Definition of “Atheist”
Ship It Post #
Feb 10, 2022
Continuing the series started in: Fools say, “There is no God”
When Christians think of an atheist, what may come to mind is a stereotype: someone who is outspoken, anti-religion, immoral, nihilistic, and angry at God (as if you can be angry at someone you don’t believe exists. Only theists can be angry at a God). Sure, there are some atheists may who fit most of that description. But not most. It’s an inaccurate reflection on the diversity of atheists. It’s just like imagining all Christians being like Westboro Baptist Church members.
Atheism is a position on only one issue: lacking belief in a deity. It is not a moral position (like secular humanism is). There is no such thing as an “atheist lifestyle,” because atheism doesn’t limit you to a single worldview or way to experience the world. There is as much variety in atheists as there is in theists. It’s even possible to be atheist and still follow a religious tradition.* Being an atheist doesn’t make one rational or irrational. (Their reasoning determines that, and there are atheists in both categories.) Although many American Evangelical Christians like to paint things differently (with their persecution complex), atheists are a minority in the USA and globally.
* Christian atheism - rejects the theistic claims of Christianity, but draws its beliefs and practices from Jesus' life and/or teachings as recorded in the New Testament Gospels and other sources.
The term “atheist” can be confusing because there are conflicting views on its definition. Each row in the table below is a set of labels that can be used together to distinguish among 3 different positions:
Positive belief: There is a God
Neutral position: lack of conviction either way
Positive belief: There is no God
Most of the Christians I’ve come across use the bottom row. However, this a confusion based on the Greek roots of “(a)gnostic” and “(a)theist”:
- gnostos - “known”
- theos - “god”
Gnosticism is a position on whether something is knowable. It’s a claim on knowledge. Theism is a position on the existence of a God or gods. (The “a-” Greek prefix means “not”)
Gnosticism and theism are 2 different categories with 4 possible combinations:
1. Gnostic Theist
2. Agnostic Theist
4. Gnostic Atheist
3. Agnostic Atheist
- Gnostic Theist - believes a deity exists and claims to know this with certainty.
- Agnostic Theist - believes a deity exists, but doesn’t claim this is knowable. (Faith is necessary.)
- Agnostic Atheist - lacks belief in any deity, but doesn’t know for sure that there’s no deity.
- Gnostic Atheist - believes no deity exists and is certain of this. *
* This can also be referred to as “antitheist”; opposition to the theist position. (Greek prefix “anti-” means “against.”)
The theist/atheist positions can be broken down further to describe spectrums of certainty:
Strong positions (leaning towards gnostic) are dogmatic in nature. Weak positions (leaning towards agnostic) are skeptical in nature.
Agnostic atheism is the default skeptical (and rational) position when there is insufficient evidence for either the existence or non-existence of a deity.
Christians often misrepresent atheism and use the strawman view of all atheists holding the strong, gnostic position (“there is no God”). With this, Christians try to shift their own burden of proof for the claim: “there is a God.” They might say, “You have no evidence that there isn’t a God!” Certainly, someone who claims “there is no God” has a burden of proof. But the most common atheist position is: “a lack of belief in any deity.” Since they are not making any claims, they don’t have a burden of proof.
I don’t know why, but it seems hard for many outspoken Christians to grasp the difference between:
- “a lack of belief in the existence of God” and
- “a (strong) belief in the non-existence of God”
One of these is a skeptical position, reserving judgment. The other is a dogmatic position, making a claim.
It’s these dogmatic-leaning claims that have the burden of proof. They require evidence to be presented in support of their position before it can be rationally accepted. Christians* don’t like this because they are often the ones that end up with the burden of proof. They act as if it’s not fair that non-believers aren’t required to prove the position of their non-belief. That is the nature of having faith in something. If there is sufficient evidence for a claim, then it is easily believable without needing faith. Rejecting claims that lack sufficient evidence is not the same as taking the opposite position. It’s not binary. There is a null position. Not accepting “there is a God” isn’t the same as asserting “there is no God.”
* Especially Christians who are gnostic theists.** Christian agnostics usually don’t feel a strong need to proselytize and convince others of their beliefs.
** (not to be confused with the ancient Gnosticism movement)
Hitchens’s razor: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”
Let’s say Person #1 claims: “The universe was created by millions of invisible, purple fairy unicorns.” If Person #2 does not see valid evidence for Person #1’s claim, the burden would not be on Person #2 to present evidence that contradicts or disproves Person #1. Person #1 must support their own claim if they want to be taken seriously. Person #2 doesn’t need to take the opposite position to reject Person #1’s baseless assertion. This logic applies in exactly the same way if we replace “millions of invisible, purple fairy unicorns” with “the God of the Bible.”
So the question is: is there sufficient evidence for the God of the Bible? (And what determines whether evidence is “sufficient”?) (to be continued)
P.S. There are additional labels and combinations of labels that I don’t go into detail here.
ignostic - the idea that the question of the existence of God is meaningless because the word "God" has no coherent and unambiguous definition.