Defining the Argument over Atheism

Having had it explained to me, ad nauseum, that atheism simply means “lack of belief in God” (as opposed to the positive belief that God does not exist), I feel compelled to give my thoughts on the matter.

First is the fact that, either definition is proper. It never makes sense to argue definitions in a debate, much less when the opponent’s definition is valid.

So, why am I writing on the subject? Simply because the position defended via this definition is not one I find defensible.

It strikes me as at least a bit disingenuous to claim this definition when debating in favor of atheism. If one is actively arguing against a person who makes the claim that God exists, one appears to be doing more than “not believing”. Rather, one seems to be of the opinion that belief in God is either untrue or dangerous (or both). Simple lack of belief results only in disinterest on the subject.

Beyond that, a “lack of belief” is a non-position. It doesn’t answer the question: does God exist? A yes, no, or statement of probability is what is required in order to debate that point. Someone who doesn’t wish to speak on the topic, but merely “lacks belief” is commenting only on his/her personal psychological state – not taking a stance on the issue. For those of us looking for the best answer to the question, that is an insurmountable problem.

Given all this, I’ve found myself increasingly unwilling to engage with those who claim simply to disbelieve (or otherwise refuse to take a stance on the issue being discussed). Not having a position makes it surprisingly easy to mock the positions of others. In fact, those who take no position tend to have the most unrealistic standards of acceptance of evidence on any topic, often blithely dismissing arguments without any attempt to raise an argument that can meet such demands.

Similarly, I find myself disinterested in debating with those who demand that “faith is belief without evidence”. This refrain seems repeated as nearly as often as the case against faith is made, leaving me to wonder why. If this really were the accepted definition of faith, what need is there to recite it? Isn’t it much more important what the theist actually practices, rather than a seemingly arbitrary definition foisted on him/her?

Such individuals seem cynically aware of the adage: “he who defines unchallenged wins the debate”.

It has taken me far too long to realize that, while there are a number of very profound objections to theism which have been raised by atheists, neither the current popular books, nor the bloggers who support them, are included in that number. Rather, I find myself claiming that, as terms have been set up, I seem neither to be an atheist, nor have faith. According to some in my acquaintance, that means I do not exist.

And here we get to the argument of the non-existent God. A God who has been so defined in the debates that we may consider only the most crude of understandings. Any sophistication at all seems to be out of bounds, promptly dismissed as sophistry. After years of asserting that a vision of God cannot be ignored simply on the grounds that it does not fit in with, say, Richard Dawkins’ reading of the Bible, I’ve learned to be content in the fact that such atheists have succeeded in arguing against absolutely nothing that I actually believe.

This is the downside to forcing definitions. At some point, it must be admitted that the real issues were never actually discussed. If atheists wish to refute religion, they will need to refute the religion that people actually believe in, as opposed to the caricatures shredded daily on the internet.

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3 responses to “Defining the Argument over Atheism

  • Stephanie Ann Foster

    I often noticed these same frustrations cropping up early on in my marriage, when trying to win the argument (and thus superiority) was (and I did not realize this at the time) more important to me than truly understanding my husband. I eventually realized that few arguments are about what is expressed on the surface. I think the same problem often exists in the faith vs atheism debate. It’s important to discover, as quickly as possible, whether you are dealing with someone who wants to discuss the subject, or someone who wants to somehow define themselves through it.

  • c emerson

    Nice starting sequence for your blog.
    I have recently immersed myself in reading blogs and “the literature”. I agree with your post. It is surprisingly hard to find a good outline of what points the science-faith debate should actually cover. And I definitely agree with Stephanie that “few arguments are about what is expressed on the surface.” As in your post on Evidentialism, verified – as opposed to merely valid – arguments depend as much on the truth of the core assumptions as on the logic thereafter.

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