These days, a growing number of self-described “atheists” describe their cognitive state not as the belief that God doesn’t exist, but rather as the lack of belief that God exists.
The problems begin with the fact that this definition effectively collapses atheism into agnosticism, and that represents a deviation from historical usage.
Here’s Paul Edwards from the entry “atheism” in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) which remains a standard reference work in the field:
“According to the most usual definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence ‘God exists’ expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence “God exists” expresses a true proposition.”
Edwards then adds:
“On our definition, an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not his reason for the rejection is the claim that ‘God exists’ expresses a false proposition.”
The point Edwards is making here is that a person could also be considered an atheist if he/she considers discourse about God to be meaningless. Thus, an atheist is a person who believes either that the sentence “God exists” is false or meaningless. And this is quite distinct from agnosticism which states that the truth of the sentence “God exists” is meaningful but that it is not known and perhaps cannot be known.
While the use of the term “atheism” to apply to agnostics may represent a change in usage, one might reply: So what? The times they are a changin’. The meanings of words change all the time.
That is certainly true. Sixty years ago Bing Crosby sang “Gay Love” without raising an eyebrow among his most conservative fans. But times change, and the meanings of words often change with them. If “gay” can morph from “happy” to “homosexual”, why can’t “atheism” expand to encompass agnosticism?
Of course, it can. My problem is that I believe many people today are exploiting confusion between these two definitions for perceived social benefit. Perhaps I can unpack this claim with an illustration.
Imagine that you meet a fellow who describes himself as a combat veteran to fellow guests at a cocktail party. Impressive, right? So you ask him where he served in battle. And he replies, “I didn’t. I served for awhile in the national guard and during that time I participated in several weekend training exercises.” You look quizzical so he adds, “You see, ‘combat veteran’ can be used to refer to anyone who has served in the military or reserve forces and who has had any training in that capacity.”
Of course, this isn’t how “combat veteran” has traditionally been defined. To be sure, you might concede that the term could assume that broader meaning over time. The problem is that it looks like this fellow is seeking to exploit the confusion between the established meaning, and this novel, much broader meaning. In short, he’s trying to give folks the impression that he’s seen combat while retreating to the milquetoast definition the minute he is pressed for details.
In my experience, this seems to be the common approach of those who adopt this new meaning of “atheism”. They call themselves an atheist, thereby seeking to bask in the glow of the subversive, countercultural resonance of the term. But when pressed for details to explain and defend their belief that God doesn’t exist, they beat a hasty retreat to the novel, milquetoast definition of the term.
So here’s my bit of advice to agnostics who want to call themselves atheists. By all means, call yourself an atheist if you like. Just make sure that your audience knows the cognitive state which you are applying to yourself applies equally to sleeping babies, small children, and comatose patients.