Atheism Explained

August 3, 2009

An atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods. But you wouldn't know this just by asking people. It sounds like three atheist camps have gotten entrenched. One camp says that atheists are those who deny that any god exists; another says that atheists are those denying the theistic God of Judaism/Christianity/Islam; while a third camp says that atheists simply lack belief that God exists. They are all arguing over how many atheists there are, and how atheism can best avoid all burden of proof. And what about the camp of agnosticism? All this chaos is affecting agnosticism, which is by now a pretty useless category. Agnostics used to know where they didn’t know where to stand, but now they don’t even not know what it is that they are not supposed to believe or to not believe. It's time for clarification, since atheists fighting over atheism's definition is getting really old and frankly embarrassing. I suspect all these camps have each grasped onto important aspects of atheism, but we need to step back for a moment.

There are understandable causes for such controversy. Lexicographers point to the Greek "a"-theos, but atheists can select among interpretations of prefix and term: what about "anti" theos (denial of the gods), or maybe "non" theos (not believing in gods), or "anti" theism (denial of a specifically theistic God). Demographers often describe an atheist as someone who will reply to a pollster, "Atheism? Yes, that's me -- I think that God does not exist." But few people make that selection, especially in America, where only 2-3% seem willing to apply that understanding of atheism to themselves. Self-identity atheism can make an atheist feel lonely. By contrast, lacking the belief that a supernatural personal God exists may broadly cover as much as one-sixth of the world's population (by including pantheists, spiritualists, agnostics, people unacquainted with the notion of a god, infants, comatose people, etc.). Thoughtful atheists seeking guarantees that all default burden of justification rests on religious believers also admire this broadest category of absence of belief. However, the notion that broad atheism needs no justification is wrong, since mere ignorance is unjustifiable (that’s we why we value education).

Educated atheism falls between self-identity atheism and broad atheism. It’s time to take an educated look at atheism. An atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods, that much is still clear. Lack of belief in something will ordinarily have two causes: inattention and skepticism. That’s why two main varieties of atheism are constantly promoted. By now we understand how “not believing that god exists” is quite different from “believing that god does not exist”. Both positions are genuine kinds of atheism, and may be conveniently labeled as “apatheism” and “skeptical” atheism. You don’t need to like my chosen labels, but these two kinds of atheism obviously exist nonetheless. Apatheism is inattention towards god and religious matters; by combining “apathy” and “theism” we can label people who lack belief in a god because they are not paying attention to religion and don’t care enough to think about God. Skeptical atheism is doubtful disbelief towards God and religious matters; skeptics lack belief in God because they have considered religion and believe that God probably does not exist. “Strong” atheism is the extreme end of skeptical atheism where some people confidently assert knowledge that no god exists.

Apatheism by itself offers no rational justifications for itself; an apatheist doesn’t know or care enough to bother. A genuine case of an apatheist is a person who would not rationally justify such lack of belief, since she either has no concept of god to think about, or she has no interest in thinking about what little she has heard about gods. The notion that an apatheist believes that god does not exist or that an apatheist is skeptical towards God can’t make much sense. The typical apatheist simply does not have that affirming belief or active skepticism. In response to the question, “Do you believe that God does not exist” an apatheist is likely to instead reply in this fashion: “What are you talking about?” or “A notion of a god seems meaningless to me” or “I have no idea” or “I have no belief about that.” It is more correct to simply say that the apatheist does not have the belief that a god exists, rather than supposing that the apatheist believes that god does not exist.

Justifying apatheism must come from some other atheist position. That’s the job of an educated and rational skepticism. This skeptical atheism is doubt towards all gods because available information and sound reasoning shows how it is improbable that any god exists. The skeptical wing of atheism composes the smaller “disbelievers” portion of the larger whole of “nonbelievers”, but they are not unimportant. In the long run, highly successful skepticism produces a world full of apatheists. Those proclaiming that the “genuine” atheist simply lacks belief so that religions must supply arguments are precisely those who, ironically, soon borrow critiques of the religious arguments from the skeptical atheist. Evidently, apatheists and skeptics need each other; together they are what atheism looks like while religions still flourish.

Neither kind of atheist, the apatheist nor the skeptic, ever has the “burden of proof” in arguments over God’s existence. Those who propose the existence of something always have the burden of proof. This is especially valid where religion is involved: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Both apatheism and skepticism are reasonable stances since atheism is rational, but it takes skeptical atheism to explain why. If skepticism has any “burden” it is simply the helpful exposition of religion’s many violations of reason and evidence. Skeptics gladly take on this “burden” of educating others when they can confidently expose religion’s irrationalisms.

Many skeptical atheists can offer educated justifications (again, not burdened “proofs”) in debates with thoughtful religious believers. The point of “theology” is offering reasons for accepting religious claims about God, so by parallel the educated opposition to such claims is “atheology”. Atheology offers reasons for skeptically doubting religious claims. Atheology comprises just one aspect of all the ways that religious belief can be criticized. For example, religions can be criticized for encouraging injustices or wars, and religious people can be criticized for bad conduct. Atheology narrowly focuses on rationally doubting the claims made by religious people about supernatural beings.

Let’s summarize. An atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods, and that’s a surprisingly large number of people. Two subsets of atheists are apatheists and skeptics, and they have in common the lack of a belief in God. Apatheists don’t care to think enough about religion to positively assert or justify a belief that God does not exist. Skeptics believe that god probably does not exist. Some skeptics offer religious criticism to explain atheism, while others can additionally do atheology. Only a tiny portion of atheism consists of people who do atheology, so atheology hardly characterizes atheism as a whole (besides, theologians practice atheology on other religions’ gods too). Atheology is a needed rational response to supernatural claims during a time of widespread religious belief. If you want a well-reasoned explanation of atheism, after we get its definition straight, you are asking for some atheology, which must be a topic for another blog.