A Philosophical Definition of Atheism

5 01 2011


The definition of atheism appears to be an issue for some atheists. This is because in reality they are agnostics who don’t know what they believe (pun intended). Atheists will often tell you that there are two varieties of atheism: strong or positive atheism and weak or negative atheism. But if we don’t first define atheism, this distinction is meaningless. Only then we can add attributes such as strong or weak.

So what is atheism? Atheism is the negative or denial of theism: the existence of God. Thus the atheist holds to a specific view, s/he takes a specific standpoint in a discussion, s/he makes a knowledge claim, namely that God does not exist. In a debate between a theist and an atheist about the existence of God, the atheist takes the side that contradicts the question.

Just as there are varieties of theism, such as Christian, Jewish or Muslim theism, there are varieties of atheism, such as Hegelian, humanistic or naturalistic atheism. So note that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply naturalism, the denial of the supernatural. Naturalism is necessarily atheism, but atheism is not necessarily naturalism. An Hegelian atheist, for example, believes in a world spirit, a supernatural reality that is manifested in the collective products of the human mind, such as art, culture and philosophy. Yet he denies the existence of a personal, all-powerful, all-loving and morally perfect Creator, which is theism.

Contrary to what some people will make you believe, atheism is not the lack of belief in God or something like the default position. That’s rather agnosticism. An agnostic simply doesn’t know whether God exists. Let’s define knowledge as justified true belief. If knowledge is justified belief in the truth, then a lack of knowledge is consequently a lack of belief. Knowledge is necessarily belief. Without belief you can’t have knowledge. Disbelief is a form of uncertainty or doubt with respect to the truth. Always take this distinction into account.

There are also varieties or degrees of agnosticism:

  • standard agnosticism: “I don’t know whether God exists. It could be true, it could be false.”
  • skepticism: “I don’t know whether God exists, but I very much doubt it / don’t believe it.”
  • fundamental agnosticism: “I can’t know whether God exists. God is unknowable.”

Note that, while a skeptic simply doesn’t believe in the proposition: God exists, an atheist has justified belief in the falsehood of this proposition, s/he knows that the proposition “God exists” is false and thus asserts that its negative “God does not exist” is true. Strong or weak atheism, then, does not depend on the degree of certainty, but on the justification. A strong atheist has strong, positive arguments for his belief, a weak or negative atheist has no or little justification, but only demolishes the arguments of the theist (which doesn’t make atheism stronger, but only makes theism weaker). At any rate, whether weak or strong, an atheist still makes a knowledge claim, an agnostic or skeptic doesn’t.

So, summing up, how would you answer the question: Does God exist? and check to what position you belong:


COPYRIGHT © 2011 Life put in perspective by Harry Buckley. All rights reserved.

The original video uploaded on the YouTube channel YouApologetics:

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