• Nonbelief or Disbelief?


    It’s worth reading this post by Mike Dobbins (a theist apologist) about whether atheists have a mere lack of belief in the existence of God, or a belief in the non-existence of God.

    Atheists stating atheism is nothing more than a ‘lack of belief in God’ are simply using that definition as a cop-out.  They are hiding behind an impotent definition of atheism so they won’t have to confront what they actually believe about God.  Atheists are quite willing to accept they have disbeliefs regarding other supernatural phenomenon and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  It is time they became reconciled to the fact that they they don’t believe in God as well.


    I think this is fair. I’m certainly willing to lay my cards on the table and make the stronger of the two claims – that I disbelieve in God. That is, I believe there is no god (reasonably defined) of any kind.

    I do, however, see a place for the ‘lacking belief in God’ definition when describing atheists as a whole. What is the necessary condition that someone must satisfy in order to correctly be described as an atheist? In my opinion, it should be that they don’t believe in God, not that they disbelieve in God. In practice of course, most atheists probably do hold a belief that there are no gods, but I would still resist the idea that someone can deduce what someone believes solely on account of their being an atheist.

    As far as the charge of “cop-out” goes, I would perhaps agree. It’s one thing to attack your opponents arguments, but it is a much harder task to put forward your own and defend them. I have come across plenty of atheists who claim they only lack belief in God, and some who bizarrely claim to lack any beliefs at all! I suspect the latter is down to them defining “belief” as some proposition held to be true in the absence of evidence, or as a synonym for “faith”, but this just isn’t a reasonable definition.

    Finally, on a related note, just because an atheist believes that God doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that they ought to defend it every time we question or debate a theist. It is fine to demonstrate that theism fails, or that the arguments for theism fail. If successful, we’ll be in a state of ‘lacking belief’. If we then want to take that to the next level and challenge ourselves, let’s let the theist hold our disbelief up to scrutiny just as we’ve done to their belief. There’s nothing of value to be lost by questioning ourselves.


    Category: Atheism

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.
    • These discussions are tiresome. It’s trivially true that I lack belief in a God or gods, since I do not hold a positive belief that a God or gods exist. The only reason theists think this is a cop-out is because it’s taken that anything can have a lack of belief, including, I dunno, rocks and babies. But I always operated on the assumption that we all agreed we were talking about rational adults with the capacity to reason and evaluate evidence.

      In any case, I have a lack of belief; I disbelieve; and, I don’t believe a God or gods exist. I just don’t see how any of those statements are meaningfully distinct.

    • Well I distinguish ‘don’t believe’ and ‘disbelieve’ by saying that the former is a statement about belief about God’s existence and the latter is a statement about God’s existence. The former might be reduced to ~B(G) and the latter B(~G) where B signifies belief and G signifies the existence of God.

      I think theists (perhaps rightly) think that the former can be a cop-out is when an atheist who believes that God doesn’t exist avoids debating that issue because “atheism is a lack of belief”. In my view, whether disbelieving in God can be justified or not is an interesting question, but you rarely see it tackled. I think the “cop-out” is an explanation for this in some instances.

    • BTW I’m only following the quoted author’s use of “disbelieve”. I think the word’s meaning can be confusing – that’s why I usually frame it in terms of “lack belief that X” vs “believe ~X”

    • kraut2

      Really – I just give a shit – no, even less than that, because my shit can tell me about my health – if a god of whatever provenance exists or not. Nobody has anything that even approaches evidence that something like a god of whatever provenance exists. All the logical premises brought forward lack exactly the same – prior evidence.
      The question of god to me is only interesting because of some of the more or less ridiculous arguments brought forward why this or that god should exist.
      Other than that – I rather contemplate the question of the existence of the perfect pizza. I just have to formulate the parameters.

    • There is also an important sense in which “lack of belief” is used, and that is in more stringent philosophical discussions in which the burden of proof is a key element. Whenever we use a more exacting standard of evaluation than casual lay conversation, BOP starts to matter.

      To say “lack belief” is a way of emphasizing that an atheistic position (perhaps a mere side effect of metaphysical naturalism) makes fewer suppositions making it the rightful, but provisional, default position.

    • Adults capable of reason can also lack belief in God because they may have never been exposed to such an idea (e.g. the Piraha people). Such people can not rightly be said to “disbelieve” in God (in the transitive form of the verb).

    • im-skeptical

      I think atheism is not a belief system. Most atheists also have some kind of belief system or metaphysical view, such as materialism. The atheism, in its own right, doesn’t imply any belief, but their metaphysical view defines what they believe. Atheism is not a cop-out, but if you deny any metaphysical view, that may be a cop-out.

    • I concur that’s a useful distinction if someone’s anal about semantics, but I think that the reason it arises in most apologetic arguments is out of a lack of charity – everyone in these discussions are rational adults who have been exposed to a litany of god-concepts. And hey, we can still say we lack belief in God in all its anal semantic glory because there are an infinite number of potential god-concepts we haven’t been introduced to.

    • Agreed. I’d add though that most of these problems stem from the ambiguity of how God is conceptualized.

    • Dictionaries of common usage report both meanings. Macmillan has “someone who believes God does not exist” while Collins has “a person who does not believe in God or gods.” Houghton-Mifflin splits the difference: “One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.”

      I’m fine with either usage, as long as you’re upfront and clear about it. It could well be a cop-out for someone who sincerely believes all gods are fictional to fall back on mere lack of belief when challenged.

    • Gaujo

      Yes, it is nice to focus on that which feels under our own control.

    • Gaujo

      means disbelief in a God or Gods. Disbelief is not lack of belief. Non-belief
      is. See: discomfort, dissatisfaction. These words don’t mean I’m not sure if
      I’m comfortable, they mean “I’m not comfortable”! In fact the
      opposite of belief is disbelief.

      One who disbelieves has made a decision. When I say I don’t believe in ghosts,
      I’m making a judgment on reality, in that, I’m saying ghosts are not real, and
      don’t exist. In the same way, if one says they do not believe in God, they are
      asserting God does not exist.

      I very much appreciate the difference between non-belief and disbelief, and I
      concede that our vocabulary is lacking appropriate terms to express the state
      of non-belief, however, please take under consideration that Theist has made a
      decision, and it follows that Atheist has as well.

    • Gaujo

      Right, and you would be Agnostic, as you’re claiming to have abstained from forming a belief based on a lack of knowledge.

    • De Ha

      That guy was an idiot.

      I have long believed that Neuance Blindness was a mental disease.
      (neuance blineness; the belief that only 2 opinions exist or failure to comprehend complex opinions/issues. Symptoms include accusing anyone who disagrees with the sufferer of being on the “other” side, religious and/or political extremism, worship of world leaders, demonisation of other world leaders, mistrust of “fence sitters” and being an asshole)

      As you and I know, according to Dawkins there’s AT LEAST 7 positions on the gods you can have. more considdering you can add fractions. If you ask Atheists where we are on the Dawkins scale , you’ll get a different number each time.

      But he’s too stupid to comprehend “probably”, “maybe” “dunno” “maybe not” or “probably not”. He thinks there’s only “yes” and “no”.

    • Keagen

      Agnostic athiesm is a way in which you can lack belieifs. This is because you are saying “I lack belive in God, bot I do not disbelieve in God.” This means you stand on no side of the argument, making it to where you lack belief. What you are saying is like saying every one is either Republican or Democrat. That’s stupid. In my mind, it’s like two sets of stairs, with a walk path between both of them. If you are on the walk path, you aren’t on the stairs. Same with the strange idea that you can’t lack belieifs.
      If you aren’t on either side, you don’t have beliefs.

    • Keagen

      Athiesm is non-believe not disbelieve, idiot. Some dictionarys get this wrong. You probably belive in the “beliver, agnostic, athiest” bullsh!t. I’m here to tell you that is wrong. It’s a square. here is how it goes.
      / Agnostic / Gnostic
      Athiest./ Non belief / disbelief
      Theist. / Belief without knowing / Belief with knowing