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What Is an Atheist?

What is Atheist?

Every now and then it pays to review the basics. Rest assured that no principle of reasoning is so basic or so obvious, or repeated so often, as to prevent fundamentalist Christian apologists from violating it repeatedly. The more sophisticated apologists do so under the illusion that all the objections have been met. They just haven't looked deeply enough. The rest are blissfully ignorant of the entire landscape. Principles? What principles?

One of the most basic principles of reasoning is this: The burden of proof is on those who would add to our public knowledge. If I claim that six-foot, green spiders inhabit the hills around San Diego, and if I want this to become accepted public knowledge, then the burden of proof is entirely on my shoulders. You are under no obligation to go to San Diego and search those hills in order to prove me wrong. Indeed, if I were the least bit clever, you could never prove me wrong! Perhaps those green spiders are very rare and good at avoiding people. Maybe they even have supernatural properties that shield them from unwanted detection. No matter how hard you searched, I could always come up with some excuse for your failure to find those giant, green spiders.

If the burden of proof rightfully belonged on your shoulders, giant, green spiders would have quickly become part of our store of accepted public knowledge. We would have to take them seriously until proven otherwise. But who has the means to prove otherwise? Thus, the library of accepted public knowledge would soon be corrupted. Virtually every crackpot idea blowing in the wind would firmly lodge there.

If we wish to protect the integrity of our store of accepted public knowledge, the burden of proof MUST rest on those who would add to it. They must give us data and reasoning that establishes their claim beyond a reasonable doubt. That means all serious competition must also be ruled out beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Christian Research Institute Journal (Part One - Fall 1991)1 shows how easy it is for Christian philosophers to dispense with the above principle of reasoning. Let me paraphrase their argument:

When Christians and atheists debate the question “Does God exist?” atheists usually assert that the entire burden of proof rests on the Christian. This is not true. As Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has stated, when an interrogative (such as Does God exist?) is debated each side must shoulder the burden of proof. This is unlike debating a proposition such as “God does exist,” where the burden of proof rests entirely with the affirmative side. It follows then that when debating the question of God's existence, both the Christian and the atheist are obligated to provide support for their position. The Christian should insist that the atheist provide proof as to God's alleged nonexistence. That puts the atheist into a logical bind.

Craig may be technically correct, assuming that both sides agree upon the meaning of “God.” The atheist who denies this proposition is saying that a being with all the qualities that define God does not, in all probability, exist. That's a positive statement about the real world. Among other things, it implies that no matter where we look we will never find God. Evidence is needed. We might call this the “strong” or “assertive” position for atheism. The theist, of course, is saying that there is good evidence that such a being exists. Again, that's a positive statement requiring support. In Craig's example both sides have a burden of proof, though not necessarily equal.

For most of us, however, the real proposition being debated is this: Shall the theist's claim that God exists be admitted to the public store of accepted knowledge2? Those who say “No” don't have to make a positive case. The burden of proof, as shown earlier, rests entirely on those who say “Yes.” They must convince the gatekeepers of accepted knowledge that their claim has passed all the tests and earned its stripes. Otherwise, all chaos would break loose and our public library of accepted knowledge would become corrupted.

The atheist may simply show that the case for God has flunked the test for “factual” public knowledge. That is, the idea of God may be incoherent or, to the extent that it is intelligible, seriously lacking in evidence. On those grounds, the claim that God exists may be rejected as fit, public knowledge. In this case, the atheist acts as a concerned gatekeeper and does not actually add to the public store of accepted knowledge. He is not declaring that God does not exist. His view carries no burden of proof beyond documenting the inadequacy of the theist's proof. We might call this the “weak” or “minimal” atheist position.

Therefore, the debate as to whether God exists or not, understood as an attempt to determine whether the “God” concept should be added to (or removed from2) the public storehouse of accepted knowledge, places the full burden of proof on the theist. The theist must show that his idea is worthy of public trust, as having earned its stripes.

If the theist can make the atheist share the burden of proof, then his next point is that the atheist cannot logically prove God's nonexistence. However, even if we mistakenly grant the theist that much leeway, he is not home free. The atheist might still have the better argument by far and, yet, be unable to prove God's nonexistence. More to the point, the “strong” or “assertive” atheistic position can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt for some definitions of “God.”
If the definition of God has contradictory elements in it, then the atheist most certainly can prove that there is no such thing as “God”! If the existence of God is firmly attached to an absurd, testable deed, such as Noah's worldwide flood, then the atheist most certainly can prove that God's nonexistence beyond a reasonable doubt! If some necessary quality of God implies that the world would be greatly different than it is, then the atheist has a good case for God's nonexistence3. In the second example, the theist can redefine “God” by disassociating him from embarrassing events-usually with a minimum of theological damage. To be sure, God and his universe have been redefined continuously by theologians as knowledge has advanced.

In the real world of atoms and energy we deal with probabilities-not logical, airtight proofs. Certainty (to the extent that fallible humans can construct error-free proofs) belongs to mathematics and other logical systems, which are built up deductively from a set of accepted postulates. The game of chess is an example. We know with certainty that a king and a rook, given accurate play, can checkmate a lone king. Some of those logical systems, such as mathematics, may serve as ideal models for aspects of the real world, but their certainty cannot be carried over since that requires a further conclusion about the nature of the physical world. Inductive logic rules the physical realm and does not admit certainty. (Deductive reasoning can take us with 100% certainty from a set of selected postulates, which don't have to be proved inasmuch as they are assumed, to various conclusions; Inductive reasoning takes us from observed facts to probable causes.)

The “strong” or “assertive” atheist need only show that his case is superior to that of the theist. He doesn't have to logically prove God's nonexistence. The requirement for such absolute proof is absurd, as inductive reasoning does not admit certainty.

In order to get out from underneath the burden of proof, the Christian Research Institute attempts to corner the “correct” definition of “atheist.”

Atheists of this variety [minimal] have actually redefined atheism to mean “an absence of belief in God” rather than “a denial of God's existence.”
(Christian Research Institute Journal, Part One - Fall 1991)

…defensive [“minimal”] atheism is using a stipulative or nonstandard definition for the word atheism. Paul Edwards, a prominent atheist and editor of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defines an atheist as “a person who maintains that there is no God.” Atheism therefore implies a denial of God's existence, not just an absence of belief.
(Christian Research Institute Journal, Part One - Fall 1991)

The implication here is that the correct definition of “atheism” implies a denial of God's existence, not just an absence of belief. It would then follow that the atheist must shoulder part of the burden of proof. But, there is a fly in the ointment.

Another basic principle of good reasoning is: Definitions are neither “right” nor “wrong.” A definition simply tells us what a word means to a particular group of people. Definitions are not subject to proof or disproof in the way theorems are. You or I may reject a definition if it is misleading, self-contradictory, incoherent or useless, but we cannot lay claim to having the “correct” definition if several are in use. In defining our terms, our obligation is to avoid unnecessary confusion and maximize communication.

Many educated atheists understand “atheist” to mean “a”—“theist” or “non”—“theist.” If we wish to take out the infants and others, those who are simply unaware of theism, we could call them unaware non-theists. A complete discussion of atheism, then, necessarily entails “weak” or “minimal” atheism, call it whatever you want. The theist cannot simply define those atheists out of existence!

Those who view “God” as an incoherent or unintelligible concept could also be classified among the “weak” or “minimal” atheists. They are not much different than those who object to adding God to the public storehouse of accepted knowledge because they find the evidence to be totally unconvincing, people who also personally reject the claim that God exists. By contrast, the “assertive” or “strong” atheist flatly denies God's existence. He or she feels that the term “God” is coherent enough for such a positive statement.

In the case of a contradictory definition, such as a square-circle, it doesn't really make sense to ask whether the object exists or not. The name doesn't correspond to anything; we have no pattern to look for. For that reason, I hold that a contradictory or unintelligible definition for “God” is not equivalent to the claim that “God does not exist” - the latter being the claim of “strong” or “assertive” atheism. The theist is obliged to provide a meaningful definition of “God” before the question of God's existence can be meaningfully discussed. Thus, an incoherent definition of “God” has some similarities to a serious lack of evidence for God's existence. In both cases the atheist is saying to the theist, “You have more work to do before I can take your argument seriously.” For that reason, I place those atheists who reject “God” (because of an incoherent definition) among the “weak” or “minimal” atheists.

The main point is this: No argument based on another definition for “atheist” can place the burden of proof on the shoulders of a “minimal” atheist. If the theist wishes to address atheism competently, he must deal with both “assertive” and “minimal” atheism - their definitions. Calling “minimal” atheism by another name does not make it go away! The theist cannot declare that there is only one, correct definition for all atheists, no matter who he quotes.

Remember, it is only those atheists who advance the “strong” or “assertive” case for atheism who must share the burden of proof in this debate. The “minimal” atheist, in order to carry the day, need only show that the theist has not proven God's existence beyond a reasonable doubt. Pointing out a serious lack of evidence or faulty reasoning destroys the theist's case. The conclusion is not that God does not exist but, rather, that the concept of God has no serious credibility as established fact. On those grounds, the “minimal” atheist rejects (does not embrace) the idea of God, even as you or I would reject the Easter Bunny.

The Christian Research Institute also tries to undermine “minimal” atheism by confusing it with agnosticism:

It should also be stated that defensive atheism's absence of belief sounds very similar to agnosticism (which professes inability to determine whether God exists). The Christian should force the defensive [“minimal”] atheist to show just how his (or her) atheism differs from agnosticism. Does he know or not know that there is no God?
(Christian Research Institute Journal, Part One - Fall 1991)

Agnosticism has nothing to do with it. An agnostic, as I see it, understands what is meant by “God” but cannot find (or does not expect to find) enough evidence to personally decide the issue.

The agnostic says, “I don't know if God exists and I suspend judgment.” The “minimal” atheist says, “I personally reject the claim that God exists, because your case for God does not meet the minimum standards for being admitted to (or remaining in2) the public store of accepted knowledge. I find serious problems with this proof, that proof, and the other proofs you have for God. I find the whole matter unconvincing, even unintelligible.” The “assertive” atheist says, “I have a pretty good idea as to what you mean by “God,” and God clearly doesn't exist.” An atheist may take a “strong” or “assertive” position with respect to certain definitions for “God” and a “minimal” position with respect to theism in general.

To briefly sum up, one cannot rationally know that there is no God unless he or she has some idea as to what “God” means. The burden is on the theist to provide a sound definition and a compelling argument for God. However, if an atheist declares outright that God does not exist, then he or she also takes on the burden of proof. William Craig, in adopting a rather narrow formulation of this debate, has attempted to shift the burden of proof onto the shoulders of the “minimal” atheists as well. Yet, the “minimal” atheist is not claiming that “God does not exist.” He or she is simply not impressed with the case for theism anymore than you or I would be impressed with the case for six-foot, green spiders in the hills of San Diego. Having not exhaustively examined those hills, you or I cannot properly say that we “know” that there is no such thing. However, based on the observations of others and on certain theoretical considerations, you or I would conclude that the case for those spiders is extremely remote. We are justified in personally rejecting the whole idea as unworthy of further pursuit. By pointing out a serious lack of evidence or faulty reasoning on behalf of the theist, the “minimal” atheist has adequately defended his or her personal rejection of the God hypothesis.

Our attempt to safeguard the public store or library of accepted knowledge does not require that we gather evidence until we “know” that those green spiders don't exist-if, indeed, that could be done. It is enough for us to note that the case for six-foot, green spiders is not convincing.

1. Christian Research Institute
P.O. Box 7000
Rancho Santa Margarita
California 92688-7000
Web Site:

2. For those who might point out that god-belief is already widely accepted, the proposition could be this: Does the theist's claim that God exists really meet the standards for being in the public store of accepted knowledge? The burden of proof is still on those who say, “Yes.” Otherwise, there would be no means for eliminating erroneous or obsolete claims.

Dave E. Matson, editor
The Oak Hill Free Press
P.O. Box 61274
Pasadena, CA 91116

June 5, 1999
(Revised: May 17, 2003)

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