Re: What is an atheist?
Hi Shereedoc, thanks for the question.
The claim that atheism is not a positive assertion flies in the face of the etymology and contemporary, philosophical definitions of atheism. In redefining atheism to mean a “suspension of belief”, the atheist seemingly un-shoulders his burden of proof and the possibility of having his beliefs critically evaluated.
A quick look at the traditional usage of the term, however, shows this “language game” to be an inconsistent and unproductive one which does not get the atheist off the hook.
The term “atheism” is derived from three Greek words:
- a ="no" or “without”.
- theos = "god”.
- Isma = “ism”, which according to the Cambridge Dictionaries Online is “used to form nouns which describe social, political or religious beliefs (my italics), studies or ways of behaving”
Etymologically, then, atheism is the belief, that there is no God.
Not sure if you’re willing to accept my “biased” interpretation? Fine, perhaps you’ll accept that of the World Book Encyclopedia, which defines Atheism as, “…the belief that God doesn't exist.”
How do philosophical encyclopedias define atheism? Permit me to limit myself to three definitions.
1. “According to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God.” (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy-1967)
2."Atheism is the position that affirms the non-existence of God. It proposes positive disbelief rather than mere suspension of belief." (Concise Routledfe Encyclopedia of Philosophy - 2000)
3." Atheism is the doctrine that there is no god. Some atheists support this claim by arguments but these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods." (Oxford Companion to Philosophy - 1995)
Redefining “atheism” to mean something less resolute – something unidentifiable with agnosticism (from a- "not" + gnostos "known”), I believe, is a retreat made by atheists in the face of continued failed attempts throughout history to develop a compelling argument against theism.
Even if we grant the distinction between positive atheism – the traditional claim that God does not exist, and negative atheism – the novel interpretation that it is a suspension of belief in God, this does not afford the atheist the luxury of not having his worldview critically evaluated, for as theologian Terry Miethe points out:
“The "negative atheist" ends up denying God's existence just as much as the "positive atheist." For the believer (and in reality) to deny the idea of God is to deny the actual existence of God no matter what language game you want to play. Remember, Hans Kung is quite correct in pointing out that there is also an "atheistic language game" that is not self-justified…We must not-cannot-arbitrarily "define" out of existence vast ranges of reality simply because they do not meet our predetermined definition. It is not good enough to say that I have no idea of God therefore I am denying nothing about "his" actual existence. You must examine all of reality and answer or explain why millions have had what they thought was an adequate idea or concept of God, from great philosophers to the "common folk."
Hope that's a help!
- Matt Fradd