Christmas, and Easter were part of my growing up. I was told the Bible stories as a kid. I can recognize most allusions to Christian motifs. My religious relatives tend to be Christians. For that matter I sometimes attend liberal Christian church services (I like the hymns and the minister often has wide ranging discussions about the sermon afterwards). I'm not religiously Christian because I don't accept the theology, but, I can pass as a Christian (and in the US many people probably assume I am one). I suspect 'cultural Christian' is more understood in Britain where a fair number of people don't accept the theology but like and accept the trappings (e.g., marriage, harvest festival, church music, etc).

The are different Christian cultures (think American Baptist versus American Quaker versus Russian Orthodox versus Coptic). In your case Wesleyan/Arminian background does make your culture similar to mine (especially since the Episcopalians include a lot of variation within their own tradition). You and I both know what the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds are (or for that matter the Athanasian creed). You and I both know the significance of Easter and Christmas (even if, in my case, I don't believe in it). I could mention the Good Samaritan or journey to Damascus and you would know the story behind the allusion.

Drakim said...

Well, atheism is just theism with an "a" in front, which in Latin means "not" or "without".

Atheism is simply when you are not a theist. Atheism literally means not-theism.

It's no different from say, not-communist or not-vegetarian.