The Proper Definition of Atheism

The Proper Definition of Atheism

How does one define atheism? Why is there a trend to spell "God" with a small "g" (as in "god")?


Transcript The Proper Definition of Atheism

Kevin Harris: Hey, good to see you. Welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris—your co-host. We're going to talk about a couple of issues today, one that we've talked about a lot, that is the definition of atheism. Now, boy, we have really beat this to death, but it keeps coming up again and again. In particular it has come from the atheist celebrity, if you will, Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller. Very outspoken, and he's been making the rounds with his new book called God, No. And he, again, brings up this definition of atheism. We want to look at it again.

And also something else that you might see. If you ever share your faith online and you run into people who are skeptical of God or of the Christian faith, they will often spell God with a small 'g'. Now, why? We want to discuss that. Is it proper? Is it no big deal? Is it a battle that we want to win? We'll roll that past Dr. Craig, as well. Do we capitalize 'g' in God or is it okay to spell God with a small 'g'? And as we get started I want to remind you again to get the app. The Reasonable Faith app is at ReasonableFaith.org.

Dr. Craig, there's another duo that are almost as entertaining as we are—Penn and Teller. They do a great comedy magic show, they're in Vegas a lot, they're on T.V. all the time—showtime specials. Penn Jillette is a very outspoken atheist. He write articles. I want to get your comments on a statement he makes as you why he's an atheist. And I got this from an atheist blogger who agrees with your definition and the standard definition of atheism. So I want to just show that there are atheist thinkers who don't buy this newfangled definition that atheism is just a lack of belief.

Dr. Craig: The standard definition of atheism is that God does not exist. It's the view that there is no God.

Kevin Harris: That's not what many of the new atheists hold to. They hold to a kind of a watered-down . . . it's just a lack of belief – 'I lack belief' – which is a personal statement about themselves.

Dr. Craig: Right, it's just an autobiographical confession; it's not a viewpoint that's true of false.

Kevin Harris: This atheist blogger wants to examine the claim of Penn that not knowing the origin of the universe justifies atheism. And Penn Jillette says[1],

What makes me libertarian is what makes me an atheist -- I don't know. If I don't know, I don't believe. I don't know exactly how we got here, and I don't think anyone else does, either. We have some of the pieces of the puzzle and we'll get more, but I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps. I'm not going to believe things that TV hosts state without proof. I'll wait for real evidence and then I'll believe.

Dr. Craig: Uh huh. Well, that statement doesn’t comport with the standard definition of atheism. That simply is to say that you don't know and therefore you don't have a belief in God. That's the revised definition. So this Penn fellow isn't a standard atheist, he would be an agnostic. It would be somebody who says, 'I don't know.' Now, the odd thing about his statement is that he seems to assume the only way to know that God exists is by knowing the origin of the universe, and that's very strange. I mean, think of times earlier in human history when people had no idea what the origin of the universe might have been. Does that mean that therefore they had no way of knowing that God exists? Why should we think that the only way to know God exists is by having a theory of the origin of the universe? I think that's extraordinarily peculiar.

Kevin Harris: And 'I'm not going to use faith to fill in the gaps'—that's the old God of the gaps.

Dr. Craig: Right, that's the old God of the gaps, but that's assuming, again, that the only way to know that God exists is through having a theory of the origin of the universe, and I can't think of anybody, frankly, who believes that. Even non-theists, I don't think, believe that in order to know that God exists you have to have a theory of how the universe originated. That's really an extraordinary claim.

Kevin Harris: This atheist blogger says, “First, I reject the claim that atheism is a lack of belief.”

Dr. Craig: So, he disagrees with Penn.

Kevin Harris: Yes.

This may be its definition among a small club of self-important atheists who have adopted a particular and peculiar private language, but it is not the American-English definition of the word. In American English an atheist is a person who believes that the proposition that at least one God exists is almost certainly, or certainly, false.

Dr. Craig: I wouldn't say that the atheist is committed to the certainty of that proposition. He's just committed to the falsehood of the proposition that God exists, but he may hold that very tenuously and provisionally.[2] There's no reason to saddle the atheist with the claim that he has to be certain about it or nearly certain.

Kevin Harris: He says,

I'm an atheist in the American English sense of the word. I hold that the proposition that at least one God exists is almost certainly false. I also hold much of religion as it is practiced is immoral. However that is not a part of atheism, it is a corollary of that.

He brings up the issue of “Is atheism a worldview or is it a subsidiary of naturalism or metaphysical naturalism as a worldview?”

Dr. Craig: Oh, I don't think it's a subsidiary. Atheism, as he says, is simply the belief that there is no God. Now, the atheist might be a humanist who thinks that human beings have intrinsic moral value, or he might be a nihilist who thinks that there are no objective moral values at all. And therefore the atheist might not be committed to the claim that religions are immoral, as this atheist is. This atheist wants to affirm the objectivity of moral values despite his atheism. And there are a good many atheists who won't make that leap of faith, who will say that in the absence of God there are no objective moral values, and therefore the claims of religion are not immoral.

Kevin Harris: He says, “On the question of how the universe came into existence, I do not know how it came into existence, and the proposition that some God is responsible is almost certainly false.”

Dr. Craig: Uh huh. I wonder how he knows that.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, that would need some justification.

Dr. Craig: Right, does he give any justification or argument for why that proposition is false?

Kevin Harris: Just one. He says,

Let's assume I had a deck of cards. It is a special deck of cards with one billion different suits and one billion and three cards of each suit. You draw a card, don't tell me what it is. Somebody asks me to name what card you drew. I answer—'I do not know.' They ask, 'What do you think of the proposition that he drew the king of hearts?' My answer: ‘I think that the proposition that he drew the king of hearts is almost certainly false.’ There is no contradiction here. Both claims are true. I do not know what card he drew, and the proposition that he drew the king of hearts is almost certainly false.

Dr. Craig: Right, it's highly improbable that that (indiscernible) but I don't see the connection with theism. What's he say about theism?

Kevin Harris:

On the question of how the universe came into existence I do not know how it came into existence, and the proposition that some God is responsible is almost certainly false. And even if he did draw the king of hearts and I said he drew the king of hearts, it would be utter absurdity for me to claim that I knew he drew the king of hearts. This is not knowledge; this is merely a lucky guess. No matter how certain I might be that my totally unfounded random belief is true.

Do you see any correlation between the illustration?

Dr. Craig: No, it seems to me that this experiment that he's suggesting is just not set up properly. Suppose we have a series of cards with pictures of U.S. presidents on them, and someone picks blindly a card from the deck and asks me to guess whose picture is on it. And suppose I say President Obama. Now, it's almost certainly false that I have picked the card with President Obama's picture on it. Given the range of alternatives it's highly improbable that the card that was randomly picked corresponds to my guess that it's President Obama. But does that mean that it's almost certainly false that Obama is the president? Well, obviously not. It just doesn't follow at all from the fact that the choice that I have picked is probably not Obama that therefore it's highly improbable that Obama is the president. The whole experiment is misconceived. This is really a strange argument, Kevin.

What he seems to be saying is that if you have a number of possible explanations and you're just blindly asked to pick from one of them without any evidence then if you have this wide, wide range of alternatives any one you pick blindly is probably false; it's highly improbable that you'd have randomly picked the true explanation. But the problem with this argument is that that applies to every choice in the deck. Every one of them, any one that you might pick is almost certainly false in the sense that it's highly, highly improbable. Now, that would mean that if atheism is one of the alternatives then atheism is almost certainly false, since a random pick of that is just as highly improbable as any of the other ones. It's a trivial sort of argument because it's true of every alternative you pick, including his own chosen alternative, atheism.[3] It would be almost certainly false.

Moreover, I'm not sure that he's properly set up the thought experiment because his claim is that no God is responsible for the origin of the universe. So if you have all these different gods to choose from, all these different cards to pick from the deck, what he's saying is that there is no god that has created the universe. And that's not one alternative. He's trying to rule out a vast range of cards, and in order to do that he might have to rule out virtually all of the cards except for the atheistic card. So that would make it highly probable that some god has created the universe and highly improbable that there is no god that created the universe.

So it seems to me this argument really is bizarre and perhaps self-defeating, and in any case irrelevant, because what he's assuming is that we are in a state in which we have absolutely no evidence and we're asked to simply blindly pick from various alternatives, and I don't think we're in such a state. He never justifies the idea that we are in a state of a complete evidential vacuum, that we have no evidence whatsoever concerning the existence of God. And I think that's quite wrong.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, the only thing I find refreshing about the article is that here is an atheist who affirms the correct definition of atheism, as found, as opposed to what he claims is a little sub-language that self-important atheists adopt.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and yet his argument for that positive thesis of atheism is based on this strange argument from ignorance, that we don't know whether or not God exists and so we have to just make this random choice, and anything we choose is highly improbable. That doesn't go to justify atheism.

Kevin Harris: Bill, speaking of many gods, I want to ask you if it's proper to not capitalize God—capitalize the 'G.' We always capitalize the 'G' in God. And I always see in blog sites and skeptical cites and interactions with them that they will not capitalize the 'g' on god, but will put a small 'g.'

Dr. Craig: Well, the word 'God' is very interesting in English in that it serves both as a common noun and as a proper name. When I say “God answered my prayers” or “God sent his Son into the world to redeem the world” I'm not using that word as a common noun, I'm using it as a proper name—like John or Shirley or Yahweh. So insofar as we capitalize proper names – like Kevin – we would capitalize the word God because it's being used as a proper name. Now, when it's not being used as a proper name but as a common noun there would typically be an article with it. “Do you believe in a god,” for example, or “Is there a god?” There it's used as a common noun; not a proper name. Now, whether or not you choose to capitalize it in that case I think is going to probably depend on what you want to communicate to your audience. Typically when you have a lower case 'g' and says “Is there a god?” or “Are there gods” – with a lower 'g' – one is thinking of finite humanoid sorts of deities that are really sort of like Superman rather than a transcendent being beyond the universe which is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. So it can be very misleading to your audience to use god with a lower case 'g' as a common noun because they might think you're talking about these finite deities such as are featured in polytheism, rather than the monotheistic God.

Kevin Harris: If God were the greatest conceivable being then a God with a capital 'G' would be greater than a god with a small 'g'. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Well, of course if he's the greatest conceivable being and he exists it wouldn't seem inappropriate to honor such a being by using a capital for that name.

Kevin Harris: So that's the technicality of it. It's kind of obnoxious to demean God by putting him on the same level with these gods.

Dr. Craig: I think that's the concern. We capitalize a name as a way of showing honor or reverence for the person. For example, people will talk about the Queen or the King, and use it with a capital letter. So it seems to me that one capitalizes the word God out of honor to who is he, and the unbeliever – not wanting to honor God – will, as you say, understandably, try to put it in the lower case.[4] But as I said, I think in English at least that can really lead to a miscommunication of your ideas, to make people think you're talking about something different than the transcendent God of classical theism.

Kevin Harris: Thank you, Dr. Crag. Again, go through our podcasts, articles, and resources from Dr. Craig on the definition of atheism, definition of theism, and God as the greatest conceivable being. There’s so much good material on that at ReasonableFaith.org. We'll see you next time.[5]



[1] See http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/08/16/jillette.atheist.libertarian/ (accessed March 31, 2014).

[2] 5:00

[3] 10:00

[4] 15:04

[5] Total Running Time: 15:42 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)