What is atheism? This used to be something everyone knew and no one argued about. For the past century (or three) western culture has had periodic debates about IF God exists or NOT, but not a lot of debates were about how to define atheism. Atheism was the side saying NOT. It was all pretty simple. Those were the days when we all knew that men should use the men’s rest room and women should use the women’s rest room, because we all knew men were not women. Remember those days? I miss those days.
Naturally, I have been defining atheism to mean “Atheism,” but thanks to social media, I have had a LOT of angry people insisting that I have blasphemed the sacred scriptures of dictionary.com and DEMANDING that I use the word to mean what THEY mean by it. Atheism, they insist, is a word describing a lack of belief in the existence of God (or gods, or goddesses, etc). If I can rabbit trail for just a second, what kind of a world do we live in where our culture demands we let each person choose their own gender but REFUSES to let me define a word the way I want to? How did the most recent edition of the dictionary become more absolute than actual human biology? But I digress.
I didn’t understand these MANY comments I got on social media until I figured out the unspoken assumption wherein we differed. When I used the word Atheism I was working under the assumption that the statements “I do not believe God exists” and “I believe God does not exist” were equivalent statements, because, in truth they are. My detractors on social media, however, are working under the assumption that these are NOT equivalent (or at least not Necessarily equivalent). When I figured this out, it all clicked into place.
I have stated in the past that the redefinition of the word “Atheism” has happened for the sole reason of allowing the atheist to avoid the burden of proof, because, as we all know, atheism is indefensible. But if they define atheism to mean merely a LACK of belief, then they don’t have to prove anything.
Or do they?
If the conversation ended there, they would not have anything to prove, because something NOT being doesn’t need a basis. If I may quote a song from the Muppets Most Wanted:
Sam the Eagle: “If they did it, how did they do it?”
French Cop: “If they didn’t, how did they didn’t?”
Sam the Eagle: “If they didn’t, then it’s easy, because they simply didn’t do it.”
That is a GREAT musical number. And the point Sam makes here is the one the atheists are trying to make- if they didn’t commit the crime, the police do not need to prove how they DIDN’T commit the crime. They just didn’t and the police need to find who did and prove THEY DID. Similarly, my friends on social media say, they DON’T believe, and a LACK of belief doesn’t carry a burden of proof. But they are only half right.
The fact is, the conversation doesn’t end there, even if they refuse to say any more. When a person says of themselves, “I do not believe (any proposition),” then logically there is one of two possible intellectual foundations for this position (or lack of position if you prefer to call it that.) They lack belief in the proposition because they KNOW (something) or because they do NOT know (something). In the case of the debate over the existence of God, the Atheist (Person who lacks belief in God’s existence) lacks belief because they know something which convinces them that they know God is absent, or they do not know something which convinces them that God is absent but also feel they don’t know something which proves He is present.
Thus, the two intellectual positions which are possible are:
- They are confident (intellectually) that God is absent
- They are NOT confident (intellectually) that God is absent
I say “intellectually” because I am referring to their intellectual basis for their worldview, and not their emotions. It matters little how confident they FEEL if they have no REASON to think what they do. This is true of anyone on any topic. You can FEEL REALLY CERTAIN of something, but if you have no intellectual foundation for that belief, then you do not KNOW and cannot say you KNOW, but must admit intellectual ignorance, meaning you lack an intellectual foundation for the belief, no matter how strongly you feel or how much you WANT it to be true.
If the reason one lacks a belief in the existence of God is #1, then they are what I call an Atheist. I am forced to use this word (even though in the beginning of this argument I conceded to the popular social media definition) for two reasons- first because that is what the word has always meant in western culture, and secondly because there is no other word which means that. The semantic warriors who take me to task for using the word this way show they know this is true at some level because no one has offered another word to take its place, but word combinations are tossed about to make up for the lack of a useful word, such as “Hard Atheist” or “Gnostic Atheist” etc. No one has EVER said, “Someone who believes that God does not exist is not an Atheist, he is a ______.” I’m still waiting for that blank to be filled in. But I digress.
So where I use the word “Atheist” of position #1, use whatever phrase you prefer. And don’t leave me any comments about it. I already know you’re angry at me for defining a word differently than you do. How dare I, Whom do I think I am, Etc.
Position #2 is simple. They are not intellectually confident that God is absent, which logically means they admit God MIGHT exist, however they feel about it, or whatever they WANT to be true. If they KNEW reasons to believe God exists, they would simply be theists, so they are ignorant of those reasons, and if they knew reasons to believe God is absent, they would simply be atheists (how I define it for position #1) but they are ignorant of those reasons. Since they lack information which would cause them to declare a position with intellectual confidence, they are agnostics, meaning their position is one of ignorance.
Let’s recap to this point just to make sure we’re all on the same page:
- We agree to define atheism to mean “a lack of belief in God.” All of my commenters/detractors on Social Media rejoice.
- We ask WHY a person would lack a belief in the existence of God.
- We find two possible reasons:
- They are confident in His absence
- They are NOT confident in His absence
- Those who feel they have a rational, intellectual foundation on which to base confidence in the absence of God are what I call Atheists
- Those who are not confident in God’s absence have admitted by default that God MAY exist in their view, and thus they are what I call Agnostics
Am I saying that, on the popular Social Media definition, some atheists are agnostics? No. I am saying that ALL atheists are agnostics.
What the WHAAAAAAATTTT??!?
Here’s the problem for the Atheist (position #1.) They DO have a burden of proof and it is a doozy. The ONLY way for a person to be an intellectually rational atheist is to prove that God’s existence is IMPOSSIBLE. If they cannot do that, they cannot be a rational atheist. They are merely an agnostic who REALLY REALLY REALLY doesn’t want to admit God may exist.
Before you go throwing full wine bottles at your computer screen, let me explain:
There are only three possible options for any person, place, thing, event, or idea:
- Impossible: It CANNOT exist in any possible world. For example, a square circle, or a married bachelor, or a five sided triangle.
- Contingent: It MAY exist in some possible world (Meaning, its existence in the real world would not be a contradiction or an impossibility). If it does exist, it is dependant on something/someone else to bring it into existence. For example: Root beer, Beethoven, ostriches, coffee mugs, Mr. Potato Head, or the episode of Start Trek about the Tribbles.
- Necessary: It MUST exist in ANY possible world. If you describe the whole of reality as being without this, your description is wrong. Examples: God, the number five, opposites, bacon.
This is really simple. I am talking about the God of the Bible, or as He is sometimes known, “The one TRUE God.” So if your description of what you call “God” is contingent, you are not talking about God. You’re just using the word wrong.
And we can argue to His being necessary in a variety of ways. First, because the Bible describes Him that way, and who are we to doubt His resume? And scientifically, because the universe needs a cause, and that cause must be God, and objective morality needs a cause, and that cause must be God, and every event needs a cause, but we can’t logically have an infinite regress of causes, so God must be the first, unmoved mover, or the first uncaused cause, etc.
The church has been writing on these things for two thousand years. So needless to say, I am summarizing here.
While there are no doubt lots of religions and atheists who describe God in ways which would make Him impossible, those descriptions are all wrong and do not agree with His self revelation in the Bible (Which is the only description I am interested in). The one true God as we learn in scripture, science, philosophy and history is necessary.
This brings us back to the atheists.
In order for a person to be an intellectually rational atheist, and have an actual confidence in the existence of God, they would have to prove (to themselves at least) that God’s existence is IMPOSSIBLE. But that means coming up with an argument which proves that a necessary being is impossible. I have likened this to writing a persuasive essay meant to convince the reader that words do not exist. You can try, but no one will ever succeed at this task.
Thus, no one can be an atheist. Everyone who claims that title must, if they are honest, admit that God MAY exist even in their own worldview. They may FEEL strongly that He does not, or that they do not want Him to, but they cannot say they know better. Not if they are honest.
This is why I have said that, even when defined in the popular social media way, atheists do not exist. Even if we start with defining atheism to be a mere lack of belief in God, all persons who would describe themselves as being atheistic are in fact agnostics who must, if they are honest, admit that God may exist. If they spent more time asking questions instead of pretending they already had answers, they could start making that journey from ignorance to theism, and then, when they get to know God personally, Christianity.
This is where you have the following talk with God;
“Say, the One True God, you are perfect and Holy, and I am a sinner. Can you help me with that?” and He says, “I already did. I lived a perfect, sinless life and died as the sacrifice which pays for your sins so that, if you choose to believe in me, you can have eternal life.” And you say, “Thanks, the one True God!” and He says, “Please, call me Dad.”
Really Jesus taught us that. Still knocks me over that God wants to be our Heavenly Daddy.
It’s the best news that ever was, and of that there can be no debate.