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Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof

  • Shoaib Ahmed Malik


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.



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

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 (accessed 23rd December 2016).

6 Moreland, James P. and Craig, William Lane Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Intervarsity Press, 2003), 155156. 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), 125138.

8 Corlett, Angelo J., The Errors of Atheism (Continuum Books, 2010), 34.

9 Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion (Transworld Publishers, 2007), 73.

10 Kenny, Anthony, ‘Knowledge, Belief and Faith’, Philosophy 82(3) (2007), 381397.

11 (accessed 24th December 2016); (accessed 24th December 2016); (accessed 24th December 2016).

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

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), 152163.

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), 195211; Thrower, Western Atheism op. cit., 99.

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

19 Hitchens, Christopher, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever (Da Capo Press: Philadelphia 2007), xx.

20 Walton, Douglas Burden of Proof, Presumption and Argumentation (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 148.

21 Mumford, Stephen, ‘Metaphysics’ in Curd, M. and Psillos, S. (eds), Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Science 2nd Edition (Routledge: New York 2014), 3847.

22 Dawkins, The God Delusion, op. cit., 70; Krauss, Lawrence M., A Universe from Nothing: Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing? (Free Press, 2012), 171184; Stenger, Victor, God, The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (Prometheus Books, 2007), 13.

23 Smith, George H., Atheism: The Case Against God (Prometheus Books, 1989), 1516; (accessed 3rd January 2017).

24 Hesse, Mary, Models and Analogies in Science, 2nd Edition (University of Notre Dame Press, 1970), 8.

25 Pigliucci, Massimo and Boudry, Maarten, ‘Prove it! The Burden of Proof Game in Science vs. Pseudoscience Disputes’, Philosophia 42 (2014), 487502.

26 Flew, Antony, ‘The Presumption of Atheism’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 11(1) (1972), 2946.

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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), 2746.

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

36 Silverman Fighting God op. cit., 6.

37 (accessed 24th December 2016).

40 (accessed 24th December 2016).

41 (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), 12.

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

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

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), 466467.

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), 1123.

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), 607638.

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), 553586.


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