February 1, 2019

Defining Atheism: The Advantage of Parsimony

Many wonderful books have been written on the topic of atheism, but I'm sure I don't have to tell you that. If you are visiting a blog like this one, chances are good that you have read at least a couple of them. One of my favorites is Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith. I first heard of Smith back when I was in college, but it took me until 2006 to read this book. As it turns out, it was probably good that I waited. There was something about it that seemed to be exactly what I needed at the time. Why, it was almost as if the Christian god was...never mind. We don't believe in that one either.

What made Smith's book so impactful when I read it in 2006? I was roughly a year into writing this blog, so it is safe to say that I was more than a little focused on atheism at the time. But unlike now, I was figuring out how to say things for the first time rather than the 7th or 8th time. Smith's book reminded me what atheism is and what it is not. Simply put, atheism refers the absence of theistic belief. That's it. It doesn't mean anything else.

Atheism is not a religion, a philosophy, a worldview, or anything of the kind. It does not require one to be absolutely certain that no gods have existed or could exist at any point in time, and it says nothing about the possibility of other supernatural entities existing. Rather, it refers only to the absence of a belief in gods. We can attempt to derive subcategories of atheism (e.g., positive, strong, radical, gnostic, etc.) if we like, but these are neither necessary nor particularly useful. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods.

Beyond helping me explain the meaning of atheism to others, there was something else quite impactful about the book. As Smith points out, this trivial-sounding definition of atheism reminds us that the burden of proof rests solely on the theist. While we must provide evidence to support our positively asserted beliefs (e.g., Christianity is destructive, theism is correlated with intolerant views, etc.), it is nonsensical to expect evidence for atheism. If the theist fails to make a reasonable case for the claim that gods exist, atheism is the only sensible position. This is how knowledge works - the group advocating belief in something bears the burden of proof. Nobody expects you to prove that you do not have a fairy godmother; however, if you claim that you have one, we all (including Christians) expect evidence. Belief without evidence is irrational, to say the least.

When the religious believer is denied his/her first choice of argument (i.e., asking us to prove that he/she is wrong), only one argument remains. This may take many forms initially but can ultimately be reduced to some variation on "I believe because it makes me feel good to believe it." I can think of no other scenarios where we (Christians included) would make such a statement and expect to be taken seriously.

If I tell a room filled with Christian medical professionals that I have a cure for cancer, they would request evidence to support my claim. If I could provide none but insisted that maintaining this belief improves my self-concept, grants me a sense of purpose and efficacy, etc., they would not hesitate to laugh in my face. Their response would be along the lines of, "Just because thinking you cured cancer might feel nice doesn't mean that you actually cured cancer." They would request evidence for my claim, and in the absence of any such evidence, they would wisely reject it.

As an atheist, I do not believe in gods. Why not? I have seen no evidence to suggest that any exist. But how can I be sure? I can't. I do not know with absolute certainty that no gods have ever existed, that some gods might not exist now, or that gods could exist at some point in the future. But because I have no evidence that any gods exist, I assume that they probably do not and live my life accordingly. But what if new evidence emerged? I remain open to considering any new evidence presented to me. Were I to encounter evidence sufficient to support the claim that gods exist, I'd believe in them.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised and expanded in 2019.