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What does Atheism really mean? Part I

The following is an original post from 27 April 2010 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. It is about what the term Atheism means and the burden of proof.

Atheism has traditionally been defined as the belief that God does not exist. This remains the formal definition in the discipline of Philosophy of Religion. Here are some representative definitions from philosophy texts.

  • “the view that there is no divine being, no God.” [1]
  • “Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God.” [2]
  • “The belief that God – especially a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God – does not exist.” [3]
  • “Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief.” [4]

Though not usually done, this idea can legitimately be expanded in certain contexts to include the denial of any particular god or gods. The early Christians for instance were called Atheists because they denied the existence of the whole pantheon of Roman god’s.

Atheism in this sense is the positive assertion and thus bares a burden of proof. That means it is claim about how reality is, and one has to provide reasons for it if that claim is going to be considered reasonable, rational, or plausibly true.

People can get led astray by popular aphorisms, like “You can’t prove God does not exist, because you can’t prove a universal negative.” However,

  • Atheism is not a universal negative – it is a singular negative. Like saying this snake is not venomous, or a chair is not red. You can prove singular negatives. For instance. You may allow the snake bite you, or you may find a chair that is blue. Also,
  • It is false you can’t prove a universal negative. An example of a universal negative may be there are no elephants in the quad. Find no elephants in the quad and you have proved your universal negative. Another example is there are no red chairs in the auditorium. Find a red chair in the auditorium, and again, you have proved your universal negative. Moreover, you can show that there is an internal inconsistency or logical contradiction entailed within the definition of such a being. For instance, you can show that a married bachelor does not exist, by drawing out the contradiction entailed in the definition of the two terms. And this is exactly what traditional atheistic philosopher’s have tried to do with both the logical and probabilistic problems of evil, and the so-called problem of the hiddenness of God. There is even a discipline dedicated to the task, called atheology.
  • If it is true you can’t prove a universal negative, and if atheism is a universal negative, then you shouldn’t be an atheist. You are admitting that your view cannot be shown to be true. You should be more modest in your assertions. instead, you should be an agnostic: one who doesn’t know.

If any Atheist, so construed, is unable to provide good reasons for this positive assertion, how is he or she able to maintain such a belief is reasonable and rational? Is there is a third way: an alternative to make it sound like the atheist was being rational all along? I’ll look at this in part II.

Footnotes:

  1. Penguin dictionary of Philosophy. Edited by Thomas Mautner. Penguin Books (1996)
  2. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Edited by Ted Honderich. Oxford University press (1995)
  3. The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy. BUNNIN, NICHOLAS and JIYUAN YU (eds). Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
  4. William Rowe (1998). Atheism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge.
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