Apologist Joel Furches explores various definitions of “atheism” and the consequent impact of these
The definition of atheism
Dictionary dot com defines an atheist as “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings”. On the face of it, this seems relatively uncontroversial. However, according to atheists dot org: “Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system.” On the face of this definition, it appears to be a bit of semantic wrangling. What distinguishes “disbelief” from “rejection of an assertion”?
In his famous 1927 talk and essay, Why I am Not a Christian, atheist icon Bertrand Russell defines “Christian” as someone who both believes in God and believes that Jesus was an exceptional person. He follows this definition by giving reasons why he does not believe in the existence of God, immortality or the exceptional nature of Jesus. Classical atheists such as Russell did not seem to identify with this current notion of atheism as a “lack of belief” and argued a sort of active disbelief.
Christian philosopher Dr William Lane Craig is famous for his many formal debates on the subject of religion. On a simple perusal of his debate list, at least seven of his debates were specifically titled ‘Does God Exist?’ with many variations besides, things like ‘Is God a Delusion’, ‘Does the Christian God Exist’ or ‘Is God Real?’. Dr. Craig’s atheist opponents in each of these debates argue that God does not exist, is a delusion and is not real. As adamantly as modern atheists tend to be on the point that atheism is just a lack of belief versus active disbelief, the kinds of debates one sees in the public forum on the topic still seem to argue a positive case for the non-existence of God.
Why the redefinition?
Around the turn of the century, a new breed of atheism emerged, and proved itself to be distinctive from the classic atheism of Bertrand Russell. This new kind of atheism had quite a few novel features, and the redefinition of the word “Atheism” was among these. There were two specific reasons that these “New Atheists” made modifications to this definition. The first of these was to shift the burden of proof firmly onto the shoulders of the theists.
This was a tactical move that made the act of debating religion quite a bit less strenuous for the atheist. Unlike Bertrand Russell or David Hume, a modern atheist would not have to lay out a case for why atheism was right, but was tasked with the much less strenuous job of saying that the arguments for God were insufficient. The theist could only achieve victory if their argument for God imparted beliefs about God to the atheist.
However, a mere “I don’t find that convincing” was a response sufficient to defeat the labours of the theist. It was not at all uncommon to find atheists repeating mantras such as “there is no evidence for God”, wherein “evidence” is defined as “that which I find convincing”. Arguments such as, “if God were real, he would know what it took to convince me” became very common. While convenient, this was not a consistent feature of New Atheists, as suggested by the William Lane Craig debate titles above.
The second reason the definition of atheism shifted was because the definition of “belief” was given a similar overhaul. Classically, “belief” simply referred to a proposition someone held to be true or highly probable. Certainly a person could hold religious beliefs, such as “God exists”, but one could equally hold practical beliefs, such as “Ford cars are better than Honda cars” or “the moon landing was a historical event, and not a hoax”.
In the brave new world of the New Atheists, the word “believe” became a purely religious term, meaning something like, “I blindly accept the idea without evidence”. Under this new definition, to say that atheism was a belief would be nonsensical, given that atheism altogether rejected the idea of belief.
However, this redefinition of the word belief isn’t particularly helpful, given that the broader population of the world still understands the word belief in the classical sense of “hold to be true”. It would also be somewhat unrealistic for a person – atheist or not – to hold to the idea that he or she has no beliefs at all.
Curiously, the word “believe” has generally been used in the past to distinguish something one holds to be true with something less than total certainty. Contrast “I believe she is angry at me” with “I know she is angry with me”, and one can see that the first conveys a bit less certainty than the second. However, in the parlance of the modern atheist, “belief” is taken as a sort of total certainty without evidence to support it.
The truth about human religiosity
Andy Rooney is quoted as saying: “Everyone starts out being an atheist. No one is born with belief in anything.” The idea Rooney describes in this statement is frequently used to distinguish the notion of “lacking belief”. In this case, the individual in question, the baby, has no awareness of even the notion of God. With no idea what is even meant by “God”, the baby has no ability to form any sort of opinion related to this idea.
Imagine being asked if you believe in the existence of a faddermascooch. Since you have no definition to attach to this word, you can form no opinions or conclusions on the matter. If one is comparing an infant to an atheist, this is essentially the argument being made: the word “God” holds no meaning to the infant or the atheist, and so they can neither be said to believe or disbelieve.
Rooney concludes his quote by saying that people only begin to believe in God when they are indoctrinated into those beliefs by religious people. An argument can be made on the evidence, however, that spiritualistic beliefs are fundamental to human nature, whereas naturalistic beliefs (the belief that matter and energy are the only things that exist) are emerging ideas which are somewhat novel traits of a Western culture.
In her 2004 article, titled Are Children ‘Intuitive Theists’, Psychologist Deborah Kelemen draws together a broad spectrum of research, which suggests that from their very infancy, children hold the assumption that the world around them was created, exists for a purpose, and that things in the natural world have intentional design.
Kelemen says: “…although children are not entirely indiscriminate, they do indeed evidence a general bias to treat objects and behaviours as existing for a purpose (Kelemen, 1999b, 1999c, 2003; but see Keil, 1992) and are also broadly inclined to view natural phenomena as intentionally created, albeit by a nonhuman agent” (Evans, 2000b, 2001; Gelman & Kremer, 1991).
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In a 2011 study from Oxford, titled Humans ‘Predisposed’ to Believe in Gods and the Afterlife, it was found that across a wide variety of cultures, people are not only instinctively prone to a belief in gods, but also in a dualistic nature – that humans are both physical and non-physical in nature:
“The researchers point out that the project was not setting out to prove the existence of god or otherwise, but sought to find out whether concepts such as gods and an afterlife appear to be entirely taught or basic expressions of human nature.”
The study found that, no matter the culture, human instincts tended to be the same when it came to concepts of God and the afterlife. Like Kelemen’s research, this study looked at the fundamental assumptions of young children:
“Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box in which she could not see. Children aged 3 believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of 4, children start to understand that their mothers are not all-seeing and all knowing. However, children may continue to believe in all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agents, such as a god or gods.”
Adults were also examined to see what kinds of instinctual beliefs they might maintain:
“Experiments involving adults…suggest that people across many different cultures instinctively believe that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after-death.”
This research has extended, believe it or not, to atheist sections of the population, as well. In a 2011 study titled Anger Toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer, self-professed atheists were prompted with images and words related to God. In a statistically significant number of those tested, these images and words triggered feelings of anger. Anger not toward religion or the religious, but toward God.
Moreover, studies have suggested that even scientists and the highly rational, if forced to answer “why” questions quickly, will tend to give answers which suggest intentionality and design in nature, rather than mechanical processes.
“…it’s odd that the word ‘Atheist’ even exists! I don’t play golf. Is there a word for ‘non-golf-players?’ Do non-golf-players gather and strategise? Do non-skiers have a word? And come together, and talk about the fact that they don’t ski? I can’t do that. I can’t gather ‘round and talk about why everyone in the room doesn’t believe in God.”
However, this research may suggest why the term “atheist” is necessary. According to the project co-director professor Roger Trigg: “This project suggests that religion is not just something for a peculiar few to do on Sundays instead of playing golf. We have gathered a body of evidence that suggests that religion is a common fact of human nature across different societies. This suggests that attempts to suppress religion are likely to be short-lived as human thought seems to be rooted to religious concepts, such as the existence of supernatural agents or gods, and the possibility of an afterlife or pre-life.”
Atheist researchers Ara Norenzayan and Will M Gervais have been approaching the problem from an entirely different angle since 2012 when they began publishing their research on The Origins of Religious Disbelief, which asks the question, “What is religious disbelief and how does it arise?” These researchers recognize as a given that religious belief is common to human nature, and the more relevant question is “how do people come to disbelief?”
The conclusions of these researchers have much more to say about the form and nature of atheism than the tactical manoeuvres of New Atheism. The researchers suggest that atheism is arrived at by way of four possible pathways:
- 1. “Mind-blind” atheism is a form of atheism wherein religious notions do not make coherent sense to the person. The person is an atheist because he or she does not understand religious concepts. This is the kind of atheism which appears to be suggested in the “lacktheism” of the current definition.
- 2. “Apatheism” is a kind of atheism which does not necessarily disbelieve so much as does not care about the issue. This kind of person does not engage with religious concepts at all because they have no interest or concern with such concepts. In modern parlance, these would qualify as “religious nones”, meaning those who do not express any position on religion whatsoever, either for or against.
- 3. “Incredulous atheism” describes people who find religion to be unbelievable. Like notions of Santa Claus, pixies, or boogeymen, the idea of a God seems silly or childish, and so they cannot bring themselves to believe.
- 4. Finally, “Analytical Atheism” is a kind which, upon considering the evidence, finds specific reasons why atheism is more likely true than theism, and rejects belief on the power of the evidence.
A distinction, then, needs to be made between psychological atheism and propositional atheism. The first is a report on one’s personal thinking and disposition as regards matters of gods and religion. The second is a statement on the reality or truth about God and religion.
On the force of the research cited above, it seems that there are a number of modes and pathways to atheism such that self-reported atheism may need to be nuanced as to the person’s approach to the subject of religion: “I don’t understand it,” “I don’t care about it,” “I find it unbelievable,” or “I have reasons for not believing”. If all of these qualify as atheism, perhaps the best definition for atheism would be something like: “I am not religious and I don’t care to be.”
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.