For quite some time there have been many atheists proposing that atheism should be defined as the lack of belief in the existence of God. Many people (including theists, atheists, and agnostics) dispute with this proposal because for them it fails to capture the intuitive meaning behind the term “atheism”. Supposedly, atheism is an antithesis of theism than a mere absence of theism. This is a common perception among many people except for proponents who argue for defining atheism in terms of the absence of belief. I want to briefly argue why this definition isn’t a very good definition of atheism.
“I don’t believe there is a god”
The statement “I don’t believe there is God” is an ambiguous statement. On the surface, it seems crystal clear to anyone who hears or reads it, but it is ambiguous between two claims with different logical forms: “~(I believe that P)” and “I believe that ~P”. The former has the negation sign “~” placed in front of “I believe that P” with its scope encompassing that statement. The latter has the negation in front of P (the content of belief). The former means that it is not the case I believe that P. In other words, It is not the case I have the belief about P. The latter means I believe that P is false.
Notice that “I believe that ~P” implies “~(I believe that P)” but “~(I believe that P)” does not imply “I believe that ~P”. In other words, if I believe that P is false, then it necessarily follows that I lack the belief that P is true. But lacking the belief that P does not imply that I believe P is false. For example, if I believe that unicorns do not exist (“I believe that ~P”), it necessarily follows I lack the belief that unicorns exist. But if I lack the belief in the existence of unicorns, it does not necessarily follow that I believe that unicorns do not exist. After all, it is logically possible that some person may not heard about unicorns before, consequently not possessing a concept about unicorns. Possessing a concept about unicorn is a perquisite to whether or not such a person assents or denies the proposition “unicorns exist”.
The definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)” (It is not the case I believe there is a God) is compatible with the definition of Atheism as “I believe that ~P”, because denying the existence of God necessarily implies lacking the belief in the existence of God. However, it is also compatible with the scenario in which someone lacks the concept “God”. The definition of Atheism as “I believe that ~P” requires the concept of P in order to negate or deny it. Without the concept P there is nothing to deny or negate. But the other definition “~(I believe that P)” is compatible with such a scenario.
This is where the definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)” is problematic. It is compatible with three scenarios that are incompatible with one another. It is compatible with both the scenario where I deny the existence of God, I lack the concept about God, and I possess the concept of God which I neither accept nor deny it. These scenarios are incompatible with each other, yet they are all compatible with the definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)”. After all, lacking the concept about God implies “~(I believe that P)” and possessing the concept of God yet neither accepting nor denying it also implies “~(I believe that P)”. Hence, both “I believe that ~P”, “I lack the concept about P”, and “I possess concept P but neither accept nor deny it” imply “~(I believe that P). This is very problematic.
The reason why this is problematic is that proponents of the definition of Atheism as “~(I believe that P)” are proposing it as a genuine alternative to the definition of Atheism as “I believe that ~P”. But if it is compatible with it, it is not a genuine alternative. Even worse, it is compatible with other scenarios such as lacking the concept about God or possessing the concept of God but neither accepting nor denying it. Moreover, when it is ambiguous between three meanings that are incompatible with each other, it is not a very helpful definition. To make matters worse, this opens up to the possibility of people equivocating between these meanings as they use the term “atheism” to mean “~(I believe that P)”. If they equivocate among these incompatible meanings, they are in effect making the term “atheism” meaningless by constantly switching into different positions. A very good example of this is where people utter the remark “babies are atheists too”. But this statement only make sense because lacking the concept about God necessarily implies lacking belief about God. But this is very different from saying that one has the concept God, but neither accepts nor denies it.
If people want to cease this equivocation, they have to chose one of the three possible meanings of “~(I believe that P)”. They are stuck deciding which meaning to choose, but all of them aren’t very appealing to proponents who want to avoid explicitly denying the existence of God. If they choose the first meaning, they are going back to the definition they once denied. If they choose the second meaning, the definition of atheism includes too many things including non-sentient entities that cannot possess any concept to begin with. If they choose the third meaning, the distinction between atheism and agnosticism is non-existent. Overall, they face a trilemma.
Perhaps proponents are comfortable with the third scenario. Perhaps what they mean by “lacking a belief in God” is “possessing the concept of God, but neither denying nor accepting it”. If they choose this meaning, they have to drop the remark that infants are atheists. Infants lack the concept about God, but so do countless entities like dogs, cats, elephants, rocks, trees, suns, and such. Once they define atheism as “possessing the concept God but neither denying nor assenting to it” they are in effect saying that they are neutral about theism. But this fails to capture what many people have in mind about atheism. People think being an atheist amounts to rejecting theism. Neutrality is the last thing anyone has in mind when they think about the rejection of theism. Moreover, this definition of atheism as neither accepting nor denying theism is too narrow. It excludes many individual atheists who explicitly deny the existence of God. Therefore, the definition of atheism as neither assenting nor denying a proposition “there is a God” cannot be satisfactory.
Since all possible meanings of “~(I believe that P)” have undesirable consequences, one might as well just reject “~(I believe that P)” as the definition of Atheism. The only competing definition left is denying theism, so Atheism should just mean denying theism. Whether or not one is justified in denying theism is another issue I won’t explore in this essay. I’m content to point out that if people are really committed to ~(I believe that P) then they should drop the label “atheism” and just adopt another term “non-theism”.