Atheism: In Search Of Definitions

At a dinner party, hosted by Baron d’Holback for a group of freethinking French philosophes, in Paris, so the story is told, David Hume gave his remark that “He did not believe in atheists, that he had never seen any,” to which d’Holback responded that minus the three who have yet to make up their minds, the other fifteen guests invited were atheists. (Mossner 1980, 483)

What is atheism? In this article I explored some definitions of atheism offered in atheistic literature.

It is painfully difficult to find a fixed definition of atheism in literature that are in favor of it. Beginning with a popular definition of an atheist, which in turn would help us understand what atheism is, an atheist is a person who is without a belief in God or Idea of God.

Charles Bradlaugh, for example, contended:

Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God, but he says ‘I know not what you mean by God. I am without the idea of God. The word God to me is a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny what of which I have no conception,(Bradlaugh 1876)

Since atheism in Bradlaugh’s view elucidates a psychological state of mind of a subject, infants (Steele 2008, 3) and temporal comatose theist patients, are per this definition atheists, since they lack belief in God or Idea of God at that given period of time.

Identifying the above view as negative atheism, Michael Martin provided a similar but richer explanation and distinguishes it from another view of atheism, viz., positive atheism.  He explained:

Negative atheism in the broad sense is then the absence of belief in any god or Gods, not just the absence of belief in a personal theistic God, and negative atheism in the narrow sense is the absence of belief in a theistic God. Positive atheism in the broad sense is, in turn, disbelief in all gods, with positive atheism in the narrow sense being the disbelief in a theistic God. For positive atheism in the narrow sense to be successfully defended, two tasks must be accomplished. First, the reasons for believing in a theistic God must be refuted; in other words, negative atheism in the narrow sense must be established. Second, reasons for disbelieving in the theistic God must be given. (Martin et 2007, 2)

Though Martin’s  definition of positive atheism is closer to understand what atheism in general is, William L. Rowe offered a superior definition. Rowe contended that, ”in a broader sense of term, an atheist is someone who rejects belief in every form of deity, not just the God of the traditional theologians”(Rowe 2007, 16) Following Rowe, atheism, in a broader sense of term, is a rejection of all form of theism.

Rowe’s definition is closer to understanding who an atheist is because it does not only exclude infants and temporary comatose Christian patients from being considered atheists, but also limited theists, such as Epicurus and his followers, Epicureans “who denied, not that the Gods exist, but that they intervene in human affairs”(Andre 1998,142) and Hume, who believed in an intelligent author of the universe (Hume 1964) and qua Philo held an “adorably mysterious and incomprehensible nature of the Supreme Being.” (Hume 1907,30)

Kai Nielsen, concurs with Rowe’s definition of  atheism, when he contended that “[t]o be atheists we need to deny the existence of God”(Nielsen 2005, 50)

I favor Martin’s and Nielsen’s understanding of atheism because if a belief T is not a proper basic belief, then an individual A who is without evidence for T and without evidence against T, is in no position to accept or reject T. A having absence of T, only demonstrate A’s subjective physiological state of mind to which infants and temporary comatose theists do absurdly also share.

Question To Atheists: How do you define atheism?

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Andre, Shane (1993) Was Hume An Atheist?Humes Studies. Vol. XIX, No.1: 141-166 April 1993

Bradlaugh, Charles(1876) The Freethinkers Text Book. London cit. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief(1985) NY: Prometheus Books.

Hume, David (1907). Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Edinburgh; London: William Blackwood and Sons.

__________________ (1964) Natural History of Religion, in The Philosophical Works ,ed.   T. H. Green & T. H. Grose, 4 vols. Dannstadt, 4:309

Martin, Michael (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge University Press.

Mossner, Ernest C.(1980) The Life of David Hume  2nd ed. Oxford

Nielsen, Kai (2005) Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books

Rowe, William L.(2007) Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction. 4th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Steele, David R.(2008) Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy. Carus Publishing Company

18 thoughts on “Atheism: In Search Of Definitions

  1. Pingback: Friday Roundup | Feileadh Mor

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  3. I don’t know; I am hesitant to abandon the negative version of the definition. You go a bit far in saying such a position simply describes a psychological state (simple unawareness of god). It could, but I think the intent is to say that the person who holds the philosophical position in question cannot place the idea of a disembodied mind, among other divine qualities, in their ontology.
    Noel’s position above would acknowledge the source of the difference between atheistic and theistic philosophies in the case of the negative definition of atheism. The difference between Noel and myself, in that case, is in the sorts of knowledge to which we feel we may lay claim. I’m a little more skeptical.

      • Noel says, “Me personally, I believe in a God, I simply do not claim to know everything there is to know about God, but I am not going to make the absurd claim that, because my limited human reasoning cannot fully comprehend or justify the existence of an all powerful, all loving, all knowing God…that God must not exist then.” The implication here (Noel should correct me if I get this wrong) is that our knowledge comes from our experience, writ large, and our experience is demonstrably subject to certain limitations. Yet we act as though certain things, solidity for instance, are real because we have some subjective experience of them despite our inability to adequately characterize them. To reject those entities because we can’t characterize them, in spite of our experience, seems absurd to Noel.
        I agree, to an extent. Certainly things like solidity have an intra-subjective reality – as useful notations which we use to help us categorize our knowledge. But I have learned to be skeptical of such things as entities rather than just useful notations. Floating down a river in an inner-tube, water exhibits a comforting lack of solidity. Jumping into the river from a railroad trestle, the water suddenly provides me with qualitative solidity. It turns out that solidity isn’t some-thing, it really is just a useful notation. Physicists have been able to give me an account of what leads me to believe something is solid or not, albeit in exchange for other things, like fields and space, which I must take as potentially irreducible entities. Yet those things may be fully analyzed in terms of their relations if not in terms of their composition, and at least are in principle analyzable in terms of the latter. Noel’s contention is that an entity exists which is not in principle analyzable in terms of its comprehensive relations or composition, since it has essential qualities which lie beyond the bounds of our limited human reasoning. It is a solidity which we must accept as an entity rather than a useful notation simply based on our experience of it. I am simply skeptical of that sort of knowledge (pure subjectivity) – based on my experience with things like solidity, which sure seemed to be solid entities (metaphorically speaking) but then turned out not to be. Furthermore, since my limited human reasoning can’t comprehend maximals, timelessness, causality without dependency, etc., I am left in principle with the crucial questions about god – What might constitute god? What might characterize him in relation to everything non-god, as I am told that, as an comprehensive entity, god is not subject to effects? – which I need to answer if I am to say that I have an idea of god which I can explain as I expect to be able to explain all my other ideas – even the ones for which my knowledge is incomplete, like space or quantum fields. So, I can’t rightly say I have an idea of god beyond the category of feelings claimed by Noel, and I must remain skeptical regarding my, and others’, feelings about god. Isn’t ‘negative atheism’ a useful label for my position?

  4. I believe in tornadoes, and yet I have never seen one! And I was a meteorologist for 11 years. So, I guess that makes me a believer. 😉 This is another good post, Prayson. Thank you for helping me to think about things worth my time.

  5. My own definition of atheists, based on what I have observed and read in the blogging world, is people who have concluded that there is no God because of lack of scientific evidence. Also, I have met people who no longer believe in God (but once did) because of the inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible and the absurdities of some religious claims that some believers still believe in. It is my opinion that atheists do not consider the fact that we are mere humans who are still learning about the universe and concluding something as bold as the non-existence of a God is a premature stand. Me personally, I believe in a God, I simply do not claim to know everything there is to know about God, but I am not going to make the absurd claim that, because my limited human reasoning cannot fully comprehend or justify the existence of an all powerful, all loving, all knowing God in the midst of a chaotic and seemingly unjust universe full of evil and suffering, that God must not exist then.

    • I think you are right Noel and it is well to ask atheists to define themselves.

      The early 21st century has seen secularism and atheism promoted throughout the Western world with an ever-increasing vigor and militancy. This has led to the emergence of the “new atheists,” notable members of which include best-selling authors such as Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens.

      The contention of the new atheists is, obviously, that there is no God. Adherents to the philosophy of new atheism believe that blind, natural forces are responsible for all of reality which we perceive. The new atheists do not restrict themselves to a passive disbelief. Rather, they are actively engaged in admonishing others to follow suit, to declare their non-belief in God, and to take the necessary steps to rid the world of religious belief and practice. As outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion, “I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself.”

      An ironic feature of the new atheism is its strong faith in the inferiority of having faith. The new atheists erroneously redefine “faith” as an “irrational belief in the absence of evidence.” This misrepresentation of the nature of faith is absurd, for faith is not essentially a strong belief in something, but rather the ground of Christian faith is believing in someone—God. A.W. Tozer said, “Faith rests upon the character of God, not upon the demonstration of laboratory or logic.” When one has faith in the character of a person, a mother or an aircraft pilot, one no longer needs to be skeptical or require strong evidence in respect to any service that he or she renders.

      When it comes to things, Christians correctly approach the subject looking for strong evidence, while accepting that some matters may be beyond our current understanding. Indeed, many faith-filled scientists have been at the cutting edge of the scientific enterprise and test the evidence using thorough methods and techniques. The new atheists believe that empirical science is the only path to understanding reality. However, this is erroneous, since the very concept of “scientism” (the view that science is the only way to gain knowledge) is not itself subject to any scientific experiment and ultimately distills to a faith. Faith, far from being an “irrational belief in the absence of evidence,” is a decision to reckon as true something that is not visible. Scientism is a metaphysical concept. Thus, the new atheists require faith of some description, even if not in God. Scientism is self-refuting, and thus should not be believed. Scientism could be summed up as the belief that “empirical science is the only way to be sure about anything.” Of course, we might well then ask, “What was the scientific experiment that established that empirical science is the only way to be sure about anything?”

      In contrast, theism is aligned with the reality of a transcendent God. Biblical theism is based around a set of sensible concepts, one of which is that there is no such thing as an atheist. Clearly the atheists have faith of a sort, if only in their power to influence others to join their atheistic pursuits. But one wonders why, if they truly believe God does not exist, they spend their lives trying to disprove His existence. Does a man spend a lifetime trying to disprove the existence of unicorns or elves? Of course not, because he knows they don’t exist and wouldn’t bother. Even if he knows others believe in unicorns and elves, he doesn’t dedicate his life to trying to debate them out of that belief. Romans 1:19-20 declares plainly that all men do know God exists because God has clearly revealed that knowledge to them through the evidence of creation. Those that deny God are doing so out of the rebellion of a darkened heart (Romans 1:21). Rather than the intellectual the self-described atheist imagines himself to be, God has pronounced, “The fool says in his heart ‘there is no god’” (Psalm 14:1, 53:1).

      • Roy, your words are powerful and right on target. I am impressed on how you put this in such simple terms, yet in such profound manner. Faith as believing in someone puts a new perspective to it, such as when we have faith on a mother, a pilot, government, etc, without demanding for evidence. I like the notion that believing is science as the only way to truth is faith by itself. We tend to put faith on our limited human understanding.. why not on an unlimited deity?

      • @Roy
        I appreciate your above comments and would like to publish some passages from it in my blog under the title “Atheism or belief in ‘self-refuting Scientism’ ”
        Will you kindly allow me.

    • Our Creator made it all very simple for us to understand Noel, if we so choose to be receptive to Him.

      Even today when the intellectual temper of the intelligentsia is too often that of materialistic skepticism, we come across remarkable incidents which modern science cannot account for. The unbelievers scoff and ridicule or try to explain it all by using big technical terms which fail to explain and only explain away. The credulous in awe whisper, “a miracle!” and yet feel somewhat ashamed and sometimes rather fearful.

      The fact is that our modern knowledge, while it may tell us about the external side of nature and the outward man, is still ignorant of the inner forces which exist in both. “Spiritual and divine powers lie dormant in every human being,” says H. P. Blavatsky, “and the wider the sweep of his spiritual vision the mightier will be the God within.”

      Most people today deny the very existence of the inner God and are thereby blinded to its manifestations. Face to face with expressions of the Divine, they prefer to deny or ignore. The many “providential” escapes; the varied strange and remarkable “interventions”; the so-called coincidences—all can be traced to their real source, the Spirit in Man.

      Many of these unexplained occurrences are made possible through the power of faith. But what is faith? What does the modern man know of faith and its workings? What are the ingredients of faith? What did the ancients mean when they affirmed that “with faith all things are possible”? The educated intellectual is likely to laugh and say it is all ignorant superstition: how can faith cause anything to happen? And yet that same man will accept the fact that if you give a pellet of bread to a patient suffering from constipation and he believes you have given him a laxative, the effect on his body will be that of a laxative! “Oh, yes, but that is easy to explain,” says the skeptic. “That is a clear case of auto-suggestion and demonstrates the action of the mind upon the body.” Very well. But was not that action of the mind the result of the belief held by the patient? Or—to change the illustration—when a man is incapable of walking, though there is no actual physiological incapacity, because he thinks he has suffered an injury to his legs, what paralyses his legs? Is it not his belief (or faith) that he has received an injury that incapacitates him for walking? Such examples could be multiplied. And the same principle explains the common experience that we do better when we have faith in our own skill of knowledge, that self-confidence brings success and lack of it failure. The question really is: Can anything be done without a measure of faith? Could we live at all without faith? Rightly did the Initiate Paul write to the Corinthians: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”

      God is truly all powerful. The power of God is amazing and it has always been a wonder for me. Look around you and see how vast this universe is that God has made. Most don’t know that at the equator, the Earth is spinning at about the speed of 1,040 miles per hour. The Earth also revolves around the Sun at a speed of about 18.5 miles per second. Our little Solar System is just one of ?billions residing in the Milky Way Galaxy and orbits the center of the Galaxy at about 155 miles per second. And our Galaxy is just one of ?many in a group of Galaxies spinning in the Local Group at 185 miles per second.

  6. No reply option to your comment…. have to do it up here.

    Yes, Prayson, you know fully well i do. Remember, i celebrate science, unlike most Christians. The laying down of the scientific method was not finalised until the late 19th Century, 100 years after his death. True, he was thinking in the early stages of it, but was looooong dead before the really interesting things started to be discovered.

    Nietzsche was also writing from a position of ignorance. In this i’m not using ‘ignorance’ as a derogatory term, rather a factual observation. Nietzsche, like Hume, was ignorant of the universe he/they were trying to understand. Hence my statement.

    In all honesty, i find philosophy painfully boring and entirely unproductive. It’s never moved a rock, or fed a hungry person.

  7. Prayson, i like you, you know i do, but you have an unhealthy fixation on philosophers pre-Darwin, pre-Scientific Method, Pre-cosmology. I think you’re being disingenuous to yourself.

      • Well, for starters this is two posts in a row on Hume, but i’ve noticed a pattern. You like philosophers who were active before the enlightenment. That’s fine, they support your worldview more… but do remember, they were writing and thinking 100 years before Dmitri Mendeleev – author of Principles of Chemistry – presented to the Russian Chemical Society his paper, The Dependence between the Properties of the Atomic Weights of the Elements. They were casting their minds over a landscape 150 years before Max Planck discovered quanta and shortly after Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr unravelled the structure of the atom itself. 170 years before Hans Bethe worked out the basic nuclear processes by which hydrogen is fused into helium in stellar interiors, and then Cecilia Payne presented what the famed astronomer, Otto Struve, described as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy:” Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars. They were writing and thinking in an age when the going scientific theory stated the sun was a giant shouldering coal ball cooking away in space and our solar system was the composite of the entire universe. In other words, they were writing from a position of ignorance.

      • I think you are not familiar with Hume’s works. Alex Rosenberg, in The Atheist’s Guide To Reality, state that “In fact, we[ atheists] really haven’t needed one[refuting traditional theism] since Hume wrote his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published, by his arrangement, three years after his death in 1779”.

        Moreover, your understanding would put atheists philosopher writing pre-Darwin, like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, outspoken and brilliant atheist, who wrote a great criticism of Darwinism, at odd.

        Are you sure Hume was active before the enlightenment? Do you know when was enlightenment?

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