Field of Science

What is atheism?

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.


  1. 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.

    But... that's not hard at all! I don't believe in any beings or conscious entities that are posited to have created anything ex nihilo.

    So, okay, some religion could posit conscious beings that didn't do that sort of things, I suppose. Is that the point?

    But, in some sort of agreement with Cliteur, I could just say that I don't believe in any of the gods or supernatural beings of any sort that any religion that I have heard of posits. Would that work, then?

  2. The problem is that theologians are good at saying what they don't believe in, but not so good at saying what they do believe in.

    That's what allows them to rubbish Dawkins et al. They say 'Oh, but that's a pantomime god, not the god I believe in'

    When you hear them talking about what god is, it goes into what Stephen Law has amusingly described as pseudo-profundity.

    Which is why you can't just say that you don't believe in the Christian god. Because as far as I can tell none us knows what that is - not even the theologians.

  3. Isn't there some essential aspect of the Christian god that all theologians agree upon, and that atheist can agree to not believe in? Like he is conscious, or that he acts in our world?

  4. I would hope so. I'm sure theologians would say that there is of course. But if there is I haven't been able to unearth it.

    To be honest, I find it very difficult to read books on theology because I have a tendency to want to throw them out the window!

    I would like to find a book by a believer addressing an intelligent atheist market explaining what god is and why I should believe in it. I don't think any such book exists.

    The kinds of believers who make those kinds of arguments tend to be the scientific ones. And they tend to be people like Paul Davies, who believe in a Deist divinity (i.e. God as some kind of spiritual prime mover, not a conscious, personal actor).

  5. I know it's irrelevant to the central point of the article, but I couldn't help but notice this:

    "Buddhists or Hindus subscribe to polytheistic approaches of the divine"

    Um, what? This person knows less than a grade schooler in India about Hinduism, or even Buddhism. I'm sorry, but I cannot respect somebody who doesn't even understand the central tenets of religions he mentions, even if he mentions them only in passing.

  6. Komal, both Hindus and most Buddhists are polytheistic - at least by any meaningful definitino of the word.

    This from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

    Sometimes above the many gods a polytheistic religion will have a supreme creator and focus of devotion, as in certain phases of Hinduism (there is also the tendency to identify the many gods as so many aspects of the Supreme Being); sometimes the gods are considered as less important than some higher goal, state, or saviour, as in Buddhism; sometimes one god will prove more dominant than the others without attaining overall supremacy, as Zeus in Greek religion. Typically, polytheistic cultures include belief in many demonic and ghostly forces in addition to the gods, and some supernatural beings will be malevolent; even in monotheistic religions there can be belief in many demons, as in New Testament Christianity.

    Arguably Catholicism, with its many saints and adoration of Mary, is also a polytheistic religion.

  7. Arguably Catholicism, with its many saints and adoration of Mary, is also a polytheistic religion.

    They all are. There is not a single religion that I've heard of that does not have at least some lesser form of supernatural beings - exactly what makes them all polytheistic. Christianity and Judaism has angels and Satan, Islam has a whole host beings, including angels, djinni, and Satan.


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