What is atheism?

What is atheism? January 28, 2009

The best articles are the ones that begin by making a statement that makes you splutter with indignation, and then go on to convince you that they’re right. Paul Cliteur, Professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University in The Netherlands, has done just that in an essay published recently in the Journal of Religion and Society (The definition of atheism). Here’s the part that caught my attention:

Atheism is concerned with one specific concept of god: the theistic god. The theistic god has a name and this is written with a capital: God. At first sight it may be strange to limit atheism to the conception that is opposed to the theistic concept of god and not all the other gods that have been venerated by humans. Buddhists or Hindus subscribe to polytheistic approaches of the divine. Should they not be included in the atheist rejection of the divine[?] … I think not

At first sight this seems bizarre and even counter-productive. After all, it doesn’t seem helpful to equate atheists and Hindus. No self-respecting atheist would any truck with any kind of sky fairy, supernatural beings of any kind, or superstition. So what on earth is Cliteur on about?

His argument stems from the fact that atheism is a statement not of belief, but of what you do not believe. And to decide that you don’t believe in something, first of all you have to know what ‘it’ is.

And this is Cliteur’s complaint about the new religionists. They reject the idea that religion is about worshipping something that can be defined in any meaningful way. This, of course, is the stick they use to bash atheists. Here’s Nicholas Lash on Dawkins:

My question to Richard Dawkins is this: given the centrality of this insistence, in Christian thought, for two millennia, on the near-impossibility of speaking appropriately of God, is it ignorance or sheer perversity that leads him wholly to ignore it, and to treat all statements about God as if they were characteristically taken, by their users, as straightforward and literal descriptions?

God, in his view cannot be defined. And as a result, it’s impossible to say that God does not exist. Note that Lash doesn’t mean this in any circumstantial way. He follows up those comments in the next chapter by arguing that atheism does not exist. He’s right, of course, in his own special way. You can’t be an atheist about something that cannot be defined.

So to be an atheist you first have to have a definition of what a theist is. If you allow theologians to have their way, they will define theism in a way that’s so impossibly vague that it is meaningless (i.e. of no practical value). And if you should find that their definition is sufficiently concrete to be meaningful, then they will shift it.

Cliteur says:

By defining atheism in this limited way we acknowledge that it is difficult, if not impossible, and also useless to develop an argument against all the different concepts of god and religion that are sometimes defended. The only thing an atheist can do is to oppose the kind of language that makes it impossible to discern under what circumstances one can legitimately say, “I am not religious.” If everybody is “religious” but only the content of that religion varies, the word “religion” has lost all meaning.

Therefore, it’s up to atheists to define what it is that they do not believe in. It’s too important to be left to woolly-minded theologians.

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