Turning the Tables on Atheism

The book form of this essay and the last one is located here.

As most people who follow the atheism versus theism debate know, Western atheists, over the past decade or so, have made a strong and concerted effort to have atheism come to be primarily understood, in the popular culture at least, as a mere lack of belief concerning the existence of God or gods (hereafter just referred to as God unless otherwise noted). And this modern view of atheism as just an absence of belief in God, often called weak or negative-atheism, is in contrast to the more traditionally accepted understanding of atheism, now called strong or positive-atheism, which is an affirmative position that positively denies the existence of any deities.

Now, as part of the push to have atheism accepted as a mere lack of belief, and in addition to the categories of negative-atheist and positive-atheist, atheists have also created a number of other categories in which to place the different types of “atheisms” that are claimed to exist. But one thing that has been consistent about the atheist’s division of atheism into different categories along the spectrum of theistic belief is that atheists have tried to ensure that the category of ‘theism’ is always a category that is seen as making a positive affirmation that God exists. This, in turn, means that theism is almost always seen as the main category needing to shoulder the initial burden of proof in the debate between atheism and theism, whereas all the other categories, including all the ones which avoid the initial burden of proof, are thus considered “atheistic” in some sense or other. And this, of course, happens to allow the atheist to avoid any initial burden of proof for his atheistic point-of-view while at the same time allowing him to continue labelling himself an atheist.

In essence, by making atheism into a broad tent that encompasses all views except for theism, the atheist thus makes it possible to claim that, in any debate between atheism and theism, some type of atheism is both the default and the burden-less position to hold until and unless the theist can provide evidence for his point-of-view. And so, because of the definitional broadness of atheism, a person can label himself an atheist, and then claim that his “atheism” is the rational default position to hold, even though he has done no work to establish the rationality of his position.

Now, as was briefly mentioned in my earlier essay, “The Argument for Negative-Theism”, I do not, in fact, consider the idea of negative lack-of-belief atheism to be a legitimate concept (although please note that the full argument for this assertion will be included in a different work). Nevertheless, in that essay, I proceeded, for the sake of argument, to act as if negative-atheism was a legitimate position. And I also noted the conditional statement that 1) if atheists were willing to accept the idea of negative lack-of-belief atheism as legitimate, which many atheists have done, and 2) if atheists could push to have the primary definition and cultural understanding of atheism shifted to a mere lack of belief position, which they have also done, then the theist, using the exact same reasoning and motivation as the atheist, could do exactly the same thing just in reverse, thereby creating a position called negative-theism which allows the theist to avoid bearing any burden of proof for his position. And so negative-theism, which is essentially a type of lack-of-belief about positive-atheism, becomes a theistic position which is a mere lack of belief and which has no burden of proof either. Thus, the negative-atheist and the negative-theist end up on an equal footing, at least rhetorically-speaking.

But now, in this specific essay, I wish to expand on the idea of negative-theism. In particular, I wish to argue two points. First, I will seek to show that if the theist wished to do so, he could—once again, using the same reasoning as modern atheists—actually reframe the entire atheism versus theism debate so that atheism was the primary initial burden-bearing point-of-view while most forms of theism were protected from any need to support themselves argumentatively; indeed, I will strive to show that all the main categories that atheists have created in order to categorize themselves can be modified by the theist in a certain way in order to place them on the side of the theist rather than on the side of the atheist. And second, I will provide reasons for why it makes sense for the burden-less and default position to be on the side of the theist, not the atheist.

Now, the reason for doing all of this is to demonstrate the fact that if the atheist is willing to engage in rhetorical manoeuvers in order to avoid the burden of proof for his position, then the theist, using the exact same reasoning as the atheist, is able to engage in the same type of rhetorical manoeuvres which can completely turn the tables on the atheist and negate his advantage of having a largely burden-less point-of-view. At the same time, if an atheist is not merely engaging in a rhetorical manoeuver though his embrace of negative and burden-less atheism, but the atheist genuinely thinks that atheism is best understood as a lack-of-belief position, then this essay will show such an atheist that through some mere linguistic changes, the theist can reverse the situation on the atheist and can thus make atheism the primary burden-bearing position. Either way, this essay will demonstrate that the theist can employ the same linguistic maneuvers that the atheist does in order to completely reverse the way in which the debate between atheism and theism is generally understood. And this is why this topic is of significant importance, for in exposing atheism’s rhetorical advantage as being little more than a linguistic sleight-of-hand that the theist could himself employ to turn the tables on atheism, then this argument could, potentially, serve to at least neutralize atheism’s rhetorical advantage over theism and it could even cause a shift in the rhetorical balance away from atheism and towards theism.

The Many Faces of Atheism & Theism

As stated earlier, alongside the push to have atheism recognized as a lack-of-belief position has come the division of atheism into two primary categories: negative-atheism, which is claimed to be a mere lack-of-belief in the existence of God, and positive-atheism, which is the affirmative denial of the existence of God. But negative-atheism, by its very nature, is a wide position which is understood by many atheists, such as Michael Martin, to include numerous other forms of non-theism, including agnosticism. For example, Martin, in his “General Introduction” to the 2006 edition of The 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 we have positive-atheism and negative-atheism. Now, alongside these two views, atheists also divide themselves into numerous other categories. For example, broad-atheism deals with an atheism that concerns the existence of all possible gods whereas narrow-atheism is only concerned about the existence of the traditional monotheistic God. Thus, a person could technically be a narrow-positive-atheist and a broad-negative-atheist simultaneously, meaning that such an atheist would thus positively affirm that the God of the traditional monotheistic religions does not exist, while at the same time merely lacking a belief about the existence of all other types of lower-case gods. In addition to these two categories about the scope of atheism, atheists also sometimes use the terms ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ to describe themselves; and though these two terms roughly mirror positive-atheism and negative-atheism respectively, an explicit-atheist could be either a positive-atheist or a negative one in that he could positively and explicitly assert that no God exists or merely reject the belief that any God exists, but do so in an explicit manner. Thus, the explicit-atheist, whether a positive-atheist or a negative one, has consciously and adequately contemplated the God question and explicitly rejects belief in God in some way. The implicit-atheist, by contrast, is claimed to be a person who does not believe that any God exists, and/or does not know that any God exists, and/or has not thought about the question enough, but this person has also not explicitly rejected belief in any God. Thus, so-called implicit-atheists could allegedly include babies, infants, and anyone who has not given any conscious reflection to the God question. Finally, there are other positions to consider, such as practical-atheism—where a person simply lives as if there is no God but his actual intellectual position on the God question may be one of agnosticism or something else—but for our purposes, and in terms of defining the critical aspects of the different types of possible atheism that a person may hold, the above divisions are sufficient.

And yet, with all these different divisions of atheism, is there perhaps one primary way in which all atheists can be defined that captures the essence of atheism? Arguably, there is. Austin Cline, an ‘Agnosticism & Atheism Expert’ at the popular website ‘atheism.about.com’, in his online article “Atheist vs. Agnostic – What’s the Difference?”, which was updated on the 19th of September 2015 and which was accessed on the 26th of July 2016, says the following:

[Quote] The most precise definition [of an atheist] may be: an atheist is anyone who does not affirm the proposition “at least one god exists.” Although [this definition] may seem convoluted, it has a number of important elements: there is a proposition, it’s not a proposition made by atheists, and being an atheist requires nothing active or even conscious on the part of the atheist — all that’s required is not “affirming” a proposition made by others.  [Unquote, http://atheism.about.com/od/aboutagnosticism/a/Atheist-vs-Agnostic-Difference.htm%5D

Note how Cline’s definition of atheism could encompass the implicit-atheist, the explicit-negative-atheist, and even an explicit-positive-atheist; it could also include both broad and narrow-atheism. And so this definition is a solid way of getting to the root of what atheism is understood to be by modern atheists like Cline.

Now some might immediately object that this definition of atheism seems to be little more than a definition of agnosticism, and thus that the two positions essentially appear identical. But Cline, in the same online article, has an answer to this objection, which is that atheism deals specifically with a person’s belief whereas agnosticism deals with knowledge claims, and therefore atheism and agnosticism fall into different domains; under this division, the atheist allegedly claims to lack a belief in God’s existence whereas the agnostic claims not to know whether God exists or not. Thus, atheism and agnosticism deal with two different things. Now, although the legitimacy of this alleged division between atheism and agnosticism is questionable and is actually argued against in another one of my works, that point is presently irrelevant, for, again, the argument in this essay is a conditional one; and so, at present, all that matters is that atheists, like Cline, take this division between atheism and agnosticism to be sound and thus they define atheism, at its core, as Cline did above. And so, for the sake of argument, we can thus employ Cline’s definition of atheism on the conditional basis that if atheists employ it, then we can employ it as well.

But now comes the interesting point. As I showed in my essay “The Argument for Negative-Theism”, some atheists, such as the mainstream atheistic group American Atheists, have vociferously argued that they will define themselves and that no one will define atheism for them. Specifically, in their online article “What is atheism?”, located at ‘atheists.org’ and accessed on the 3rd of December 2015, they stated the following:

[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 take-away point from this quotation is the power with which the writers at American Atheists argue that they should have the right to define themselves without theistic interference. And yet if atheists will not allow anyone to define them, why should theists allow anyone to do so? After all, by defining atheism in the way that atheists have done, atheists have essentially pushed theism into the primary burden-bearing area along the atheism-to-theism spectrum, thereby implicitly defining theism in a manner that is most advantageous to atheists. But theists will define themselves, thank you very much! Indeed, just like the atheists at American Atheists, the theist can be just as indignant about the fact that present-day atheists have tried to frame the modern debate between atheism and theism in atheism’s favor as well as about the fact that atheists have tried to implicitly define theism in a way that some theists reject. And so, by using the atheist’s own standard against him, theists can just as readily assert that they simply will not stand for this atheistic oppression of their theistic point-of-view.

Thus, in light of this desire by theists to free themselves from atheism’s oppressive and stifling definition of what theism is, and on the more serious note of simply wishing to potentially use the atheist’s own reasoning and motivations against him, a serious question can be asked: Could the theist mirror Austin Cline’s definition of atheism and yet change it so that it favors theism? Indeed, he could. And so now note what occurs if the theist, mirroring Cline, suddenly defined himself as follows: the theist is anyone who does not affirm the proposition ‘there are no gods’ or ‘no God or gods exist’; in other words, the theist is anyone who does not affirm the proposition ‘not even one god exists’. Essentially, the theist is anyone who does not affirm what modern atheists would call positive-atheism. And so, once again mirroring Cline’s quote from above, we could say that although such a definition may seem convoluted, it has a number of important elements: there is a proposition—namely, that ‘no God or gods exist’—it’s not a proposition made by theists, and being a theist thus requires nothing active or even conscious on the part of the theist—all that’s required is not ‘affirming’ a proposition made by others.

Suddenly, the whole dynamic between atheism and theism has shifted. It is the theist who now affirms nothing. The theist has no burden of proof as, on this definition of theism, the theist makes no position claims. Furthermore, all the different positions normally used to categorize atheists can simply be reversed in the direction of theism. For example, we can now speak of explicit-positive-theists, who are individuals who positively deny the claim ‘no God or gods exist’ and thus they contend that this claim is a false statement, which, in the conventional sense, means that they believe that at least one god exists. Or, alternatively, we can have explicit-negative-theists, who do not positively deny the claim ‘no God or gods exist’, but they do reject that particular proposition without outright claiming that it is a false statement. Implicit-negative-theists do not believe that there is no God or gods, but they have not explicitly rejected such a belief. As such, implicit-negative-theism could be used to describe children, infants, and other individuals who have not thought about the question of the existence of God. Additionally, the broad-negative-theist might lack a belief in the claim that ‘no God or gods exist’, whereas the narrow-negative-theist only lacks a belief in the claim that ‘no monotheistic God exists’; thus, a person could be an broad-negative-theist in that he lacks a belief about the non-existence of other gods while at the same time being an explicit-positive-narrow-theist in that he positively asserts that the claim ‘no monotheistic God exists’ is false (or, in the conventional, he believes that a monotheistic God exists). Finally, one might also be a practical-theist, who is a person who lives as if a God exists, but whose actual views on the subject are unknown or uncertain. And atheism, on this view, is pushed into the same burden-bearing non-default position that atheists have currently pushed theism into; thus, on this view, it is atheism which must provide sufficient evidence for its view that ‘no God or gods exist’ before that view is even rational to consider.

And so, from all this we can see that by merely shifting a definition, and by just changing the focus of the discussion from the positive proposition that ‘a God or gods exist’ to the opposing but still affirmative proposition that ‘no God or gods exist’, the tables are turned on atheism, for it is now the theist who can just as readily and legitimately claim that theism, when defined in a way that the theist approves of, is the proper default position that bears no burden of proof.

But perhaps such a conclusion is too hasty, for there are still a few objections that the atheist could raise to this matter which need to be addressed.

Dealing with Objections

Now, it should immediately be noted that a solid number of objections that could apply to this essay have already been addressed in my previous essay “The Argument for Negative-Theism”, and so the reader should refer to that essay’s answer to any objection which he might not find here. However, at the same time, there are additional objections which are specific to this essay, and which thus need to be addressed.


Objection 1 – The Illegitimacy of Modifying Words

In answer to the idea that a person can simply modify the primary understanding of theism in a manner that is advantageous to the theist, the atheist could object that it is disingenuous to make this change given that the theist cannot merely modify the social understanding of words to suit his fancy. But, of course, it is the atheist himself who has set the precedent for doing this, for it has been the atheist who has tried to modify and change the common and primary cultural and social understanding of what atheism meant into something which was more suitable and palatable for the atheist. Indeed, the very quote from the American Atheists noted earlier shows how atheists were dissatisfied with the previous cultural understanding of what atheism meant and so they strove to change that cultural understanding into a form which was more pleasing to them. And so, the theist is merely following the atheist’s lead in the present case.

Now it is granted that the atheist might claim that he fought to change the cultural understanding and definition of atheism in order to bring that definition more in line with what atheism is actually supposed to mean, and here the atheist might have a point—a point which will be addressed in a subsequent objection. But it is still a point that loses much of its force when it is understood that the meaning of words within a culture or social group can change over time merely by how the cultural or social group decides to understand the particular word. And the word ‘atheism’, as stated, is a perfect example of this truth. But this fact means that while the modified definition of theism offered in this essay may not be the presently accepted way of understanding what theism is, it could become so, in the same way that atheism’s primary meaning in Western culture has shifted with time. And so, the objection that the theist cannot legitimately shift the understanding of what theism means is false given that, if such a change is culturally and socially accepted and absorbed with time, then such a change to the meaning of theism would indeed be quite legitimate.

It is also important to note that what is being offered in this essay is not a massive redefinition or modification of the understanding of what theism is, but rather, what this essay does is simply ask us to look at theism from the opposite perspective that it is normally looked at. Thus, in this essay, rather than understand theism to be the belief that the proposition ‘at least one God exists’ is explicitly true, we invert the definition so that it is viewed as a lack of affirmation of the proposition that ‘no God or gods exist’. Now, without a doubt, this is a different position, but the point is that this difference is not radical in nature; it is a difference which stays in the broad lane of what ‘theism’ entails. So again, the point here is to note that this modified way of looking at theism is not so radical as to require a complete relearning of the concept, and thus it should not be construed as some completely novel and untethered change to the idea of what theism is.

Finally, in terms of the atheist’s objection that the theist cannot merely define theism in any way that he likes, it is worth reinforcing the point that it is actually certain atheists—as noted in the American Atheists’ article quoted earlier—who are adamant that no one, and especially not their theistic opponents, will tell them how atheism is defined. And so, in support of this free and spirited linguistic independence, the theist can simply offer the same reasoning to support his quasi-redefinition of theism, for no atheist will tell the theist how theism should be defined.

Objection 2 – Focusing on the Root of the Word

Now, concerning the change to the definition of theism, and even with the earlier answers to Objection 1 being noted, an atheist might still argue that, objectively-speaking, the original root meaning of the term ‘theist’ means positively affirming the existence of at least one god. By contrast, the root meaning of the prefix ‘a-’ means being ‘without’ something, and so atheism means being without the affirmation or belief that at least one god exists. And so, the atheist could try to claim that merely based on what these words mean at their root, it would be incorrect to understand theism in the new way that is being offered in this essay. But as with the first essay, this is just an instance of the informal ‘root word’ fallacy in action. Indeed, for again, it must be noted that the original meaning of a word, while important for historical purposes, does not necessarily or logically dictate what the word presently means or how it is understood in modern culture. Thus, if we wish to redefine theism in the manner offered in this essay, then it is perfectly legitimate to do so, even if doing so creates some tension with the original meaning of the word.

Objection 3 – The Wrong Definition

Finally, an atheist might simply claim that the core definition of atheism offered earlier by Austin Cline is wrong, and since the redefinition of theism mirrors that particular definition of atheism, then the redefinition of theism is invalid for this reason. In response to this, it can be noted that so long as a person accepts Cline’s division between atheism and agnosticism—and many atheists do—then there does not seem to be anything critically wrong with Cline’s definition of atheism. But even if there was, the redefinition of theism offered in this essay remains unharmed, for the ultimate point of this essay was not that only Cline’s definition of atheism allows the theist to invert this definition to suit his ends, but rather, the point was that regardless of what the precise definition of atheism was, so long as the definition in some way defined atheism as a lack of belief, then the theist could always invert such a definition so that it was theism which was understood as the main lack of belief position, not atheism. So again, the point here is that the specific definition of atheism is not what is critical; rather, what is critical is the understanding that, conditionally, if atheism is defined negatively in some way, and if atheism can be divided into all these different categories, then the exact same thing can be done for theism in a sort of mirror image of what the atheist has done. And it is this which allows for a position of negative-theism to be created.


Preferring Negative-Theism to Negative-Atheism

At this point, it should be clear that the category divisions that atheists have created for themselves can be exactly matched by the theist. However, the theist can also claim that the atheist’s idea that people who lack a belief in God should be subsumed under the broad category of atheism—whether as a negative-atheist, or as an implicit-atheist, or whatnot—is mistaken, for the theist can actually make a good case that such individuals are better categorized as theists instead of atheists, albeit as negative-theists specifically. And it is this point which will be discussed in this section. In particular, I wish to provide a number of reasons why people who lack a belief in God are better categorized as negative-theists rather than negative-atheists. Now, at this point, let me immediately grant that these reasons are not utterly compelling, nor will I argue for them in extreme amounts of detail. Rather, I simply wish to point out that a good case can be made to label people who lack a belief in God as negative-theists rather than as negative-atheists, and so, conditionally, if we are to refer to people who lack a belief in God as either negative-atheists or negative-theists, then, given the reasons under consideration, we should prefer leaning in the theistic direction rather than slouching towards atheism.

Reason 1 – Implicit Theism is Natural

In the lexicon of the different categories of atheism, and as mentioned earlier, the term implicit-negative-atheist refers to a person who does not believe in a God but who has not explicitly or consciously rejected such a belief. This category includes such people as children and even some agnostics. Now, if we are going to use such a term and create such a category, then I contend that it would be much more rational to place such people in a broad theistic category rather than in an atheistic one. And to understand why, I offer the writings of psychologist Justin Barrett, who, in such works as Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief and Why Would Anyone Believe in God? forcefully argues that children enter the world with a powerful and preinstalled propensity for religious and supernatural-types beliefs, including belief in deities, all of which are based on a child’s cognitive make-up. Thus, children, and by extension human beings in general, are, in some way, naturally wired to lean towards belief in deities and supernatural entities as they develop. But in light of this claim—a claim which Barrett obviously backs up with evidence—it would then appear that it would be more natural to call people who lack a belief in God due to ignorance or age, such as children, as implicit-theists, not implicit-atheists, for the research seems to suggest that that is exactly what such people are. Thus, if our labels of different people are meant to reflect empirical reality to the greatest extent possible, and if we admit the legitimacy of the terms implicit-atheist or implicit-theist, then, in light of research such as Barrett’s, it seems that the term implicit-theist is actually a more accurate reflection of what people are. And so, this is one reason, in this case, to prefer the label of implicit-theist over the term implicit-atheist.

Note as well that Barrett’s research is supported by the obvious historical fact that mankind has been and is a religious animal, and that this has been the case for nearly all of recorded history. So again, this point is simply meant to reinforce the fact that if we are to refer to people who have never contemplated the question of God’s existence as either implicit-theists or implicit-atheists (rather than as so-called ignotheists or as ignorant-agnostics), then it seems quite clear that humans, in general, are indeed substantially and naturally more inclined towards theism than towards atheism, and so the label of implicit-theist is arguably a more accurate descriptor of human beings than is the label of implicit-atheist.

Reason 2 – Priming God Concepts Increases Pro-Social Behaviour

The second reason to support the idea that every person who is not an explicit agnostic or who is not an explicit positive-atheist should be labelled as some type of theist rather than as some type of atheist stems from the fact that research suggests that linguistically priming people with God concepts increases their pro-social behaviour. Indeed, in their 2007 research article “God Is Watching You: Priming God Concepts Increases Prosocial Behaviour in an Anonymous Economic Game”, scientists Azim F. Shariff and Ara Norenzayan determined the following:

[Quote] God concepts [meaning the use of words like spirit, divine, God, sacred, and prophet], [when] activated implicitly, increased prosocial behavior even when the behavior was anonymous and directed toward strangers. God concepts had as much effect in reducing selfishness as did concepts that activated a secular social contract, and the effect size was quite large. The results regarding how much God concepts affected atheists were, however, inconclusive. The first study demonstrated a clear effect for atheists, but this effect all but disappeared in the second study. Although further investigation is needed, we speculate that the inconsistency may have been due to our stricter definition of atheism in the second study. It is conceivable that avowed atheists, unlike other nonreligious people, doubt the existence of supernatural agents even at the implicit level. [Unquote, http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~ara/Manuscripts/Shariff_Norenzayan.pdf%5D

Now, as is the case with most such studies, this study should be accepted tentatively and with a decent amount of skepticism. But the point here is that priming people with God concepts—apart from avowed atheists, allegedly—seems to make individuals more prosocial, even towards strangers. As such, and assuming that increasing prosocial behaviour among various people is a social good, especially in large societies—an assumption which I contend is quite reasonable—then a case can be made that it would be socially beneficial to maximize the amount of ‘God-priming’ that occurs in a society. And such a task would be best accomplished by making the theistic camp in a society as large as possible, as opposed to doing so with the atheistic camp. Indeed, labelling someone who lacked a belief in God’s non-existence as a weak or negative-theist, or even labelling such a person as something more explicit like ‘God-sympathetic’ or a ‘God-seeker’, rather than labeling them as an atheist or as an agnostic, could unconsciously prime that person, via the God concepts used, to be more prosocial. And if such a person literally thought of himself as a negative-theist or as ‘God-sympathetic’ rather than as a negative-atheist, then such pro-theistic self-labelling could internally prime the person to be more prosocial, thereby potentially increasing his prosocial behaviour without external influence. Furthermore, since avowed atheists, based on this study, may or may not gain in their prosocial behaviour by being primed, then there would be no loss in avowed atheists still calling themselves atheists, even while everyone else could be labelled as some type of theist.

Now, in the interest of fairness, it should be noted that further study would need to be done to see if the word ‘atheist’ itself acted as a God-primer given its use of the root word ‘theist’, for if the word atheist did indeed act as a primer, then there might be no significant difference between labeling one’s self as a negative-atheist or a negative-theist—or something similar—from a priming perspective. But even with this caveat in place, we can note that, based on this research, we have at least one more tentative reason to prefer using theist-friendly terminology over atheistic terminology in order to describe the widest group of people as possible.

Reason 3 – The Mass of Theists Compared to Atheists

The third reason to make a shift from the idea of negative-atheism to negative-theism is a speculative one, but it is one that is worth noting nonetheless. In essence, given that, as argued earlier, words change in their meaning and use based on the way in which a society decides to use those words, and given the mass of theists that exist globally in comparison to atheists, then it is possible to speculate that were these terms clearly and properly explained to the theistic population at large, then there would be a desire to shift in the direction of negative-theism over negative-atheism, which, in turn, would itself provide a good reason for the culture to shift in favor of using negative-theism over negative-atheism. Now, as mentioned, this line of reasoning is rather speculative, and it is also culturally and societally dependent in the sense that a social sub-set of the global population which was predominantly atheistic in outlook might not share this preference for negative-theism over negative-atheism. However, the overall point still stands: namely, that it is not unreasonable to suspect that were the ideas of negative-atheism and negative-theism put to a sort of cultural vote, that there would be a strong preference, in many societies, for promoting the idea of negative-theism over negative-atheism; and since the way words are defined and understood is largely bound up in a culture’s employment of those words, then many cultures and social groups, given their preference for negative-theism over negative-atheism, would thus indeed shift their understanding so that atheism would come to be seen as the main burden-bearing positive position while something like negative-theism would be looked upon as the default position that most agnostic-like people would label themselves with.

Reason 4 – Sympathy for Theism

This fourth point is not so much an argument for labeling people as negative-theists instead of as negative-atheists, but rather this point strives to demonstrate that even if an atheist does not agree with placing most people under the theistic umbrella, that same atheist would nevertheless be hard-pressed to deny any person the right to place himself under the label of negative-theism if a person wished to do so. But why is this so? Well, consider the case of a person who both lacks a belief concerning the non-existence of God and lacks a belief concerning the existence of God. Such a person, under the present understanding of atheism, would be categorized as some type of atheist, such as a negative-atheist. But now suppose that such a person had strong theistic sympathies, and while such a person might not, as of yet, believe in God, that person wants to do so. Furthermore, this person would rather refer to himself as a negative-theist than as a negative-atheist. In such a case, who is the atheist to tell such a person that he is wrong in labelling himself as a negative-theist rather than not.

And again, this point is especially poignant when it is realized that 1) the idea of negative-theism is as legitimate as negative-atheism is, and 2) it is normally the atheist who tells others that he will define himself as he sees fit, thus meaning that a non-atheist is completely within his rights to tell the atheist exactly the same thing. Thus, from the fact that a person with theistic-sympathies could both desire to be labeled as a negative-theist rather than as a negative-atheist and would also be able to claim legitimacy in doing so, and since the negative-theist is employing the same reasoning as the negative-atheist is, then even if an atheist rejected the claim that negative-theism should be preferred to the label of negative-atheism, it would be rather hypocritical if an atheist were to argue that a God-sympathetic person could not label himself as a negative-theist even if the person wanted to do so. Thus, even if it is argued that negative-theism should not be positively preferred over negative-atheism, this point shows that negative-atheism should not be preferred over negative-theism either, and thus both the idea of negative-atheism and negative-theism are, at the very least, in a sort of rhetorically neutral stalemate.

And so, once again, the key point here is to show that alongside the theist’s legitimate claim that he, by mirroring the atheist, can indeed define theism in a burden-less and lack-of-belief manner, there also exist actual reasons that the theist can muster to show that perceiving theism as the broad tent which includes those people who lack-a-belief about God is arguably a more rational idea than having those people fall under the umbrella of atheism.


This essay has sought to show that the theist, in a move that parallels the modern atheist, can readily employ linguistic techniques in order to turn the tables on atheism and thereby transform atheism into the primary burden-bearing position, while at the same time causing certain species of theism, such as so-called negative-theism, to become the burden-less and default positions that people could label themselves with until and unless the atheist provides evidence for his atheism. Now, while atheists might object to such a move, the fact is that this manoeuvre is not only legitimate given the atheist’s own use of the concept of negative-atheism, but there are actually good reasons which the theist can provide to show that this move should be done. And even though the advantages that the theist gains from this whole ‘negative-theism’ endeavor are mostly rhetorical in nature given that the positive claim that God exists would still need to be argued for, it is nevertheless the case that even just this particular rhetorical gain would be a significant shift in the cultural debate between atheism and theism. And such a victory is no small thing.


4 thoughts on “Turning the Tables on Atheism

  1. I will never understand the amount of time and effort which is spent discussing this single word.

    Whether or not you call me an “atheist,” whether or not you agree with the manner in which I define that word, is entirely irrelevant. It does not actually address any of the positions which I hold, nor does it explicate upon the positions to which you hold.

    Insofar as burden of proof is concerned, that is always dependent on the context of any discussion. It is not the case that theists always have a burden of proof, nor is it the case that atheists (or non-theists or whatever term you use to refer to a person who does not believe deity exists) always have a burden of proof.

    If you say, “I believe God exists,” and I reply, “I do not believe that,” then neither of us yet has a burden of proof. If, however, you say, “I believe God exists and so should you,” then you take up that burden. Similarly, if I say, “I do not believe God exists and neither should you,” then I shoulder a burden of proof.

    I honestly have no interest in evangelizing. If you believe God exists, that’s perfectly well and good. I have no interest in trying to convince you otherwise. If you have no interest in trying to convince me that God exists, then I will happily agree that you have no burden of proof. If, on the other hand, you would like me to believe that God exists, then the onus is upon you to support that claim.


    1. Hey Boxing,

      The reason for the focus on this word, for me, is two-fold. First, whether we want it to be the case or not, words have a rhetorical effect–especially in a debate–and so atheists gain a rhetorical advantage from the use of this word when it is used as a replacement for agnosticism, and that is an advantage that I wish to negate. Second, I have a personal interest in this topic, and so I like to write about it, regardless of what anyone else thinks.

      Finally, concerning evangelism, I too am ultimately not seeking to do so, or at least not directly. I just write what I write. If it convinces people, then great. If not, no worries either. I am beyond caring about what other people think.


      Damian Michael


      1. I’m not sure that I understand. What “rhetorical advantage” do you believe is gained by the use of one particular label as opposed to any other? Whether I call myself an “atheist” or a “non-theist” or an “agnostic” or a “grumpeldorter,” the particular word chosen is entirely immaterial as regards the positions and beliefs to which I hold.


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