What If Atheism Really Is Just A “Lack of Belief in God”?

Many atheists claim that the proper definition of atheism is, as Austin Cline of the Atheism channel on About.com states, “simply the absence of belief in gods.”

But if atheism is a lack of belief and not a positive affirmation of what is real, good, and true, then the atheist immediately runs into serious problems.

This post is divided into two sections:

  1. Prominent atheists do define their worldview as “lacking belief in God” and
  2. The troubling problems this definition creates for the atheist, as defined.

Part One: How Many Atheists Define Atheism

At About.com, Austin Cline elaborates on his definition of atheism (emphasis added):

Atheists are simply those who do not accept the truth of this claim [“that at least one of some sort of being they call a god exists”] — they may deny it out right, they may find it too vague or incomprehensible to evaluate properly, they may be waiting to hear support for the claim, or they may simply not have heard about it yet. This is a broad and diverse category and there is no particular counter-claim made by all atheists. As someone who doesn’t agree with the theist, the atheist doesn’t have any particular position, claim, or belief to defend.

Infidels.org, an online hub for internet atheists, acknowledges that “atheism” can mean either “disbelief in God” (strong atheism) or “lack of belief in God” (weak atheism). However, the definitions page goes on to state, “It turns out that the word atheism means much less than I had thought. It is merely the lack of theism.” Michael Martin, a professor emeritus at Boston University, is positively cited, as follows (emphasis mine):

The average theologian (there are exceptions, of course) uses “atheist” to mean a person who denies the existence of a God. Even an atheist would agree that some atheists (a small minority) would fit this definition. However, most atheists would stongly dispute the adequacy of this definition. Rather, they would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distiniction 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.

The page also cites many atheists who agree with this view, including Dan Barker, Antony Flew (who became a deist), and others.

Even more emphatically, there’s a website called “lackofbelief.com.” As it says (emphasis added):

The default atheist position, which is held by the great majority of the atheist community, is that atheism is a “lack of belief.”

So now we have a clear definition of “atheism”: a “lack of belief” that god exists. From About.com to Infidels.org, many atheists are agreed: they affirm no position whatsoever as part of their atheism. The only defining characteristic of “atheism” is a lack of belief in theism. Furthermore, according to at least two sources, this narrow definition (“weak atheism”) is the primary understanding of what “atheism” means among contemporary atheists.

The Problems with Atheism:

For the following discussion, given the above definition, we can use the word “atheism” and the phrase “lack of belief in gods” interchangeably.

But then a variety of problems immediately follow:

This Atheism Offers No Support For Any Other Beliefs

Since atheism affirms nothing about the world, it cannot provide evidential or rational support for any other beliefs. All that atheism affirms is “lack of belief in gods.” But an absence of belief in gods is not a sufficient foundation for building any further conclusions.

Consider it this way: the word “a-unicornism” is to be understood as “I lack belief in unicorns.”

Given that I am an a-unicornist, what can be said about anything else? Almost nothing follows from that belief. I suppose I would discount sightings of unicorns as unreliable. (Though, if I was open-minded, many repeated claims about unicorn sightings should lead me to question my a-unicornism). But I cannot deduce anything about, say, horses, cars, or planes from my a-unicornism. To learn about the world itself, I would need affirm at least something as true.

For instance, I would need to accept the following beliefs:

  • I exist.
  • This world is real.
  • This world is composed of matter, energy, and space-time.
  • I have knowledge about the world.
  • Logic is a valid means of distinguishing between reasonable and unreasonable propositions.
  • I can trust other people.
  • The scientific method is a generally reliable way of learning about the world.

And so on and so forth.

But given the definition of atheism, none of these beliefs are part of what it means to be an “atheist.” Atheists are people who “lack belief in God.” They may or may not believe the world exists. They may or may not believe in the scientific method. They may or may not value logic.

So if an atheist believes in the importance of logic, those beliefs are only accidentally or incidentally connected to their lack of belief in theism. Why? Because there is no logical deduction that necessarily follows from “I lack belief in the gods” to “I love logic.” Again, as Austin Cline puts it, “the atheist doesn’t have any particular position, claim, or belief to defend.”

Notice all the work that is put into carefully defining “atheism” into such a tiny little box – its just the lack of belief in God – and yet, once the language has been so contorted, we are asked to believe that this is really what the atheist believes about the world?

If an atheist wants us to believe that this is their true position, that what their atheism really implies is that they have a “lack of belief,” then this adds almost no new information to the discussion.

Atheism Is Not Pro-Reason or Pro-Science

This point is just a clarification of the prior section. Because atheism cannot offer support for any positive belief, atheism is not intrinsically pro-reason or pro-science. Individual atheists might be in favor of reason or science, but they are not in favor of reason or science because of their atheism.

If atheists wish to claim that they love reason and science, then they first have to state which beliefs they do have, the ideas that lead them to value reason and science. But even if they can do this, those beliefs are, by definition, not related to atheism.

So “atheism” can never be pro-reason or pro-science. An individual atheist might happen to also have these values, but their ardent promotion of reason and science is not rationally related to their lack of belief in a god.

Atheism is Not Morally Progressive

If atheism cannot offer support for any other belief, then atheists may or may not value the abolition of slavery, gay marriage, equal pay for women, abortion, communism, and greedy Wall Street bankers.

No moral standards are implied by “I lack belief in the gods.” Because no moral vision can be logically grounded simply by the absence of belief in God, atheism is not morally progressive.

If one atheist says to another atheist, “As an atheist, [that is, “because we reject the gods”], you should support economic justice,” the second atheist is well within his rights to say back, “Says who? There’s no atheist “Bible” and no “absolute morality.” Just because I reject god’s existence doesn’t mean I can’t try to get filthy rich.”

The first atheist may argue that inequality is unfair or doesn’t create the maximum amount of happiness. But neither of those arguments are atheistic arguments. Those beliefs must come from non-atheistic beliefs.

So whenever an atheist argues for a moral position, it is fair to ask: what do you base your morals on? If atheism is just the lack of belief in gods, then morality is not based and cannot be based on “atheism.”

As it happens, I wrote this post in a Starbucks, and a very nice, friendly atheist happened to be reading along! She tapped me on my shoulder and said, “I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but I have to disagree with your post.” To my mind, we then had a very respectful discussion about our respective belief systems. She wanted to emphasize that she lives a good life (teaching underprivileged kids in the public school system) and that her many atheist friends are equally dedicated to being good people.

What I said to her, and what I want to communicate clearly in this post, is absolutely, atheists can be good people, and live by noble moral codes. I am not condemning atheists’ behavior or ethical systems.

Instead, I am saying that “atheism,” the worldview, defined as “a lack of belief in gods,” is not able to provide a logical foundation for a universal morality. Her commitment to providing kids an education is motivated by her other beliefs (in her case, “I want everyone to be happy and have a good life”). But according to this definition of atheism, her moral system is not rationally dependent upon – or even related to – her acceptance of, “I lack belief in gods.”

Atheism Is A Comfortable Belief

Christians are often accused of believing in God because it is such a comfortable belief system, especially when we consider death.

This doesn’t really make sense. As C.S. Lewis put it, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

For instance, consider one of the teachings of Jesus (Mark 8:34-38):

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Those are challenging, even threatening words. They are hardly comforting!

But compare these requirements with those of atheism. Atheism requires you to:

See the difference?

Atheism has absolutely no moral commandments that you must follow.

There are no consequences for disobeying an absolute moral law. There is no moral law!

If you want to live life the way you want to live life, then atheism is an extremely attractive and comforting “lack of belief.”

Conclusion: “Atheism” Is Unworthy of Our Respect

Because this kind of atheism is such an impoverished position, unable to establish any other beliefs, and unable to support a pro-reason, pro-science, morally progressive worldview, it does not deserve serious consideration. “Weak atheism” is a very weak position.

As a Christian, I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, and that Jesus died out of love for every human being, and that God offers forgiveness to all who trust in Christ for salvation. Christianity ought to lead me to respect every person, which most certainly includes these atheists. So I believe in treating all people with respect.

But no one treats every idea with respect. Some ideas are bad ideas.

And, as defined, atheism is one of those bad ideas. In fact, it isn’t even an idea. It is only a lack of belief in another idea.

In fairness, I’ve tried to offer a far more reasonable and honest definition of atheism. This definition is a more robust definition of atheism and one that reflects what atheists I talk to seem to really believe. And of course this post doesn’t show that every kind of atheism, whether humanism, free-thinking, Atheism+, Atheism 2.0, and so on, is false. It just shows that this bare-bones version of atheism is hardly worthy of our reasoned consideration.

Then, and only then, can we have a far more interesting conversation about the positive beliefs we all bring to the table, and engage in a reasonable dialogue with one another. For instance, theists can present evidence for God’s existence and naturalists can present evidence that this world is all that exists.

That’s a conversation worth having. To get there, we have to move beyond the “lack of belief in gods” posture.