A Definition of Atheism: Atheism as A-theism

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 1: Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism

Atheism as a-theism

So far I have been mainly concerned with what atheism is not. Yet it is equally important to specify some of the implications of what atheism is. First we have to emphasize its intimate relation with theism. Philosopher Ernest Nagel (1901-1985) puts it as follows in his A Defense of Atheism (1957): “I shall understand by ‘atheism’ a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism.”[52] And theism is the view that holds that the “heavens and the earth and all that they contain owe their existence and continuance in existence to the wisdom and will of a supreme, self-consistent, omnipotent, omniscient, righteous, and benevolent being, who is distinct from, and independent of, what he has created,” as one author has stipulated.[53]

In this quote we encounter the elements of theism that were introduced before: omnipotence, omniscience, perfect righteousness, benevolence. So an atheist is someone who denies the existence of a god with characteristics as set out above. In other words: he denies the existence of “God.”

This is the approach we find in Le Poidevin, Harbour, Nagel, and also Paul Edwards (1923-2004). Edwards writes: “On our definition an ‘atheist’ is a person who rejects belief in God.”[54] So an atheist (as a-theist) is not someone who rejects belief in gods (without further specification) but only belief in the existence of God; God being a god with certain characteristics. What are those characteristics? Edwards states: “All the believers in the question have characterized God as a supreme personal being who is the creator or the ground of the universe and who, whatever his other attributes may be, is at the very least immensely powerful, highly intelligent and very good, loving, and just.”[55]

Often atheism is characterized as a broader position. Michael Martin (1932- ), one of the most important contemporary authors on atheism, writes: “In its broader sense atheism, from the Greek a (‘without’) and theos (‘deity’), standardly refers to the denial of the existence of any god or gods.”[56] This is also the way Bill Cooke (1956- ) defines the concept: “Atheism: an attitude of skepticism toward claims of the existence of any sort of God or gods.”[57] The broader definition is also adopted by George H. Smith (1949- ), a passionate atheist himself, who writes: “An atheist is a person who does not believe in any god or number of gods.”[58] Nevertheless Smith adds that “some theists” have been called “atheists” for disbelieving in the god (or gods) of the “orthodox majority.”[59] With that last qualification, the god of the orthodox majority, the more narrow definition of atheism comes into focus. This is also the case when Martin notes that:

in Western society the term atheism has most frequently been used to refer to the denial of theism, in particular Judeo-Christian theism. This is the position that a being that is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good exists who is the creator of the universe and who takes an active interest in human concerns, and guides his creatures by revelation.[60]

That more limited or narrow definition of atheism (“atheism” as the term has most frequently been used in Western society, according to Martin)[61] or, what I have called, atheism as a-theism, has some advantages but also some disadvantages vis-à-vis the broader sense (atheism as the rejection of any god or gods). Although I prefer the narrow definition of atheism, let’s start with the disadvantages.

One obvious disadvantage of the limited definition is that it has some counter-intuitive effects. These are as follows.

On the basis of the more limited definition of atheism, polytheist conceptions are “atheist.” From the perspective of atheism as a-theism, Greek and Roman polytheism, for instance, would have to be classified as “atheist.” The depiction of ultimate reality as impersonal (which we find in the earlier Upanishads) would also be categorized “atheist.” Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, which also reject a theistic creator god, would fall into the same category.[62] Pantheism, being a rejection of a personal god, is “atheistic” from the perspective of atheism as a-theism as well. Spinoza was an atheist, from this point of view.

Many people find this puzzling.

An even more unacceptable consequence of the definition of atheism as a-theism is that liberal conceptions of the divine would have to be qualified as “atheist.” Spinoza would not be alone in being characterized as an atheist. The religious convictions of modern theologians such as John A.T. Robinson and Paul Tillich, whose work was mentioned before, would put them in the same camp. Some people find this deeply counterintuitive. From the perspective of liberal theology it is repugnant, for it would imply that only – what they like to call – the most orthodox and “fundamentalist” positions would be accepted as “theistic” and more liberal positions would become “atheist.” That gives much too much ground to the fundamentalists, is a common objection.

This type of criticism might be illustrated by reference to the work of one of the most well-known representatives of the analytical tradition in the philosophy of religion: the Oxford philosopher Anthony John Patrick Kenny (1931- ).

Kenny gives a lucid summary of his views on religion in his book What I Believe (2006).[63] Kenny was ordained a priest in 1955, but he did not think that the existence of God could be demonstrated. This was a problem because pontifical doctoral candidates had to take an oath rejecting various modern heresies. The oath also included the statement that it was possible to demonstrate the existence of God.[64] After two years of priesthood he decided that he could no longer continue as a teacher of doctrines and moral precepts about whose validity he was increasingly doubtful.[65] That is why he obtained leave from the Pope to return to the lay state and had several academic posts in Oxford.

From 1969 to 1972 Kenny lectured on Natural Religion. He analyzed the relationship between the divine attributes: omniscience, omnipotence, benevolence. His view was this:

I argued that these three attributes were incompatible with one another, as could be seen by reflection on the relationship between divine power and human freedom. If God is to be omniscient about future human actions, then determinism must be true. If God is to escape responsibility for human wickedness, then determinism must be false. So there cannot be an omniscient, omnipotent, all good being.[66]

Kenny writes that he concluded from this that there cannot be such a thing as the God of scholastic or rationalist philosophy. Nevertheless, this did not bring him to the atheist position. Why not? Kenny answers: “I left the question open whether it is possible to conceive, and believe in, a God defined in less absolute terms.”[67]

Is that a reasonable position to take? From the perspective of atheism as a-theism it is not.[68] Kenny seems to think that he has only rejected the “God of scholastic or rationalist philosophy,” but is that true? Hasn’t he done much more? I think he has. He has rejected the idea of God as defended through the ages by the Church and also, I am inclined to think, God as He appears to us in some important passages in Holy Scripture.

Whether that last contention is true depends, of course, on the question of whether the attributes of God as defended by the Church have a firm basis in Scripture. In other words: is it true that Scripture presents us with an omniscient, benevolent, and omnipotent person? Or is the personal, omniscient, benevolent, and omnipotent God an invention of scholastic and rationalist philosophy, as Kenny seems to presuppose?

My impression is that the Church is on much firmer ground than liberal theologians like to acknowledge. In other words: I think the characteristics that the Church, the Church fathers and the scholastic philosophers have attributed to God, have a firm basis in Scripture. Scripture does not present us with a God who is limited in power, for instance.

A person who believes in the existence of a god with the characteristics described before is generally considered to be a “theist.” That is not very controversial. The controversy centers on the other position: the atheistic one. How do we qualify the person who does not believe in that specific concept of god? A reasonable answer, so it seems to me (following Harbour, Nagel and Le Poidevin), is “atheist.” So Kenny, so it seems to me, is an “atheist” in the sense outlined above.

Nevertheless, he is adamant about not adopting that epithet. Kenny himself is not a “theist,” as he explains in chapters 4 and 5 of his book (those chapters are titled “Why I am Not a Theist I” and “Why I am Not a Theist II”), but in chapter 3 of his book he claims not to be an “atheist” either (chapter 3 is called “Why I am Not an Atheist”).

What is the reason for his not wanting to adopt the term “atheism” as a designation for his position? That appears to be, as we have seen in the passage quoted above, that he “left the question open whether it is possible to conceive, and believe in, a God defined in less absolute terms.”[69]

Kenny does not elaborate on what that “less absolute god” would look like. This question is literally “left open” in the sense that Kenny does not make the slightest attempt to provide us with any information about his conception of god, although the fact that he has this conception is the reason why he rejects the epithet “atheist.”[70]

What he does, though, is to leave the reader with the expectation that there is research that could be done – as if that research might reveal that it is indeed possible to arrive at a god-conception on less absolutist terms. But is not that a little misleading? I am inclined to think it is. I say this because, in my opinion, no further research or deeper reflection is required to defend the position that a less absolutist conception of God is perfectly possible. One might remove, for instance, omnipotence from the characteristics of the theistic god. Or one might leave out benevolence. Either strategy would annul the difficulty of explaining the evil in the world and reconciling this with the idea of an omnipotent creator. As long as Kenny does not give us an idea of what his less absolutist conception of God looks like, we are not in a position to affirm or deny the existence of such a god or tell whether that god ought to be an object of veneration.

This implies that, as long as Kenny does not present a less absolute god-conception of his own, we cannot adopt an a-theistic stance towards it. This is precisely my problem with the broader definition of atheism that some authors favor. As long as we do not have an idea what someone means when he or she refers to “god,” there is no need to deny this god.

People can entertain some very curious notions of “god.” The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) could have said “sadistic sex is my god.” Leopold von Sacher Masoch (1836-1895), whose name gives us the word “masochism,” could have pointed to the divine experience of sexual submission to his mistress. After all, submissive sex was exactly where his ultimate commitment lay, and modern theologians use that as a definition of god or “religion.” If we follow Paul Tillich’s definition of faith as a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern,[71] there is no reason to deny the Marquis de Sade or Leopold von Sacher Masoch the status of “religious” persons. Their gods are very different from the gods of most other people, but they are gods nonetheless, because they were the ultimate concern of their adherents. The relevant question seems to be this: “Is there some threshold for ‘godliness’ that one cannot transgress?” We may suppose that many people will reject definitions such as “god is sex,” but on what grounds do they do this? Definitions like “god is love” are less unusual. Why? Is it because sex is considered less worthy than love? Or is it, perhaps, because the idea of God as presented in Holy Scripture manifests more love than sex?

Anyhow, in principle we can take the attitude that everybody is free to present and venerate his or her own conception of “god.” We may even proclaim this to be the essence of religious freedom as enshrined in national constitutions and human rights declarations. One could say, for instance, “god is love” and because there is love in this world reject the epithet “atheist.” One might say “god is truth.” One might also say: “I believe in love” or “I believe in truth” and in doing so one might have presented conceptions of god in – to quote Kenny – “less absolute terms.” But the question is, of course, should someone who denies the existence of “truth” or “love” be called an “atheist”? The answer is clearly “no.” Someone who denies the existence of “truth” is a relativist or a nihilist, perhaps, but not an “atheist.” The atheist does not deny everything that people may choose to call “god,” but only “God.”

One thing is clear. From the position of atheism as a-theism, the position taken by Nagel, Le Poidevin and others, Kenny is an “atheist.”[72] On the basis of the broader definition of atheism (rejection of God and gods, whatever the nature of the god or gods may be) he obviously is not. But who would be?

(Image via Tim Brinton / NewsArt.com)
(Image via Tim Brinton / NewsArt.com)

Everybody is free to use his or her own definitions, but it does seem fair to say is that the limited definition of atheism is the more useful one because it seems appropriate to have a shorthand label for the position of someone who does not accept the central claims of theism as made by the Church on the basis of Holy Scripture.[73]

A Dictionary of Philosophy (1979), edited by Antony Flew (1923-2010), gives a succinct argument for the narrow definition of atheism as “the rejection of belief in God.” It states:

It can be said with some point that atheism exists only in relation to some conception of deity, that the professed atheist can always reasonably be asked what God he denies, and that “God” covers so many different conceptions, from crude anthropomorphism to sophisticated ideas of an Infinite Substance or Ground of all Being, that everyone is perforce an atheist in relation to some of them. However, the label “atheist” is ordinarily, though probably not invariably, applied without qualification only to someone who denies God in any of the senses that current uses of the term allow.[74]

One may object that this narrow definition of “god” (god as God) was not the preoccupation of the majority of the philosophers and theologians of the Western tradition. So atheists focusing on the narrow definition of “god” are fighting a straw man, it is often said. But that is certainly not true. There is a long discussion of the nature of the theistic god in Western culture. Great philosophers and theologians like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Boethius, Saadia, Avicenna, Anselm, Ghazali, Averroes, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Martin Luther, Luis de Molina, Francisco Suárez, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Spinoza, Malebranche, Leibniz, Bayle, Berkeley, Voltaire, Paley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Darwin, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, George Mavrodes, John Hick, Richard Swinburne, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins have all participated in a discussion on the existence of the theistic god, i.e. “God,” with the characteristics as defined by the Church and based on the interpretation of Holy Scripture (Qur’an and Bible). That discussion through the ages was not a conversation about the different attitudes people had with regard to the ultimate ideals of life, but about the characteristics of the theistic god and in what sense these were compatible with each other and with other human ideals. If God knows the future, how can we have free will (Cicero)? What was God doing before He created the world (Augustine)? Must God, if he exists in the mind, also exist in reality (Anselm)? Can an omnipotent being be constrained by justice and goodness (Ghazali)? As the author of a recent overview of these arguments says:

thinkers from all three faiths [Judaism, Christianity and Islam] grappled with the general philosophical problems that needed solving if the great monotheism they were jointly constructing was to be viable, developing not merely sophisticated proofs of God’s existence but also detailed conceptions of God’s various key attributes: omnipotence (or power), omniscience (or knowledge), perfect goodness, eternality, immutability, and so on.[75]

What this all amounts to is that discussions on the existence of God very often were discussions about the compatibility of the characteristics that in the theistic tradition are ascribed to God. Those who held those characteristics to be compatible were called “theists,” those who did not “atheists.” Discussing the existence of a god with no characteristics or characteristics too vague or undetermined to know much about seems a senseless activity. That implies that affirming the existence of such a “god” would be senseless and denying it would be equally so. Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) writes: “Dogmatic Atheism – the doctrine that there is no God, whatever may be meant by God – is, to say the least, a rare phase of opinion.”[76] Whether it is indeed “rare,” as Stephen suggests, is difficult to say, but that it is senseless is true. As I have said, that also has consequences for the affirmative position. It is similarly senseless to affirm the position of a “god” that we do not know anything about. So the liberal theologian who leaves the existence of such a god “open” is naturally allowed to do so, but this position is more problematic and also a little bit more trivial than it appears – or so the adherent of the conception of atheism as a-theism may contend. The atheistic approach, in the sense of the denial of the theistic conception of god (God), is also different from the approach of those atheists who see atheism as the rejection of all things supernatural. As we have seen, Julian Baggini (1968- ) defines atheism as “the belief that there is no God or gods.”[77] But he goes further:

The atheist’s rejection of belief in God is usually accompanied by a broader rejection of any supernatural or transcendental reality. For example an atheist does not usually believe in the existence of immortal souls, life after death, ghosts, or supernatural powers.[78]

Baggini acknowledges that “strictly speaking” an atheist could believe in any of these things and still remain an atheist, but, so he contends, “the arguments and ideas that sustain atheism tend naturally to rule out other beliefs in the supernatural or transcendental.”[79]

We find the same approach in the Dutch atheist Floris van den Berg (1973- ). Atheists do not believe in “god, in gods, not in dwarfs, elves, Martians, tarot cards, astrology.”[80] He makes a useful distinction between “narrow atheism” (which focuses on the three monotheist faiths) and “broad atheism” (rejecting all things supernatural) and considers himself to be a broad atheist. Broad atheism rejects all gods, all religions, and all forms of transcendentalism.[81]

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[52] Nagel, Ernest, “A Defense of Atheism,” in: Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, eds., A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, revised edition, The Free Press, Collier-MacMillan, New York 1967 (1957), p. 460.

[53] That author was Robert Flint, Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh; see: ibid., p. 461.

[54] Edwards, “Atheism,” p. 175.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Martin, Michael, “Atheism,” in: Tom Flynn, ed., The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2007, pp. 89–96, p. 88. See also: Martin, Michael, “Atheism Defined and Contrasted,” in: Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Temple University Press, Philadelphia 1990, pp. 463–476.

[57] Cooke, Bill, “Atheism,” in: Bill Cooke, Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism, & Humanism, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2006, pp. 49–50, p. 49. See also: Geisler, Norman L., and Turek, Frank, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois 2004, p. 22: “An atheist, of course, is someone who does not believe in any type of God.”

[58] Smith, George H., Why Atheism?, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2000, p. 19. “Theism” is defined by Smith as: “belief in god or gods.” See: Smith, George H., Atheism: The Case Against God, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1989 (1979), p. 7.

[59] Smith, Why Atheism?, p. 19. See also: “The term theism usually refers to the belief in a personal god or gods such as found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Technically then, an atheist is someone who does not believe in the gods of these religions.” In: Stenger, Victor J., The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY 2009. p. 21. This is a somewhat eccentric definition of both theism and atheism because Stenger includes a polytheistic religion, Hinduism, under the heading of (mono)theism.

[60] Martin, “Atheism,” p. 88.

[61] See also: “General Introduction,” in: Martin, Michael, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2007, p. 1: “In modern times ‘theism’ has usually come to mean a belief in a personal God who takes an active interest in the world and who has given a special revelation to humans.”

[62] Martin, “Atheism,” p. 88.

[63] Kenny, Anthony, What I Believe, Continuum, London 2006.

[64] Ibid., p. 5.

[65] Ibid., p. 6.

[66] Ibid., p. 8.

[67] Ibid. Perhaps Kenny’s position is somewhat similar to that of the humanist as defined by Corliss Lamont (1902–1995). Lamont writes: “Speakers of the Moral Majority insist that all Humanists are pernicious atheists, although Humanists have more and more tended to call themselves nontheists or agnostics. Humanists find no adequate proof of a supernatural God functioning upon this earth and guiding the human race to a divine destiny; but the immensity of the universe makes them cautious about absolutely denying the existence of God among the billions of stars, many of which might have planets where some form of life could have developed.” See: Lamont, Corliss, The Philosophy of Humanism, eighth edition, Humanist Press, Amherst, NY 1997 (1949), p. xxv.

[68] Although some scholars defend the view that one can adhere to theism and yet reject the belief that an omnipotent God exists. See on this: Bishop, John, “Can There Be Alternative Concepts of God?” Noûs, 32, no. 2 (1998), pp. 174–188.

[69] Kenny, What I Believe, p. 8.

[70] Neither does he tell us what his definition of “atheism” is, by the way. Probably Kenny sees the atheist as someone who rejects belief in the existence of all gods (whatever their nature), as many other writers on the subject do.

[71] See on this: Braaten, Carl E., “Paul Tillich and the Classical Christian Tradition,” in: Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought From Its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster 1967, pp. xiii–xxxiv, p. xxviii.

[72] See also: Kenny, Anthony, The Unknown God: Agnostic Essays, Continuum, London 2004.

[73] See also: Smith, George H., Why Atheism?, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2000, p. 28: “Given the wide diversity of religious opinions, I have chosen to discuss Christianity through- out this book in order to focus my arguments. But most of my arguments also pertain to any religion (e.g. Islam and some forms of Judaism) that contains the following elements: (1) a doctrine of personal immortality, (2) a promise of salvation for those with orthodox (i.e. correct) belief, and (3) a belief that a least some knowledge necessary for salvation requires faith in divine revelation, knowledge that cannot otherwise be justified through reason alone. These elements constitute what is generally called a ‘salvation religion’ or a ‘personal religion’, so I shall use these labels interchangeably.” What this all amounts to, in my view, is that, although Smith presents a broad definition of atheism (see the previous pages), his focus is on atheism in the narrow sense of the word, viz. the denial of the existence of the theistic god: God.

[74] Flew, Antony, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy, Pan Books, Macmillan, London 1979, p. 28. See also: Jean Montenot, Encyclopédie de la Philosophie [Encyclopedia of Philosophy], La Pochotèque, Livre de Poche, Paris 2002, p. 106 using “atheism” as a term signifying the denial of the existence of God.

[75] Pessin, Andrew, The God Question: What Famous Thinkers from Plato to Dawkins Have Said about the Divine, Oneworld, Oxford 2009, p. 20.

[76] Stephen, Leslie, “An Agnostic’s Apology,” Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXV, 1876, pp. 840–860, also in: Andrew Pyle, ed., Agnosticism: Contemporary Responses to Spencer and Huxley, Thoemmes Press, Bristol 1995, pp. 48–72, p. 48.

[77] Baggini, Julian, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, p. 3.

[78] Ibid., p. 4.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Berg, Floris van den, Hoe komen we van religie af? Een ongemakkelijke liberale paradox [How Do We Get Away from Religion? An Uncomfortable Liberal Paradox], Houtekiet/Atlas, Antwerpen 2009, p. 9.

[81] Berg, Ibid., p. 9. See also: Thiselton, Anthony C., A Concise Encyclopedia of the Philosophy of Religion, Oneworld Publications, Oxford 2002, p. 18: “In the broadest terms, atheism denotes the denial of the existence of God.” The distinction between small and broad atheism is also made by William Rowe. See: Rowe, William L., Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction, second edition, Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, California 1993, pp. 14–15: “In the broader sense, a theist is someone who believes in the existence of a divine being or beings, even if his idea of the divine is quite different from the idea of God we have been describing. Similarly, in the broader sense of the term, an atheist is someone who rejects belief in every form of deity, not just the God of the traditional theologians.”

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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