Atheists have for some time wanted to redefine “atheism”. Let’s look at the accepted meanings of the word. A few definitions found via Google’s “Define” command:
The doctrine or belief that there is no God.
The belief that God does not exist.
A belief that there are no gods. Greek “a-theos”: without-god.
This word comes from two Greek words, a the negator, and theos, God. Atheism teaches that there is no God of any kind, anywhere, anytime.
These would be the standard, commonly accepted definitions of atheism. But hold up there a minute, there’s more. I’m a big fan of the OED. Let’s see what she has to say:
atheism: (from Greek atheos, “without God, denying God”) Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism).
You see there the seeds of the debate. The debate is “disbelief” versus “deny the existence of”.
Burden of Proof
What it boils down to is the burden of proof. Let’s say you assert that, “Flying Spaghetti Monsters exist”.
That is a statement. You are stating something as fact and you have a burden of proof to prove that Flying Spaghetti Monsters do indeed exist.
Now I say, “I reject your claim”.
Now, I did not offer a statement. No statement of fact was offered. I simply choose not to accept your statement. I have no burden of proof in rejecting your statement.
But now Bob comes along. Bob’s a nasty bugger who loves to eavesdrop. He is infuriated by the suggestion that Flying Spaghetti Monsters exist and states, “Flying Spaghetti Monsters do not exist.”
Whoopsy daisies, Bob just stepped into a huge pile of philosophical ass-kicking.
Why? Because he went beyond rejection of a statement into offering a statement of his own.
By stating that Flying Spaghetti Monsters do not exist, he now assumes burden of proof to prove the nonexistence of Flying Spaghetti Monsters.
This may seem like a minor detail. It isn’t. The repercussions are humongous. If atheism does indeed state that God doesn’t exist, there is a burden of proof on atheists. If they simply reject the theist statement, then there is no burden of proof.
Word and Their Meanings
Some folks would like to define “atheism” according to the definitions found in dictionaries. That would be lovely, but the dictionaries offer contradictory meanings, as is often the case with words in any given language. When that happens, unfortunately, discourse on the topic becomes difficult.
In Japanese, for example, “ao” can mean both “green” and “blue”. (Although most of the time it means “blue”.)
The remedy I would suggest is to drop the word altogether. But that isn’t going to happen.
Atheist Posturing: Weak Atheism & Strong Atheism
Atheists, for reasons which I will explain shortly, want to make “atheism” the banner of all persons without religion. This is a conscious and calculated push towards a much more inclusive definition of the word “atheism” than we are accustomed to in daily conversations.
They propose that everybody without religion is an atheist. This includes newborn babies, insofar as their lack of any belief includes a lack of belief in God.
They propose two subsets of atheism:
Strong Atheism: This is atheism as we know it, atheism that is compatible with the statement “God does not exist”.
Weak Atheism: Anybody who isn’t a theist.
As you can see, these definitions render the unqualified use of the words “atheism” and “atheist” absolutely meaningless.
The obvious objection is that they are designating as “atheist” millions of people who, were they aware of the designation, might object.
An anecdote to illustrate the point: While reading Dawkins The God Delusion, I realized I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. (Yes, it is an interesting read.) So I went to the local Indian Restaurant here in Sanganjaya. As I was waiting for my food, I asked the shop owner what if he believed in a god.
“No, I don’t believe in any god.”
“Oh, so you’re an atheist?”
I was suddenly aware that I was Caucasian, the same as many missionaries, and I felt a bit awkward.
“No, not atheist. I just don’t believe in any god.”
We discussed it a bit more, and the fellow seemed have a spiritual side to him, but he simply chose not to subscribe to any given god-belief. When I explained my position - that agnosticism is the most intellectually sound position - he seemed to self identify as an agnostic.
But atheists would force the label of “atheist” on him, on me, and on roughly one-fifth of the world population.
Why does atheism want to annex agnosticism? Three reasons:
Austin Cline, an atheist propagandist, offers this explanation on his page titled “Why Do Atheists Define Atheism Broadly as the Lack of Belief in Gods?”
“the simple absence of belief in gods — aside from being the default position — is automatically justified and made credible so long as theists are not successful in making a credible case for their god.”
Credibility. Agnosticism is credible. Theists cannot offer a cogent argument against agnosticism, and neither can atheists. Atheists lack credibility, so they make a grab for agnostic credibility, and render the term “atheist” meaningless in the process.
Seriously, to designate somebody as “atheist” when they have never made a conscious decision either way, or may not even be aware of the question, is asinine.
2. Shelter from Burden of Proof
With the weak definition, the strong-position atheist can participate in a lengthy debate with a theistic apologist without ever disclosing his or her wholesale dismissal of the entire god question, and without once ever being called upon to prove anything. (A careless presentation of the strong position could open itself to the Burden of Proof.)
- From PositiveAtheism.org FAQ Page
There you have it, atheists openly stating that they are redefining atheism in order to allow them to masquerade as agnostics and avoid the burden of proof.
Here’s an idea. If you have to masquerade as an agnostic, why not become one? Masquerading as an agnostic because you cannot offer a tenable argument, in itself, is an admission of defeat.
The inclusionary element, along with the historical and etymological aspects are all compelling reasons to define general-purpose atheism using the weak definition. Logically, the weak position is easier to defend than the strong position. However, the weak definition’s potential usefulness in reducing the stigma that all atheists bear is our most important reason for advocating this understanding and seeking to popularize it.
- From PositiveAtheism.org FAQ Page
There’s safety in numbers. Or at least the atheists seem to think so. By redefining atheism to include anybody who isn’t a professed theist, they bolster their numbers from a few million or so to one-fifth of the world’s population. Of course, most of those people would not self identify as atheists, but that’s of little concern to them, as long as they can make the claim.
A Case Study
All of this nonsense is meaningless posturing by atheists. In debate, an atheist can try to seek shelter in agnosticism, but the minute he does, he is forced to abandon his atheism.
Take, for example, Austin Cline.
Austin Cline is the About.com “Guide” to atheism. You’d think that would mean he would offer journalistic quality information on the topic, but in fact has the journalistic integrity of Jim Bakker.
Austin Cline loves to say that “No claims or denials are made… an atheist is a person who is not a theist.”
However, if you read Cline, you will detect rather easily that he is indeed an atheist hiding behind agnosticism. It’s readily evident when you see him offer proofs for the nonexistence of god.
Austin Cline’s favorite proof appears to be what is known as the Problem from Evil.
(1) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can. (Premise)
(2) There is no limit to what an omnipotent thing can do. (Premise)
(3) If there is no limit to what an omnipotent thing can do, then it can eliminate evil completely. (Implicit Premise)
(4) A good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely. (By 1 - 3)
(5) The existence of a good omnipotent thing is inconsistent with the existence of evil. (By 4)
(6) God is wholly good. (Premise)
(7) God is omnipotent. (Premise)
(8) Therefore, the existence of God is inconsistent with the existence of evil. (By 5 - 7). **
The fact that Cline offers that this is an logically valid argument reveals his atheism and puts burden of proof squarely on his shoulders.
The same can be done with any other atheist that tries to hide in agnosticism. His words will sooner or later give him away, and when he cannot meet the burden of proof, he can be summarily dismissed.
**(First premise in the above argument is false.)