I’m hearing a lot of new atheists these days define their atheism this way. To me it’s a cop out so they don’t have to defend a claim. But how would one address this?
Hi Luna! Great questions. I just wanted to share a few thoughts about what you could affirm in a person’s response which matches your description. In one sense one could consider what they are saying as true. I do not believe in “bigfoot” (an American man-ape creature, just in case you are not from America). I have a lack of belief in that entity. In a way that is what an Atheist is claiming. They lack a belief in a God. If you wanted to push them, you could say that formal atheism is the claim that a God does not exist. Is the the positive claim of the negation of another positive claim. Atheists tend to like to say they are not making a claim about anything and then put the onus on you to prove your positive claim. This seems to be a recent development in the definition of Atheism and seems to coincide with the decline in the intellectual rigor with which the claim is defended. Since I believe that Bigfoot does not exist I am making a positive claim to his non-existence. I could argue my point for why I do not believe in it, just as someone who does believe can give reasons for their belief. If I want to engage on the subject I cannot ignore the claims of the believer. I must state positive reasons why I believe their claims to be false. I cannot simply sit back and claim that unless they bring Bigfoot before me I will not believe. That is not a proper method of engaging with ideas and arguments.
Ultimately, I agree with you. For someone to define atheism as a lack of belief would not be a complete and proper definition. If they are using it to shut down the conversation I would challenge them on their claim and defend their reasons why they don’t have to defend their claims. A bit of a meta-argument. It might also be beneficial to engage them on a different level. Perhaps telling them your testimony and experience. Or asking them to share why they don’t believe. Or, one of my favorite questions, “If I could definitely prove God’s existence to you right now, how would that make you feel?” Their answer can open up their reasons for not believing. Most of the time the objections people give are not their real objections. It is good to get behind all of their second-hand arguments.
Hope this helps!
Are you sure about bigfoot?
My thought is that you can’t disbelieve something until you first believe in something. Infinite disbelief is self-defeating so I would simply ask them what they do believe. Maybe its humanism or naturalism. These to me are more positive viewpoints that can be discussed.
A pertinent point, I think, is what belief/non-belief ultimately means to the believer/non-believer.
When you believe something, it actively affects your decision-making process. It motivates you to move, or not move, as befitting the belief. But when you have a LACK of belief, then the thing in which you lack belief lacks relevance. Rather than meaning something to you (as with belief), it means nothing to you. It has zero impact on your day and your daily decisions.
But this tendency stands in stark contrast to much of the behavior of proclaimed atheists. While there are some for whom God or religion has no impact, they represent a distinct minority in atheism. Far more atheists go out of their way to TELL you that they’re atheists. They’re kinda like vegans, or sports fans, or sci-fi geeks – five minutes with them, and they’re headlong into their topic of passion.
Vegans aren’t vegans because meat is irrelevant to them. Sci-fi geeks aren’t sci-fi geeks because mundane, everyday life is irrelevant to them. These folks talk about what they’re passionate about because they BELIEVE in what their passionate about – not because they “lack” belief in what doesn’t matter to them. So it is with atheism.
This “development,” i.e. of characterizing atheism as “lack of belief in God” was introduced by Antony Flew back in the 1980’s. The whole motivation for doing so, as you already pointed out, was to place the burden of proof on the theist to convince the “atheist” of God’s existence, without the “atheist” having to show any positive evidence for rejecting the claim that God exists. You already said this, I just wanted to fill in some of the history (as far as I am aware of it). I think the article that Flew wrote that defines this change in terms is called “The Presumption of Atheism.”
This is a great question. WIlliam Lane Craig answers it brilliantly in this podcast: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/the-definition-that-will-not-die/
He succinctly explains “So I do think that one can suspend belief or be in a state of uncertainty about one’s belief in God’s existence, but that shouldn’t be called atheism. That should be called agnosticism. The atheist is one who believes that God does not exist. The theist believes that God exists. It is only the agnostic who fails to have a settled belief about those propositions.”
Hope this helps.