By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
Relax, I am not an atheist. Atheism has had a more traditional definition throughout history as the belief that there is no God. However, that definition is not universally accepted by all atheists. This is why it is so important to ask questions and not just assume you know what the atheist believes. For those who have affirmed the more traditional definition, the need to defend the positive claim that there is no God has become a very much unwanted burden. Disproving the existence of God has not faired well throughout the history of philosophy. So in what sense then is atheism true?
Well, the more common definition of atheism (at the popular level) has been to define atheism as a “lack of belief in a God or gods”. But what does it mean to lack a belief in God? My iPad on which I am typing this article also lacks belief in a God or gods, does that mean my iPad is an atheist? And what does having a “lack of belief in a God or gods” tell me of the atheist’s position other than their own psychological state? If atheism only boils down to having a “lack of belief” then that would make atheism true by definition since it is merely describing someone’s psychological state of “lacking belief”.
I think the more modern shifting of the definition of atheism from the “belief that there is no God” to the merely “lacking a belief in a God or gods” is due to the unwanted position of having an actual burden of proof to share. If indeed someone defines atheism as the “belief that there is no God or gods”, then that claim will have to be defended. This is a difficult task to be sure, since even if the atheist refuted the theist’s arguments, it would not logically follow that God does not exist. There could still be a God even if arguments for God fail.
Personally however, having been in the apologetics game for some time, I think many of the arguments for God’s existence are valid and quite easily defensible and are immune to many of the popular criticisms foisted upon them. Be that as it may, defending the proposition that “God does not exist” is in fact quite the burden, so many have re-defined atheism as a position that is not in need of defense because it simply describes one’s psychological state. And if atheism is merely a description of one’s psychological state, then atheism is true by definition, but it is true in a very trivial sense that it doesn’t actually tell us anything of importance related to the question of God’s actual existence.
The funny thing is that if atheism is merely reduced to being defined as a psychological state, then it is possible for atheism and theism to be true at the same time. The theist only need to define theism as the position of having the belief that God exists. If theism is defined as a mere psychological state then it is true by definition and hence atheism and theism are both true at the same time. While such a conclusion is an interesting one, it is not very helpful in getting to the truth of the matter.