WLC insists that I am not an Atheist
I do not believe that any gods exist. As such, I usually self-identify as an Atheist. When asked about my beliefs, the word “atheist” offers a simple, one-word answer which is generally understood by those with whom I’m conversing. When I tell someone that I am an atheist, they usually understand it to mean that I do not attend a Church, Synagogue, or Mosque; that I do not cleave to any sacred texts, doctrines, or dogma; and that I do not believe in any gods. Philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig, however, disagrees with me, rather vehemently. According to Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast, this week, the fact that I do not believe in any gods is completely irrelevant. He insists that I should not be calling myself an Atheist.
The reason for Dr. Craig’s assertion is a difference in our definition of terms. Generally, when people like me utilize the word “atheist,” we mean “one who does not believe in the existence of gods.” However, Dr. Craig insists that this definition is a departure from the word’s more traditional usage in philosophy, which was to describe “one who believes gods do not exist.” At first glance, you may not see much of a difference between those two definitions– especially if you are unused to the rigor of philosophical argument. But there is a difference, and while it is subtle, the difference is very important. In Dr. Craig’s mind, a person should not be described as an atheist unless they are directly asserting that God does not exist. However, according to the definition which I prefer, a person doesn’t necessarily claim that gods do not exist– gods may or may not exist, regardless of whether the person in question believes that they exist.
I’m sure that this difference is somewhat confusing, at first, so allow me an analogy to help explain. Let’s say that we have a big, glass jar which is completely filled with sand. You don’t know much about the jar, besides these facts. For example, you don’t have access to precise measurements of the jar’s dimensions, or knowledge of where the sand originated. Now, let’s say that a friend– who has just as little information about the jar as you have– walks up to you and claims that, if you counted all of the grains of sand in that jar, you would come up with an even number. You do not believe your friend. This, of course, does not mean that you believe that there are an odd number of grains in that jar. Despite the fact that there must be either an even number of grains, or else an odd number, your lack of belief in one does not indicate a positive belief in the other.
Belief in gods is similar. A god either exists, or else it does not exist. A person who doesn’t believe that the god exists does not necessarily claim that the god doesn’t exist; just as a person who doesn’t believe there are an even number of grains of sand is not necessarily claiming that there are an odd number of grains of sand.
So, getting back to the definition of the word “atheism,” Dr. Craig would reserve the usage of this word only for those people who are directly claiming that gods do not exist. According to him, people like me are wrong to apply this word with the broader sense that we do. He asserts that we are attempting to “redefine” the word, and that the more “traditional” meaning is the proper one. Unfortunately for Dr. Craig, his concentration on semantics is entirely pedantic.
Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that I agree to abandon my current definition of “atheist” and instead adopt the one proposed by Dr. Craig. Nothing of any real substance has actually changed in my beliefs or arguments; we’ve simply agreed to label them differently. If I have a bottle, and we agree to change the label from saying “Whiskey” to read “Alcohol,” does that have any effect on the contents of the bottle? None, at all! In the same way, regardless of whether I refer to myself as an “atheist” or a “non-theist,” nothing has changed in my actual beliefs, nor in the arguments which I make. The whole debate over the definition of “atheist” simply sidesteps all of the actual claims which are being made by the self-described atheists whom Dr. Craig targets in his podcast.
Why, then, does Dr. Craig so vehemently insist upon the use of his preferred definition over any other? In his own work, he is free to define his terms as he likes. However, when engaging in dialogue with someone who says, “I am an atheist, and this is what I mean by atheist,” what good does it do for Dr. Craig to insist that their definition is incorrect? He has not addressed any of their actual positions. Worse yet, arguing against the claims made by one who actively denies the existence of gods is a straw man when debating someone who hasn’t made any such claims. The entire line of argument, from Dr. Craig, just seems completely irrelevant.
That, of course, begs the question of why I prefer the definition which I utilize. I’m fairly certain that Dr. Craig and I would agree on our definition of a “theist,” a word which I use to mean “one who believes in the existence of a god or gods.” In my argumentation, then, it is useful for me to have a word which represents the logical negation of that position– that is, a word which describes someone who is not a theist. Since the word “theist” comes to us from Greek, and since Greek has a natural method of ascribing negation by use of the prefix “a-,” I therefore utilize the word “atheist” for that purpose. So, just as I would describe something which does not adhere to any certain “morphology” as “amorphous,” and just as I would describe something which disagrees with “chronology” to be “anachronistic,” so would I also describe someone who is not a “theist” as an “atheist.”
The most ridiculous part of Dr. Craig’s podcast comes near the end. Here, Dr. Craig goes on a tirade about how “atheism” becomes over-broad when using the definition which I prefer. He calls it a “clumsy, ham-fisted term” and complains that such a definition could be applied to atheists (as he defines them), agnostics, non-cognitivists, babies, chimps, and even doors, because all of these things lack a belief in gods. Of course, Dr. Craig neglects to realize that the term which he, himself, uses to refer to anyone that is not a theist, “non-theist,” also suffers from this same sort of broadness. He also fails to mention that the term “theist” is, itself, very broadly defined, and encapsulates such disparate positions as monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism. Furthermore, even if the definition which I utilize can be applied to all of these other things, Dr. Craig’s only stated reason for opposing such broadness is that he prefers the traditional definitions– a fairly circuitous argument, if ever there was one.
William Lane Craig insists that I am not an atheist, but rather a non-theist. I don’t care. If he would prefer to describe me as a non-theist, he is free to do so. That does not change the fact that I do not believe his claims that a god exists, neither does it address any of the reasons why I do not believe his claims.