Monday, May 31, 2010

Defining Atheism

The question, “do you believe that one or more gods exist,” can be answered in several ways, but all responses fall into one of three main categories (Carrier, 2007): Theism; Atheism; & Anapophasism.


An atheist is anyone who consciously rejects the existence of all gods; those who have thought about the existence of deities and have purposely decided against it (Drange, 1998). There are two main reasons for the rejection of theism:

Logical: some definitions of god are logically self-contradictory, and therefore it is impossible that such a god exists.

Empirical: there are several arguments that support atheism.


A theist is anyone who consciously affirms the existence of one or more gods (Drange, 1998). Theism can be divided into subcategories according to the number of gods one think exists:

Monotheists affirm the existence of only one god.
Polytheists affirm the existence of more than one god.


An anapophasist is anyone who consciously neither affirms nor rejects theism. Anapophasism is Greek for “without a decision”, and anapophasists are either undecided or suspend judgment (Carrier, 2007). One reason given for anapophasism is
that there is not sufficient ground for affirming or rejecting theism, because, at this moment, the case for thesim and the case for atheism are equally strong.


Agnosticism is defined as the view that the truth value of certain claims is unknown or unknowable. Agnosticism is about epistemology – the possibility of knowledge. Theism and atheism is about metaphysics – the existence or non-existence of one or more gods.

It is often claimed that agnosticism is the middle ground between theism and atheism; but this is false. Every theist, atheist and anapophasist should be agnostic with regard to at least one god (Carrier, 2007). Imagine a god that is omnipotent and creator of the universe, who use his power to always make sure that you do not have any reason to think that he exists. This means that even the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So you cannot deny the existence of this god, and therefore you should be agnostic with regard to him.

In fact, every agnostic, theist and anapophasist should be atheist with regard to at least one god. Imagine a god that is omnipotent and the creator of the universe, who uses his power to always make sure that you have every reason to think that he exists. It would be irrational to not deny the existence of this god, because your own experience is evidence against his existence. In this case, the absence of evidence is not only highly predictive of his non-existence, it virtually entails it.

This means that the distinction between negative and positive atheism is wrong (Martin, 2006); every atheist should be both. There is not any real separation between atheism and agnosticism. The only meaningful distinction is between theism and atheism. Agnosticism is not a middle position. Even theists are atheists and agnostics with regard to some gods. So the only thing that separates theists from the rest of us is a belief in the existence of at least one god (Carrier, 2007).


It is sometimes claimed that all children are born atheists because they lack of belief in God (d’Holbach, 1772). But this is just as ridiculous as calling a monkey an atheist because of her absence of theistic beliefs. Hence, the definition of atheism as the absence of theism is absurd, and so is the proposed distinction between implicit and explicit atheism (Smith, 1979). It constitutes a kind of category fallacy, since there is a significant difference between having a belief-state (of either belief or disbelief in some proposition), and not having a corresponding belief-state at all. Those who do not possess an idea of a god or gods, either because they have not heard about such an idea or formed one themselves or they cannot comprehend the issue, are neither theists, atheist, or anapophasists; they do not have a position.


Some theists claim that atheism is just another religion; but it is false. Atheism in itself is not a set of beliefs; hence, atheism is not a worldview or ideology. Atheism is compatible with some philosophies, such as Metaphysical Naturalism and Liberalism, but atheists do not have a common set of beliefs they all adhere to: atheists can be Buddhists, Humanistic Jews, Marxists, Anarchists, etc. If someone tells you that he/she is an atheist, you cannot really know anything about what else that person believes or disbelieve in.


Carrier, R. (2007). Atheist or Agnostic?

Drange, T. M. (1998). Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism.

d’Holbach, P. H. T. (1772). Good Sense.

Martin, M. (2006). The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, G. H. (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. New York: Prometheus.

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