Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why Say Atheism is a "Lack of Belief in God"?

Those who spend any significant amount of time reading atheist bloggers are bound to see the word atheism defined as a "lack of belief" in god(s). I want to discuss the reasons why we (or at least I) go to pains to describe atheism this way:

1. Because that's the definition. I don't deny outright that there is a god. I don't know whether any gods exist in, around, or above our universe (or "multiverse," si vous préférez). My atheism is an extension of my agnosticism. I know some atheists argue that there is no god, promoting what has been called "strong" or "positive" atheism (as distinguished from "weak" or "negative" atheism). Regardless of whether one's atheism is "strong" or not, the common denominator among all atheists is the absence of a theistic belief.

2. Because it establishes the burden of proof. Because I neither deny nor affirm the existence of a being who could rightly be called "god," I have nothing to prove vis-à-vis atheism. The burden of proof rests on the one who makes the claim. If you say, "God exists!" and expect me to agree with you, then the onus is on you to provide sufficient reason for me to believe your claim. Likewise, if you say, "God doesn't exist!" I will demand the same sufficient reason, or I won't believe it.

That said, there may certainly be specific gods - or, more precisely, specific descriptions of deity - that I would say probably or most likely do not exist. I may agree with the Muslim who denies the pantheon of Hinduism, or the Christian who denies that god is Allah whose greatest prophet is Mohammed. The difference between little ol' atheist me and either a Christian or a Muslim is that I lack a belief in any kind of god(s), whereas the Christian and Muslim each believe in The One True God™, which implies that both the Christian and Muslim deny every other god (including each other's).

Like I said, the burden of proof is on the one who makes the claim. So, if I remark that I don't think the Christian god exists, if I expect anyone to take me seriously, I need to provide sufficient reason to support my claim. One could say this is "strong" atheism, and I would agree that it is, insofar as the Christian god is concerned. This does not contradict anything I have said about atheism as a "lack of belief." I also lack a belief in aliens; that is, I don't know and won't say either way whether extra-terrestrials exist or not. However, even if aliens do exist, I'm pretty confident that one of them isn't Kal-El, the last son of Krypton. My beliefs about Kal-El are similar (though not necessarily identical) to what I think about Zeus, Ra, or Yahweh.

3. Atheism isn't an "ism." The word "atheism" is a negation, denoting one aspect of a person's belief; i.e., that which a person who calls herself an "atheist" does not believe concerning one particular truth claim. Adding meanings to the term "atheist" runs the risk of creating dogma - Atheism with a capital A. In my estimation, the best answer to the question, "what does an atheist believe?" is, "ask the atheist." While the term "atheist" has become a cultural label which identifies a person with thinkers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, and while "athiest" as a cultural label connotes a lifestyle that places strong emphasis on critical thinking, logic, science, and skeptical inquiry, "atheist" denotes nothing more than lack of theistic belief.

[The English major in me feels compelled to explain the difference between connotation and denotation. Connotation refers to that which is implied or suggested by a word or phrase. Denotation refers to the literal interpretation or explicit meaning of a word or phrase. For example, "Ray drives a BMW" denotes that (if the statement is true) Ray owns a German automobile. It connotes that Ray is at least moderately affluent.]

Not all atheists are skeptics, critical thinkers, freethinkers, et cetera. Sometimes, the cultural connotation simply does not apply. Some people become atheists due to emotional reactions and personal preferences. Some become atheists without ever going through any kind of rational process. I can point to the typical high school atheist who rejects his parents' religion to be rebellious or express his individuality, but such a non-rational path to atheism is not limited to the youth.

These three reasons are why I don't consider myself an advocate of atheism per se, and have no problem with referring to atheism as a lack of belief in god(s). I want to promote positive virtues and champion worthy causes, like science, skepticism, truth-seeking and critical thinking. If we are to stand united, our unity should be based on what we are and what we uphold rather than what we are not and what we reject.

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