The Argument for Negative-Theism

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The Argument for Negative-Theism

In recent years, and specifically with the rise of the so-called New Atheists, numerous unbelievers have begun to forcefully claim that atheism is not a positive belief that God or gods—hereafter just God—do not exist, but rather, they claim that atheism is simply a lack of belief concerning the existence of God. Atheism, these atheists assert, is a mere absence of belief about God; that is all it is. And so, due to this relatively new and modern definition of atheism, atheism is now often presented in two different forms: namely, in a positive form and a negative one. Positive-atheism—sometimes called strong or explicit-atheism—is a form of atheism that positively asserts that no God exists. By contrast, negative-atheism—sometimes called weak or implicit-atheism—is supposedly a mere lack of belief concerning the existence of God, a position which thereby include all other forms of non-theism, and which thus would, by definition, include agnosticism (and note that this overlap between negative-atheism and agnosticism is admitted by atheists themselves; for example, atheist Michael Martin, in his “General Introduction” to the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, states the following: “…agnosticism is compatible with negative atheism in that agnosticism entails negative atheism. Since agnostics do not believe in God, they are by definition negative atheists”).

So, in modern atheistic culture, the positive-atheist is seen as affirming the strong and burden-bearing position that God does not exist whereas the negative-atheist is seen as having nothing more than a burden-less and agnostic-like lack-of-belief in the existence of God.

The Importance of Negative-Atheism

Now, to truly understand just how important it is for some atheists to primarily define atheism in a negative manner rather than in a positive one, and to understand how much of an impact this idea has had on the modern discourse surrounding the atheism-versus-theism debate, consider the online article “What is atheism?”, which was accessed on the 3rd of December 2015 from the ‘atheists.org’ website of the fifty-year-old group American Atheists. Here is the relevant portion of that article:

[Quote] What is atheism?

No one asks this question enough.

The reason no one asks this question a lot is because most people have preconceived ideas and notions about what an Atheist is and is not. Where these preconceived ideas come from varies, but they tend to evolve from theistic influences or other sources.

Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods. Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God.” Some dictionaries even go so far as to define Atheism as “wickedness,” “sinfulness,” and other derogatory adjectives. Clearly, theistic influence taints dictionaries. People cannot trust these dictionaries to define atheism. The fact that dictionaries define Atheism as “there is no God” betrays the (mono)theistic influence. Without the (mono)theistic influence, the definition would at least read “there are no gods.”

Why should atheists allow theists to define who atheists are? Do other minorities allow the majority to define their character, views, and opinions? No, they do not. So why does everyone expect atheists to lie down and accept the definition placed upon them by the world’s theists? Atheists will define themselves. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://web-beta.archive.org/web/20151203070008 /http://atheists.org/activism/resources/what-is-atheism]

The above quotation is a perfect summation of the approach of the modern atheist: he will define himself regardless of what the dictionary or traditional usage asserts is the case, and the way that he defines himself is as someone who just lacks a belief in God. And note that the idea that atheism is just a lack of belief in God is promulgated by unbelievers far and wide, and not just by formal atheist organizations such as American Atheists; in fact, not a day goes by without some atheist on the internet fervently telling someone that atheism is just an absence of belief in God, and so this idea—even if it is philosophically suspect—is no longer a fringe position in terms of its cultural influence and acceptance.

Now, though atheists may not wish to admit it overtly, one of the main reasons that unbelievers both desire and push so hard for atheism to be defined primarily as a lack of belief in God is because doing so allows atheists to avoid bearing any burden of proof for their position. After all, given the commonly accepted idea that every person making a positive claim which he wants to convince someone else of thereby bears the burden of proof for his claim, and given that the so-called ‘negative lack-of-belief atheist’ allegedly makes no positive claims, then the negative-atheist can indeed assert that his is a burden-less position. So this is a large part of why atheists are so adamant about having atheism be understood as a mere lack-of-belief in God. And please note that you do not have to take my word for this. Consider, instead, the words of atheist Luke Muehlhauser, the author of the website ‘commonsenseatheism.com’, which was very popular during New Atheism’s heyday. In his 23rd of February 2009 article “Atheism and the Burden of Proof”, which was accessed on the 8th of August 2016, Muehlhauser states the following:

[Quote] But most intellectually-inclined atheists I know do not merely “lack” a belief in God – as, say, my dog lacks a belief in God. Atheists like to avoid the burden of proof during debates, so they say they merely “lack” a belief in God. But this is not what their writings usually suggest. No, most intellectual atheists positively believe that God does not exist. In fact, most of them will say – at least to other atheists – that it’s “obvious” there is no God, or that they “know” – as well as we can “know” anything – that God does not exist. Thus, if the atheist wants to defend what he really believes, then he, too, has a burden of proof. He should give reasons for why he thinks that God almost certainly doesn’t exist. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=597]

So, sometimes, even atheists admit to one of the main reasons for why they like defining atheism in a purely negative manner: namely, to avoid the burden of proof for their position. And yet this very fact is also why the idea of lack-of-belief atheism is so important to address and counter, for ‘who has the burden of proof’ is a critical issue to consider in the debate between atheism and theism, at least when viewed from a rhetorical perspective. Thus, this topic should be of great interest to atheist and theist alike.

And so, with all this in mind, the key question of this essay arises: Can theism be broken down into a positive and a negative form, just like atheism is? Indeed, if the atheist can break atheism into a negative form and a positive form, and if the atheist can define himself as he sees fit—in large part of avoid shouldering any burden of proof for his position—and if the atheist can also claim that the primary meaning of atheism is just a lack of belief in God, then can the theist do exactly the same thing, except in reverse? And the answer, as we shall see, is ‘yes’, the theist can indeed do exactly that, and the ramifications of this fact will have interesting implications for both atheism and theism.

The Legitimacy of Positive-Atheism

Now, while we have already addressed the issue of how negative lack-of-belief atheism is pushed in modern atheistic culture as being the primary definition of atheism, it needs to be clearly understood that up until relatively recently, atheism was generally understood as being the positive belief that no God exists. And various expert references agree with this fact.

Consider, for example, Robert M. Martin’s definition of atheism, theism, and agnosticism in his 2002 3rd Edition of The Philosopher’s Dictionary: 

[Quote] Atheists believe that God doesn’t exist. … Atheism is contrasted with its opposite, theism, the view that God does exist, and also with agnosticism, the view that there isn’t any good reason to believe either that God exists or that He doesn’t. [Unquote]

Next, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s JJC Smart’s 8th of August 2011 online article “Atheism and Agnosticism”, accessed on the 25th of November 2015, defines ‘atheism’ as “…the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/atheism-agnosticism/). And Matt McCormick’s online article “Atheism” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, also accessed on the 25th of November 2015, confirms that atheism, or more specifically positive-atheism, is the affirmative denial of the existence of God. Indeed, McCormick says:

[Quote] Atheism is the view that there is no God It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God.  Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.”  So negative atheism would include someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle.  Agnosticism is traditionally characterized as neither believing that God exists nor believing that God does not exist. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://www.iep.utm.edu/atheism/%5D

Finally, atheist Michael Martin, in the same “General Introduction” to the 2006 Cambridge Companion to Atheism mentioned earlier, confirms the importance of understanding atheism in a positive way even as he asserts that it can be affirmed negatively as well. Indeed, Martin says the following:

[Quote] If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand “atheism” in this way. Yet this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek “a” means “without” or “not”, and “theos” means “god.” From this standpoint, an atheist is someone without belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes that God does not exist. Still, there is a popular dictionary meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist is not simply one who holds no belief in the existence of a God or gods but is one who believes that there is no God or gods. This dictionary use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call it positive atheism and let us call the type of atheism derived from the original Greek roots negative atheism. [Unquote]

And just as Martin says, even today, many dictionaries, while acknowledging the ‘lack of belief’ definition of atheism, nevertheless still acknowledge that atheism is a positive affirmation that God does not exist; to illustrate this, consider the following:

Dictionary.com, on the 25th of November 2015, defined ‘Atheist’ as: a person who denies or disbelieves in the existence of a supreme being or beings. (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/atheist?s=t)

OxfordDictionaries.com, on the 25th of November 2015, defined ‘Atheism’ as: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/atheism)

TheFreeDictionary.com, on the 25th of November 2015, defined ‘Atheist’ as: Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods. (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/atheist)

So, given all this, it is clear that there is nothing irrational or unjustified in claiming that positive-atheism is an affirmative belief that no God exists. Furthermore, the very division that atheists themselves make between negative lack-of-belief atheism and positive no-God-exists atheism demonstrates the fact that it is obvious that atheism, when construed as positive-atheism, still denotes a positive belief that no God exists.

 

Is ‘Negative-Theism’ a Legitimate Position?

Having now understood the legitimacy of viewing positive-atheism as the affirmative belief that no God exists, and having also seen the atheistic desire to primarily define atheism in a negative lack-of-belief fashion, it can now be argued that if the atheist is permitted to separate atheism into a negative and a positive form, then, using the very same reasoning that the atheist uses, the theist can just as readily separate theism into a negative and a positive form. Indeed, the theist can claim that whereas positive-theism is the affirmative belief that God exists, so-called ‘negative-theism’ is just a lack of belief in God’s non-existence; essentially, negative-theism is a type of ‘negative-atheism about positive-atheism’. Or, in other words, negative-theism is ‘a-positive-atheism’ (or even, to devise a new label, negative-theism can be understood as ‘a-niltheism’, where ‘niltheism’ means ‘no gods or zero gods’ and is thus just a different term for so-called positive-atheism).

Now, before going any further, it is very important to reinforce the point that this argument is a conditional one: namely, it is conditional on the fact that a person accepts the concept of negativeatheism as legitimate. Indeed, as this essay will seek to show, if the idea of negative lack-of-belief atheism is viewed as legitimate, then negative lack-of-belief theism must be accepted as legitimate as well. Now I do not, in fact, view negative-atheism as a legitimate position, but since so many atheists do view it as a legitimate stance to take, then, for the sake of argument, I will be operating in this essay as if it were a legitimate position; and I do so in order to turn the rhetorical tables on the modern atheist by demonstrating that the negative-theist, just like the negative-atheist, does not need to bear any burden of proof for his position either.

So, in order to show that the theist can readily and legitimately define theism as a lack of belief, we must first review some critical points. First, remember that as was demonstrated earlier, atheism can be and still is defined in the positive sense of being the belief that there is no God or gods. Second, remember how modern atheists have sought to define atheism as being just a lack of belief in God in large part because they both wished to do so and because they would not allow theists to define atheism for them. At the same time, more philosophically-oriented atheists—like Michael Martin, for example—have also sought to separate atheism into a positive and a negative form in order to have the ‘a-’ prefix mean what it originally did in the Greek, which is simply to be ‘without something’, such as being ‘without belief in theism’; thus, these more philosophically-inclined atheists view negative lack-of-belief atheism as being the original meaning of the word ‘atheism’ while still acknowledging the legitimacy of positive-atheism. Third, remember that the atheist considers it legitimate to separate atheism into a negative form and a positive form even though negative-atheism, by definition, conflates itself with agnosticism. Fourth, also note that many atheists, when in a debate with a theist, will often explicitly adopt the position of a negative-atheist, and yet in daily life, such atheists usually do not see the need to make the distinction between being a negative-atheist and a positive-atheist clear, but rather, they are content with simply calling themselves ‘atheists’.

Now, if atheists can do all this, then, as the argument below will demonstrate, there is nothing to prevent the theist from using the exact same reasoning to legitimately create the concept of ‘negative-theism’. And to see how this could be done, consider the following points:

a) Since atheism, in its positive form, is understood and defined as the positive belief that no God exists, then it is entirely legitimate and warranted to see it as such, and to use it as such as well.

b) Now, the theist, just like the atheist, will not allow others to define theism for him; and furthermore, the theist, just like the atheist, also wants to use the ‘a-’ prefix in its original meaning of being ‘without something’.

c) In light of the above points, consider that since positive-atheism is the positive belief that God does not exist, then it is entirely legitimate and possible for a person to consider himself as being ‘without positive-atheism’, or, in other words, a person can be an ‘a-positive-atheist’; furthermore, consider that perhaps a person with theistic sympathies wants to define himself as something like an ‘a-positive-atheist’ and he will not allow anyone, including any atheist, to tell him how he should define himself.

d) Now, to be an ‘a-positive-atheist’ means to simply lack a belief concerning the claim that there is no God; it is a position that makes no positive claims and thus bears no burden of proof.

e) Furthermore, just like the atheist does, a person with theistic sympathies, in order to accommodate this legitimate position of ‘a-positive-atheism’ into the theistic lexicon, can readily divide theism into a positive form and a negative form. Positive-theism would thus come to mean ‘a positive disbelief in the claim that there is no God’; or, in other words, the positive belief that there is a God. By contrast, negative-theism would come to mean ‘a mere lack of belief in the claim that there is no God’.

f) Now, although negative-theism does conflate itself with agnosticism—for an agnostic could be a negative-theist—this is not a concern, for as we saw with negative-atheism, just because negative-atheism is conflated with agnosticism is apparently no reason to reject the idea of negative-atheism, and so the same is true for negative-theism.

g) And so, using the same reasoning as the atheist, and having the same motivation as the atheist, the theist can create the position of a ‘negative-theist’, and in so doing, the negative-theist can therefore be a species of theist without making any positive claims and without having any burden of proof for his theistic position.

It must once again be stressed, in the strongest possible terms, that the theist, in separating theism into a negative and a positive form, is, quite simply, using the same reasoning that atheists use when they separate atheism into its two different forms. Thus, if separating atheism into two forms using such reasoning is considered legitimate, then it would be fallacious special pleading to claim that it is not also legitimate for the theist to do so via the same chain of reasoning. And so, if negative-atheism is a legitimate position to hold, then so too is negative-theism.

Dealing with Objections

Now, in order to oppose the legitimacy of the idea of negative-theism, the atheist can mount a number of objections which must be addressed. And so, we will address each of these objections in turn.

Objection 1 – We Thought of It First

One objection that atheists could potentially mount against the concept of negative-theism is to claim that they thought of the idea of dividing atheism into a positive and a negative form before theists did, and as such, atheists thus have a type of precedence and ownership of this idea. But this objection is, of course, ridiculous, for the sheer fact that atheists may have thought of this idea first in no way precludes the theist from using the same idea and the same reasoning in favor of theism so long as it is logically and rationally valid for the theist to do so—which, as we have seen, it is. So, the atheist’s appeal to chronological primacy does nothing to negate the legitimacy or value of the argument that the theist has offered for negative-theism.

Objection 2 – No Good Grounds

Another objection that the atheist could potentially use against negative-theism is to claim that a negative position is one which requires that there be no good grounds for belief in the opposing position, and that this is the key feature of a negative position. Thus, negative-atheism, as a negative position, would have to specifically entail the idea that there are no good grounds for theistic belief—although note that this is a positive burden-bearing claim that would need to be defended—and it is only because negative-atheism does indeed possess this feature that it can claim the title of a genuinely negative position. By contrast, the atheist might argue, negative-theism simply does not possess this critical feature of a negative position. But, of course, this is incorrect, for it would be easy to claim that negative-theism is indeed a position which entails that there are no good grounds for atheistic belief. In fact, if a negative position is defined primarily by the feature of there being no good grounds for belief in its opposing position, then negative-theism arguably has a greater claim to being a negative position than negative-atheism does. Why? Because given the wide range of plausible lower-case gods that could exist, such as deistic-type ones, and given both the good arguments that can be made for such gods as well as the utter weakness of most atheistic objections to the existence of such gods, it is arguably easier to show that there are no good grounds for atheism than it is to show that there are no good grounds for theism. Indeed, most arguments for atheism are actually arguments against specific kinds of theism, not arguments for atheism in general. For example, nearly all major atheistic objections to theistic belief, such as the so-called ‘Problem of Evil’ or the so-called ‘Problem of Divine Hiddenness’, lose their force if the deity under consideration is a deistic-type one; and the situation is even worse for atheism if, say, the position he is arguing against is a species of immaterialist-deism.

So, the point here is that negative-theism, when taken broadly, arguably has a greater claim to being a legitimate negative position than negative-atheism does if a negative position requires the idea that there are no good grounds for belief in the position opposing the negative one. And so, this particular objection to negative-theism simply does not work in this case and could, as shown, even back-fire against the idea of negative-atheism.

Objection 3 – The Affinity between Atheism & Agnosticism

A third and arguably more promising objection that the atheist could mount is to claim that there is more of an affinity between atheism and agnosticism than there is between agnosticism and theism; and so, while it makes some sense to have negative-atheism overlap with agnosticism, it makes less sense to have negative-theism overlap with agnosticism. Consequently, while the former overlap is legitimate, the latter one is not. But the problem here is that the apparent affinity between atheism and agnosticism, when looked at from a logical point-of-view rather than a sociological one, is an illusion, for positive-atheism is no closer to pure agnosticism than positive-theism is, and thus there is no greater affinity between positive-atheism and agnosticism than there is between positive-theism and agnosticism. So while we may be socio-culturally accustomed to seeing atheists and agnostics congregating together, on the purely logical level—which is the focus of this argument—agnosticism is no closer to positive-atheism than it is to positive-theism. And given all this, to say that the atheist somehow has more of a logical right to the idea of negative-atheism simply because there is a culturally perceived connection between atheism and agnosticism is entirely unwarranted; the fact is, positive-theism is the opposite position of positive-atheism, and so if the atheist can legitimately divide atheism into a positive and a negative form even though one of those forms, namely, negative-atheism, conflates with agnosticism, than the theist can legitimately do so as well.

Objection 4 – Lacking a Belief in the Non-Existence of Something

Another objection that the atheist might mount against negative-theism is to claim that it is strange and unorthodox to lack a belief in the non-existence of something, and so, for this reason, negative-theism is an illegitimate idea. But while a lack of belief in something’s non-existence may seem strange at first blush, there is, in fact, nothing unusual about it. Consider, for example, a person who positively claims that intelligent alien life simply does not exist anywhere else in the universe; well, another person who might have never thought about the existence or non-existence of intelligent alien life might simply lack a belief in the actual non-existence of such aliens, thereby meaning that such a person lacks a belief in the non-existence of something. And numerous further examples could be provided to show that it is by no means un-natural to lack a belief in the non-existence of a thing. For example, in the same sense that the atheist claims to lack a belief in the existence of God, I presently lack a belief concerning the non-existence of gold on the planet Pluto, and a person could lack a belief concerning the non-existence of deep-sea monsters, and another person could lack a belief concerning the non-existence of Big Foot, and so on and so forth. Thus, there is no real objection to having a lack of belief concerning the positive non-existence of a thing.

Now, knowing that I, for example, lack a belief in the non-existence of gold on the planet Pluto might mean that I positively believe that there is gold on Pluto, but my lack of belief need not entail such a positive belief. Thus, having a lack of belief about the non-existence of a thing is not the same as having a positive belief that the thing in question exists. And so, while the atheist may try to claim that the theist’s attempt to use the term negative-theism is a type of double-negative which thus implies that the theist does indeed have a positive belief in God’s existence, it can immediately be seen that this reasoning is fallacious, for a person can easily be without a belief that there is no God while not having a positive belief that there is a God. For example, note that an agnostic, being a person who neither believes nor disbelieves in the existence of God, is himself a person who could very well lack a belief concerning God’s non-existence, but at the same time not have a positive belief that God does indeed exist. And so agnosticism is itself a position that accommodates a lack of belief in the non-existence of something while at the same time showing that such a lack of belief in the non-existence of something is not merely a positive belief that the thing exists.

And so, what all this shows is that there is nothing illegitimate about having a lack of belief in the non-existence of something, nor is such a lack of belief merely a cover for a positive belief in that thing’s existence. This objection, therefore, fails.

Objection 5 – It is Absurd

This objection to negative-theism is arguably the most potent one, for this objection notes that since both negative-atheism and negative-theism are compatible with agnosticism, then it is theoretically possible for a person to be both a negative-atheist and a negative-theist at the same time, and yet since such a position appears absurd, then there is a problem with the idea of negative-theism. Now such an objection might seem fatal to the idea of negative-theism, but since the theistic position has just as much right and legitimacy as atheism does to divide itself into a positive and a negative form, then the fact is that this is a problem for both negative-theism and negative-atheism; indeed, there is absolutely no reason why it must be the theistic position that drops its negative form rather than the atheistic position, and so there is no clear way to arbitrate which position needs to drop its negative form in order to prevent this absurdity from occurring.

At the same time—and as noted in the quote from Martin at the beginning of this essay— since many atheists are already willing to conflate negative-atheism with agnosticism, thereby causing terminological confusion in this sense, such atheists have thus weakened any objection that they might have to negative-theism’s conflation with either negative-atheism or agnosticism. Indeed, the theist can simply contend that since it was such atheists who opened Pandora’s box to such terminological confusions, then such atheists have little right to make complaints about terminology now. So, if such atheists are willing to accept terminological confusion, terminological overlap, and terminological imprecision as the cost of maintaining negative-atheism as a viable concept, then the negative-theist can simply state that he is willing to do the same in order for negative-theism to remain viable as well. And thus, the force of this objection evaporates, at least in a rhetorical sense.

Now, it should be noted that given the fact that a person could technically be a negative-atheist and a negative-theist at the same time, and given that neither theism nor atheism need to give up their idea of a ‘negative’ position in favor of the opposing side, and also given that this whole situation does indeed seem absurd, then perhaps all this means that the best course of action in this case would be to simply toss both negative-atheism and negative-theism aside and claim that anyone who lacks a belief in either God’s existence or non-existence should simply be labelled as an agnostic or as an ignotheist (the latter label being used for someone who has truly never even contemplated the issue of God’s existence and thus genuinely and literally lacks a belief about that issue). Now such a move would, of course, mean that atheists would need to forego the idea of negative-atheism and they could no longer claim that atheism is a mere lack of belief concerning God’s existence; this would, in turn, also mean that atheists would suddenly have to bear a burden of proof for their atheism. Nevertheless, if atheists were willing to accept these specific consequences as the outcome needed to prevent the aforementioned absurd position from occurring, then such a course of action would be acceptable, thereby meaning that the concept of both negative-atheism and negative-theism should be dropped (and this is the course of action that I would support). However, if atheists would be unwilling to drop the idea of negative-atheism even in light of the aforementioned problem, then, by extension, theists would have no reason to drop their appeal to negative-theism either. And so, in such a situation, theists could still appeal to negative-theism just as readily as atheists could appeal to negative-atheism regardless of the strange position that doing so might place them both in.

Objection 6 – No such thing as Positive-Atheism

Next, it is noted that on purely linguistic grounds, some atheists might claim that there is no such thing as ‘positive-atheism’ given that the prefix ‘a-’ was originally meant to put forth the idea of being ‘without’ something, such as being ‘without a belief in God’. Thus, such critics might argue, based on what atheism should mean given the original structure of the word, atheism can only be understood as a lack of belief in God rather than as a positive belief that no God exists. And so, since atheism cannot be a positive belief in the sense that ‘positive-atheism’ requires, then arguably there cannot be such a thing as ‘negative-theism’ given that negative-theism is essentially ‘a-positive-atheism’.

However, in reply to this objection, it should first be pointed out that, in my experience, and as articulated in the various prominent sources noted earlier, the denier of positive-atheism is in an intellectual minority given that a solid majority of atheists will admit to the legitimacy of the idea of positive-atheism, and so the denial of positive-atheism is a fringe position; consequently, there is no reason why the theist needs to accept this fringe position, for the theist can simply acknowledge that some people reject the idea of positive-atheism, but then ignore those individuals and specifically address his argument to the large majority of atheists and others who do accept the concept of positive-atheism.

Second, this objection commits the so-called ‘root’ fallacy, which is an informal fallacy that notes that it is fallacious to presume that the meaning of a modern word must be bound up to the meaning of its etymological root word (meaning the word, often from another language, from which the word in question developed). Thus, in this case, it is fallacious to assume that just because the ancient Greek meaning of the word ‘atheism’ meant one thing, that that word means the same thing today.

Third, it should be noted that the term ‘positive-atheism’, a term which conveys an actual position that people do indeed hold, can simply be rebranded—as mentioned earlier—into something like ‘niltheism’, which means a positive belief in zero gods or no God. And so, negative-theism can simply be understood as a species of ‘aniltheism’, which might be verbally different from ‘a-positive-atheism’, but which is exactly the same in content and meaning. Consequently, the core idea of negative-theism is left untouched.

Finally, regardless of whether or not someone objects that atheism cannot have a positive position given the original meaning of the term ‘atheism’, this objection does absolutely nothing to dismantle the legitimacy of a position which simply entails a ‘lack of belief concerning God’s non-existence’, which is precisely what negative-theism is.

And so, for multiple reasons, this objections fails, and thus the theist still has claim to a legitimate ‘lack of belief’ position—namely, negative-theism—which allows him to avoid bearing any burden of proof for his view.

Concluding with a trilemma

Ultimately, this essay has argued that if a theist employs the same approach and reasoning as an atheist who endorses the concept of negative-atheism does, then the theist can indeed meaningfully separate theism into what is essentially a negative and a positive form; the theist can then accept ‘negative-theism’ as simply being a lack of belief concerning God’s non-existence, thereby allowing the negative-theist to avoid bearing any burden of proof for his negative-theism given that he makes no positive claims. Furthermore, since none of the main objections that an atheist can mount against this conclusion can be valid without also being objections against the atheist’s own use of the idea of ‘negative-atheism’, then if the atheist does indeed object to this idea of negative-theism, then the atheist removes any justification that he has for his employment of negative-atheism.

Thus, the atheist is caught in a type of trilemma. If the atheist rejects this new theistic concept of negative-theism, and if the atheist is intellectually honest, then, by extension, the atheist should also reject the idea of negative lack-of-belief atheism, for the reasoning used to reach both positions is the same. However, if the atheist rejects the idea of negative-theism but still holds that negative-atheism is a legitimate position, then, arguably, the atheist shows himself to be intellectually insincere through his employment of a clear double-standard. Finally, if the atheist is intellectually honest, and if he accepts the legitimacy of the idea of negative-theism, and if the atheist still wants to maintain that negative-atheism is simply a burden-less lack-of-belief in God’s existence, then, by extension, such an atheist must accept that the negative-theist can claim the very same thing as the negative-atheist can, which means that the negative-theist has no burden of proof either. And so, given the above trilemma, it appears that whatever way the atheist turns, he loses something significant: either he loses his claim to negative-atheism, or he loses his claim to intellectual integrity, or he loses his exclusive access to a burden-less position.

By contrast, the theist, rather than losing something through his embrace of negative-theism, actually gains all the same rhetorical advantages that the atheist has previously had through the latter’s embrace of negative-atheism. And so, in an ironic twist of fate, the atheist’s own division of atheism into a positive and a negative form, combined with the atheist’s push to have atheism primarily recognized as a negative burden-less position, has actually created the conditions where a person can be a type of theist, and can label himself as such, all while bearing no burden of proof for his particular theistic position. And that, without a doubt, is a great rhetorical boon for theism.

In fact, if the theist wished to be rhetorically vicious, he could claim that it is actually atheism which should be viewed as the entirely positive position, and thus that it is theism, not atheism, which should be formally divided into a positive and a negative form. Indeed, the theist could contend that there are good reasons to prefer the concept of negative-theism over negative-atheism, and such a move would, in turn, mean that the burden of proof should fall primarily on the atheist. And if such a reversal could legitimately be done, then this would truly be rhetorically damaging for the atheistic point-of-view. Yet it is precisely the legitimacy of this move that is explored and argued for in my next essay: Turning the Tables on Atheism.

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2 thoughts on “The Argument for Negative-Theism

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