Is Atheism a Belief or a Lack of Belief?

September 4, 2013 | 13 comments

When asked to prove atheism is true, many atheists say that they don’t have to prove anything. They say atheism is not “belief there is no God” but merely “no belief in a God.” Atheism is defined in this context as a “lack of belief” in God, and if Catholics can’t prove God exists, then a person is justified in being an atheist. But the problem with defining atheism as simply “the lack of belief in God” is that there are already another group of people who fall under that definition: agnostics.

The "I Don't Know's"

Agnosticism (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis) is the position that a person cannot know if God exists. A strong agnostic is someone like skeptic Michael Shermer, who claims that no one is able to know if God exists. He writes, “I once saw a bumper sticker that read “Militant agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t either.” This is my position on God’s existence: I don’t know and you don’t either.”[i]

A weak agnostic merely claims that while he doesn’t know if God exists, it is possible that someone else may know. Agnosticism and weak atheism are very similar in that both groups claim to be “without belief in God.”[ii] Pope Benedict XVI spoke sympathetically of such people in a 2011 address:

In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: ‘There is no God.’ They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are ‘pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.’

A Difference Without a Distinction

Because agnosticism seems more open-minded than atheism, many atheists are more apt to describe themselves like agnostics, who likewise have “no belief in a God,” even though they call themselves “atheist.” They say that an atheist is just a person who lacks a belief in God but is open to being proven wrong. But saying you lack a belief in God no more answers the question, “Does God exist?” than saying you lack a belief in aliens answers the question, “Do aliens exist?”

This is just agnosticism under a different name.

For example, can we say agnosticism is true? We can’t, because agnostics make no claims about the world; they just describe how they feel about a fact in the world (the existence of God). Likewise, if atheists want us to believe that atheism is true, then they must make a claim about the world and show that what they lack a belief in—God—does not exist.

Belief on Trial

An illustration might help explain the burden of proof both sides share. In a murder trial the prosecution must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the murder. But if the prosecution isn’t able to make its case, then the defendant is found “not guilty.” Notice the defendant isn’t found “innocent.”

For all we know, he could have committed the crime, but we just can’t prove it. Certain kinds of evidence, like an air-tight alibi, can show the defendant is innocent. But it is the responsibility of the defense to present that evidence.

Likewise, even if the theist isn’t able to make his case that God exists that doesn’t show God does not exist and therefore that atheism is true. As atheists Austin Dacey and Lewis Vaughn write, “What if these arguments purporting to establish that God exists are failures? That is, what if they offer no justification for theistic belief? Must we then conclude that God does not exist? No. Lack of supporting reasons or evidence for a proposition does not show that the proposition is false.”[iii]

If he wants to demonstrate that atheism is true, an atheist would have to provide additional evidence that there is no God just as a defense attorney would have to provide further evidence to show his client is innocent as opposed to being just “not guilty.” He can’t simply say the arguments for the existence of God are failures and then rest his case.

(This blog post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Answering Atheism, now available for pre-order from Catholic Answers Press.)

[i] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain (Henry Holt and Co: New York, 2012) 175.

[ii] According to the Catechism, “Agnosticism can sometimes include a certain search for God, but it can equally express indifferentism, a flight from the ultimate question of existence, and a sluggish moral conscience. Agnosticism is all too often equivalent to practical atheism.” – CCC 2128

[iii] Austin Dacey and Lewis Vaughn. The Case for Humanism: An Introduction (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003) 162.

After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Trent Horn earned a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy from Holy Apostles College. 

He serves as a staff apologist for Catholic Answers and...

Comments by Members

#1  Christopher Bowen - Oceanside, California

Absolutely, identifying as agnostic would be much more intellectually honest, but it doesn't sound as cool and revolutionary as atheist.

September 4, 2013 at 4:07 pm PST
#2  Judy Bettinger - Westminster, Colorado

I posted this on Facebook, and got the following from my law-student niece:

"Except that defense attorneys never have to prove innocence because people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. So if they are found not guilty they are still presumed innocent and are considered innocent. The analogy doesn't really work."

In other words, I think that she's saying that from a legal perspective, "innocent" and "not guilty" are the same thing.

September 6, 2013 at 10:22 am PST
#3  Tad Cooke - reading,

You've shown a lack of understanding in terms here. Atheist does indeed mean simply without belief in a god, however agnostic has no reference to a deity. A-gnostic, without knowing.
I, and most other atheists who have taken tome to consider their position, would utterly agree with your main point of knowing that a god does not exist is intellectually dishonest, as it is unknowable and unprovable. As a gnostic theist however, you share this position.
The only honest position is agnostic, then you have to decide which is more likely given what we know about the world. I have reached the conclusion agnostic atheism is the only sensible outcome, so that is what I am, despite indoctrination into Christianity as a child.

September 8, 2013 at 2:35 am PST
#4  Vladimir Airapetian - Laurel, Maryland

I think agnosticism is a safe and honest way to stay neutral when you have no firm foundation of your views on the origin and evolution of the Universe. As a professional astrophysicist who started his scientific life in the "atheistic" Soviet Union in mid-180s, I classified myself as an agnostic because of the lack of coherent scientific picture with a lot of gaps in it. I could have been safely called an "agnostic of gaps" to be honest with my scientific approach. However, my move to "religious" America in early 90s coincided with the revolutionary discoveries by Hubble (where I have made contributions at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center), Spitzer and Hershel Space Telescopes completed my personal as well as objective scientific picture of the Universe. Moreover, the birth of a new science astrobiology formed as a result of the fusion between astrophysics and biology has delivered new facts that destroyed the last bastions of my "gaps" of agnosticism. Since early 2000s, I have transformed into an atheist who has a satisfactory picture of the "first kicks" to tell a coherent story of the Universe and the life origin on Earth without a "higher power of gaps". Believe me, it is very hard transformation given how much reading and thinking it takes to convince yourself, not take it on faith. I learned how brave and scientifically literate you should be to rely on a new objective picture rather than to follow much safer picture (that does need any proofs) of 2000-year old naive picture coming from the Bible stories. This explains why we so many agnostics in the US and in my own circle of friends who are trying to acquire the required critical mass of knowledge to become an "honest" and scientifically convinced atheist like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss. Otherwise, it would be a claim similar to religious claims.
As the most scientifically advanced country in the world, we need to rely on science facts and reasoning rather on blind faith.

September 8, 2013 at 10:34 am PST
#5  Morrie Chamberlain - Katy, Texas

The problem with atheists is that they take no effort to study logic and philosophy. Like the commenter above, the bible is not a science book and was never intended as such. The bible teaches about the dignity of man, sin, and redemption, and most of all God's love and his covenants with man. I do not turn to God to fill in gaps of knowledge.

September 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm PST
#6  Vladimir Airapetian - Laurel, Maryland

I do not need to taught about dignity because as a scientist I strongly believe that we, as human species, need to fight parasites on Earth for our ecologic niche. And when it comes to God you loose logic, because the bible is incredibly illogical book full of inconsistencies. This stimulates me to do good things not because your god will punish me, send me to hell or paradise with "tons of virgins". I am simply convinced that on psychological level I am living a full relaxing life full of happiness and kindness. I have a happy family with happy kids that love people around them and are free of fear of punishment from the "loving god". This is why I have never sinned on anyone and do not need a redemption especially from a poorly educated people called themselves messengers of god (or reverends). Why not to find way to unify people around real universe, rather than to separate them according to their "jesuses","muhammads", "buddas", "jahves", "zeuses", easter bunnies and leprechauns? The last two characters are not instructed by their gods to kill other people in their names. Let us not to fear, but love and study the Universe and understand our place in it.

September 8, 2013 at 4:46 pm PST
#7  leslie rodriguez - king city, California

A reply to above,

We have a need, a yearning, a desire for a greater Love. Nothing in this world can ever satisfy. Its inside us. we can have everything in the world we think as of 'success' and still that will not fulfill us. Our souls have a hunger for Love. we are made for more.
we also have moral accountability. we know what is right and wrong. its there in us;
lies have been told, things have been stolen..
We know we have all done things that are not good. That doesn't mean we are bad people. our behavior, choices and things we do or have done is different. But it can get better, we can be free from things that enslave us, we can be new individuals.
We should not fear, fear takes away one from God
The truth is, and in reality, we have done good things, and bad things. we know what those are, and we need so many savings from all things like those and more such as sorrow, grief, fears, addictions, need of healing, pain, envy,depression, hate, racism, ect; from no one but from Our Heavenly Father is all this truly possible by.

many seem to distant themselves from God and not believe because of moral accountability, because of sin, many don't like it. but we are responsible for the things we choose and chose to do or not. If they are right and wrong. and from those choices come consequences. it could be good, or not.
For example,
someone robs a house, they get arrested.
someone cheats on their bf, bf breaks up with her.
freeway speeding, chance of a ticket.
Studying for a test, passes with an A.
sleeping early, more rested for school.
healthier eating, healthier body.

God does Not punish. We have free will and He respects it so much that He allows what We choose to happen. This is 'punishment' which is not even punishment, its fair. But that doesn't mean He doesn't want to rescue us! He wants us near Him and is willing to bring us Home but we got to want that too, and He will always try to bring you Home no matter what. We're the ones who choose the yes or no.
He does not send people to hell, people send themselves.
Many wrongly presume what Faith is, what religion is, and Who God is.
He has a great beautiful plan for us all, we all have gifts and talents and to share, we are all Made In His Image. You are so Loved!! (:
Courage. We must open our hearts, the road to the brain and heart will be the longest journey ever, does He exist? is He real?
Trust. learn, get to know Him. as we get to know friends, we must get know Him too.

with Respect, thank you.
Have a Blessed day!

September 9, 2013 at 1:01 am PST
#8  Vladimir Airapetian - Laurel, Maryland

Thanks for your "message" from "Him". I do not understand why do you think He is "he", not "she" or a gay? Is man better than a woman? Have you seen his genitalia or genetic evidence of his manly features? How do you know his secret plan for all of us? This creature should be a very complicated being, perhaps, more complex than the Universe. What is his chemical composition?

Why would I need His love that is abstract, when I have love from my wife, kids, parents, relatives and friends. I understand if someone does not , then of course, you would search for love in the heavens.

What is sin? Your definition implies certain deviation of your rule that keeps people in fear. They have to obey your god, otherwise they have sinned. Let us apply logic equally when you take antibiotics (discovered using the scientific method) instead of calling your reverend and praying to god. Otherwise, you want to keep people in the darkness of your god and his Kingdom? What kingdom are you talking about? In the kingdom you have the king, the advisers, the servant and all social structure to intimidate people. Do you want to apply the same structure today? Where are you in this category? The king of the sheep to be used for the king's dinner? Please try to think about these "moral" questions before using "loud" sentences about "...get to know Him". And finally, let us try one session with a psychotherapist who will prescribe you a couple of nice psychotropic substances which will you to forget god. But you state that god is universal and his love and moral law are inside us no matter what? One small pill made by scientists can change your whole "internal Universe".

September 9, 2013 at 4:59 am PST
#9  Sophia Stone - New York, New York

This article is confusing technical terms for common use of language. Even the chart used as a visual aid is misleading. For example if I were to ask someone "Do leprechauns exist?" the common language answer would be "No." However, if I asked them , "Do leprechauns exists?" the technical answer would be, "I lack the belief in leprechauns."
The problem is that in common language we do not say things like, "I lack the belief that I have ten dollars in my pocket." It is more likely that a person would say, "No, I don't have ten dollars in my pocket." And for most practical applications, the former use of common language is accepted and works well in our daily lives.
A person can claim to know that there is no god, and he can also say that he is an atheist. I am sure that some people do! However, I would also say that most people who consider themselves to be an atheist do not accept the definition provided in the article. She might say that her lack of belief in a deity makes her an atheist; just as her lack of belief in fairies, makes her an a-fariest.
I believe that this article is making a straw man argument and then attacking it. Why is the author attacking the low-hanging fruit? The author is pretending that all atheists claim that they know that there isn't a deity, when that cannot be further from the truth.
In addition, I would like to point out that logically speaking, you cannot prove a negative, thus it is nonsensical to ask someone to prove that x doesn't exist.

September 9, 2013 at 1:07 pm PST
#10  Sophia Stone - New York, New York

Christopher Bowen,
"Absolutely, identifying as agnostic would be much more intellectually honest, but it doesn't sound as cool and revolutionary as atheist."

Also, identifying as an agnostic catholic would be much more intellectually honest, but it doesn't sound as cool and faithful as catholic.

September 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm PST
#11  Reuben Herrle - Oxford, Ohio


Yesterday and today I listened to your most recent "Why Are You an Atheist?" radio shows. I have a quick question regarding thoe show.

Why was it not brought up that, not only does science point toward the fact that our universe (along with any possible multi-verse or universe before ours) had a definite beginning, but also that our universe MUST have been created by something immaterial that transcends space and time simply because it is impossible for something - anything - to create itself.

I just thought this would have been effective when talking with callers about the origin of our universe.

As always, thanks for being on the air! You guys are awesome to listen to.

September 11, 2013 at 8:12 am PST
#12  Anonymous Freethinker - City, Federated States of Micronesia

I look at a person's faith existing on grid. One axis of the grid describes whether or not the person BELIEVES in a god. If the person does believe in a god, he/she is a theist. If the person does not, he/she is an atheist. The second axis describes whether or not a person claims to KNOW if a god exists or not. If the person does claim to know, he/she is a gnostic. If the person does not, he/she is an agnostic. Therefore, if a person believes in a god and claims to know that a god exists, that person is a gnostic theist. Likewise, if a person does not believe in a god and does not claim to know that a god does not exist, that person is an agnostic atheist.

January 22, 2014 at 1:05 pm PST

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