“That’s what it means…”

On April 4th 2009, a debate took place between the Christian philosopher/theologian William Lane Craig and the late Atheist author/journalist Christopher Hitchens at Biola University. The topic of that night’s debate was “Does God Exist?” After an hour and twenty minutes the two speakers ended their remarks to the crowd and entered into a cross-examination period. Craig was given the first turn and stated:

“Let’s talk first about whether there are any good arguments to think that Atheism is true. Now it seems to me that you’re rather ambivalent here that you say – you redefine Atheism to mean a sort of a-theism or non-theism…”

Off-camera Hitchens interjects:

“That’s what it means.”

Amongst certain YouTube commentators this is viewed as Hitchens scoring a point in his own favor. They will scoff, replying with something along the lines of “Craig doesn’t even know what the word means”.

So, is Craig confused here? Does atheism simply mean non-theism as Hitchens contends?


The etymology of the word atheism is “a” and “theos” which are Greek for “without” and “god”. But the etymology of a word doesn’t necessarily give you it’s definition. For instance your salary doesn’t have anything to do with salt(sal is the Latin word for salt). And anyway if we were going by the etymology of “atheism” it would just mean “without God” not “without BELIEF in God”.

Atheism: “a disbelief in the existence of deity”. This is the standard historical definition of the word and it’s the definition that Craig holds to.

Hitchens on the other hand, wants to hold to a more recent version of atheism, which is defined as “a lack of belief”. As he says later:

“[Atheism is]not in itself a belief or a system.”

Hitchens doesn’t think atheism is a belief at all. Hitchens would not even call it a “dis”belief. Rather he contends that atheism is equivalent to non-theism. He’s saying that if theism= “belief in God”, then non-theism= “no belief in God.” Another way to say that one has “no belief in God” is to say that one simply “lacks belief in God”. Hitchens would say that the atheist simply doesn’t possess the belief “God exists” in their mind like a religious person does. And therefore there is no argument to make for atheism, because atheism is just a state of mind. But Craig is holding to the definition that Atheism is an active position and that the Atheist is making an argument. He is saying that both the Atheist and the Theist are asserting a position and therefore the Atheist, just like the Theist, needs to defend their position.

So whose definition of the word “atheism” is correct?

Technically they are both correct but they are describing two different viewpoints. Craig is 100% correct in calling Hitchens definition a redefinition. He’s also correct in making a distinction between atheism and a-theism(or non-theism).

It’s true, some dictionaries(especially online) will show atheism to mean,

1. The disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

But ‘lack of belief’ is a fairly recent addition to dictionaries. This is due in no small part to certain Atheist philosophers like Antony Flew, who in the second half of the 20th century put forth what is called the Presumption of Atheism:

What I want to examine is the contention that the debate about the existence of God should properly begin from the presumption of atheism, that the onus of proof must lie upon the theist.
The word ‘atheism’, however, has…to be construed unusually[emphasis mine]. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of ‘atheist’ in English is ‘someone who asserts that there is no such being as God’, I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix ‘a’ to be read in the same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as ‘amoral’, ‘atypical’, and ‘asymmetrical’. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels ‘positive atheist’ for the former and ‘negative atheist’ for the latter.(God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis, by Antony Flew [Prometheus Books, 1984], “The Presumption of Atheism”)

Clearly atheism has not always meant “lack of belief”(for Flew wouldn’t have needed to explain it!). For a succinct analysis on why “lack of belief” is a poor definition of atheism and why as an atheist(if you are one) you shouldn’t apply it to yourself, see this article written by an atheist no less.

…it does not therefore exist.

What gets ignored by the aforementioned YouTube commentators is what immediately follows Hitchens’ quick “that’s what it means” remark. Craig doesn’t agree that “non-theism” simply equates to a psychological state of mind or “lack of belief” so he wants to clarify just what it is that Hitchens means by atheism:

“…but how do you distinguish then, the different varieties of non-theism, for example, what is normally called atheism, agnosticism or the view of verificationists that the statement ‘God exists’ is simply meaningless?”

Hitchens concedes that “there are different schools of atheism” and it is here that he begins to vacillate between definitions:

“There is no claim I know how to make that says ‘atheism is true’ because atheism is the statement that ‘a certain proposition isn’t true’.”

Uh oh… Hitchens has veered from his “lack of belief”, state-of-mind version of atheism here. Why do I say that? Because we have to ask, what is that ‘certain proposition’ he refers to here? It has to be the proposition “God exists” for that is the proposition that the theist affirms. Now, if that proposition “God exists” isn’t true, then that means that the statement “God does not exist” is true, for they are logically equivalent statements.

In other words,
Theism=true if Atheism is false.
Atheism=true if Thesim is false.

If one is true, the other must necessarily be false.

Clearly this is no longer just a ‘lack of belief’, but the assertion of a statement. And a statement is either true or false.

So Hitchens by his own definition, has committed himself(despite his intentions) to Craig’s standard view of Atheism( asserting “God does not exist”). Hitchens has to admit now that atheism is an assertion. A viewpoint, not just a state of mind. And like theism it requires justification.

However Craig doesn’t ask for justification at this point. Rather he grants Hitchens some options in order to clarify further just what view he holds to. Craig to Hitchens:

“[Your defintion] really embodies a diversity of views such as agnosticism, what is normally called atheism, or this verificationism. Now, which of those do you hold to within this umbrella of a-theism? Are you an atheist who asserts the proposition “God does not exist” or do you simply withhold belief in God in the way that the agnostic does?”

You’ll notice in the video(starting at 1:45) that Hitchens doesn’t answer the question and Craig has to prod him three times for a response. By the set rules of the cross-examination period, Craig only has six minutes to ask any and all questions before Hitchens has the floor. In my opinion, Hitchens is stalling for time.

Anyway, after some irrelevant time-wasting remarks about Thomas Huxley, Hitchens says he finds agnosticism to be “evasive”. Ok so he’s not an agnostic. Got it.

Then he calls certain religious claims “meaningless”, “white noise” and “gibberish”. Ok, so maybe that means he’s a verificationist?

But then after the third prodding from Craig, Hitchens says this and it’s telling:

“I think once I have said that I’ve never seen any persuasive evidence for the existence in something, and I’ve made real attempts to study the evidence presented and the arguments presented, that I will go as far as to say, have the nerve to say, that it does not therefore exist…”

“It(i.e. God) does not therefore exist.” That statement is either true or false! This is definitely not just a “lack” of belief!! It’s an assertion. It needs to be justified.

So Craig makes the fair move at this point and asks Hitchens if he has “any arguments leading to the conclusion God does not exist?” To which Hitchens replies “I’d rather state it in reverse and say I find all the arguments in favor to be fallacious or unconvincing.” And later he says that there seems to be a “lack of magnificence” in the evidence for God. What exactly constitutes as “magnificent” as far as evidence is concerned? Hitchens doesn’t say. (That’s just a way to move goalposts though, for the Atheist can always fold their arms when presented evidence and say “nope, sorry, not magnificent enough.”)

To me this is just Agnosticism trying to dress up as Atheism. I agree with Craig who points out on a podcast(which I encourage you to listen to as it accompanies the article from above):

“…it is possible for a person to have a lack of belief that God exists without being an atheist..One can suspend belief or be in a state of uncertainty about one’s belief in God’s existence, but that shouldn’t be called atheism. That should be called agnosticism. The atheist is one who believes that God does not exist. The theist believes that God exists. It is only the agnostic who fails to have a settled belief about those propositions.” [Reasonable Faith Podcast “The definition that will not die!”, on 4-6-2014]

At this point, the agnostic might make the last ditch effort to retain the ‘atheist’ tag by calling themselves an “agnostic atheist”. But this would require yet another redefinition of terms. In my opinion the aversion to the standard definition of Atheism by many atheists today is that they simply do not want to do the intellectual legwork of defending their position but they still want to refer to themselves as Atheists because it sounds better than agnostic. And many of them, like Hitchens finally admitted, just don’t find the arguments against atheism convincing. That’s fine but that doesn’t make you an Atheist by the standard definition and in fact it makes the definition of Atheism much too broad.

Because if you really want to dig in your heels and hold to the definition of atheism as a”lack of belief”; a state of mind that doesn’t include belief in God…  well then you might as well call yourself a Zoobedy Doo Dah or something. Because you’ve essentially deconstructed the term “atheist” so far that it would in fact include babies and cats. There are Atheists, properly defined, who actually put forth logical arguments for the non-existence of God. If you are an atheist… stop playing semantics and be like them. Defend your belief. Because that’s what it is. A belief.

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2 Responses to “That’s what it means…”

  1. Ignostic Atheist says:

    You should do an article on agnosticism. While I largely agree with you on the wishy washy definition of atheism by New Atheists, I’m afraid you’ve come up short on agnosticism. As I’m sure you’ve heard, agnosticism is not on the spectrum of god belief, instead referring to the acquisition or potential for acquisition of knowledge (specifically of a god). Therefore, to answer the question of, “Do you believe there exists a god?” with, “I am agnostic,” does not answer the question. To quote Huxley,

    Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, ‘Try all things, hold fast by that which is good’; it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him, it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

    The subsequent question you must ask is, is it possible to hold a belief without certain knowledge. Of course, the answer to that is yes. Therefore, to be an agnostic atheist is consistent. This leaves you with an empty hole where you previously thought agnosticism stood, in between theism and atheism, as a lack of belief. For this, you must ask the question, what does it take to form a belief? Is a belief something that you consciously come to, leaving a vacuum while you deliberate, or is a belief something that is formed upon exposure to a concept, and is molded and changed over time as you consider it? If the later, then there is no hole – theism and atheism come to the center and touch as confidence and doubt.

  2. Linuxgal says:

    The prefix a- indicates that the following root word is not applicable. Amorality is not immorality. A robot is not immoral, it is amoral. The field of ethics does not apply to a machine. Theism, the belief in a personal, interactive deity, does not apply to an atheist. To argue otherwise turns language against itself.

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