Defining Atheism
by George H. Smith
from his 1990 book Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies

Prominent atheists have defended for many years the view that an atheist is a person who lacks theistic belief. Baron d'Holbach took this view when he argued, "All children are atheists -- they have no idea of God"[1] Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's most important crusader for atheism, upheld a similar position, noting that "no position is more continuously misrepresented" than atheism. Bradlaugh stated: "Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God."[2]

J.M. Robertson, the great historian of freethought, remarked on the negative atheism of Charles Southwell, who, in 1842, founded the Oracle of Reason, England's first avowedly atheistic periodical:

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[T]he Oracle pursued a logical course of confuting theism, and leaving "a-theism" the negative result. It did not, in the absurd terms of common religious propaganda, "deny the existence of God." It affirmed that God was a term for an existence imagined by man in terms of his own personality and irreducible to any tenable definition. It did not even affirm that "there are no Gods"; it insisted that the onus of proof as to any God lay with the theist, who could give none compatible with his definitions.[3]

 

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The historian Edward Royle has also described the "negative atheism" of Carlile, Southwell, Cooper, Holyoake, and other nineteenth-century atheists:

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Logically, this kind of atheism did not prove that there was no God.... On the contrary, Southwell was typical in placing the onus probandi on those who affirmed the existence of God and Holyoake regarded himself as an atheist only in his inability to believe what the churches would have him believe. They were content to show that the Christian concept of the supernatural was meaningless, that the arguments in its favor were illogical, and that the mysteries of the universe, insofar as they were explicable, could be accounted for in material terms.[4]

 

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As Royle indicates, negative atheism went hand in hand with the "onus-of-proof" principle. Annie Besant, who defined atheism as "without God," clearly explained the importance of this principle:

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If my interlocutor desires to convince me that Jupiter has inhabitants, and that his description of them is accurate, it is for him to bring forward evidence in support of his contention. The burden of proof evidently lies on him; it is not for me to prove that no such beings exist before my non-belief is justified, but for him to prove that they do exist before my belief can be fairly claimed. Similarly, it is for the affirmer of God's existence to bring evidence in support of his affirmation; the burden of proof lies on him.[5]

 

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This negative definition of atheism carried over into the twentieth century, especially among British atheists. When a critic accused atheists of dogmatism for positively denying the existence of God, G.W. Foote challenged the critic "to refer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God." Foote continued: "Etymologically, as well as philosophically, an ATheist is one without God. That is all the 'A' before 'Theist' really means."[6]

Joseph McCabe, author of dozens of books and articles pertaining to atheism, defined atheism as "the absence of theistic belief."[7] The same idea was put forcefully by Chapman Cohen, President of Britain's National Secular Society and a prolific defender of atheism. Cohen wrote:

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If one believes in a god, then one is a Theist. If one does not believe in a god, then one is an A-theist -- he is without that belief. The distinction between atheism and theism is entirely, exclusively, that of whether one has or has not a belief in God.[8]

 

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Perceptive critics of atheism have also defended the negative definition. For example, the learned theologian Richard Watson wrote:

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ATHEIST, in the strict and proper sense of the word, is one who does not believe in the existence of a god, or who owns no being superior to nature. It is compounded of the two terms ... signifying without God.[9]

 

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That able defender of theism, Robert Flint, had no doubt about the proper definition of atheism. Flint declared:

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The atheist is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God. What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds.... [E]very man is an atheist who does not believe that there is a God, although his want of belief may not be rested on any allegation of positive knowledge that there is no God, but simply on one of want of knowledge that there is a God.

 

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Flint concluded, "The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less."[10]

If so many atheists and some of their critics have insisted on the negative definition of atheism, why have some modern philosophers called for a positive definition of atheism -- atheism as the outright denial of God's existence? Part of the reason, I suspect, lies in the chasm separating freethinkers and academic philosophers. Most modern philosophers are totally unfamiliar with atheistic literature and so remain oblivious to the tradition of negative atheism contained in that literature.

Perhaps the greatest confusion over atheism's definition was caused by A.J. Ayer in his classic presentation of logical positivism, Language, Truth, and Logic. In defending empirical verifiability as a criterion of meaning, Ayer rejected all "metaphysical" utterances, including theistic claims, as nonsensical. To say that God exists, according to Ayer, "is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false." The claim does not "possess any literal significance."

Ayer cautioned against confusing his noncognitivist position with atheism. Atheism, which Ayer construed positively as the denial of God's existence, presupposes that the concept of God has meaning. But "if the assertion that there is a god is nonsensical, then the atheist's assertion that there is no god is equally nonsensical, since it is only a significant proposition that can be significantly contradicted."[11]

Unfortunately, Ayer's treatment lacks historical perspective on what atheists have argued for many years. In introducing noncognitivism as a supposed alternative to atheism, Ayer misled a generation of philosophers, for noncognitivism has always been an important weapon in the atheist's arsenal.

For example, the importance of noncognitivism was discussed extensively in the seventeenth century by Ralph Cudworth, whose True Intellectual System of the Universe remains one of the most interesting critiques of atheism ever penned. Some philosophers adopt atheism, Cudworth noted, "because theists themselves acknowledging God to be incomprehensible, it may be from thence inferred, that he is a nonentity." The very notion of an infinite God, atheists maintain, "is utterly inconceivable." Atheists argue that the attributes of God are a "bundle of unconceivables and impossibilities, huddled up together...."[12]

The atheist Baron d'Holbach argued that "what has been said of [God] is either unintelligible or perfectly contradictory; and for this reason must appear impossible to every man of common sense."[13] In The System of Nature, a masterpiece of Enlightenment thought and perhaps the best defense of atheism ever written, Holbach devoted considerable space to the position that the term "God" is meaningless. He concluded:

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Can theology give to the mind the ineffable boon of conceiving that which no man is in a capacity to comprehend? Can it procure to its agents the marvellous faculty of having precise ideas of a god composed of so many contradictory qualities?[14]

 

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The noncognitivist argument was commonly found in the writings of nineteenth-century atheists, as illustrated in this passage from Annie Besant's Why I Do Not Believe in God:

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Never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not palpably self-contradictory and absurd; never yet has a God been described so that a concept of Him was made possible to human thought.[15]

 

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Many similar quotations could be given. Clearly, noncognitivism -- the position that the term God is literally meaningless -- has been standard atheist fare for centuries. Therefore, when Ayer argued for his version of noncognitivism, he was not, as he believed, offering a true alternative to atheism. Rather, Ayer's argument placed him squarely within a venerable atheistic tradition.

In a thoughtful discussion of atheism contained in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Paul Edwards proposes a definition of atheism that falls midway between the negative definition (the absence of theistic belief) and the positive definition (the outright denial of theism). An atheist, according to Edwards, is a person "who rejects belief in God" for whatever reason.[16] This definition allows Edwards to include as atheists those who maintain that the concept of God is incoherent or that the proposition "God exists" is meaningless and hence neither true nor false.

By classifying noncognitivism as a species of atheism, Edwards rehabilitated an important atheistic position. But Edwards wished to "preserve, at least roughly, the traditional battle lines" between atheists and theists -- and the most common definition of an atheist, according to Edwards, is "a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence 'God exists' expresses a false proposition."[17]

As we have seen, this positive definition of atheism is not the most common one, nor the traditional one -- not, that is, if we consult what most atheists have really said rather than listen to uniformed critics who tell us what atheists should have said. The purely negative definition -- atheism as the absence of theistic belief -- has a better pedigree than either the positive definition or the compromise (the rejection of theistic belief) defended by Edwards.

A provocative discussion of atheism is found in Michael Scriven's book Primary Philosophy. Even if one rejects Scriven's conclusion, his treatment is significant as an effort to sketch a methodological framework for atheism.

Scriven accepts the positive definition of atheism, but he denies that the theist and the atheist share equally the burden of proof. The atheist, Scriven maintains, need not prove the nonexistence of God in order to say that God does not exist. Rather, the burden falls upon the theist to prove the existence of (at least one) god, and if he fails in this attempt, "there is no alternative to atheism."[18]

Scriven concedes that the existence of a god cannot be directly disproved, but belief in such a being can be shown to be wholly unfounded, and this is sufficient grounds for atheism.

What, according to Scriven, is an unfounded claim? It is one that lacks both particular and general evidential support. Consider, for example, the claim, "The Loch Ness Monster exists." This claim lacks particular evidential support, but it is not contrary to past experience (we have discovered previously unknown species before), nor does it invoke supernaturalism. Thus, we should not brand the claim as false from lack of evidence alone; we should suspend judgment instead.

The case is different, Scriven maintains, when a claim lacks not only specific evidence but general support as well. This occurs in supernatural claims that are without precedence in our experience. Given the radical nature of these claims, they demand a high quality of evidence, and when such evidence is lacking, not mere suspension of judgment but explicit disbelief is the appropriate response.

Scriven illustrates his argument using Santa Claus as an example. We are justified in saying that Santa Claus does not exist even though no one has positively disproved his existence. As we mature, we realize that there are no reasons to believe in the existence of this being -- and this results, not in the suspension of judgment about Santa's existence (a kind of Santa agnosticism), but in the stronger claim that it is foolish even to believe in the likelihood of his existence. Because the belief in Santa lacks particular and general support, the proper alternative "is not mere suspension of belief, e.g., about Santa Claus; it is disbelief."[19] And so it goes, Scriven argues, with belief in a god.

One of the few modem philosophers to embrace the negative definition of atheism is Antony Flew in his article, "The Presumption of Atheism." According to Flew, the prefix "a" in "atheism" should have the same negative meaning as in words like "amoral," "atypical," and "asymmetrical." "In this interpretation," Flew argues, "an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist."[20]

Flew fears that this negative definition "may appear to be a piece of perverse Humpty Dumptyism, going arbitrarily against established common usage,"[21] so he presents compelling reasons to support what he sees as an unusual definition. Perhaps this was for the best, because the resulting article, "The Presumption of Atheism," is one of the finest pieces on atheism ever written. But Flew's negative definition is anything but perverse. On the contrary, it is a much-needed return to a grand tradition.

The technical problems of defining "atheism" may be divided into two categories: (1) etymological and (2) epistemological. (For the purpose of this discussion, I shall accept the common definition of "theism" as "belief in a god or gods.")

1. It is sometimes claimed that the chief etymological problem in defining "atheism" is how to construe the prefix "a." Should we regard it as a term of privation meaning "without," or should we regard it as a term of negation meaning "no"?

If we choose the privative meaning of "without," then "a-theism" will mean "without-theism" -- i.e., "without (or lacking) belief in a god or gods." This clearly supports the definition of atheism as the absence of theistic belief.

What if we construe the prefix "a" negatively to mean "no"? This has been preferred by those who wish to define atheism as the outright denial of God's existence. But consider: even the negative sense of "a" doesn't, by itself, give us this definition. "A-theism," with the negative "a," translates into "no-belief in a god or gods." Here again, we have an essentially privative definition -- atheism as the absence of theistic belief.

I suggest, therefore, that the real problem in defining "atheism" lies, not in the meaning of the prefix "a," but in determining precisely where that prefix should be inserted.

Atheism as outright denial can be achieved only if the negative "a" is used, not to qualify the entire meaning of "theism," but only part of it -- i.e., "a-theism" means "belief in no god or gods." In this interpretation, atheism is construed, not as the absence of a belief, but as a particular kind of belief.

The case for atheism as a kind of belief -- the belief in the nonexistence of God -- was championed by no less a figure than J.M. Robertson, the great historian of freethought. Robertson argued that any "ism," including atheism, implies that we are dealing with a positive belief or doctrine, not a simple privation. Contrary to Robertson's view, "-ism" can mean something other than a doctrine or belief; it can mean "a state or condition" as well. Thus, the privative definition of atheism is still possible. Atheism as the absence of belief can denote an "ism" -- a state of mind in which theistic belief is absent.

2. Linguistic arguments over the correct definition of "atheism" will solve little, because -- as philosophers like to remind us -- questions of word-meaning are ultimately determined by conventional usage, not by the decrees of linguistic "experts." But conventional usage does not solve the problem either, for we may ask: whose usage? During the McCarthy era, for example, atheism was commonly linked to communism. What, then, were noncommunistic atheists to do? Should they have stepped forward and defied conventional usage, thereby incurring the wrath of McCarthy, his goons, and philosophers?

Those philosophers who rely solely on "conventional usage" should recall that "atheism" has been used throughout history as a term of opprobrium, a veritable smear word. Indeed, until the eighteenth century, an "atheist" could be anyone who disagreed with one's own religious convictions -- a person who denied the divinity of Roman emperors, or who disbelieved in witchcraft, or who denied the Trinity, or who rejected infant baptism, or who maintained that philosophers should be free to seek the truth, wherever it may lead them.

Perhaps atheists can find refuge from the tyranny of "conventional meaning" in what philosophers call "technical, definitions." Thus, biologists are permitted to offer their own definition of "life," for example, without being overly concerned whether laymen (the conventional majority) agree with, or even know of, their definition. Similarly, professed atheists may have the epistemological right to define atheism, in the technical sense, as the "absence of theistic belief," even if most laymen (i.e., theists) disagree with that definition.

Or perhaps atheists can fall back on the rule of fundamentality, which says that a definition should identify the fundamental, or essential, attribute of the concept being defined. Obviously, the absence of theistic belief is more fundamental than the denial of theism, for the latter is a subset of the former. (One who denies the existence of God also lacks belief, but the reverse is not necessarily true: one who lacks belief in God does not necessarily deny its existence.)

According to this reasoning, one who denies God's existence is a legitimate atheist, but he subscribes to a particular species of atheism. If, however, we construe atheism as the denial of God's existence, then the person who merely lacks theistic belief is not a real atheist, but an imposter. This exclusion by definition, it seems to me, is ungracious, and it shows ignorance of what important atheists have argued for many years.

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Notes
1. Baron d'Holbach, Good Sense, 1772.
2. Charles Bradlaugh, The Freethinker's Text-Book (London, 1876).
3. J.M. Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1929).
4. Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels (Manchester, 1974).
5. Annie Besant, Why I Do Not Believe in God (London, 1887).
6. G. W. Foote, What Is Agnosticism (London, 1902).
7. Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia (London, 1950).
8. Chapman Cohen, Primitive Survivals in Modern Thought (London, 1935).
9. Richard Watson, A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (London, 1831).
10. Robert Flint, Agnosticism (Edinburgh, 1903).
11. A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic (London, 1936).
12. Ralph Cudworth, True Intellectual System of the Universe, 1678.
13. Holbach, Good Sense.
14. Baron d'Holbach, The System of Nature, 1770.
15. Besant, Why I Do Not Believe in God.
16. Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1973).
17. Ibid.
18. Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy, (New York, 1966).
19. Ibid.
20. Antony Flew, God, Freedom, and Immortality: A Critical Analysis, "The Presumption of Atheism" (Buffalo, N.Y., 1984), p. 14.
21. Ibid.

 

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