Myth: A Lack of Belief is Still a Belief, so Atheism is a Belief in No God

Do Atheists Really Have a Belief or Faith Despite Claims to the Contrary?

Myth:
A lack of belief is still a belief, so atheism is a belief and atheists by definition believe that God does not exist.

 

Response:
When religious theists are informed that atheism is not "belief that God does not exist," as they previously assumed, but rather that atheism is really defined as the "lack of belief in the existence of any gods" or simply "disbelief in gods," many get defensive. Perhaps they cannot accept being mistaken about something, or perhaps they realize how many of their assumptions and arguments about atheism and atheists fall apart in light of the real definition.

Either way, be prepared for a fight.

What's especially disconcerting about the above myth, commonly offered in response to being told that atheism is just a lack of belief in gods, is how insanely incoherent it is. If I told someone that lacking hair is still having hair, or lacking a hobby is itself a hobby, they'd probably ask whether I've been feeling OK and might even suggest counseling.

They would surely doubt my ability to think and reason coherently. Such claims represent a complete separation from both reality and the most basic rules of logic: if something is absent, then it cannot also be present at the same time. By definition, something absent is not present — and that counts as much for beliefs as it does for hair and hobbies.

Why don't religious theists making this claim realize just how bizarre it sounds? I can't say for sure, but I suspect that they are so committed to the proposition that atheism has to be a "belief that [my] God doesn't exist" that they don't pay too much attention to the quality of the reasoning or reasons they have to use to justify this conclusion.

If it has any superficial plausibility, they may be willing to run with it.

Remember that religious theists repeat many assumptions about and arguments against atheism which depend on this myth that atheism is narrowly defined as the denial of their god. If they give up this premise, they have to give up a lot of other arguments and beliefs — something that is naturally difficult for anyone in any circumstances to face.

Even worse, though, is the fact that abandoning their misconceptions about atheism might render atheism more reasonable than they have been assuming; the more reasonable atheism might be, the less reasonable their own theism could end up being.

If you take the time to stretch out the conversation a little, you'll find that the religious theists who make the above claim never apply the same principle of "reasoning" to any other situation. They won't agree, for example, that a lack of substance is the same as having substance or that a lack of value is the same as having value. They won't even agree to apply this narrowly to just the concept of belief.

No, for some strange reason this idea that "a lack of X is still an X" only applies to atheism and belief in gods. You probably won't be able to get a religious theists to explain why this is so, but if you are careful and persistent in driving home just how absurd this all is — not just the idea that this could be true, but that it only applies to this one situation — you might get them to begin to realize that their position is indefensible.

This doesn't mean that they will give up entirely on trying to argue that atheism is defined as "belief that [my] God doesn't exist," so don't assume that you're finished arguing over what atheism is.

Believers who are committed to the idea that disbelief in their god is indefensible and unjustifiable will keep trying to find some way to misrepresent atheism in order to rationalize their own position. You may, however, be able to get past this particular myth and stop tearing out your hair over it.