Monday, October 24, 2016

Atheism: A Lack of Belief in God

Introduction

I recently had a conversation on Twitter with an atheist. He held a particular view of atheism that made it quite difficult to have a productive conversation. This view has become more popular among internet atheists in the last few years, so I thought it would be worth addressing. 

What is Atheism?

This atheist immediately began our interaction by questioning my understanding of atheism. He claimed that atheism did not make the claim that God does not exist (as is the traditional understanding), rather it is neutral on God's existence; it does not make an ontological claim (if God exists) but rather an epistemological claim (if someone believes that God exists). He rationalized this untraditional understanding by saying that since theism is the belief in God, then atheism is the denial of the belief in God, but it is not necessarily the denial of God's existence. After I asked him a few clarifying questions, he claimed that no one could really "know" that God exists and we are all actually agnostics. He ultimately claimed that atheism is indistinguishable from agnosticism. 


Distinguishing The New From The Old

Traditionally atheism has made the stronger, positive claim that God does not exist. Atheists have traditionally accepted a certain amount of the burden of proof in the past and have attempted to provide evidence for that position. However, with this new definition, the claim is much weaker than in the past. This new definition addresses one's knowledge of God's existence, not God's existence itself. This new definition moves atheism from the category of metaphysics/ontology (what is) to epistemology (what we can know about what is). If an atheist makes the claim that they do not know if God exists or they simply deny a belief in God, then they are making a claim about their own level of knowledge about reality. This view shields the atheist from any commitment to what is real, thus protects them from having to defend a claim about what is real. They do not need to provide evidence; they merely need to say "I do not know." 

Now, I am not sure when this new definition started becoming popular, but it seems to have corresponded with the realization of many atheists that many of their traditional arguments against God's existence have failed (such as the intellectual problem of evil) and that arguments for God's existence (such as the moral argument, teleological arguments, cosmological arguments, etc.) have been found to be sound (true premises and valid reasoning). If the claim that God does not exist is not being made (but merely that one does not believe that God exists), then the arguments for God's existence and against God's not existing do not apply. This new definition removes atheists from having to address the arguments and evidence and allows them to remain comfortably in their belief that God does not exist despite the arguments and evidence to the contrary.

The Implications of the New

Unfortunately, this new definition gives the atheist a false sense of intellectual security. If a person believes that there is no God, and if that is false, would the atheist not want to be confronted with evidence and arguments that their belief is false? Would they not want to be in a position to intellectually defend their decision to reject what is true? These are questions that may help us understand why this new definition seems to be becoming more popular. I want to believe that atheists are committed to finding truth; however, if they adopt this new definition, it really brings that commitment into question for those who do adopt it. These skeptics really need to take some serious time of self-reflection to examine honestly if they are committed to a view instead of being committed to discovering what is true.

Conclusion

I do not see this new definition going away anytime soon, though. In fact, I expect more atheists to begin using it to define themselves. For these atheists, they do not care if God exists; they have decided that they will not commit to Him even if He does. This makes me wonder about possible encounters they have had in the past with the Church. This is why it is so important that the Body of Christ represent Him accurately to the world, both intellectually and practically. If we confess Christ and philosophize and theologize but do not show the implications in our own lives, all that means nothing. For the atheist who has adopted this new definition, the best apologetic could very well be a life lived towards them through Christ.

NOTE: It seems that this particular definition has been given its own term: antitheism. Lawrence Krauss, for instance, identifies himself as an "antitheist" with the concept described in this post rather than as an "atheist." I wrote a post a few years ago on this new term here: Antitheism and Krauss' Wager.

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