Atheism: What is That?

Published on 22 August 2023 at 23:17

Here we are, back at this topic. This entry is set to be an engaging one, especially from my perspective. We'll not only delve into a rewrite but also offer an updated take on atheism. We aim to clarify what atheism truly represents, how it's perceived, and most importantly, rectify a slew of misconceptions tied to atheism and atheists. It's crucial to address these, as the internal disagreements among atheists and the debates with theists about what atheism is often cloud more meaningful dialogue we could be engaging in. Honestly, these endless debates and misunderstandings can be quite exhausting. Let's dive in and unravel this together.


Let's begin by establishing some clarity. Much like many terms in our language, 'atheism' and 'atheists' are polysemous – they come with multiple interpretations and definitions. It's essential to understand that definitions are descriptive, not prescriptive; they can evolve over time and shift with common usage. Nevertheless, there are contexts, such as academia, the sciences, and philosophy, where a word's technical interpretation holds particular importance. Just as with the term 'theory', the words 'atheism' and 'atheist' often become sources of confusion, debate, and contention.


What exactly is atheism, and who qualifies as an atheist? The answers vary considerably depending on whom you ask. Speaking for myself, when I identify as an atheist, I'm expressing my belief in the non-existence of gods. I'm convinced that every concept of a deity put forth by humanity is fictional, a construct of our imagination. This perspective aligns with the philosophical interpretation of atheism, which asserts that gods do not exist. It's from this vantage point that I wish to embark on our exploration, given that this is how I relate to and employ the term.


Historically and in contemporary thought, atheism is understood in philosophical circles to mean the belief that no gods exist, going beyond a simple rejection of theism (Draper, 2022). When one delves into academic or philosophical works within the realm of the philosophy of religion, this is the predominant definition of atheism and the essence of self-identification for those claiming to be atheists. This conceptualization stems, in part, from the direct French translation of "athéisme," which connotes disbelief in the existence of a deity. Such a stance is a metaphysical claim and aligns with the broader philosophical inquiry into the existence of God—a question that's inherently metaphysical in nature. However, this isn't the earliest conception of atheism. Its roots trace back to ancient Greece, which we'll explore shortly.


Beyond academic and philosophical arenas, the philosophical definition of atheism isn't as widely embraced, largely because it constitutes both a claim and a belief. In today's discourse, there's a hesitation around such declarations, primarily stemming from the assumption that every claim carries a burden of proof. Generally speaking, claims do come with a burden of proof, but this only becomes critical when attempting to persuade others of its validity. Personal beliefs don't always demand external justification; often, they only need to be justified to the individual holding them. This confusion arises from misinterpretations of the burden of proof (BOP). Some mistakenly believe that for a claim to be rationally held, it must be irrefutably proven. In reality, as long as one provides (and acknowledges) some form of justification for a belief and finds it personally convincing, they've satisfied any inherent burden.


I'm wary of labeling this perspective on atheism as "Academic," as it might come across as elitist. Instead, I believe philosophy should be accessible to all, so I'll refer to it as "philosophical atheism." In summary, atheism, when viewed through a philosophical lens, denotes the belief that gods do not exist. This interpretation is consistent with the views of most philosophers, academics, and a significant portion of scholarly literature when discussing atheism and atheists.


As previously noted, there's a colloquial understanding of atheism as merely a "lack of belief in a god or gods." I've humorously dubbed this "lack-theism" in the past, as I find it more fitting for such a stance. But that's a minor point. The crux is that this is the prevalent interpretation for many outside the philosophical sphere when they identify as atheists or discuss atheism. Personally, I'm not fond of this viewpoint, especially when categorized under "atheism." Yet, I fully acknowledge that language is fluid and evolving. It's not my place to prescribe how individuals should define or label themselves.


Before I delve into my concerns with the "lack of belief" approach to atheism, it's essential to trace its origins. This understanding seems to be directly rooted in Antony Flew's 1972 piece, "The Presumption of Atheism," published in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. In this work, Flew posited that philosophers should presume atheism, suggesting that a lack of belief should be the default position when defining atheism (Flew, 1972).


Flew's stance on atheism, while rooted in etymological precision, prioritizes the term "A - Theos" (Ah-Theos), directly translating to "without gods." He contends that this framework aligns seamlessly with Plato's interpretation. However, one must navigate this claim with caution. Plato's discourses, while delving into skepticism or outright disbelief in gods—especially evident in contexts touching upon impiety like the trial of Socrates—don't necessarily align with our contemporary grasp of atheism. The complexities of historical interpretation become even more apparent when considering the Romans. Their worldview was such that early Christians, who dismissed the pantheon of established Roman gods, were branded "atheists." This label was less about denying any deity's existence and more about refuting the traditional deities the Romans held sacred.


To ground our understanding in the historical narrative of the term 'atheism', we should reflect upon its Greco-Roman origins. If we were to adhere strictly to this etymological genesis, anyone doubting the existence of the Greco-Roman pantheon would qualify as an 'atheist.' Intriguingly, this includes adherents of Judeo-Christian traditions, as their monotheistic stance inherently denies the existence of other deities, such as those from the Greco-Roman pantheon. However, as intellectual discourse evolved, particularly during the Enlightenment era, philosophers began broadening this definition. Recognizing a parallel, they noted that just as Christians denied the Greco-Roman gods, there were individuals who held similar skepticism towards the Judeo-Christian God. It was during this period of intellectual ferment that the term "athéisme" emerged in French thought. This marked the genesis of what we now understand as the philosophical conception of atheism: a belief in the nonexistence of any deity.


Recognizing Flew's intellectual prowess, it becomes even more noteworthy that he chose a perspective that seems, to some, at odds with the historical and philosophical trajectory of atheism. His deep understanding of the term's evolution suggests that his promotion of 'lack of belief' atheism was a deliberate departure from the mainstream. And perhaps it's this deliberate deviation that has contributed to its limited adoption within philosophical circles. However, this observation isn't intended as a critique of those who embrace the 'lack of belief' stance or to persuade them to reconsider their label. Instead, it's a call for clarity. The objective is to shed light on the origins of 'lack of belief' atheism and to elucidate why it remains peripheral within philosophical discourses. In any dialogue, especially within the realm of philosophy of religion, it's crucial for participants to specify which interpretation of atheism they're referencing. This ensures precision and facilitates constructive discussion. Everyone is entitled to their own interpretation, but it's pivotal that these interpretations are communicated transparently.


The intrigue surrounding Flew's stance on atheism lies not only in his unique interpretation but also in his personal journey. Despite championing 'lack of belief' as atheism's default definition in his works, Flew was well aware of the mainstream, philosophical interpretation of atheism. His aspiration was to shift the paradigm, redirecting the emphasis toward a presumed 'lack of belief'. However, the narrative becomes even more compelling given his subsequent personal revelations. In 2004, in an unexpected volte-face, Flew announced that he had adopted deism, affirming his belief in a creator. This transition from an advocate for atheism to a believer in a deity was not merely a private change of heart; he publicized his new convictions in 2007 with the publication of his book, "There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind." Until his passing in 2010, Flew openly criticized the 'lack of belief' definition of atheism, the very concept he once championed. This arc of change, in both thought and personal belief, highlights the fluid nature of philosophical contemplation and underscores the importance of ongoing dialogue and introspection.


The duality of the term "atheism" stems from its historical and philosophical roots, each reflecting a distinct facet of the discourse around the existence of a deity. The debate surrounding the existence of God penetrates the core of metaphysics, serving as a linchpin in philosophical deliberation. The philosophical interpretation of atheism meets this profound inquiry with an assertive stance, boldly claiming: gods do not exist! This viewpoint embodies a proactive declaration about the nature of reality. On the other hand, the 'lack of belief' approach offers a nuanced perspective, more introspective in its essence. Instead of making a definitive statement about the world, it provides a window into an individual's cognitive state concerning the divine. It articulates a withholding of belief, an abstention from committing to either side of the theological spectrum. While the former approach finds its stronghold in academic and philosophical circles, renowned for its assertive clarity, the latter resonates more with everyday discourse, serving as a touchstone for many in casual conversations about faith and belief. The juxtaposition of these interpretations underscores the multifaceted nature of the atheistic dialogue and highlights the importance of context in shaping our understanding of such profound concepts.


One of the primary reservations I harbor towards the 'lack of belief' definition of atheism stems from its seeming detachment from the rich philosophical heritage associated with atheism. When individuals contend that atheism is exclusively or predominantly a 'lack of belief', there's a risk of sidelining centuries of philosophical discourse and inquiry. The impulse behind such an assertion is understandable; it often emerges as a reflexive counter to theistic narratives that might, consciously or not, pigeonhole or stereotype atheists.


Indeed, this is a deeply felt sentiment, and I deeply empathize with the desire to resist undue categorization or misconstruction. However, it's essential to appreciate that emphasizing the 'lack of belief' stance, to the exclusion of its philosophical counterpart, inadvertently undermines and marginalizes those who subscribe to atheism's more traditional, philosophical definition. The call of the hour isn't to champion one definition over the other but to foster a spirit of inclusivity and mutual respect. Both philosophical and colloquial atheists should strive to avoid negating or diminishing the other's stance. By acknowledging the validity of both perspectives and specifying our preferred interpretation, we pave the way for more meaningful, productive, and enlightened discussions and debates on the subject.


While there exists a myriad of further points of contention related to the 'lack of belief' interpretation of atheism, I found myself pausing for reflection after penning my thoughts on this topic twice before on this platform. The ensuing introspection led me to a pivotal query: Though I possess the capacity to delve deeper into this debate, is it truly necessary or beneficial to do so? My conclusion leans towards the negative. My perspectives, elucidated previously on this blog, stand as a testament to my stance. While my convictions remain steadfast, I've transitioned to a phase of relative detachment, with the aforementioned concerns being the notable exception. The primary aim of this piece was not to reiterate the debates but to illuminate the dual interpretations of atheism, allowing readers to navigate the discourse with enhanced clarity and comprehension.


At the heart of this discourse lies an essential realization: there exist dual interpretations of atheism, and neither can claim unequivocal supremacy devoid of context. Those who attempt to assert one definition as universally correct are fundamentally overlooking the nuanced essence of the debate. In profound philosophical discussions, where layers of understanding and rigorous scrutiny are paramount, the traditional, philosophical interpretation of atheism often holds greater weight. Conversely, during casual dialogues where the primary intent is to express one's personal disposition concerning the divine, the 'lack of belief' perspective aptly captures that sentiment. Recognizing the importance of context is crucial in understanding and articulating atheism.


Navigating the intricate tapestry of the atheistic discourse, one discerns two prominent strands of interpretation: the philosophical assertion that no deities exist and the colloquial 'lack of belief' perspective. Both have historical and conceptual merit, underlined by centuries of evolution, debate, and individual conviction. To champion one over the other is not only an oversimplification but a disservice to the rich mosaic of thoughts, emotions, and arguments that have shaped this conversation. The crux isn't about rigid dichotomies but understanding the pertinence of context. In a philosophical arena, the former interpretation might be more fitting, whereas in casual dialogues, the latter could suffice. However, the plea is for mutual respect, understanding, and clarity.


So, the next time someone attempts to pigeonhole atheism into a single definition, remember: it's a bit like trying to define a zebra by its white stripes alone, forgetting the black ones completely. as a playful sign-off, why did the atheist bring a ladder to church? He heard them say he was missing a higher level of understanding! Stay curious, stay engaged, and remember: the beauty of any discourse lies in its nuances and shared wisdom. Thank you for embarking on this exploratory journey with me, and until next time, keep questioning, keep debating, and most importantly, keep smiling.



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Flew, A. (1972). The Presumption of Atheism. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 26-46.

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Schellenberg, J. L. (2009). The Will to Imagine: A Justification of Skeptical Religion. Cornell University Press.

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George H. Smith: Atheism: The Case Against God (1979).

Nielsen, K. (1985). Philosophy and Atheism: In Defense of Atheism. Prometheus Books.

Goldstein, R. (2014). Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away. Pantheon.

Pigliucci, M., & Boudry, M. (2014). "Prove it! The burden of proof game in science vs. pseudoscience disputes." Philosophia, 42(2), 487-502.

Baggini, J. (2003). "Atheism." A Very Short Introduction.

Hecht, J.M. (2003). "Doubt: A History." Harper San Francisco.

Parsons, K.M. (1989). "God and the Burden of Proof." Prometheus Books.

Berman, D. (1990). "A History of Atheism in Britain: From Hobbes to Russell." Routledge.

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