What is Atheism?


June 11, 2012 by mattfradd

How should one respond to the claim that atheism is not a positive proposition, and that it therefore does not have to be proven. Is the burden of proof solely on the theis?

Here’s how I’d respond:

Theism, which is derived from the Greek word for God theos, is the view that God exists. Atheism, in contrast, is the opposite view that God does not exist. Atheism is a claim to knowledge and is not merely a suspension of belief. As the term is normally used, “atheist” refers to a person who rejects the existence of God.

As the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, “Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.”  We already have a perfectly good word in the English language for a person who withholds belief in God: agnostic.

This eagerness to redefine atheism on the part of many contemporary atheists is telling. It all but admits that all of the traditional arguments against the existence of God, such as the problem of evil, or the incoherency of the concept of God, fail. For if the atheist thought these arguments were compelling, then he would spend his energy, not on redefining words, but on offering arguments.

Ultimately, anyone who is trying to convince another person of his position must shoulder the burden of proof. If I want to convince to abandon the belief that there is no good evidence for God and come to believe that theism is true, then I have a burden of proof to shoulder. But this burden applies to atheists as well. If they want to convince me to abandon my belief that there is good evidence for God and come to believe that atheism is true, then they have a burden of proof to shoulder.

The rejection of God is as much a claim to knowledge as belief in God.


26 thoughts on “What is Atheism?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great job!!! You slew some real annoying anti-Christian sophistry there!

  2. no matter how hard you think about it everything around us had to have some beginning; it wasnt just always there. so therefore a being had to create it, which means that God always existed because what could create something that always existed?

    • Snakebyte says:

      Do you realize how horribly you failed at logic?

      – everything around us had to have some beginning

      That’s only true in the framework of time, and relatively recently we’ve come to the realization that time itself had a beginning.

      – so therefore a being had to create it,

      No, that’s ridiculous.

      – which means that God always existed

      Why are you using special pleading for God? Don’t you see how ridiculous that is? ‘All things need to have a beginning, therefore they were created by something that doesn’t have a beginning’? If God can always exist, so can anything else, and your argument holds no merit.

      • Rachel James says:

        No need to be rude dear lol 🙂

      • mattfradd says:

        No one, including Jonathan as far as I can tell, argues that everything which exists needs a cause. The argument is rather, whatever begins to exist has a cause of it’s coming into existence.

      • Hegesippus says:

        ‘If God can always exist, so can anything else, and your argument holds no merit.’
        Nice idea, but cannot be applied to a concrete reality as one of those existing things has to have been the first. That, which is the first causer, is God.

    • Sk3ptic says:

      Nobody knows.. And neither do people who make outrageous claims about knowing, despite all reason and lack of evidence. Claiming you know something that you don’t makes you a liar, and slows down human progress.

      However, we’re working on figuring it out!

      • Hegesippus says:

        What argument are you withholding that proves that Christianity’s systematic theology is an ‘outrageous claim’. This even causes you to call people liars without showing why this is the case. Can you explain why?

  3. GUESS IR says:

    The person is choosing the definition of atheism that facilitates his argument. Most atheist use the very definition he dismisses up front. This has the effect of creating a straw man — it’s easier to give the appearance of having defeated gnostic atheism, since it makes a specific truth claim. Simply, you can never prove something does not exist, whether it’s the god of Abraham, Wōden, the flying spaghetti monster, elves, fairies or leprechauns. The party making the claim for the existence of supernatural events bear the responsibility of providing proof of the claim, not the other way around. It’s like I said I had a giant invisible rabbit named Harvey that followed me around. It would be something that was up to me to prove, not for someone else to disprove.

    • Hegesippus says:

      If you were to offer a response to Aquinas’ proofs, the Kalaam argument, Kreeft’s list of proofs or the twenty available at Strange Notions, then that would avoid your use of the Straw Man of Harvey and all his friends you have listed.
      Unless you can show these arguments false, you cannot proclaim God as non-existent as the burden of proof has been met and you need to address this.

      • bluesync19 says:

        Hegesippus, if I was able to refute Aquinas’ proofs, the Kaalam argument and Kreeft’s list would you stop believing in a god?

  4. D5971788 says:

    Something had to have always existed in order to create things that had a beginning. Nothing else makes sense.

  5. Indeed. To claim that everything had to have a beginning, is to say that in the beginning when their was nothing at all, something created itself. How can something come out of nothing? The ancient Greeks reasoned that their had to be an uncreated first being, 500 years before, the Hebrews learned through revelation that God was existence himself. “‘All things need to have a beginning, therefore they were created by something that doesn’t have a beginning’? If God can always exist, so can anything else, and your argument holds no merit.” That quote does not make sense, because if their are created beings such as you and I, and all of the rest of creation, what created it? God is the prime mover, the being who always was. He is existence, from which all creation comes from. Time comes from creation. If there were was no creation, there would be no time.

    • mattfradd says:

      Who is claiming that everything which exists needs a beginning? I can’t see anyone making that assertion. At any rate, it’s not the argument proposed by believers in God.

    • Daniel says:

      You should look into something called Occam’s Razor.

      • Hegesippus says:

        Occam’s Razor is not a proof, it is a tool. And it is a minimalist tool, which attacks the concept of beauty and the freedom to do that which is not simply necessary.

  6. Bennett says: For those who don’t quite understand cosmological argument and attempt the Dawkinsian “So who designed the designer? Huh? Huh? Didn’t think of that, didja?” riposte. Whether you’re for or against it, it’s absolutely crucial to understand what’s really being posited and how it hangs together.

    You’re probably kidding yourself if you really think you’ve come up with an objection that didn’t occur to St. Thomas Aquinas, one of history’s great geniuses, and a man who lived a contemplative life that gave him time to do little but sit around and ponder this stuff at great (as in huge multi-volume Summa Theologica) length.

  7. Daniel says:

    How do you prove the non-existence of something? I’m going to prove that unicorns don’t exist by… showing you no unicorns?

    • Hegesippus says:

      By showing the alternative, which actually has undisputable evidence contrary to atheism (which defines itself as a negation, or please use a different term). Or by defining logically the term “God” in a just manner, then proving that the definition is illogical.
      If neither evidence, nor rational argument is possible then every atheist must admit there remains the possibility of God.
      Therefore, atheism is not a true position rooted in either evidence or argument and thus remains a belief or faith.

  8. William says:

    All you have argued is that Atheists need to put an argument for the creation of the universe and life – we have. Theists still have all the work in front of them to prove there is a god.

    • Daniel says:

      That’s absurd! Why does someone have to “put up an argument for the creation of the universe and life,” for them to be credible? What if I do what you have done, and just make up some fictitious story about the creation of the world? Would you be satisfied then?

      • william says:

        Thats odd as in your reply to your original question you said that ultimately it is up to the person trying to convince someone to bear the burden of proof. I didn’t mention “credibility”. I agree that both sides need to show evidence for their position but don’t reckon you have come close. I wouldn’t be satisfied if you came up with a fictitious story and if fact think that’s exactly what you have done.

        Its your blog, you are trying to convince people of the existance of god – enlighten us with your evidence.

      • Hegesippus says:

        This is in reply to William below, who does not have a ‘reply’ link.

        A philosophical argument does not necessarily have evidence for it. If you can agree that the premises are true and that valid logic takes place, then the conclusion must be true. If you don’t like the conclusion, either show how the premises or logic is faulty. Otherwise, you cannot jump to a demand for evidence.

  9. […] think that Atheists had any beliefs and therefore thought no argument for Atheism was necessary (see why I disagree) and (2) thought that there was no good argument for Theism. “They all suck,” […]

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