What is atheism, precisely? In modern discourse, atheism is often characterised as a lack of belief, specifically in deities. However, atheism is far from being a void. It inherently catalyses a variety of philosophical viewpoints and worldviews. These resulting beliefs, sprouting from what is ostensibly “non-belief,” create an intriguing paradox that prompts us to question: what is the true essence of atheism? Is it merely scepticism or denial? Does it invite a more complex and expansive array of thoughts, actions, and perceptions originating from this seeming non-belief?
Let’s start at the beginning: What does “belief” truly mean?
Our awareness and comprehension of the world around us translates into what we call “knowledge.” However, “belief” stretches beyond the simple apprehension of supposed facts. Knowledge is an understanding, a recognition of reality, but it doesn’t necessarily guide how we incorporate this understanding into our lives. On the other hand, belief is a confident acceptance of the truth of an idea or individual entity to such an extent that it can shape our personal values and actions. The more distinctive and influential a belief is, the more profoundly it should alter our lifestyle and behaviour.
Thus, the concept of belief is far more personal than mere knowledge. When we know something, we simply acknowledge its existence or truth from afar. However, when we embrace and rely on the truth of what we know, we elevate that knowledge into belief. Belief implies not just understanding, but also esteeming what we understand. This valuation is what shapes our interests and fuels our actions.
Consider something abstract like the concept of love. Many people “believe” in love. They have an understanding of what love is, based on their personal experiences, the culture they’re part of, the stories they’ve heard or read, and so on. But they also believe in the power of love to bring fulfilment, create strong bonds between individuals, and perhaps even to overcome difficulties or challenges.
Their belief in love might shape their values, decisions, and actions in significant ways. For example, it might influence how they interact with others, what they look for in a relationship, how they react to challenges or conflicts, and so on. They might make sacrifices for love, or take risks for it, driven by their belief in its importance and power.
In this example, love is not just a concept they understand or know about, but a belief they hold. It’s not just a fact or an idea to them, but a guiding principle that shapes their life. This highlights the difference between knowledge and belief. Belief transcends mere understanding or acknowledgement of a concept, such as love. It is not a simple recognition of truth; rather, it is a personal compass that directs our actions and constructs our worldview. I may tell you I think a bridge is strong, but when I drive an 18 ton truck over the bridge you will see that I truly believe in the bridge. Unlike knowledge, which confirms the truth of something, a belief embraces this truth and uses it to shape our life, dictating our values and behaviours. Hence, belief isn’t just cognitive acceptance of truth, it’s a guiding principle.
So, in philosophical terms, how should we understand atheism, and can it be compared to a belief system? Does it present any specific assertions, and does it carry any degree of certainty in these claims? Furthermore, how might these aspects impact one’s values in life? As we are about to explore, the term “atheism” can be employed in a variety of contexts, with its classification as a belief system depending on the specific definition applied. The word “atheism” is polysemous—it has multiple related meanings.
Strong or weak? The different faces of atheism
The psychological perspective
From a psychological perspective, which focuses on personal experiences and expressions, atheism denotes the absence of belief in God or gods, thereby identifying an atheist as someone who is not a theist.
For instance, picture this: we stride into an imposing, grandiose building. I proceed to convey to you that the harmonious blend of splendid features before us was birthed from the mind of a celebrated architect. Yet, despite the tradition of architects being the masterminds behind such structures, you find yourself mired in doubt. While experience shows that minds have the ability to create complex and organised systems, often being the source of such creations, the actual architect behind them remains unknown to you; the original blueprint, the true testament to this creative process, is something you have yet to witness. While the probability of an alternate explanation seems scant, scepticism retains a firm grip over your perspective. The question persists – might there be another force, a force other than a human architect, that orchestrated this building’s existence? Your stance does not include outright denial of the architect’s existence, rather, it encapsulates your feeling of not having chanced upon sufficient evidence to wholeheartedly assert that there was indeed such an architect.
In parallel fashion, the atheist, when confronted with the concept of a God or deities, finds themselves devoid of belief due to what they regard as an insufficiency of credible, compelling empirical evidence. But let’s clear the stage of misconceptions; the matter doesn’t always orbit around a supposed dearth of evidence. Many atheists, having engaged with ancient texts such as the Old Testament, find certain portrayals of deities to be unappealing, or even morally objectionable. They might also grapple with the philosophical implications of a world that contains so much suffering, ostensibly under the watch of an all-powerful being. It is not unreasonable then to suggest that there are atheists who, driven by their personal distaste of God, employ their intellect as a tool to scrutinise and traverse every conceivable loophole that might spare them the need to entertain the existence of a divine entity. Similarly, there are theists who might employ a comparable approach, utilising intellect to find justification for the notion of God, often driven by the desire of avoiding the amoral implications of nihilism and the comforting prospect of life after death.
So, the atheist isn’t necessarily a denier of the potential existence of God, rather, they remain unconvinced and/or resistant to the notion of God’s existence.
The philosophical perspective
That’s psychology for you, but in philosophy things are a bit different. From a philosophical perspective, which deals more with abstract debates and logical reasoning about the nature of belief and existence, the term “atheism” takes on a more complex nuance. Here, atheism often refers to the assertion that God (or gods) do not exist. Simply suspending judgement on God’s existence, which implies a lack of theistic belief, does not suffice to classify one as an atheist in this context. The criteria demands an explicit denial of the existence of God or gods.
This metaphysical understanding of atheism has had widespread acceptance, favoured not only among theistic philosophers but also many atheistic philosophers. This consensus is well-articulated by atheistic philosopher Robin Le Poidevin, who writes “An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives his life without reference to such a being” (1996: xvii). Similarly, J. L. Schellenberg upholds that in philosophical parlance, “in philosophy, the atheist is not just someone who doesn’t accept theism, but more strongly someone who opposes it.” In other words, it is “the denial of theism, the claim that there is no God.”
Support for this definition is also found in various authoritative sources like philosophical dictionaries and encyclopedias. As an example, the Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy reads, “Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief” (2000: 62). Echoing this sentiment, the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy recognises multiple senses of the word “atheism”, but is clear about which is standard in philosophy. It describes atheism as:
“the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in god and is consistent with agnosticism [in the psychological sense]. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no god; this use has become standard.”Pojman 2015
Until recently, this metaphysical understanding of atheism has been a firmly established norm in philosophical discourse. Atheist philosophers like Graham Oppy, author of ‘Arguing About Gods’, treat “agnostic” and “atheist” as mutually exclusive categories. For Oppy, an agnostic, in the psychological sense, is someone who suspends judgement about God’s existence, which stands in contrast to an atheist, who actively denies such existence. This distinction is made without any need for justification, suggesting the deeply ingrained nature of this metaphysical interpretation of atheism.
Interestingly, there has been a discernible shift in the interpretation of atheism. A few philosophers and many non-philosophers alike advocate for a psychological perspective of atheism, departing from the philosophical norm. They define an “atheist” not as someone who definitively denies the existence of God (or gods), but as someone who simply lacks belief in God. This psychological interpretation focuses on the state of non-belief, presenting atheism as something other than a propositional statement, even if theism is a propositional statement.
Philosopher Antony Flew famously proposed this perspective (1972), and it has been subsequently supported in texts like the Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Bullivant & Ruse 2013). This interpretation is considered more encompassing, able to unite a range of atheistic positions under one umbrella term.
Within this framework, you can use adjectives like “strong” and “weak” (or “positive” and “negative”) to develop a taxonomy that differentiates various degrees of atheism. “Strong” or “positive” atheism refers to an explicit belief that there is no God (or gods), while “weak” or “negative” atheism represents a mere absence of belief. This means that atheism isn’t necessarily an outright denial of God’s existence, but can also represent a simple rejection of theistic belief. This perspective has led many atheists to identify their worldview as one of non-belief or disbelief, rather than belief. Many “weak atheists” may even describe themselves as “agnostic atheists,” asserting they aren’t obligated to defend their worldview since they’re making no explicit claim about God’s existence.
To elucidate these categories, picture a scenario where you approach me asserting the existence of extraterrestrial life, fortified by a suite of supportive reasons. Despite your fervour, I remain unpersuaded. My initial response might be, “I’m not categorically refuting the existence of extraterrestrial life. Rather, I’m conveying that the evidence provided doesn’t convince me yet.” This open-minded scepticism signifies a willingness to accept the claim but a need for more compelling evidence.
Conversely, I might adopt a more assertive stance, stating, “Given my current understanding and the evidence at hand, I don’t believe there is extraterrestrial life.” This outright disagreement, fuelled by my personal interpretation of available information, expresses a definitive stance.
These responses epitomise two shades of disbelief: the first suggests a judgement suspended until the arrival of more persuasive evidence, while the latter expresses a firm stance born out of personal evaluation. In the realm of atheism, my initial response can be classified as “weak atheism”– a stance of reserved judgement due to a lack of compelling evidence. In contrast, my second response mirrors “strong atheism”– a stance that outrightly rejects the claim after evaluating the available evidence.
Rethinking atheism: Beyond the non-belief paradigm
The discourse around atheism often straddles a nuanced line. On one hand, atheism is understood as a psychological state, essentially the absence of belief in God or gods. On the other, atheism is construed as a propositional statement, outrightly denying the existence of such divine entities. This dichotomy brings us to an interesting point of contention, as proposed by Bullivant, defending Flew’s definition of atheism.
However, issues soon arise, particularly in the case of what Bullivant terms “strong atheism” – the belief that God does not exist. If we were to define atheism as a psychological state, then no proposition, including strong atheism, could be considered a form of atheism, given that a proposition isn’t a psychological state. Consequently, this weakens Bullivant’s defence of Flew’s definition of atheism and suggests that strong atheism, or positive atheism as some refer to it, is excluded from his overarching definition of atheism. Put simply, the umbrella term that Bullivant proposes ironically leaves strong atheism exposed and isolated.
Although Flew’s definition of atheism may not function effectively as a comprehensive term, it still holds some legitimacy as it represents the way a significant portion of people interpret and use the term. The popular trend towards defining atheism in such a way is likely driven by the power found within collective identity. Flew’s all-encompassing definition of atheism brings under its scope anyone not subscribed to theism, thus effectively amplifying the sociopolitical influence of the atheist community. However, for the realm of philosophy, the key concern lies in determining the definition of atheism that is most beneficial for scholarly and philosophical pursuits. The quest for a definition that is consistent, clear, and useful for meaningful philosophical discourse becomes essential in this context.
Philosophically speaking, atheism is most accurately defined as the belief that God doesn’t exist. This offers a more precise philosophical understanding, stepping away from broad, all-encompassing definitions that, as I will illustrate, can lead to problematic interpretations.
For instance, the psychological definition, despite its brevity, requires refining to avoid labelling beings such as infants, pets, or inanimate objects like rocks as atheists, merely due to their lack of capacity to understand or believe in God. It’s fair to say that a newborn baby lacks belief in God, simply because they can’t yet grasp such concepts, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to sweepingly categorise all babies, rocks and subatomic particles as atheists. That’s a sneaky way to grow your numbers. While this flaw is relatively easy to overlook, others are more challenging. For example, imagine someone who doesn’t firmly acknowledge that God exists but leans towards the idea it’s more likely that God exists than not. They aren’t exactly confessing theists, but calling them atheists would be counterintuitive.
The psychological definition also tends to label some people who practice religious rituals as atheists. Here’s the kicker: even dedicated members of religious communities sometimes aren’t 100% confident that God exists. Just like anyone, they have moments of doubt or disbelief. These moments don’t define them; they’re just part of their spiritual journey. It seems a bit off-track to label these folks as atheists just because they’re in the middle of wrestling with their faith.
Atheism and theism: parallel philosophical propositions
Another reason to lean towards the standard philosophical definition of atheism is its symmetry with theism. Defining atheism as a psychological state creates a mismatch since theism isn’t defined that way. Instead, theism, like most philosophical “isms,” is understood as a proposition or statement that can be argued and evaluated for truth or falsehood. Remember, while psychological states might guide our responses, they can’t be objectively true or false, nor can they form the conclusion of philosophical arguments. Yes, theism is defined as “the belief that God exists,” but this “belief” references what’s believed, not the mental state of believing. So, if theism is the proposition that God exists and a theist is someone who believes this proposition, then it’s logical to define atheism and atheist in a similar manner. That means we should consider atheism as a proposition or statement that can be argued, and an atheist as someone who believes this statement. Since it is natural to define “atheism” in terms of theism, it is therefore more intuitive to understand the “a-” in “atheism” as negation (“not”) rather than absence (“without”). In other words, atheism becomes the denial, the contradiction of theism rather than its absence, unless we have compelling reasons to think otherwise.
Furthermore, there’s a strong argument for looking at atheism philosophically, due to its noticeable impact on culture. As a matter of fact, atheism tends to magnetise beliefs such as naturalism and scientism — the notion that natural science can answer all questions. It’s not just a mere coincidence that many atheists share these beliefs; atheism is the driving force behind this clustering. Atheism, philosophically understood as the view that there is no God, seems to naturally invite naturalism as an ally, claiming a clear divide between the divine and reality.
Atheism also frequently prompts action, suggesting it functions like a belief system. Take Richard Dawkins, the well-known atheist, who penned ’The God Delusion’ out of his view that there isn’t a God. This shared view probably led many sceptics to buy and endorse the book. Atheists write book after book insisting that God is out of a job because of quantum theory, multiple universes, evolution and so on. While none of those atheistic arguments succeed in proving there is no God, they do prove that atheists don’t merely lack a belief in God – they believe in certain theories to explain reality without God.
Take a peek into the digital realm and you’ll find a vibrant congregation of atheists actively immersing themselves in various atheism-centric pursuits. They explore critical-thinking forums, enjoy thought-provoking podcasts, and regularly take to social media to articulate their perspectives. Their involvement, however, isn’t confined to the online space. Atheism prompts tangible action in the offline world too, like engaging in atheistic networks, participating in secular humanist events, or proudly exhibiting thought-provoking atheist artwork. Some go as far as proudly displaying clever atheist bumper stickers on their vehicles, making their stance known in the public realm. For a supposedly passive non-belief, atheism certainly fosters a notable level of activity.
Moreover, atheism often serves as an identity marker, much like religious or political affiliations. As Christians find their identity in their belief in Jesus’ divinity, and political parties unite under their policies, so too do many atheists use their disbelief as a defining characteristic. Notably, they often introduce themselves as atheists, indicating that this worldview isn’t just a peripheral aspect of who they are, but instead, an integral part of their identity. These self-identifying atheists form communities based on shared philosophical perspectives, further evidencing the sense of belonging and unity that this worldview fosters. This level of communal participation and identity formation is at odds with the notion of atheism being a mere “non-belief.” For instance, people don’t commonly identify as “anti-toothfairy” or gather to form communities anchored in the disbelief in Santa Claus. The very existence of well-knit atheist communities indicates that atheism, far from being a simple absence of belief, plays a crucial role in shaping individuals’ identities and social interactions. In this context, atheism functions as a glue, binding people together despite other differences – similar to how faith in Jesus unites Christians from diverse backgrounds. If atheism were merely an absence of belief, its role as an identity marker becomes challenging to explain. Thus, it might be reasonable to propose that atheism is indeed a belief system, just like other beliefs, be they political or religious, that can form part of an individual’s or community’s identity.
Atheism displays the hallmarks of a belief – it looks, functions, and behaves like one.
Therefore, considering these factors, it’s clearer and more logical for philosophers to view atheism as the stance that God does not exist, or, in broader terms, that there are no divine entities at all. Remember, a proposition is a statement that affirms or denies something and is capable of being either true or false. The term “atheism” should refer to this proposition, while “atheist” denotes those who accept this proposition as true.
The fundamental philosophical assertion of atheism is that there is no personal transcendent reality underpinning our natural world. This assertion has profound implications for those who identify with it. For instance, atheists usually draw their moral and ethical principles from secular sources like humanism, instead of religious or divine mandates. They may perceive the purpose and meaning of life as illusionary, based on deeply subjective experiences, not ordained by any supernatural entity. Predominantly, such individuals may endorse a naturalistic reductionist worldview.
In philosophical discourse, the traditional definition of atheism is particularly useful as it directly addresses the metaphysical question, “does God exist?” Responses can affirm this proposition (“yes,” indicating theism), deny it (“no,” indicating atheism), or adopt a non-committal stance (“I don’t know,” “no one knows,” “I don’t care,” or “an affirmative answer has never been established,” characteristic of agnosticism).
Agnosticism traditionally neither affirms nor denies the existence of God. Ultimately, proponents of a particular assertive viewpoint bear the responsibility of substantiating their belief. Affirmations require reasons for their validity, denials necessitate an explanation for their denial, while only those who withhold judgement can adopt an equivocal position on the matter. Aldous Huxley’s principle of agnosticism says that it is incorrect to say that one knows or believes that a proposition is true without logically satisfactory evidence (Huxley 1884 and 1889). Huxley argued that neither theism nor atheism presents adequate evidence, thus we should suspend judgement on the existence of God. Nowadays, an agnostic is often defined as a person who, having contemplated the proposition of God’s existence, neither accepts it as true nor rejects it as false. Not surprisingly, then, the term “agnosticism” is often defined, both in and outside of philosophy, not as a principle or any other sort of proposition, but instead as the psychological state of being an agnostic. So, if you’re not certain on the “God” question, doubtful of the positive claim that “there is a God”, or that “there isn’t a God”; then maybe it’s time to drop your atheism, accept ignorance and sit with the agnostics.
Based on the previous establishment, atheists are also tasked with defending their proposition (that God does not exist and that the world can be understood from this perspective), much like theists are required to justify their belief in God. Both claims, in essence, need to be supported with reason and evidence. Often, the theist is challenged to prove the existence of God, while the atheist is absolved from the responsibility of proving that there is no God and that such a proposition can make sense of the world.
At this juncture, one might pose a question, “According to your standpoint, must I also defend my position on the non-existence of entities like the tooth fairy, the flying spaghetti monster, or a teapot revolving around Jupiter?” To address this, it is critical to differentiate between passive non-beliefs and active assertions about the state of reality. The passive non-beliefs, which pertain to an endless list of entities and phenomena, demand no validation, primarily as they bear no influence on our thoughts or actions. For instance, there is no impetus for one to write a detailed argument debunking the flying spaghetti monster because this passive non-belief does not engender any tangible consequences in one’s life or dictate their philosophical standpoint. Conversely, active assertions, such as articulating a reasoned conviction that we live in a purely naturalistic, self-referring, Godless universe, fall into a distinct category. These are not just non-beliefs but claims about the state of reality that indeed foster philosophical shifts, alter life priorities, and shape value systems. Such assertions stand on a premise that goes beyond simple non-belief, extending to a defined stance on the nature of reality. Consequently, they necessitate justification, as they are grounded in a structured belief system that actively influences one’s approach to life and the understanding of the universe.
To adopt the psychological understanding of atheism in philosophical discussions by adhering to the mere “lack of belief” notion, allows the atheist to avoid the rational responsibility of having to defend the claim that God does not exist. This means the atheist can happily deconstruct the worldview of others or demand justification of their belief without having to put in the effort to justify their own belief. It allows the atheist to avoid any intellectual responsibility and so encourages intellectual cowardice. Over and over again, I witness atheists ask questions that are manufactured to trip up the theist, while having no answers to the questions themselves. Many atheists ask questions for which they admittedly have no answers or believe the answers to be “on hold,” but we are expected to give credence to the whole worldview for merely raising the question. You cannot deny the existence of God without holding an entire raft of beliefs about the nature of the world. Everyone carries the responsibility of substantiating their standpoint, including atheists. This is why I find debates centred on “what provides a more compelling explanation of reality: atheism or theism?” more insightful. It then becomes clear that both debaters shoulder the burden of proof to substantiate their viewpoint.
Atheists, then, are tasked with more than just identifying perceived flaws in theistic perspectives. The concept of a world without God logically implies a naturalistic worldview, and thus atheists carry the intellectual duty of offering materialistic explanations for phenomena such as the origin of the universe, its fine-tuning, the laws of nature, logic, mathematics, consciousness and the inception of life – all within the purview of naturalism. They are called upon to craft convincing arguments demonstrating how such a complex and intricately ordered world could possibly arise from processes that are void of any conscious direction or deliberation, underpinned by coincidence. The notion that our sophisticated, orderly universe and everything it encompasses might just be a product of happenchance calls for a plausible explanation, underpinned by solid reasoning and empirical evidence.
In addition, atheists find themselves confronted with the challenge of making sense of metaphysical constructs like the mind, consciousness, free will, and morality from a wholly materialistic standpoint. Can the foundations of morality truly be reduced down to mere physical phenomenon? Can consciousness, with its complex array of subjective experiences, be entirely encapsulated within the boundaries of a naturalistic worldview? These are pressing questions that demand substantial exploration and explanation under the lens of atheistic naturalism. Of course this goes both ways, the theist also shares this explanatory burden. In the end, the proponents of each claim, positive or negative, must make their case, but both stand side by side in the dock.
To claim that atheism is not a worldview is like saying anarchy is not really a political position. An anarchist might say that she simply “rejects politics,” but she is still confronted with the inescapable problem of how human society is to organise itself, whether she likes the idea of someone being in charge or not. Likewise, atheists can say they just “reject God” but they are still confronted with the inescapable problem of how to explain ultimate reality. Just as anarchists affirm the positive belief that anarchy is the best way to organise society, atheists affirm the positive belief that atheistic naturalism is the best way to explain ultimate reality.
You see, really, everybody believes something. As the French philosopher Julia Kristeva put it, “we all have this incredible need to believe.” It isn’t enough to merely challenge others to “prove your religion to me” while choosing to remain passive and silent about your own convictions. Everyone possesses beliefs that are fundamental to their identity – beliefs that influence actions, shape personalities, and bear significant implications. Such profound convictions call for rational justification. Atheists who attempt to evade this intellectual responsibility may recall the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, who famously stated: “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Yes, quite right too…
In an atheistic framework, virtues and values are often considered emergent properties of physical processes, rather than intrinsic objective truths. Your worldview needs to grapple with the objective status of these values and virtues: Can they be objectively true in a universe devoid of a divine moral lawgiver, or are they subjective constructs that merely serve evolutionary or societal purposes, devoid of any intrinsic obligation?
You must also make sense of love, the value of life and the existence of real evil from an atheistic perspective. Does the materialistic ontology inherent in atheism allow for an objective valuation of life? Can we make universally constraining ethical statements or do these concepts become a matter of subjective preference under an atheistic lens? Ultimately, atheism doesn’t absolve you from explaining your perspective, rather it presents a different set of questions and challenges to engage with.
This is where I believe atheism often falters: it lacks the explanatory power to justify universally accepted concepts like love and objective morality. It is hard to comprehend how the belief that everything originated from effectively nothing (however defined), devoid of any guiding intelligence, can serve as the foundation for an entire worldview that adequately caters to questions of meaning and morality. This apparent inadequacy renders atheism an unsatisfying perspective on life, as it struggles to fully comprehend the nuances of the human condition.
In my encounters, I’ve discerned two distinctive approaches among atheists towards religious and spiritual dialogues. One group adopts a somewhat combative and dismissive demeanour, possibly utilising strawman tactics to simplify or misrepresent theistic arguments for easier rebuttal or dismissal. Sometimes, hidden behind an alleged absence of a worldview, they may dismiss the notion that they propose any specific standpoint, thus, in their perspective, circumventing the need to defend a position. Their debate style often pivots on the assertion, “I’m not convinced,” without presenting a solid counter-argument or deeply engaging with the offered ideas. With a tendency to skirt around philosophical understandings and often resorting to insults, engaging with this group is not the most fruitful use of time.
Conversely, another cohort of atheists proactively engages in dialogue, affirming their worldview while also earnestly striving to understand and represent opposing views accurately. They frequently utilise “steel man” arguments, presenting and engaging with the most formidable form of counter viewpoints. Interaction with this group can often facilitate enlightening debates and meaningful exchange of ideas. I enjoy talking with these atheists.
After reflecting on discussions with the latter group, I have come to view philosophical atheism as intellectually unsustainable. While considering the evidence, I lean towards suggesting that atheists might fruitfully explore agnosticism. Taking things a step further: from my perspective, any worldview should satisfactorily address four pivotal questions: origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. Moreover, the responses must form a coherent whole. For me, it is only the Christian worldview that offers responses to these four questions with logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and experiential relevance.