What is Atheism ?
Defining Atheism :
The precise definition of ‘atheism’ is both a vexed and vexatious issue. (Incidentally, the same applies to its more-or-less equivalents in other languages: Atheismus, athéisme, ateismi, etc.) Etymologically, atheism is derived from the classical Greek a- (normally meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’) and theos (‘god’). Its first extant appearance in English occurs in the mid-sixteenth century, as a translation of Plutarch’s atheotēs (Buckley 1987: 9). Even from its earliest beginnings in Greek and English,however, atheism/ atheotes admitted of a variety of competing, and confusing, definitions—often bearing no straightforward relationship to its strict etymology.
Even today there is no clear academic consensus as to how the word can be used .For instance considering these following definitions of "atheism" or "atheist" taken from scholarly journals published last year :
- ‘Atheism […] is the belief that there is no God or gods’ (Baggini 2003: 3)
- ‘At its core, atheism […] designates a position (not a “belief”) that includes or asserts no god(s)’ (Eller 2010: 1)
‘[A]n atheist is someone without a belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes
that God does not exist’ (Martin 2007: 1)
- ‘[A]n atheist does not believe in the god that theism favours’ (Cliteur 2009: 1)
- ‘By “atheist,” I mean precisely what the word has always been understood to mean—a principled and informed decision to reject belief in God’ (McGrath 2004: 175)
Of course, these definitions share certain features: all regard atheism as relating, in a negative way, to a thing or things called ‘god’, and all but one describe this relationship in terms of belief. But beyond this, it is obvious that these authors are not all talking about the same thing at all. The first and second include gods; the final three specify only one (which the final two give a capital G). The fourth definition, moreover, restricts this scope even further. Definitions two and three regard atheism as simply being the absence of a certain belief; the rest, contrariwise, see it as implying a definite belief. Moreover, the fifth definition also demands a level of intellectual—and perhaps also emotional—conviction, over and above simple believing.
Though our focus in this chapter is on scholarly usage(s), it is worth pointing out that everyday
speech is no more monosemic. This is, perhaps, partly to be expected: after all, English is very much a global language, and is the native tongue of approaching 400 million people. Nevertheless, even relatively homogeneous groups often display a notable lack of uniformity. For instance, a 2007 study of over 700 students—all at the same British university, at the same time, with a clear majority being a similar age and from the same country—found that, from a list of commonly encountered definitions of ‘atheist’, the most popular choice was ‘A person who believes that there is no God or gods’ (Bullivant 2008). This was, however, chosen by only 51.8 per cent of respondents: hardly an overwhelming consensus. 29.1 per cent opted instead for ‘A person who is convinced that there is no God or gods’, 13.6 per cent took the broader ‘A person who lacks a belief in a God or gods’, and 0.6 per cent answered ‘Don’t know’. Thirty-five respondents, eight of whom had already affirmed one of the suggested meanings, offered their own definitions. These included:
•‘A person who lacks a belief in supernatural forces, without suggesting that they might exist’.
• ‘Someone who denies the validity of using the word “God” to indicate anything (other than a
concept) which might be said to “exist” ’.
• ‘A person who has no belief in any deity and finds that religion is not an important part of their life’.
• ‘Someone who isn’t a member of any religion that believes in one God’.
Once again, despite general similarities, it is clear that the word is used and understood in a wide variety of different ways, even in so relatively uniform a group. (Note too the introduction of wider concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘supernatural forces’, rather than confining themselves to just God/gods, into these definitions.) Thinking more widely, it is also worth nothing that both ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’ can carry a considerable number of overtones and connotations, positive and negative: even among people agreeing on a given abstract definition, calling someone an ‘atheist’ might well communicate very different things in, say, McCarthy-era Dallas, post-communist Krakow, or twentyfirst-century London.
The case against Atheism:
‘ATHEISM’ is sometimes defined as the view that we know (or are, some or most of us, in a position to know) that there is not a God. This then naturally pairs with defining ‘theism’, by contrast, as the view that we know (or are, some or most of us, in a position to know) that there is a God, leaving ‘agnosticism’ as the view that we don’t know (many or even any of us), either way. Had this publication defined ‘atheism’ in this fashion (see Stephen Bullivant’s ‘Defining “Atheism”’), it would have been a view that had more to be said against it than atheism as it has actually defined; and, in saying some of these things against it, I would have found myself making common cause with agnostics, so understood, as well as with theists. This is because atheism, so understood, doesn’t rest content with making a claim about the truth of the belief that there’s not a God; it goes beyond that and makes a claim about this belief’s being an item of knowledge for all or some of those who have it.
A second, less bold, view thus suggests itself as one that might nevertheless be deserving of the name ‘atheism’, the view which doesn’t venture an opinion on the knowledge-status of the belief that there’s no God, but confines itself instead to its truth. And such a view is indeed frequently found in the literature under the name ‘atheism’. So, ‘atheism’ is sometimes defined simply as the claim that there is no God and theism as the claim that there is a God. An agnostic then may be taken as someone who is neither a theist nor an atheist.
The case against atheism, understood as it is here, must then be the case for it being unreasonable to fail to believe that there’s a God. That is to say, in advancing the case against atheism as it is understood by the contributors to the volume, I must argue that the arguments or some subset of the arguments of natural theology (by which I mean the project of advancing arguments for God’s existence from premises concerning the natural world) are rationally compelling. Fair enough, those are the terms of the debate framed by Bullivant’s ‘Defining “Atheism”’, and I do in fact believe this about some of the arguments of natural theology with respect to the God of classical theism, so that is what I’ll argue. (It’s because I believe this with respect to this god [the God] that I don’t then bother to mention the ‘or gods’ clause in the definition of atheism.) But, before I do so, I want to pause to make two points, the first being the one that many theists, quite consistently with their theism, would be happy to concede that such a case cannot be made.
The sort of theist who says that whilst, given his or her particular religious experiences, it’s not
unreasonable for him/her to believe in God (possibly even would be unreasonable for him/her not to believe in God), but who refuses to claim that it’s true of all or most others that, regardless of their individual experiences (or lack of them), it’s unreasonable for them not to believe in God, is obviously not committed to any of the arguments of natural theology being rationally compelling.Such a theist could, no doubt, be pressed to agree that he or she needs a counter-argument (a defeaterdefeater,as it’s usually called) to the problem of evil (which otherwise, being an undefeated defeater to his or her theism, would render it unreasonable). But theism per se doesn’t commit one to atheism’s being unreasonable for everyone or even most.
This view is worth noting in part as it is not by any means an unusual one. Indeed, it is that of one of the two most prominent philosophers of religion alive today, Alvin Plantinga (e.g., 2000). (The other,Richard Swinburne, would support the general line I take below (see, e.g., 2004).) Theists influenced by Plantinga in this particular, thinking that their theism is properly basic, could accept that atheism—understood as failing to come to the belief that there is a God—is a position that it is reasonable for many or even most people to adopt. Some people, such a theist may say—perhaps even the majority of people—may indeed be not unreasonable in failing to come to the belief that there’s a God, but, then again, such people won’t have had the experiences that he or she has had, the experiences which make Theism not unreasonable, possibly even rationally compelling, for him or her. Such a theist can go on to say that if these atheists who are at the moment not unreasonable in being atheists did have similar experiences to those of this theist, then, but perhaps only then, they’d be unreasonable in remaining in their atheism. But, unless or until they do so, their atheism is indeed a not-unreasonable position. Such a theist may even consistently assert that atheism is the only reasonable position for them to adopt. These theists then have no dispute with atheism understood in the Handbook’s broad sense. In fact, Plantinga thinks that there are good natural theological arguments, but the view of his that I’m focusing on here is the ‘meta’ one, that good natural theological arguments are not needed for theism to be rational (and indeed knowably true) for a certain subset of people, those in receipt of the right experiences (and with suitable ‘defeater-defeaters’ to hand should the problem of evil be presented to them). The sorts of theists I’m talking about at the moment are the sorts of theists who are inspired by him to take this meta view whilst being less optimistic than he happens to be about the prospects of natural theology understood as I am understanding it.
As well as this sort of view being worth noting as it is by no means an unusual one, it is worth
noting as noting it allows us to see that the rational defensibility of Theism is not directly threatened if the argument that I’ll advance against atheism doesn’t in fact have the strength that I shall attribute to it or even if no argument does. That is to say that failing to show that it’s unreasonable not to believe that there is a God, is not showing that it’s unreasonable to believe that there is a God. To get from this failure to that conclusion, one would have to mount an extended campaign against these Plantinga-following theists. This is worth pointing out as many of those who say that there aren’t any good arguments for theism go on to conclude from this that atheism is the only reasonable position without appearing even to realize that they need to engage in (and win) such a campaign. They make a few hand-waving comments about where the ‘burden of proof’ lies and think that that suffices; it does not.
The second point I want to make by way of introduction concerns the general issue of when it’s reasonable to fail to come to a belief that x. My point here is that such an issue is a substantial one, for all values of x, and in one manner it’s more than ordinarily intractable when x takes the value of ‘God exists’.
When we decide whether or not it is reasonable to fail to come to a belief that x, we need to think of ourselves as having a pretty good idea of where the virtuous mean falls between two opposing vices, at least for that particular value of x (perhaps it falls in different places for different values). On the one hand, we should not be overly credulous—so desperate not to leave a truth out there in the cold,as it were, languishing un-believed—that we carelessly fling open the doors of our minds and allow in all manner of unworthy falsehoods, to make themselves at home. People who tell us that, on the basis of the testimony of a man they met in the pub, they now believe in the healing power of crystals will strike us as having erred on this side of virtue. On the other hand, we ought not to be so desperate not to allow an unworthy falsehood into the hallowed halls of our minds, that we close the doors prematurely in the face of all sorts of belief-worthy truths, truths that were rightly expecting admission. This is the vice towards which professional philosophers naturally err.
Myths About Atheism