What is Atheism?
Atheism is the absence of a belief in a deity. It is the contention that God does not exist. It’s that simple. If you don’t think there is a God, you are an atheist. Let me be even clearer; if you don’t believe in a God, even if you wish there was a God, even if you think we need a God in order to have morality, even if you go to church and your family and friends all believe in God, then you are an atheist.
Contrary to popular Christian belief, there are no positive tenets or beliefs associated with atheism which need to be accepted. Above all, atheism does not require faith, although the opposite has become something of a rallying cry among modern Christians and their apologists.
You need faith to believe in God because there is no evidence that God exists. (Don’t be swayed by any wordplay that tries to suggest the word ‘faith’ doesn’t mean ‘belief without evidence’ but that it originally meant ‘trust.’ This may be true but substituting ‘trust’ for ‘faith’ only presupposes the existence of God, the very proposition under consideration) If there was genuine evidence for the existence of God, no one would doubt it, i.e. we wouldn’t need faith.
Do you need to have faith to know that your table exists? No, because you can see it, smell it, touch it, and even taste it (if you can also hear it, call me because I’ve got a great story for you involving talking tables, a chair (that is really a table) which gets crucified, and a church that you can join by sending me only 10% of your gross yearly income and where you can worship all the tables you can handle). The evidence that the table exists is overwhelming.
Contrast this with a God we can’t see, touch, smell, hear (He’s immaterial and lives in a completely separate realm from our universe, of course), or even understand (He moves in mysterious ways). You must have faith to believe in such a being because the evidence alone just won’t get you there.
So let’s keep this line of questioning going. Do you need faith to not believe in invisible fairies at the bottom of the garden? An investigation with your senses comes up empty-handed and the only reason you have to believe in them is because some old guy with a scraggly beard swears he has seen them and besides, how else do you explain the flowers blooming? On the contrast, there is every reason not to believe in these fairies and so being an ‘a-fairyist’ is not a faith position. It’s the reasonable one.
The bottom line is that if you want to believe in God you must make a leap of faith somewhere. Faith is after all, the first of the three theological virtues. Claiming that we also need faith to hold a position that accords with our everyday senses and our common sense intuitions is pure fantasy (and more than a little ironic considering the importance believers accord to faith).
Since there also tends to be significant confusion about another related term, let me clear up the way I will be using it on this website. Agnosticism can take one of two positions. The first, ‘lite’ version, is a refusal to take a position at all on the existence of God. This is a personal opinion akin to saying, “Well, I can see the arguments from both sides but I just can’t decide.” The second, ‘strong’ version, says that we can’t know whether God exists so, in effect, there’s no point speculating about it. Either way, agnosticism refuses to take a side in the existence of God debate.
This raises one more point related to atheism that is worth discussing here. How can the atheist be so sure that God doesn’t exist? Considering the lack of evidence on both sides, isn’t the agnostic position the more reasonable one?
The mistake in making this argument is in thinking that atheism, as the negative position, like theology, as the positive position, requires evidence. We don’t demand evidence for the non-existence of anything else in the universe. No one says, “OK, so that’s your evidence in favour of dragons, now what’s the evidence that dragons don’t exist?” What would such evidence look like? Can we point to the ground and say, “Well, see no footprints here, or there, or over here…”? Can we look at a tree and say, “See this tree isn’t burnt, neither is that tree, or that one…?” The fact is there is no such thing as evidence to prove something doesn’t exist. And it’s nonsense to demand any in the case of God.
So, how do we decide that dragons don’t exist? There are two factors involved. The first considers the strength of evidence for the positive claim. Is there really much in favour of the existence of dragons? (Like it or not, it is the side making the positive statement that the burden of proof falls on – the normal, dragon-free world is the default position) The second factor involves considering how outlandish the positive claim is. As far as dragons go, they could exist but it would be hard to believe they could have remained undetected up to this day and age. As far as a God goes, again, God could exist, but the truth of that thesis would go against every common sense intuition we have developed about our universe since we were able to think about it. It would mean miracles are real, people can rise from the dead, and a being who supposedly loves us is hiding from us and what’s more, watching us eviscerate ourselves and poison His planet without raising a finger to help.
Add these two factors up and you don’t get evidence that God doesn’t exist; what you do get is a paucity of evidence for Him (when we could reasonably expect the opposite to be true, if the claim were true) and the added difficulty that the truth of the claim violates everything we have seen and measured about us, ever since we were capable of seeing and measuring.
The atheist merely reflects on the situation, coolly weighs the facts, and concludes that, on balance, belief in a God is just not justified. It would be ridiculous to demand that, because we can never be absolutely 100% sure that dragons don’t exist, we must be agnostic about them (after all, they could be hiding from us… or maybe they’re just really small…). By the same token, it is equally ridiculous to demand that the atheist be absolutely 100% certain that God doesn’t exist, before being allowed to draw the reasonable conclusion, there is no God.
Thus spoke the atheist.