Philosophers Define Atheism as the Proposition that God Does Not Exist

May 12, 2020 | Apologetics, Philosophy, Quick Thoughts

It’s quite common for the atheistic community that hangs out online to claim that atheism is merely the psychological lack of a belief in God or any gods.

We’ve discussed the question of whether atheism is itself a worldview here, and dealt with this notion there as well.

However, a recent Facebook conversation sparked discussion around this link which seems to decisively answer the question.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy claims:

“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).”

If one wishes to define the term in some nuanced manner for themselves, fine, however, one must concede that this is not the definition philosophers use.

Additionally, Biola and Yale philosophy professor Greg Ganssle uses a particularly helpful Socratic questioning technique to get one’s beliefs on this matter.

Consider a conversation with an “atheist” who defines the term as “a lack of belief in God or any gods.” One could simply propose this clarification:

“I’m going to make a statement: God exists. Please answer (1) agree, (2) deny, or (3) withhold.”

Such a question quickly exposes what someone believes given the traditional definitions of, respectively, theism, atheism, and agnosticism, and will help you proceed in the conversation from there.

And if someone wants to claim they lack a belief in God, then you’ve no obligation to refute their non-belief. The question ultimately has nothing to do with their psychological condition, but rather, whether the being we call God has positive ontological status; that is to say, he exists.

H/T to my friend Lucas Giolas for sharing the link to the Stanford article.

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