God Can Exist Even If Atheism Is True

It is becoming increasingly more common for atheists to define atheism, not as the denial of the existence of God, but as a lack of belief in the existence of God. As such, these atheists maintain that atheism is merely the lack of any affirmation of the existence of God.

Atheist B. C. Johnson says, “Theists believe in God, while atheists do not have such a belief.  Many theists insist that it is the responsibility of the atheist to offer evidence justifying his lack of belief in God.  But is the theist’s demand rational?  Must the atheist justify his lack of belief in God?   Or does the burden rest with the theist? [B. C. Johnson, The Atheist Debater’s Handbook (Buffalo:  Prometheus Books, 1983):  11] Atheist Doug Krueger writes, “The term ‘atheism’ is from the Greek atheos. The prefix ‘a’ means ‘without,’ and the Greek theos means ‘god,’ so atheism means simply ‘being without god.’ Theism asserts that there is a god, so atheism is the view which does not assert that there is a god.” [Douglas E. Krueger, What Is Atheism? A Short Introduction  (Amherst, NY:  Prometheus Books, 1998):  17] (Notice, by the way, the fallacious move in Krueger’s reasoning. He goes from the ‘not’ (from the Greek alpha) modifying ‘God’ (which is what the Greek has) to the ‘not’ modifying ‘assert.’ This allows him the semblance of grounding his position in the etymology of the Greek while illicitly concluding that atheism is the absence of the assertion of God instead of the negation of God as the Greek actually says.) Atheist George H. Smith claims, “Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief; it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god.” [George H. Smith Atheism:  The Case Against God (Buffalo:  Prometheus Books, 1989), 7, emphasis in original] In his debate with Christian philosopher Greg Bahnsen Smith says, “There is no atheistic worldview. Let’s be clear about that. Atheism is simply the absence of belief in God.”

Aside from the issue of whether this is a legitimate definition of atheism and aside from the issue of the rhetorical legitimacy of this move (since, as I would argue, it is an attempt to illicitly shift the burden of proof entirely to the theist and to mitigate the rational responsibility of defending one’s own worldview) there is another interesting aspect to this re-definition matter. This definition of atheism entails the quirky conclusion that atheism is logically compatible with theism. This is so because if atheism is the lack of a belief in god, then it could be the case both that atheism is true (i.e., it could be the case that George Smith, for example, lacks the belief in God) while at the same time that God actually exists. The only thing that theism is logically incompatible with is that God does not exist. I will be willing to grant this eccentric definition of atheism if the atheist will acknowledge that, even if his atheism is true, it could still be the case that God exists. Strange indeed.

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19 comments on “God Can Exist Even If Atheism Is True

  1. Tom says:

    It is kinda silly, isn’t it? If atheism is going to be the disjunction of old-fashioned-atheism and agnosticism, I guess we need a new term for old-fashioned atheism.

  2. Greetings Honorable Dr. Howe!!! This is John Ferrer. I’m glad you posted on this. I like your conclusion. I posted on the subject a while ago and had some good discussion on it too. Frankly, only about 5-10% of atheists I encounter even know what the normal meaning of “atheism” is.

    My post is at: http://www.crossexamined.org/blog/?p=114

  3. Paul K. says:

    Richard, thanks for the thoughts and noting the atheist distinction. A couple questions. First, according to the definition given by atheists, can we say that it is then not really atheism, but agnosticism? Simply, if they are saying it is a lack in a belief in God and not saying God does not exist, then it would seem to imply that there is a possibility that God exists? By their own words, as you note, they are not saying that God does not exist. Second, do you believe that atheism can be considered to be religious? I am of the opinion it is. I teach a religion course at a secular institution and we begin by trying to define religion. Using the socratic method and as we work towards my definiton, which I take from Tillich (although, I am not a theological liberal), the class comes to the conclusion that atheism is a religion. Furthermore, didn’t the Supreme Court in the early 60’s declare atheism a religion? Now this second question may not be directly related to your post, but it does relate to atheism and I would like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    Kindly, a fellow evangelical Thomist

    • Yes, I think in a sense, these atheists are confusing atheism with agnosticism. As for whether atheism is religious: this is tricky. For sure, it is quite difficult academically to define exactly what a religion is. In my World Religions course, we grapple with this question early on. Some religions (i.e., groups included in a typical text on world religions) lack any deity at all (Theravada Buddhism). This seems to imply that the notion of a deity is not a necessary condition for being a religion. Yet some worldviews are consistently excluded from the world religions texts (Marxism) though they seem to function in some peoples lives as an object or ideal of ultimate concern. Why one is included and the other not is not immediately evident. Any religion that is atheistic (like Theravada Buddhism where nothing is God) or is pantheistic (like Upanashadic Hinduism where everything is God) by definition lacks the transcendent (philosophically maintaining the Creator/Creation distinction). Thus, the notion of transcendence is not a necessary condition for being a religion.

      We don’t want to define religion so broadly that nothing is excluded (like the cliche that people can make money their religion or god). Given the restraint on congress establishing religion, if nothing wasn’t religion, then there could be very few (if any) constitutional functions of congress. On the other hand, we don’t want to define religion in such a way that it gives an unfair ideological advantage to anti-religious groups to have a monopoly in the marketplace of ideas or to have governmental preferential treatment (as atheism often has in education, for example). What is worse, in the seeming interest of being unbiased or non-religious, illicit preference is often given to philosophical naturalism in the doing of science. (I am not here necessarily criticizing methodological naturalism.) This is how creationism has been discriminated against while evolution has been given a pass in some scientific educational circles. When the law forbids a fair hearing of the evidence for intelligent design (for example), this has often been defended in the name of excluding religion from the public school class room. It almost becomes a tail wagging the dog fallacy where the scientific endeavor no longer is a quest for the truth, but instead, is an agenda to preserve a particular philosophical idea.

      Glad to read that you’re a “fellow evangelical Thomist.” There aren’t many of us around!

      • CoyoteAussie says:

        I don’t think atheists are in any way confused about this question. The problem appears to me to be one of semantics and linguistics. Language is dynamic, not static, and words change their meaning over the course of time, in response to many influences. One good example would be the word, “gay.” If you’re a heterosexual male, I think we would all agree that you wouldn’t describe yourself these days as “gay,” in the expectation that people would think you were simply happy, as they would have if you’d used the word in the 1920s (for example).

        Dictionary.com defines atheism as:

        a·the·ism   [ey-thee-iz-uhm] Show IPA

        noun

        1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
        2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

        whereas the Collins English Dictionary defines atheism as:

        atheism (ˈeɪθɪˌɪzəm)

        — n

        rejection of belief in God or gods

        and the American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy describes it as:

        atheism [( ay -thee-iz-uhm)]

        Denial that there is a God.

        It seems to me that atheism is evolving (that seems like a satisfactory term to use) away from the philosophically difficult position of certainty that no deity / deities exists / exist (technically this should be described as gnostic atheism) towards the more scientific position of saying that to date insufficient evidence (or logical arguments) have been offered which are convincing. This should really be described as agnostic atheism, and it represents the worldview of the majority of atheists these days.

        The reason this distinction is important is not so much because there are a bunch of atheists running around harbouring secret thoughts that there might actually be a god, but more to draw a distinction between the religious and secular uses of the word, “belief.” Religious people tend to “believe” in a way that leaves no room for any doubt whatsoever. The majority in other words are gnostic theists. Anyone who suggests that God might not in fact exist is referred to in Christian circles as a “doubting Thomas,” or simply lacking in faith. This is certainly a gnostic theist position to take.

        On the other hand most atheists I know (myself included) view the probability that a god exists as being on a similar level to the probability that fairies or unicorns exist. Nonetheless, if credible evidence is tabled that points to the existence of a deity, we agnostic atheists would be open to changing our views. This is not true of the majority of theists I’ve encountered since I “came out” as an atheist several years ago, and in this way the opinion held by agnostic atheists that there is no god is different to the belief held by theists that there is a God.

        This distinction has become more of a debating point since the publishing of “The God Delusion) and “God is Not Great” by (respectively) Messrs Dawkins and Hitchens put atheism into the limelight. Atheism was previously in so marginalised a position against the mainstream theistic worldviews that the definition could be thrust upon it by the majority. Now that atheism has moved into the mainstream, and has a voice commensurate with the quite significant and rapidly growing percentage of population who tick the “no belief” box on the census form, we are defining our own worldview and doing so more accurately and in more detail than was possible in earlier times.

        So in conclusion, I think it’s time for dictionary.com to follow the lead of other dictionaries and adjust it’s entry for atheism, to more accurately reflect the way the word is being used now. And it’s also high time theists of all descriptions paid atheists the bare minimum of respect by accepting their explanation of their worldview, and to cease trying to ram the theists preferred definition (preferred only because it shifts the onus of proof where it doesn’t actually belong) down the throats of agnostic atheists.

  4. g0thamite says:

    Good stuff, Dr. Howe.

    I’ve had an online chat with an atheist who has tried the same verbal gymnastics with me. It is an attempt to “redefine” atheism and put the burden of proof upon the theist. While it might work in a somewhat grammatical way, it doesn’t work in the human mind in the real world. You cannot “not” just “lack a belief” in God – our minds search for a rationale to justify this balancing act and it will tip us one way or the other. If we accept this new definition ( which I will not ) then how is it really different from agnosticism?

    To me, the “new definition” is simply a “distinction without a difference.” (as my old Hebrew Prof used to say). Again, good stuff.

  5. Robert says:

    “The only thing that theism is logically incompatible with is that God does not exist.”

    Not at all.

    A quick search on the definition of theism shows it to mean “belief in the existence of a god or gods”. Because it’s a question of belief, theism is fully compatible with the actual non-existence of a god or gods, just as atheism is fully compatible with their existence. Nothing strange about it. As fallible creatures, we’re often mistaken in our belief – even rationally so.

    • You are wrong. I have no need to do a “quick search” for the definition of ‘theism.’ I am a theist and have done both my MA thesis and Ph.D. dissertation on the existence of God. Theism is the world view that says that God exists. To construe it about a belief ABOUT the world view is to clutter things up unnecessarily. Obviously a theist is one who believes theism. But theism is not the belief. Theism is a worldview. It is not a person who can have a belief. While is is true that the non-existence of God is logically compatible with someone being a theist, it is not logically compatible with theism. It cannot be both that God exists and God does not exist. You are confusing ‘theism’ with ‘theist.’

      Certainly as fallible creatures we are sometimes (even if it is not “often”) mistaken in our belief(s) (as you are regarding the definition of ‘theism’). Further, I agree that one can be rational in a belief and still be mistaken. An examination of the geocentrists of Galileo’s day shows that they were quite rational to believe that the Earth was the center of the solar system (given the extent to which they could examine the available data) even though we know know that their belief was mistaken.

      • Robert says:

        If I’m wrong, well, then, everyone else is too – even your fellow Christian theists.

        Biblicalphilosophy.org – “Theism: (1) The beliefs of any one of three religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—who believe in one all-powerful god.”

        Theologicalstudies.org – “Theism – The belief that there is a supreme personal being or God who created everything but himself.”

        Biblicaltheology.org – “Theism is derived from the Greek Qeo/j(Theos) meaning “God” plus -ism. Theism for our intents and purposes is the belief in the true and living God who is Creator and sovereign Ruler of the universe and known by voluntary revelation. ”

        Curiously, no source I can find supports your claim that “theism is a world view that says that God exists”. But even if they all did, it still remains logically compatible with the actual non-existence of god(s). What a worldview says (or claims) is not necessarily reflective of what objectively is.

      • Instead, do you mean “tell these three they’re wrong”? Actually what they are saying is completely consistent with my position and not at all making the point you were making in your comments. This conversation is silly (and parts of what you are saying are irrational). Theism is a worldview. I can’t imagine that you would disagree with me when I said that as a worldview, it has no beliefs. I take the above senses (of saying that it is a belief) to mean that it is a belief that a theist hold. But your original comments moved illicitly from the fact that theism is a belief in this sense (with which I would not disagree) to saying “because it is a question of belief” as if the point of the discussion had to do with the fact that one BELIEVES that theism is true instead of the discussion being whether theism is true. Of course, any proposition (or worldview) that someone thinks it true is a proposition (or worldview) that someone BELIEVES is true. But to add this extra layer is redundant and unnecessary. The discussion needs to be on whether a given proposition or worldview is true. The proposition ‘God does not exist.’ is logically incompatible with the proposition ‘God exists.” This was my original point that you said you disagreed with. But in this you are irrational (since the two propositions are contradictions of each other). The only way you can seemingly be making a rational point is to try (illicitly) to introduce this superfluous element that the proposition is something that one BELIEVES. This allows you (again, illicitly) to try to maintain that the the proposition ‘God does not exist.’ is logically compatible with the proposition ‘Richard Howe (for example) BELIEVES that God exists.’ While it is certainly true that these two proposition are logically compatible, it completely misses the original point in my post that you weighed in on. Theism IS NOT a world view about what people believe (although there certainly are people who believe it). Instead, theism is saying ‘God exists.’ Again, theism IS NOT saying ‘There are people who BELIEVE God exists.’ However, in contrast to this (to get back the the original issue) these atheists that I quoted in my post ARE saying that atheism is the LACK of a belief in the existence of God. To put it another way, their position ends up amounting to saying that, by definition, atheism equals the absence of a belief in the existence of God. Thus, as I showed in my post, the absence of a belief in X is logically compatible with the fact that X exists. The absence of a belief in God is logically (and really) compatible with the existence of God. This entails the ridiculous conclusion that atheism and theism can both be true at the same time. What is ridiculous about this is that it is these very same atheists who write books trying to argue that God does not exist! But why are they not happy with having their atheism be TRUE (as they define it) regardless of whether God really exists? What is unacceptable about your position (which, by the way, is not what the above quotes mean) is that your attempt to bully the theist into watering down the definition of theism to make the same move as these atheists, mutatis mutandis, leads to the silly situation that all we need to do (given these definitions) is to acknowledge that it is logically possible that person X believes that God exists and person Y lacks such a belief. It trivially true that these two situations (X has the belief and Y lacks the belief) are logically compatible. If that is what you are interested in, you are welcome to it. But leave the rest of us to the substantive discussion on the real issue, viz., whether or not it is true that God exists.

        Perhaps your curiosity (that you seemingly failed to find a source that defined theism a certain way) stems from fact that you are not understanding what you are reading. Regardless of whether you find the exact wording or not, it is the meaning of these definitions that is important. Besides, it is not true that you found no source since you are in a conversation with a source that thus defines it. The fact that you take the above quotes to be different than what I am saying tells me that you are not understanding what you are reading (both me and them). It is not merely the fact that you used the term ‘belief’ in trying to define theism. Rather it is what you went on to say about that with which I took exception.

        Last you say “What a worldview says (or claims) is not necessarily reflective of what objectively is.” Of course! This is obviously true. I know of NO ONE who would disagree with this. It is a trivial point and has nothing to do with my original post. What you are missing throughout is this: this conflict of worldviews is a conflict precisely because they are making INCOMPATIBLE claims about what objectively is. Atheism and theism each assert a claim about reality that is incompatible with the other. However, the way these atheists are trying to redefine atheism completely removes this incompatibility. This is what I ended up describing as “strange indeed.” If atheism amounts to nothing more than “I lack a belief in the existence of God.” (as defined by these atheist) and theism amounts to nothing more than “I possess the belief in the existence of God (as your definition would have it; which, by the way IS NOT the meaning of these definitions of theism you quoted) then there is no logical or real conflict between atheism and theism. Tell that to the academic atheists who have gone before (e.g., J. L. Mackie, Kai Nielsen, Antony Flew, et al.) and the academic theists who are with us now.

  6. Rob says:

    It’s true that the terms people use aren’t quite right, but there are reasons. Maybe I can clear this up a bit. In contrast to theists, atheists (as are popularly known, not by definition) don’t make claims regarding the supernatural unless they have evidence to support it that can not be explained in any other way. This means that while theists may claim that God exists, atheists do not go so far as to definitively claim that a God or Gods do not exist. However, atheists will reason that the likely hood of the existence of a God or Gods is no greater than just about anything else imaginable. Like, for example, the celestial teapot. So what this means is that most atheists are actually a specific kind of atheist, called aagnostic atheist, or a “de facto” atheist on the spectrum of theistic probability.

    So why not call themselves “agnostic atheists?” Well, because it’s confusing to anyone that isn’t already familiar with these terms. Agnosticism implies more probability to the possibility of God than most atheists are comfortable with and popularly, agnosticism has come to be known as equivalent to indecisive. So we call them atheists, it’s not perfectly accurate, but it gets the point across. Some atheists suggest there should be a new term for those who would assert that there is no God or Gods. Many suggest something akin to “idiot.”

    The point is that the terms we use have been molded by the social context that we live in and we must take this into account when we break them down to their bare bones. While it’s true that even many atheists may be unaware of this distinction I would suggest that when writing with such specificity to your terms, you would be better off to use “agnostic atheism” in place of what you here call “atheism.”

  7. Robert says:

    This conversation is indeed silly, but made so by your unique and unsupported understandings of theism and worldview. “Theism…as a worldview, has no beliefs”? It beggers belief you wrote those words. If theism lacks beliefs, then it is not a worldview. I would cite sources, but you would ignore or dismiss them, as you did with the definition of theism.

    No, I don’t regard theism to mean that one believes theism is true. If you had bothered to click the link, you would have quickly discovered your error. When I wrote that theism “is a question of belief”, what I mean that it is belief in the existence of god(s) that defines theism (as practically all other sources do as well). Notice I never wrote the word “proposition” in connection with theism. No defition of theism I’ve found does that either. Your claims that “theism is saying ‘God exists'” or that theism is the proposition that God exists appear to be your own unique contrivance.

    By the way, in your theistic worldview, is God three persons and one form? Is His prophet named Muhammed? Is God even a “he”? Is God wholly benevolent, wholly evil, or some combination of the two? Or neither? Perhaps all of the above?

    • Only one half of the conversation is silly (actually, relatively uninformed, shallow, and irrelevant). Most of my readers will know that it is your half that is so. Since you did not even understand what I meant in my straightforward statement that a worldview (as a worldview) has no beliefs, I have little confidence that you would be able to even come close to engaging in a deeper analysis of these issue. If you have any grown up friends, you might ask them to explain what it was that was completely lost on you. I have no desire to try to educate you in basic reading and comprehension skills. You might want to visit another blog site where it is safer for you to practice with a writer that is simple enough for you not to choke on the ideas being examined.

      Second, the mean spirited (and totally uncalled for) tone in such a juvenile and inane comment as “I would cite sources, but you would ignore or dismiss them” is only valuable in as much as it exposes to the more adult readers of this blog how dishonest your ilk actually is. I will put my acquaintance with scholarly material with which I disagree up against yours any day.

      Last, don’t even try to make my readers think that you are seriously interested in (or capable of) a substantive discussion about the Trinity, Islam, anthropomorphisms, or the problem of evil. But I will answer your last questions directly. God is three persons and one essence. God has no prophet named Muhammed. God is a He. God is benevolent, but not “wholly” if by that you mean that God lacks other attributes. God is not in any way evil.

  8. Lehrling says:

    I would argue that atheism cannot be “true”, merely “justified”, as it by itself is not one single stance.

    • I was not sure if your comment was in the context of my article or if you were making an overall point. If the former, realize that my argument is that IF atheism is the lack of the belief that God exists, then it can be BOTH that atheism is true (i.e., X lacks the belief that God exists) and theism is true (i.e., God exists). Without stating it explicitly, my argument is a redutio ad absurdum that this definition of atheism is untenable since it entails the absurd conclusion that BOTH atheism and theism can be true.

      If you are arguing the latter, then I think there’s no reason (in principle) to confine oneself to the level of justification since, if a given proposition corresponds to reality, it is a true proposition. While discussions of justification can be interesting and sometimes relevant, the discussion sometimes unnecessarily understates what is going on. I’m quite comfortable with the aim of the arguments being truth and not merely justification.

      Further, in both definitions of atheism (the untenable one I catalog above and the actual one, viz., atheism says that God does not exist) it is a “single stance.” Granted each respective position can become quite nuanced; it remains that, as a philosophical position, they are both making a claim about reality.

      • Lehrling says:

        I, like many others in this blog, am confused by your different treatment of theism and atheism.
        I’ve looked at your responses, but it seems like a whole bunch of dialectical acrobatics when you claim that theism “isn’t” the belief in god (or, more precisely, the stance of believing in god).

        If you’d be so kind as to state it more clearly in answering me (I’m not trying to say you’re being deliberately dishonest, it’s just that you seem to be bending over backwards a little), can it not be true that theism is true (x believes that god exists) and god does not exist?

        I must say, however, I am thinking about dropping the title “atheist”, since it really is unnecessary in the first place. I’m merely curious about this discussion which, in the end,probably won’t affect me anyways.

      • Thanks for the feedback. Frankly, I’m amazed that any are having a hard time getting the point. (From the feedback I’m getting outside this blog, I’m happy to say that it appears to me that most readers have gotten the point.) It’s really quite simple. Let me take another run at it and let me know if this helps. My original blog made a simple point (with a few other points entailed). There is a particular definition of atheism that some atheists are starting to put forth. I showed that this new definition of atheism is wrong. The atheists I quoted are giving a definition of atheism that is not only not the true definition of atheism, but is contradicted by other (and in my opinion more for formidable) atheists. I gave the specifics of my argument in the original post. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument. I showed that this new definition of atheism leads to the absurd conclusion that both atheism and theism can be true at the same time. But since atheism and theism cannot both be true at the same time, then this new definition of atheism is false. The true definition of atheism is: God does not exist. Theism maintains that God does exist. God cannot both exist and not exist. Thus, with the true definition of atheism, if atheism is true, then theism is false and if theism is true, then atheism is false. The suspension of belief with respect to the question of the existence of God is called agnosticism (which is from the Greek for “no knowledge”).

        As to your last question, no it cannot be the case that theism is true and god not exist. I can be true that X BELIEVES theism (i.e., that God exists) while God does not exist. It can also be true that X DOES NOT BELIEVE that God exists while God does exist. But the issue of the logical compatibility of what X BELIEVES about reality with reality itself is different than the issue of the logical compatibility of contradictory propositions (God does not exist. vs. God exists.) God does not exist = atheism. God exists = theism. X BELIEVING God does not exist is not atheism. Instead, X BELIEVING God does not exist is X BELIEVING atheism. Atheism and X BELIEVING atheism are two different things. X can BELIEVE the world is flat whether or not the world is flat. X can BELIEVE that God does not exist whether or not God exists. But atheism ITSELF is not the same as X BELIEVING atheism. Thus, the logical relationship between atheism and theism is not the same as the logical relationship between x BELIEVING atheism and X BELIEVING theism.

        I hope this helps. Thanks for your post.

  9. Gary Ryan says:

    Hmm. Perhaps, if indeed we must be constricted to the harsh bounds of language. Is a definition a limiting or a de-limiting way of looking at a thing?

    I am not sure at all that atheism ‘in reality’ is at all mono-istic or unified. Are all atheists together and in agreement about what it is that they either believe or do not believe?

    I suspect that if ‘real’ atheism exists (which as either a proactive of anti-active maneuver I would tend to doubt) that it does so under a different guise than either belief or unbelief.

    I suspect that the ‘truest’ form ‘real’ atheism might take is ‘non-registry’, i.e., ‘there are no god-blips on the radar’. My sense is that yes indeed there are people like this, some in remote places others among us, but remote from god-orientation.

    Another question is whether god-orientation is essential to well-being, or to holistic existence. In other words, do I have to believe or else?

  10. Of course, if you theists ever manage to come up with a workable definition of gods, that can be tested, then maybe we would have something to talk about. You are the ones making the god claims, so you have to supply the gods, we, as atheists, acknowledge that to date, no evidence for any god claim has been presented and accepted. Certainly not among the theists, and if this is so, why should those who suggest that the non existent looks exactly like the invisible, have to prove anything.

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