Does atheism just mean lacking belief in God?

by Nick Peters
edited by Matt Slick

Spend any time talking to atheists online, and before too long you’ll hear that they are not saying that God does not exist.  What they are saying is that they lack God-belief; and if you think otherwise, then you simply have the definition of atheism wrong.  Is this true?

This argument can sound persuasive, but it just won’t work.  To begin with, if we are making a claim about how we answer the big questions in life, then we need to be saying something about those questions. To say “I lack God belief” is not saying anything about the external world but simply giving a statement about one’s own personal psychology.  Conveniently, this frees the atheist from the necessity of supposedly making a case for atheism and puts the burden on the theist; and if the atheist deems the theistic case insufficient, well, it’s insufficient.

In reality, the word theism does not mean one possesses God-belief.  Of course, if one is a theist, he does have belief in God; but he is saying much more than that.  He is making a claim not about himself primarily but about reality.  He is saying “I have God belief because I believe the statement 'A god of some sort exists' is an accurate description of reality."

In the Greek language, to put an a in front of a term was to negate that term.  Thus, if the term “A god of some sort exists” is what theism affirms, then atheism affirms that no being exists that can accurately be called god.  Keep in mind that at this point we are not talking about Christian theism but just theism.  A Hindu or a Muslim or a Mormon would be considered in the group of theists.

A problem with the statement that atheism means one simply lacks God belief is as follows.  Suppose for the sake of argument that God does exist.  If that is the case, then that means the proposition “a god of some sort exists” as stated by theism is true.  Suppose that there is an atheist who denies that any god exists.  At this point, he says he is an atheist, and by that, he means he lacks god-belief.

It is certainly true that he lacks god-belief. But notice, if that is what atheism means, then you have a case where a god of some sort exists--as theism states; yet at the same time, atheism is true because there is someone out there who lacks god-belief.  When looked at in this way atheism and theism are both true, but how can it be that one statement is true and its contradictory statement is also true?

What needs to be done is not a discussion of personal psychology but rather a discussion of claims.  If one is an atheist, then what is the reason for his atheism?  They too have to give some sort of answer to the basic questions of life.  If one abandons theism for insufficient evidence, then one should think there is sufficient evidence in atheism.  Otherwise, why not be an agnostic?

When the atheist tries to give this definition, don’t fall for it or else you’ll just be discussing personal psychology all day.  Instead, give an argument like the one above and don’t settle for anything other than a real reply to the argument.  While you must give reasons why you believe theism is true, make sure the atheist gives reasons why he thinks atheism is true.  Only then can there be a real discussion.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.