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Article contents

Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 April 2018

Abstract

In this paper I demonstrate how certain contemporary atheists have problematically conflated atheism with agnosticism (knowingly or unknowingly). The first type of conflation is semantic fusion, where the lack of belief in God is combined with the outright denial of God, under the single label of ‘atheism’. The second is morphological fission which involves the separation of atheism into two subcategories where lack of belief in God is labelled as negative atheism and outright denial of God as positive atheism – and while here they are more explicitly demarcated, they are still positioned under the broad notion of atheism. I argue in this paper that atheism should be better used as the propositional denial of God and that uncertainty and unknowability about God should be reserved to characterise agnosticism. Conflating these positions under the single term ‘atheism’ mischaracterises agnostics and inflates the territory of atheists. In clarifying these terms, I review how the nuances in the prefix a- in atheism have potentially contributed towards these misnomers. I also suggest the use of the categories ‘local atheism’ and ‘global atheism’ to clarify on whom the burden of proof lies within the discourse.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2018 

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References

1 Zenk, Thomas, ‘New Atheism’ in Bullivant, S. and Ruse, M. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), 245260Google Scholar; LeDrew, Stephen, ‘The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches’, History of Human Sciences 00(0) (2012), 118Google Scholar; Zuckerman, Paul, ‘Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns’ in Martin, M. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press: New York 2006), 4765CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Throughout this article I resort to definitions provided by Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Oxford English Dictionary and Cambridge Dictionary. Though I quote them in text, I have provided a summary table in the Appendix which is a tabulation of the definitions of theist, atheist and agnostic from all three dictionaries.

4 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/4073 (accessed 23rd December 2016).

6 Moreland, James P. and Craig, William Lane Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Intervarsity Press, 2003), 155156Google Scholar. An extreme example of hard agnostics would be fideists, who believe in God but do not think it is rationally demonstrable (thus relying solely on faith).

7 Corlett, Angelo J., ‘Dawkin's Godless Delusion’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 65(3) (2009), 125138CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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11 http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/learner-english/a_2 (accessed 24th December 2016); https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/a (accessed 24th December 2016); http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/270753 (accessed 24th December 2016).

13 Buckley, Michael J., At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale University Press, 1987)Google Scholar; Thrower, James, Western Atheism: A Short History (Prometheus Books, 2000)Google Scholar; Hyman, Gavin, A Short History of Atheism (I.B. Tauris, 2010)Google Scholar.

14 Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism op. cit., 9–10.

15 Hyman, A Short History of Atheism op. cit., 1–18; Mark, Edwards, ‘The Roman Empire to the End of the First Millennium’ in Bullivant, S. and Ruse, M. (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), 152163Google Scholar.

16 More specifically, and as has been argued by others, atheism arose from the theological dialectics that were taking place within Christianity. See Hyman, A Short History of Atheism op. cit., 19–46; Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism op. cit., 322–363.

17 Kors, Alan C., ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ in Bullivant, S. and Ruse, M. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), 195211Google Scholar; Thrower, Western Atheism op. cit., 99.

18 Diller, Jeanine, ‘Global and local atheisms’, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 79 (2016), 718CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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27 I should add that though Flew's article work on atheism still persists as a well-known reference in philosophy of religion, he also infamously renounced his atheism and became a theist. See Flew, Antony, There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (HarperOne, 2007)Google Scholar.

28 Goodwin, George L., ‘Antony Flew's “The Presumption of Atheism”’, The Journal of Religion 57(4) (1977), 406414CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shalkowski, Scott. A., ‘Atheological Apologetics’, American Philosophical Quarterly 26(1) (1989), 117Google Scholar.

29 Achinstein, Peter Science Rules: A Historical Introduction to Scientific Methods (The John Hopkins University Press, 2004), 130Google Scholar.

30 This is also the position of Antony Kenny. See Kenny, Antony, What I Believe (Continuum Books, 2007), 21Google Scholar.

31 Everett, Nicholas The Non-existence of God (Routledge, 2004), 301306Google Scholar; Ruse, Michael Atheism: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2015). 148168Google Scholar; Grayling, Anthony C., The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism (Bloomsbury, 2014), 65126Google Scholar; Mackie, J.L., The Miracle of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1982), 240262Google Scholar.

32 Saunders, Kevin W., ‘The Mythic Difficulty in Proving a Negative’, 15 Seaton Hall Law Review 276 (1985), 276289Google Scholar.

34 Hyman, A Short History of Atheism op. cit., 4; Hyman, Gavin, ‘Atheism in Modern History’ in Martin, Michael (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2746CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Silverman, David, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World (St Martin's Press, 2015), 5Google Scholar.

36 Silverman Fighting God op. cit., 6.

37 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/12450 (accessed 24th December 2016).

40 http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/12450 (accessed 24th December 2016).

41 http://www.defineatheism.com (accessed 24th December 2016).

42 Silverman Fighting God op. cit., 11.

43 Navabi, Armin, Why There is No God: Simple Responses to 20 Common Argument for the Existence of God (Atheist Republic, 2014), 12Google Scholar.

44 Navabi, Why There is No God op. cit., 11.

45 Boghossian, Peter, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Pitchstone Publications, 2013), 27Google Scholar.

46 Boghossian A Manual for Creating Atheists op. cit., 28.

47 Flew, ‘The Presumption of Atheism’, op. cit., 30; Martin, Michael, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), 466467Google Scholar.

48 Smith, Atheism op. cit., 13–14.

49 Bullivant, Stephen, ‘Defining “Atheism”’ in Bullivant, S. and Ruse, M. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), 1123CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

50 Bullivant, ‘Defining “Atheism”’ op. cit., 14.

51 This should not necessarily be surprising; it could be a possible motivation seeing that atheists are largely viewed very negatively by the wider society in some countries. See for example Edgell, Penny, Hartmann, Douglas, Stewart, Evan and Gerteis, Joseph, ‘Atheists and Other Cultural Outsiders: Moral Boundaries and the Non-Religious in the United States’, Social Forces 95(2) (2016), 607638CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Smith, Atheism op. cit., 14–15.

53 Keysar, Ariela and Navarro-Rivera, Juhem, ‘A World of Atheism: Global Demographics’ in Bullivant, S. and Ruse, M. (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Oxford University Press, 2013), 553586Google Scholar.

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