On The Definition of Atheism
A couple of Cameron Reilly's recent blog posts have argued that critics of atheists have it all wrong when they claim that atheism implies a belief in the non-existence of gods. He makes the distinction between the position of being against the belief in the existence of gods and the position of believing that gods do not exist.
As a self-described atheist myself, I don't really see the point in making this distinction. The main reason is that I don't believe that any useful argument that an atheist can advance in support of a philosophical or political position depends on the distinction being valid. Furthermore, if there was such an argument, then it is vulnerable to any demonstration that there really isn't any practical distinction between the two positions.
Reilly argues that a-theism means either not or against theism but excludes the other common interpretation of the prefix, that is to mean "without". The a- in a-sexual or a-political is certainly used in this way. The position described as against theism would more correctly be described as anti-theism, rather than a-theism.
If we do assume that a-theism means without theism then, in a strict technical sense, Reilly is correct to note that "without a belief in the existence of gods" is not technically the same as "with a belief in the non-existence of gods".
Reilly argues that this distinction is crucial. I claim that it is irrelevant or, more precisely, that the definition he would have us use for atheist doesn't allow us to clearly distinguish the atheist from the agnostic.
First, let's dispose of the trivial case: a person who has no concept of gods. This person is trivially an atheist in Reilly's sense because if one can't even conceive of the concept of gods, one can hardly hold a belief in their existence.
Let's now consider the more interesting case of two people, Peter and Paul for whom the following statements are true.
- Peter does not believe in the existence of gods
- Peter does believe in the non-existence of gods
- Paul does not believe in the existence of gods
- Paul does not believe in the non-existence of gods
Peter and Paul are clearly different: Peter believes something that Paul does not. Furthermore, I think most people would agree that Peter is an atheist, whereas Paul is an agnostic, at least according to what I take to be the common uses of the terms.
In other words, I believe that being an atheist does actually entail a belief in the non-existence of gods and this is what distinguishes an atheist from an agnostic.
However, I don't share Reilly's fear that this is something to be concerned about. It really doesn't matter that atheists hold negative beliefs. This doesn't legitimise belief in gods anymore than believing in the non-existence of teapots on Mars legitimises a belief in the existence of teapots on Mars (to use Dawkin's example).
To be worried about that, confuses believing with knowing, a point that Stephen Pinker made in a different context in his book: "The Stuff Of Thought". To state that someone believes something doesn't make a statement about the world outside - it is simply a statement about the believer. The state of the world outside is unaffected by how many people hold deluded beliefs about the nature of reality. So, it really doesn't matter that an atheist's convictions are just beliefs - nothing significant can be derived from that admission.
Assertions of knowing something are quite different. Such statements are claims, not only about the knower's beliefs about the world outside, but also that the world outside conforms to those beliefs.
And this is why it is crucial to put believing in its place and distinguish it from knowing. Many theistic believers claim to know things because they have faith in the truth of their beliefs. Atheists claim to know things because they have the scientific method and reason. And this is precisely why atheism is superior to theism in its various forms - it provides objective methods for deciding the truth of claims of knowledge which are independent of the beliefs themselves, whereas theism is trapped inside circular definitions of belief and faith that never usefully connect with the real world.