American Atheist: Toward a New Definition of Atheism

The following article appears in the September 2015 issue of American Atheist Magazine.

American Atheist is sold at Barnes & Noble, and a digital version is available via iTunes. Of course you can also SUBSCRIBE to it (hint, hint).


Toward a New Definition of Atheism

by Hank Fox

Sooner rather than later, every fledgling Atheist gets swept up in the definitional debate. Atheism is this, Atheism is that, agnosticism is the other thing, and one disturbingly insistent assertion pops up in every iteration: “You can’t prove a negative! It’s impossible!”

I always joke  that I CAN prove a negative — that gods don’t exist — but the proof only works with someone who’s already open-minded. In my book, “Red Neck, Blue Collar Atheist: Simple Thoughts About Reason, Gods & Faith”, I undertake to prove one particular negative: that Batman doesn’t exist. Given the definition of Batman — a guy who lives in Gotham City on Earth, who has a butler named Alfred and a protege named Dick Grayson, a man who is himself billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne and who swings around the streets of the city night after night after criminals — he doesn’t and can’t exist. Since the very definition of Batman provides that he lives in Gotham City, a city which doesn’t exist on Earth (DON’T give me crap about that. Batman originated in 1939; all that “infinite Earths” stuff came up only in the 1980s.), Batman — the Batman, not just some “bat man” you might make up in your own head — does not and cannot possibly exist anywhere in the universe.

All the evidence points to Batman’s non-existence. In the case of the fictional character Batman, we know the name of the man who created him: Bob Kane. We know the names of the many actors — Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, etc. — who have portrayed him in movies and animated features. If you asked any of those people if Batman is real, they might joke about it, but I doubt any of them would take the question seriously because they know they were portraying a man who is non-existent.

Plus, you know, fictional character.

So, in fact, you can prove a negative, under certain conditions. This type of proof is argumentatively ineffective against god because “god” is never defined in any concrete way. The concept of god probably even evolved toward a non-concrete definition so as to stave off questions about its provability.

Still, this business about the impossibility of proving a negative crops up in every discussion, over and over, with debaters slinging it out in perfect confidence at every opportunity. “If you don’t search the entire universe, you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist! It’s logically impossible! Therefore, you can’t be 100-percent Atheist!”

I often come across online postings of the Dawkins Scale, which asks the question, “Where do you stand?” I’m one of the few who answers that I’m a 100-percent, Level 7, “Strong Atheist.” Inevitably, the stated reservation of many others is that you can’t prove a negative because you can’t KNOW with 100-percent certainty that a thing doesn’t exist. There’s always that 0.000000000000001-percent possibility that the thing might exist out there somewhere. Therefore, it’s logically offensive to state that you’re a Level 7 Atheist.

But given the argued one-trillionth-of-a-percent possibility, you’re not talking about a God of the Gaps. This is a god diluted to homeopathic levels — a long, long way from the full-strength supposed Creator of the Universe. Just as homeopathy is ignorable, so is such an iffy god.

Yet, the persistence of the argument that you have to KNOW there’s no God or gods to call yourself an Atheist, and you can’t, so you shouldn’t — as well as the confidence of those stating it — is a source of perpetual annoyance. It is especially so, given the fact that the concept of gods was fairly obviously — to a non-religious person, anyway — made up by humans. You can sometimes observe the process in real time if you get into an argument about the nature of god with a religious person who usually has to make up fresh assertions on the spot.

There’s a way out of the problem, it seems to me, by side-stepping the seemingly reasonable argument and redefining “Atheism” to mean something slightly different. Something not just defensible, but inarguable and, fortunately, something it already means, but just below the level of notice.

Germane to this discussion, there’s this thing we humans started doing not too many hundreds of years ago. We call it “science.” And rather than something that needed to be logically “proved,” science was a philosophy, an outlook, a way of viewing the world around us.

Distinguishing itself from earlier ways of thinking — which included gods, devils, heaven and hell, supernatural powers, and personages — science isn’t a logical argument; it’s a thought-experiment. Up until that time, we’d had the definitive assertion of all these supernatural powers. Then we had this other idea, not so much the definite statement that those supernatural thingies didn’t exist, but the attempt to see what things might be like IF THEY DIDN’T.

Science is the thought-experiment that asks, “What if there are no supernatural forces at all? What if the world and the universe around us operates solely by real-world, natural forces?”

What would geology look like if there were no all-powerful god to set it all up just so? What would physics or astronomy be like if there were no supernatural will involved? What would weather look like without evil and benign spirits (or, according to some sources, gay marriage) affecting it? How does biology work in the absence of a capricious, unknowable creator? All too obviously, science became an especially fruitful way of seeing things. Modern civilization, and pretty much everything in it, is the result. Instead of taking up the argument regarding the non-existence of gods, science just goes about exploring, experimenting, examining, AS IF there were no supernatural forces at work.

Atheism, if we want to see it like this, is that same endeavor. Scaled down to personal-philosophy size, it is the thought-experiment of seeing the world, of conducting our lives in it, as if there were no such things as gods.

WHAT IF there is no heaven and hell, no holy telepath glaring down into our thoughts and actions to see which fate we deserve? How do we understand generosity, charity, decency, moral rightness?

WHAT IF the churchly billions are mistaken about all this god business? How do we know how to celebrate holidays or which holidays to celebrate? How do we educate our kids? How do we welcome newborns or mourn the departed?

WHAT IF there is no holy-book guide to all of life? How do we figure out what to do, how to live, how to treat each other, what sorts of things we’re allowed to eat or touch, whether we can perform work on Saturday or not?

Atheism can be precisely that. Not so much the assertion that God or gods don’t exist, but the ongoing thought-experiment of asking, “What if they don’t?”

In that case, we don’t have to waffle and nitpick about minuscule possibilities. We don’t have to argue about remotely-conceivable personages hiding out in a vast universe. We don’t have to prove or verify anything. We just have to say, “I’m choosing to try this thought-experiment. For the rest of my life, I will assume there are no supernatural super-beings anywhere in the universe and see what there is to gain from that.”

If you understand Atheism as a thought-experiment, you can confidently call yourself an enthusiastic, fully-engaged, 100-percent Atheist. Every one of us can be a 7 on the Dawkins Scale.

The powerfully positive outcome of the thought-experiment of science compared to the millennia-long, pre-science era when we tried that other mode of thought, religion and superstition — which is transparently also a thought-experiment — suggests there’s a great deal to gain, both as individuals and as a worldwide society, by simply choosing to be full Atheists and following through in every part of life.

  • The Eh’theist

    I’m glad to see someone discussing the ability to prove a negative, because as you note it is possible in many cases where there are constraints as part of the definition.

    We can’t prove “There are no superheroes” because we lack sufficient constraints to be able to test exhaustively, but as you noted we can prove there is no Batman given the constraints about Batman and our ability to falsify them.

    Likewise, we can’t demonstrate there is no god or gods because we lack sufficient constraint, but specific gods, with sufficient falsifiable constraints could be disproved. Being infinitely just and infinitely merciful, for example. Being immutable and repenting of an action or responding to someone’s prayer.

    I like the idea of the atheist life as thought experiment. Very neat.

    • Michael Neville

      Disproving Yahweh and/or Jesus can be done, the same with Allah, Wotan, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl and other such-like gods. But we can’t disprove every possible god, particularly the nebulous deist deities whose believers have goalposts moving at appreciable fractions of the speed of light.

      • The Eh’theist

        I totally agree, which is why I think we continuing to argue philosophy over generic concepts of “god” is non-productive in comparison to pointing out the contradiction and falsified claims regarding actual god candidates, or as mentioned in this article, providing insights into living a life without God and how that can impact individuals and society.

        • AtheistSteve

          Agreed. People don’t worship vague general concepts of god. They worship gods with very specific attributes. It’s easy to disprove those claimed attributes. When they resort to back pedaling by defending a general god concept they are merely demonstrating the overall weakness of their claims. W. L. Craig is notorious for presenting such philosophical arguments for the existence of this general concept god but he fails miserably in applying those arguments to gods that people actually worship.

      • Kitsune Inari

        But we don’t need to disprove every possible deist deity whose goalposts move at relativistic speeds. We can just dismiss them as the logically fallacious PRATTs they are, and give their believes a warning that if they try to cheat logic again they will be expelled from the debate.
        Unless we have already given them that warning. Then we just tell them to shut up and fuck off.

  • Robert, not Bob

    I think the practical social definition is useful: god in the Christian/Muslim context is the person with a natural right to absolute authority and a complete moral license. I declare that no such being could exist, therefore there is no god! 😉 Even if Yahweh/Allah existed, it wouldn’t have those rights, therefore it’d just be an evil overlord, not God.

  • Kitsune Inari

    I too call myself a flat 7 because, thanks to all available evidence about the universe (of which there are lots), there is reasonable certainty that no such thing as a deity exists or can exist. All that “you can’t be 100% sure” solipsist bullshit is nothing but a senseless attempt to derail the question, and can be safely disregarded as the PRATT it is.

  • Machintelligence

    I like it. I have usually referred to myself as a rational materialist: i.e. someone who has no use for the supernatural. I guess that I am both a practical (thought experiment) naturalist as well as a philosophical naturalist (firm belief.) As A.C. Grayling pointed out, the term naturalist also can refer to those folks who like going about unclothed. This is an unfortunate (if funny) source of confusion. My atheism derives from my rejection of the supernatural.

  • Speedwell

    Yup, I have no problem calling myself a 7 as well, because not only is there no adequate evidence for any reasonably defined god I know of, I am of the firm opinion that anything likely to fit any reasonable definition of “godhood” will fail for the same reasons. Fritz Ridenour’s “my God is a fried egg I wear over my left ear and it gives me peace and happiness and hope for my eternal soul and you can’t prove it doesn’t” is nothing but a lame joke.

    • Blizno

      Of course it is and that’s the point. Just like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it’s a deliberately ridiculous construct to suggest that all definitions of God are ridiculous.

  • Blizno

    This is very tiresome. There is no debate about the meaning of “atheism”.

    Atheism = not theism. That’s it. Period.

    Theists believe that one or more gods exist. Everybody else is atheist.
    There is no middle ground. One believes or does not believe.

    Everyone who doesn’t believe that gods exist, including those who are undecided or who haven’t even thought about the question, is atheist. “Agnostics” don’t believe that gods exist and are therefore atheists.

    Atheism doesn’t mean belief that gods don’t exist. Get rid of that false definition.
    Atheists have no burden to prove that gods don’t exist because atheism makes no claims. Theists have 100% of the burden to prove that gods exist.

    Why is this still being discussed? The issue has been beaten to death.

    • Hank Fox

      It’s still being discussed because, no matter how certain you are of the definition, lots of others aren’t. They define it differently, and there will probably always be a certain amount of disagreement.

      This is precisely why I say we REDEFINE it, and focus on the new definition.

      • Blizno

        I disagree completely. Don’t try to change a very old (ancient Greece), simple word. Make a new word. “Humanist” is one such word. It includes atheism but adds more to it. “Secularist” is another.

        I urge everyone to stand firm on the meaning of “atheism”. The word isn’t broken; it doesn’t need to be fixed. Many theists have no idea what it means and put their own bizarre, inconsistent meanings to the word. I’ve even heard some say that atheist means Satanist! We need to correct theists every time they repeat somebody’s deliberate misuse of the word.

        Theists love twisting words to mean different things, sometimes even in the same sentence. Stand firm against that. Demand that theists define “tricky” words and stick with their definitions.
        For example, a god isn’t a set of natural laws, as some have said. A god has to be a supernatural being with awareness and intention. A god isn’t the sum of human caring for each other either. It’s a supernatural being. Period.

        • Hank Fox

          Just the fact that we’re discussing this shows something of the futility of the argument.

          And again, lots of people who would otherwise be Level 7 atheists won’t call themselves that because they have this reservation about the defensibility of the term.

          We can get over that whole discussion, the whole issue, and I say 1) it’s do-able, and 2) it’s time.

    • Kitsune Inari

      Atheism doesn’t mean belief that gods don’t exist.

      So true. There’s a separate term for that (which is a subset of atheism): “hard atheism” or “strong atheism”.
      “Atheist” flat is the umbrella term, which covers both strong/hard atheism (being atheist and actively claiming no deities exist) and weak/soft atheism (being atheist and not being hard atheist).

  • Blizno

    Psychology is also important in this question. Gods are exactly what human beings would invent to explain storms, death, etc.

  • MNb

    “If you don’t search the entire universe, you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist! It’s logically impossible!”
    Wrong. We don’t have to search anywhere in the universe to prove that god doesn’t exist in the universe. See, god is defined as an immaterial/ supernatural/ transcendental entity. Were god somewhere, anywhere to be found in the universe, then he would be material/ natural/ non-transcendental, because everything within the universe by definition is. Hence it’s logically impossible to find god in the universe. When we search for god we have to look beyond space and time. And we all know that we can do such a search while sitting in a comfortable armchair.
    This is a strong candidate for the worst argument against atheism ever.