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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Modern Usage Of Atheism

by Donn Day
The earliest source that I have been able to find that slightly resembles modern usage, is by Charles Bradlaugh, an agnostic:

The atheist does not say, 'There is no God,' but he says, 'I know not what you mean by God; the word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation.'
A Plea for Atheism-1864.

It should be noted that this was the definition that Kai Nielsen used when debating J.P. Moreland in the book, Does God Exist?. The Secular Web has this to say regarding that book:

This book is divided into three sections: (i) the transcript of the oral debate on the existence of God between Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland and atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen; (ii) commentaries on the debate by two Christian philosophers (William Lane Craig and Dallas Willard) and two atheist philosophers (Antony Flew and Keith Parsons); and (iii) concluding thoughts by Moreland and Nielsen. I agree completely with the conclusion of Craig's flow of the debate, that Moreland won the debate. In fact, Moreland's victory in the debate was so decisive I am left wishing that Keith Parsons had been Moreland's opponent; I wonder if Nielsen even took the debate seriously. In light of this, I am baffled why a secular humanist publisher like Prometheus Books would choose to pubish this particular debate, given how pathetic Nielsen's performance truly was.
Jeffery Jay Lowder

As far as I have been able to determine, the modern usage of the word "atheism" has been around, only, since 1979. The first usage of this definition seems to have appeared in, Atheism: The Case Against God, by George H. Smith, one of the Secular Web's top ten atheist books. Here's how Mr. Smith defined the word "atheism":

Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic its main form, it is not belief; it is the absence of belief.

A year later Prometheus Books released, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, edited by Gordon Stein. This book had the following definition: atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important...To be without a belief in God merely means that the term 'God' has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is a lack of belief.

Antony Flew in The Presumption of Atheism (1984) concurs with the above, although acknowledging this as a "new" definition:

...we need to give a new and much more comprehensive meaning to the term "atheist." Whereas it is currently construed as referring to a person who positively disbelieves that there is an object corresponding to what is thus tacitly taken to be a or the legitimate concept of God, I would now urge that the word be hereafter understood not positively but negatively. Let the originally Greek prefix "a" be read in the same way in "atheist" as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as "amoral," atypical," and "asymmetrical." In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the nonexistence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.

In the last twenty years or so atheists and theists have taken to debating on college campuses, and in town halls, all across this country. By using the above definition, atheists have attempted to shift the burden of proof. In the article, Is Atheism Presumptuous?, atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder admits that

"I agree [with Copan] that anyone who claims, "God does not exist," must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, "God exists." ...

Again, George Smith:

If one presents a positive belief (i.e. an assertion which one claims to be true), one has the obligation to present evidence in its favor. The burden of proof lies with the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If the evidence is not forthcoming, if there are not sufficient grounds for accepting the proposition, it should not be believed.

Also from An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism:

If the atheist is simply without God, then he is not asserting anything. On the other hand, the theist is asserting the existence of something (God), so the burden of proof is on him…Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God.

If I asked you to state your beliefs about "blictopre" you would understand what it really means to have "an absence of belief" (AOB). What AOB means to an atheist is, not only is the burden of proof squarely placed on the theists shoulders, but the type of evidence that constitutes "proof", is also defined by the atheist. Most atheists claim that they need some type of "empirical" proof of God's existence, but one popular atheist web page comments;

"Let's suppose that God exists and wants to prove to you that he exists. What can he do to prove it? Suppose he suddenly reveals himself to you and says, "Behold! I am God!" Would this prove that God exists? No, it would not."

The Bible makes the same point in that even though the fleeing Hebrews witnessed the "actual" presence of God in there midst, many still doubted.

Atheists have rigged the outcome in support of their own unbelief, all the time giving the impression of being open to the evidence. In addition, the AOB claim has negated the meaning of the word "atheist" because their "lack of belief" means that they cannot even state whether or not God exists, making them, in reality agnostics, a term most atheists despise.

In the popular sense an agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves that God exists, while the atheist disbelieves that God exists. However, the common contrast of agnosticism with atheism will hold only if we assume that atheism means positive atheism. In the popular sense, agnosticism is compatible with negative (weak) atheism. Since negative atheism by definition simply means not holding any concept of God, it is compatible with neither believing nor disbelieving in God (Michael Martin in Atheism-A Philosophical Justification).

One of my main points of contention with the AOB position is that one would have had to have no contact with any theist to truly not have any beliefs about God. After just one such interaction, the atheist would have started to form beliefs in relation to the existence/ nonexistence of God, and once the atheist begins to examine the evidence, beliefs would exist.

Atheists also state that the AOB claim means that atheism is the "default" position. If a person "has no beliefs," or if the theist doesn't present convincing evidence, then atheism wins by default. When Antony Flew used the term "negative atheist" in a debate with theologian Terry Miethe, this was Mr. Meithe's response:

...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."

Another problem with AOB theories is that this is not they way atheists (or anyone else) decides issues. For example, in a debate I had with an atheist, in response to something I had said about evidence, he made the comment, "Yea, I had a vague sense that there were monsters under my bed at night --- I looked and didn't see any." So my response was that if he had indeed looked under his bed and found no evidence of monsters, would the natural response be to (1) Have an "absence of belief" about the monsters, or (2) Actively deny the existence of the monsters?

Finally, atheists use the AOB claim to state that atheism has no worldview, or has no bearing on any other perspectives that an atheist might hold. This, too, is just another attempt to keep from having their own beliefs critically evaluated. Everyone has a worldview (way of looking at the world), no matter what they might claim.

11:18:00 pm