The Definition That Will Not Die!

The Definition That Will Not Die!

Once again, the faulty definition of Atheism is addressed by Dr. Craig. But atheist philosophers are becoming vocal about their agreement with Dr. Craig's definition!


Transcript The Definition That Will Not Die!

Atheism is the opposite of faith. Faith means belief without evidence and atheism is a lack of belief in God.

Technically, atheism is just the lack of belief in a certain deity.

In the simplest terms, the basic atheist category is the lack of belief.

Atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods.

Definition of atheism is someone who lacks the belief of a higher power.

Hey everybody, I wanted to make a real quick video about defining the word atheist because I think there is a lot of confusion in the global community about what that word means. A lot of people think that it means belief that there is no God. But it is actually not. It is actually a lack of belief in God.

Kevin Harris: Good to see you. This is Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm the producer guy for the podcast, Kevin Harris. Stay close. Many of you have asked when Dr. Craig is going to comment on this new book called A Manual for Creating Atheists written by philosophy professor Peter Boghossian. The answer is: very soon! So stay tuned. Dr. Boghossian has been touring some universities lecturing on how to persuade people to abandon their faith and I'm happy to report that on at least one occasion some students and faculty from the local Reasonable Faith chapter had a chance to interact with Peter Boghossian when he came to their campus. I hope if you are a supporter of Reasonable Faith, you see the importance of local Reasonable Faith chapters. They are springing up all over the world. Maybe you can be instrumental in starting a chapter on your campus, in your city, or in your church. Go to our website ReasonableFaith.org to find out more. These Reasonable Faith chapter members pointed out to Dr. Boghossian that his entire case stands or falls on one definition. So keep listening.

Speaking of definitions that won't go away, Dr. Craig, we may have an indication here that this recent definition of atheism as “the lack of belief” in God may be on its way out. Even atheist philosophers are agreeing with you and others that this definition – that is, atheism is the lack of belief in God – is faulty at best. I'm looking at a philosophy blog from Australia and an atheist philosopher there is calling for this definition to go away.[1] Bill, you've talked about this until you are blue in the face but I think we should keep the heat on it because it still remains popular.

Dr. Craig: I think it is very popular on the lay level because it exonerates the unbeliever from having to give any defense of his viewpoint. For him atheism is just a psychological state and therefore it is neither true nor false. It is not a view. It's a description of one's psychology. Therefore the person who claims to be an atheist in this psychological sense makes no assertion and has nothing to prove because he doesn't make any claim.

Kevin Harris: Evaluating the reasons for the lack of belief position, this philosopher has identified five reasons people usually give for holding to the definition that atheism is the lack of belief in God or gods:

1. It is impossible to prove a negative, or to know that something doesn’t exist;

2. a ‘lack of belief’ isn’t a belief;

3. that ‘-theism’ (belief) and ‘-gnosticism’ (knowledge) are independent, non-mutually exclusive categories;

4. the rejection of a claim doesn’t mean accepting the opposite (charge of a false dichotomy); and,

5. that the etymology of the word ‘atheism’ breaks down to ‘a-’ meaning ‘without’ and ‘-theos’ meaning ‘gods’, and is thus correct by definition.

He takes each one of these in turn and says that they don't hold water. These are the five common reasons people argue for this definition, Bill. Do you agree with them?

Dr. Craig: Oh, yes, I think he is absolutely right, and it is so refreshing to see a non-theistic philosopher making these points for his fellow atheists.

Kevin Harris: This whole thing about proving a negative. Run us through it again.

Dr. Craig: The first argument is that it is impossible to prove a negative; to know that something doesn't exist. Somehow the atheist thinks that that means you can redefine the term atheism such that it means something other than the view that God does not exist. What this philosopher points out quite rightly is that it is possible to prove negatives! We do it all the time. You can show, for example, that there is a logical contradiction in a concept.[2] There are no such things as married bachelors or square circles.

And he also points out that you can give arguments empirically against the existence of something. If you are in a situation where if something existed and you would be apt to have evidence of it if it were there and there is no evidence of it, that's a good reason to think it is not there. For example, if there were a planet between Venus and the Earth, we would probably have some pretty good evidence for it. So given the absence of evidence of a planet between Venus and Earth, that is a good reason to think there is no such thing as a planet in between Venus and the Earth. So he is quite right that it certainly is possible to prove negatives. This is just a slogan that has no merit at all.

I think though the more important point, Kevin – and he doesn't make this point – is that this is simply irrelevant to justifying a redefinition of a term. What this would show if true is that atheism is a worldview that cannot be proved. It doesn't serve to redefine the term. It would just say it is impossible to have a good reason to affirm atheism – the view that God does not exist. So even if you granted that it is impossible to prove a negative, that's of no comfort to the atheist; that doesn't serve to justify redefining a word. What that simply shows is that the view of atheism is something that couldn't be proved.

Kevin Harris: He says, regarding number two, a lack of belief isn't a belief. He says,

This seems to be a confusion between the folk concept of ‘belief’, and it’s more precise philosophical definition. The folk concept is something like ‘an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially without proof‘. The philosophical definition is something like 'a mental state that represents a state of affairs which is accepted as true by the believer'.

Dr. Craig: I have run into this all the time, most recently in my dialogue with Lawrence Krauss in Australia. At one point in the dialogue he asserts “I have no beliefs!” And I said, “Well, do you believe that?” He fumbled around and it became clear what he means by belief is what he says here – this folk idea of an acceptance that something is true without proof, and therefore I have no beliefs. But philosophically a belief is just a certain type of mental state which means you accept a certain proposition as true. So it is absurd to claim that you have no beliefs. That is itself a belief – the belief that I have no beliefs.

His response to this is to say that the only people who have a lack of belief concerning God are people who have never heard the claim that God exists. Think, for example, of babies who would have a lack of belief in God because they don't understand or have never heard the claim that God exists. But he thinks after you've heard the claim “God exists” then you have to have some sort of belief state regarding it. You are going to believe it or not believe it.

While I think that is true, I do think agnosticism is possible. It is possible for the person who has heard the claim that God exists to say, “I don't believe that God exists and I don't believe that God does not exist. I am agnostic about it.” For example, to use another illustration, I don't have the belief that there is gold on Mars, but I don't have the belief that there is no gold on Mars either. I just don't know whether or not that mineral is found on Mars. So I am just agnostic about the claim that there is gold on Mars. So it is possible for a person to have a lack of belief that God exists without being an atheist. He can be simply an agnostic. Or he could say it is a meaningless claim. That is what the old verificationist or non-cognitivist said. He lacks belief in God because he thinks it's meaningless.

So I do think that one can suspend belief or be in a state of uncertainty about one's belief in God's existence, but that shouldn't be called atheism. That should be called agnosticism. The atheist is one who believes that God does not exist. The theist believes that God exists. It is only the agnostic who fails to have a settled belief about those propositions.[3]

Kevin Harris: Bill, when I point this out, I am usually at this point directed to various categories of an atheist. You can be an agnostic atheist, a gnostic atheist, agnostic theist, or a gnostic theist. Therefore, the label and the distinction is divided once again. What do you think about that? Based on the classical definition of atheism, I don't know how one could be an agnostic atheist.

Dr. Craig: Well, you couldn't. This is really, again, just trying to redefine the terms, and what this philosopher points out is that our knowledge doesn't come in neat partitions like this. I would make the even more fundamental point that one is a theist or an atheist depending upon whether or not you believe that God exists or you believe that God does not exist. Your justification for that is quite independent of your belief state. You can have theists who just believe that God exists by faith without argument. They just believe that God exists. That's called a fideist. And you could have an atheist who just stubbornly believes that God does not exist even though he has no argument, no proof, he doesn't want anything to do with God so he believes God does not exist. Or you could have an atheist that is loaded with arguments against the existence of God to justify his belief. These people don't differ in their belief state, Kevin. They differ in the justification that they would offer for those belief states. So it is quite improper to try to distinguish their belief states based upon the degree of justification they have for those beliefs. I think it would be more proper to say that there are people who believe that God does not exist who offer strong justification and others who offer weak or no justification for the belief they hold. There are theists who believe that God does exist who offer strong justification and others who offer either weak or no justification. Both of them have the same belief state, they only differ in the justification they would give for those beliefs.

Kevin Harris: Could it be that there is an overlap or even a conflation of philosophical definition of atheism, agnosticism, theism, and so on, and then a practical on-the-street kind of a working out of that. In other words, what I hear sometimes is like “I live my life as an atheist. I embrace that. But when pressed philosophically I can't prove that God does not exist.”

Dr. Craig: Right. And that is a consistent position, I think. That person recognizes that atheism is the belief that God does not exist and that is the way he lives. He says that he cannot justify the belief that God does not exist. But he lives that way. He lives as if God does not exist.

Kevin Harris: He lives as if atheism is true.

Dr. Craig: Right. So that person has a proper understanding of what atheism is.

Kevin Harris: A couple of more reasons here, Dr. Craig. Number four: the rejection of a claim doesn't mean the acceptance of the opposite. This charge of a false dichotomy. What he says is

While it is true that ‘believing X’ and ‘believing not-X’ aren’t the only options, I disagree that the middling position of ‘not believing X’ is a useful definition of atheism. It’s far too broad to capture just what we might intuitively want to call an atheist.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think this is my greatest reservation for people who want to redefine the term atheism. If you say that atheism is simply not believing X – not believing that God exists – then it becomes too broad a position to be useful. Because incorporated in that definition would be people who believe that X does not exist (traditionally atheists), it would include agnostics (who don't know what to believe – they don't believe that X but they don't believe that not-X), and then it would include non-cognitivists who think that the question is meaningless (the old verificationists who denied that God talk is meaningful). So atheism in that sense becomes a clumsy hamfisted term that doesn't refer to any one of these three types of persons and therefore we would still need, then, Kevin to adopt other terms to delineate what these original words are. Why do that? Why not just stick with the traditional terms as the atheist is somebody who believes not-X – he believes that God does not exist. The agnostic is the person who does not believe that X and he does not believe that not-X.[4] Then the non-cognitivist who thinks that X and not-X are both meaningless terms and therefore neither true nor false. So I think he is quite right about that. He also points out that if you say merely lacking belief in God is sufficient to be an atheist then babies are atheists and he says this definition could mean that chimps are atheists, dolphins, dogs, and doors are atheists because they all lack a belief in God. That is simply too broad a category to be useful.

Kevin Harris: He says even if we are only talking about things that are alive, living, and conscious, he says the net is still too huge that captures too many things. He says – I think it's funny – if you still believe this definition you are just as comfortable calling a goldfish an atheist, a dog an atheist, or a goldfish apolitical.

Calling the ants in my garden a colony of atheists feels like a misuse of words to me, because this word – defined in this way – picks out any conscious thing on the planet as its referent. That’s a huge net.

Bill, we try as hard as we can, but I just don't know if this is ever going to go away. I think eventually it will. Philosophical notions that are incorrect do have a tendency to eventually peter out and maybe this will but I run into it on a daily basis.

Number five is the final one – “that the etymology of the word ‘atheism’ breaks down to ‘a-’ meaning ‘without’ and ‘-theos’ meaning ‘gods’, and is thus correct by definition” – without gods.

Dr. Craig: Right. He points out here that the meaning of words cannot be determined by their etymology. That is very, very true. If you look at the English language, look at dictionary definitions of words and the roots from which they are derived and it is simply demonstrably false that you can determine the meaning of a word based upon its etymology.

I would make the further point, however, that even etymologically speaking atheism doesn't mean “without belief in God.” It would mean “without God,” not without belief in God. So atheism would be the view that we are without God, that there is no such person as God. It doesn't mean without belief in God. So this is indefensible even on this false theory of dictionary meanings of words.

So I think that this philosopher has helped to expose some of the popular justifications that are often given for the word atheism. I think the fact remains that atheism is the view that God does not exist. If certain unbelievers are not willing to adopt that posture and defend it, then they need to just frankly say, “I am not an atheist. I am simply an unbeliever or I am a non-theist or I am a secularist or I am an agnostic” and simply be straightforward about what their beliefs really are.[5]



[1] See http://philosophersgroan.wordpress.com/2013/12/14/is-a-lack-of-belief-the-best-we-can-do/ (accessed April 7, 2014).

[2] 5:02

[3] 10:02

[4] 15:04

[5] Total Running Time: 18:27 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)