Is Defining Atheism as a 'Lack of Belief in God' a Cop Out?

Do Atheists Avoid Problems with Atheism by Misdefining Atheism?

Definitions. JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty

Lack of belief is really an attempt by atheists to avoid facing and defending the problems in their atheistic position. You see, if they say they have no position, by saying they lack belief, then their position is not open to attack and examination and they can quietly remain atheists.


I've written a number of articles about how religious theists, but especially Christians, try to argue against the broad definition of atheism as simply the absence of belief in gods.

This myth explains why it's so important to some theists to define atheism as narrowly as possible: if atheism is just the absence of belief in gods, then it's not making any claims that all atheists must defend, and therefore the only burden of proof lies with religious theists themselves.

Few theists are prepared to carry this burden, so they desperately seek out some way to shift it to atheists. One of the keys to understanding how and why this myth goes so wrong is to note the fallacy of Begging the Question: it attempts to argue that atheists should not define atheism broadly by assuming the truth of the narrow definition which religious theists would prefer.

This fallacy occurs in the phrase "avoid facing and defending the problems in their atheistic position."

The "problems" in the "atheistic position" are those which religious theists attribute to a narrow definition of atheism which they find convenient to use.

The idea that this narrow definition is the most appropriate one is, however, precisely the issue being debated. It is not legitimate to argue that something is wrong by assuming that the alternative which you favor is correct.

Doing so only indicates that one probably doesn't have any valid arguments to offer and is thus just grasping at straws in an attempt to come up with something to say.

It's true that with the broad definition of atheism, there is little to attack — but why are religious theists so eager to have something to attack? Rather than seeking out some opposition to attack, they should focus on defending, supporting, and justifying their own assertions. The burden of proof, or at least the burden of support if there is nothing to prove, lies with whomever is making the positive claim. In context of atheism and theism, this burden of proof lies primarily or entirely with the theist because this is the person who is claiming that at least one of some sort of being they call a god exists.

Atheists are simply those who do not accept the truth of this claim — they may deny it outright, they may find it too vague or incomprehensible to evaluate properly, they may be waiting to hear support for the claim, or they may simply not have heard about it yet. This is a broad and diverse category and there is no particular counter-claim made by all atheists. As someone who doesn't agree with the theist, the atheist doesn't automatically have any particular position, claim, or belief to defend. It's the theist who has something to defend, and if they didn't want to be put in such a position they should have refrained from making a claim in the first place.

It might thus be fairly said that the entire attempt to deny the definition of atheism as simply a "lack of belief in gods" is an attempt by religious theists to avoid facing and defending their own theistic position. You see, if they can claim that atheists are making their own assertions, then perhaps the theistic claims will fade into the background and not be subject to the critical examination, questions, and critique they deserve. These people can thus quietly remain theists without having to do any of the work necessary to justify it.