In “One man’s theist is another man’s atheist,” I pointed out that the word “atheist”, or a denial of the existence of God, is always relative to a particular understanding of God. That’s how, as I noted, early Christians and Roman pagans could simultaneously call each other “atheists” because each was assuming that any person who denied the existence of their deity (or deities) met the conditions for being an atheist.
So then what about our present context? What does it mean to be an atheist today? You might think it would make sense to ask those who call themselves atheists. Unfortunately, in my experience there is a significant amount of confusion on this point. I have heard a number of pithy responses to that question which, when you look at them closely, are not really good definitions.
In this article I’m going to start a series (I project a short series of three or four articles) where I will consider various popular definitions of atheism and why they are inadequate. I will intend to conclude with a suggested definition that can dispel that confusion.
So let’s turn to our first candidate.
I deny the existence of all gods.
In my experience, it is very common to hear atheists describing their atheism in these terms. At first blush it might sound like a serviceable definition. But it conceals a problem that becomes readily apparent once we realize that the word “god” has so many different possible referents, and that it is most doubtful that the person describing themselves as an atheist really means to deny the existence of every one of those referents.
For example, Einstein described himself as a sort of theist when he famously observed “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” This concept of “God” as the impersonal, absolute order that imbues the cosmos, is one perfectly compatible with many if not most self-described atheists today.
Now consider a second example. Christian theologian Paul Tillich famously defined God as “the unconditional”, “being itself” or “the ground of being.” Tillich’s definition was also so broad (some might say “thin”) that it could accommodate many self-described atheists. (Apparently that was intentional on Tillich’s part, for he viewed concepts of God that could be readily denied as insufficiently transcendent and thus theologically inadequate.)
These two points make it clear that it is quite inappropriate for most atheists today to define their atheism simply in terms of disbelief in all Gods.
Two final points
Now before concluding this article let me note a couple responses that I’ve encountered to this first point.
The first response is to dismiss altogether definitions like that of Spinoza and Tillich as not really definitions of God. The assumption often seems to be that definitions like this really are indicative of a sort of veiled secularism dressed up in the language of theology. They are disingenuous definitions and may be readily set aside.
My simple response is that nobody who has read Spinoza or Tillich can plausibly claim that they aren’t serious about their definitions. These two thinkers are quite serious in the definitions they offer, and it is arbitrary and fatuous to dismiss them as merely engaged in bad faith double talk.
The second response I’ve often encountered is a sort of exasperation apparently inspired by the ole’ invisible gardener story. I’ve heard it expressed like this:
“Well fine, people will always come up with some further definition of God, so you can never be sure you’ve denied every one.”
I agree that if your goal is to deny the existence of God under every possible definition on offer, you are likely to be frustrated or disappointed or disillusioned. But the response is not to throw up your hands, ignore the nuances of various definitions, and continue to describe yourself as an atheist with recourse to an unworkable definition like “I deny the existence of all gods.” If you want the right to the alpha privative (i.e. the “a” of negation), your responsibility is to become clear on which definitions of God you are most keen to deny. In other words, if you’re going to call yourself an atheist, you are minimally obliged to be able to define what it is you don’t believe in.