Christians have such a hard time understanding the word “atheist”. I have heard it explained again and again by actual atheists, yet the religious simply don’t want to believe them! After reading this article by William Lane Craig, I think I know why.
Craig says, “At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists. So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.”
Wait, what? How is it not the default position? Are we expected to believe that there is a God and then just argue amongst ourselves which one it actually is?
Craig continues, “But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists (and also verificationists).”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines non-theist as “Not having or involving a belief in a god or gods”. Interesting, that sounds a lot like an atheist, so let’s check the OED definition of that, “A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”. Would you consider someone who “lacks” belief the same thing as someone who is “not having” a belief? Somehow in Craig’s mind, this is a non-standard definition, and these two words are not synonyms.
Now, I am not one to say that the OED is the deciding factor as to what words mean. After all, these are not set in stone, and words change all the time. For example, the word “gay” has a very different meaning today than it did in the 1930’s. It is really about usage. So why is Craig persisting on manufacturing a divide between two words that simply mean the same thing?
“…a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.”
So there you have it. Craig is upset that atheists do not have to prove that something does not exist. He thinks that atheists are making a knowledge claim about gods not existing, so we should have to prove this to be true. However, the OED above clearly states that this is a belief claim, not a knowledge claim.
Let me use the word “agnostic” to help fill in the gaps here. The OED of the word gnostic states, “of or relating to knowledge”. This is the knowledge claim. In fact, agnostic is defined as “A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God”. Interesting, somehow this turns into a religious claim (opposed to gnostic) but fine, it is still making a claim to knowing about the existence of God. Often, you will hear atheists say that they are “agnostic atheists” which simply means that they do not claim to have knowledge about the existence of God, so they do not believe (atheist). Craig’s misunderstanding about the quantifier term is in fact the problem here. If I were to claim to be a “gnostic atheist” (or someone who claims that I know God doesn’t exist), then I would agree with Craig that evidence should be provided. However, you will find very few atheists who are willing to make this bold claim, but plenty of theists who will – yet they believe atheists need to build a case.
The Dawkins scale of belief can also be helpful in determining the level of atheism or disbelief. Personally, I am closer to a six on the scale, as I have investigated many of the god claims but have yet to find any one of them convincing. I am willing to admit that I am not certain, but I am also willing to be convinced either way, depending on the evidence. Now go ask a true believer or apologist the same question (as I often have) and the answer is consistently “I know this to be true because I have experienced it, there is no way I can be wrong and I will accept no evidence to the contrary”. Craig even quoted in his own book that, “Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.” (p. 36) So who is being disingenuous here?
Apologists like Craig are desperate to shift the burden of proof as their own evidence for God is weak and amounts to nothing more than personal revelations, hearsay testimony and tired, debunked philosophical arguments. However, it is important for atheists to clarify the terms before engaging in conversations with theists. If the person you are engaging with has misconceptions about the words and definitions, the discussion will be a failure from the start.