Some time ago, I saw an atheist list things that exasperate him, one of which is when his fellow atheists say that rocks are atheists. A prominent atheist, exhibiting no sympathy at all, insisted in response that, yes, indeed, “Rocks are atheist.”
Usually, this happens when someone defines atheism as “the lack or absence of belief” in God and then allows the definition to apply to anything that “lacks belief in God”—even if it’s a rock, which lacks the ability to have beliefs. Maybe that’s why this prominent atheist said rocks are atheist rather than atheists in order to distinguish between human beings who lack belief in God and everything else in the world that also happens to “lack a belief in God.”
Now, this might seem nitpicky to you. Who cares if atheists define themselves as people who “lack a belief in God” (or what some critics have termed lack-theism)? But the problem is that when some atheists do this, they think this removes any need to defend their atheism. They might say they don’t need reasons to lack belief in God any more than you or I need reasons to lack belief in Santa Claus or unicorns. If Santa, unicorns, and God can’t be proven, then we are justified in merely having a “lack of belief” in those things.
But this approach doesn’t work because it misunderstands the nature of belief, the nature of knowledge, and even the classical understanding of “atheism.” To see why, let’s look at some common reasons to defend lack-theism.
“Atheism isn’t a belief. It’s just a lack of belief.”
Defining atheism in this way makes it really . . . boring. Instead of making a claim about the world, this is just an claim about an individual’s psychology. And it’s not even an interesting claim, since there are an almost infinite number of beliefs that people “lack” (think of all the facts you’ll never read in encyclopedias). This shows that a person can “lack” a belief for multiple reasons. Fine, but what we really want to know is not that a person lacks a belief in X, but why he lacks a belief in X. Here are a few options:
- They aren’t capable of holding belief X.
- They’ve never thought about belief X.
- They see no reason to think belief X is true.
- They see reasons to think belief X is false.
Atheistic philosopher Graham Oppy calls those who fall under options one and two “innocents” because they do not possess the concept of God. He writes, “Examples of innocents include: infants, those with advanced Alzheimer’s, adults who never acquire the concept of God, and so forth. In all of these cases, there is failure to believe that there are gods but not atheism.”
But most people who self-identify as atheists and engage in discourse about atheism seem to have given the issue some thought, so they would probably fall under option three or four, and it would be fair to ask them which option best describes their position on God’s existence.
“You are confusing knowledge with belief. An agnostic says he doesn’t know if God exists. An atheist says he does not believe that God exists. An agnostic atheist, therefore, is someone who does not believe that God exists but doesn’t claim to know that God does not exist.”
The problem with this reply is that it doesn’t tell us the relevant difference between knowledge and belief. Traditionally, philosophers have held that knowledge is not an alternative to belief. It is instead a subset of belief. In other words, any claim of knowledge would also be a belief, but not all beliefs count as knowledge. One standard (yet imperfect) definition of knowledge is justified true belief.
Imagine I guess it’s raining in Portland, since it often rains there, and it turns out that it is indeed raining in Portland. I would have a true belief about rain in Portland, but I didn’t know that it was raining in Portland. My belief was unjustified. However, if I had a good reason to believe that it was raining in Portland (like looking at a weather app), then I could say I know it’s raining in Portland.
Notice that justification doesn’t require one-hundred-percent confidence or absolute proof. I can know it is raining there even though weather apps are sometimes wrong. This is important because some atheists think people cannot claim “God does exist” or “God does not exist” unless they have complete certainty. But hardly any of our knowledge rises to that level of justification, yet we know a great many things.
Under this view, an “agnostic atheist” would be someone who lacks belief in God but doesn’t have any justification (or good reasons) for why he doesn’t believe in God. That might sound harsh, but if “rocks are atheist,” then they would certainly be “agnostic atheist.” And if the rejection of a belief is an important part of one’s identity, then that person should have good reasons for the rejection. Notice how former pastor Dan Barker defines his atheism: “Theists do not have a god: they have a belief. Atheism is the lack of theism, the lack of belief in god(s). I am an atheist because there is no reason to believe.”
Barker describes his interior psychological state, and he makes a claim about the world: that “there is no reason to believe” that God exists. When I ask atheists to defend this claim, many respond with “Well, show me the reason to believe!” But this illicitly shifts the burden of proof.
Imagine that one of Oppy’s “innocents” just learned about the concept of God and asked an “agnostic atheist” to defend the claim “there are no good reasons to believe God exists.” This “innocent” could point out that theists at least claim there are good reasons to believe in God, so the atheist needs to show him, the fence-sitter, at least some evidence as to why those aren’t actually good reasons.
“Atheism is a + theos. It literally means “without God,” not “there is no God.”
Restricting the meaning of a word to the meaning of its parts can often lead to the etymological fallacy. The word nice comes from the Latin nescire, which literally means “ignorant,” but in common parlance, saying someone is “nice” is not generally meant to say he’s ignorant.
Likewise, the meaning of a philosophical term like atheism is best found through a survey of philosophical literature, especially books and articles written by atheists in defense of atheism. For example, this is what Paul Drapers writes about atheism in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The ‘a-’ in ‘atheism’ must be understood as negation instead of absence, as ‘not’ instead of ‘without.’ Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).”
As I said before, I don’t consider this a nitpicky question. Correctly defining atheism is necessary before Christians and atheists can have a productive dialogue. In that respect, people who don’t believe in God should clarify whether they are making one of the following claims:
- There is no God because there are good reasons to believe that God does not exist (atheism).
- I don’t know if God exists because there are no good reasons to believe that God exists or does not exist (agnosticism).
If someone confidently asserts that God exists (especially in a public forum), then he should be prepared to explain the best arguments for atheism and why they don’t work. Conversely, if someone publicly compares God to other beings that we confidently say do not exist, like Santa Claus (even if he erroneously describes his view as merely a “lack of belief”), then he should be able to explain the best arguments for theism and why they don’t work.
So before we go about saying rocks are atheist, or atheists, we should make sure we’re clear about our terms. The rocks themselves are certainly not about to tell us—although if Christians ever stop bothering to evangelize, they might (Luke 19:40)!