Sunday, June 11, 2017


I have the sense that persons of faith commonly lump atheists into a single class of nonbelievers, as if all of them have a similar attitude toward religion and the existence of God.  That is not the case.  To borrow a phrase from the philosopher William James, just as there are varieties of religious experience, so there are varieties of atheist experience.  And I thought it might be helpful to describe some of the differences among those varieties of nonbelief.
First, let me clarify the distinction, as I see it, between agnosticism and atheism, something I have discussed previously, for example, here and here.  The term agnosticism refers to an absence of knowledge.  An agnostic is one who either does not know if a god exists or asserts that one cannot, as a theoretical epistemological matter, know whether or not a god exists.  Atheism, on the other hand, refers to an absence of belief in a god.  An atheist is one who does not believe that a god exists.  The terms are not mutually exclusive, and one can be both an agnostic and an atheist.  That, in fact, is how I would describe myself.  

There’s a second preliminary point I wanted to make.  Some of my atheist friends argue that atheism is not a belief that God does not exist.  Rather it is simply the absence of a belief that God does exist.  My reaction to that distinction has been, “Huh?”  Perhaps I am missing the point, but I have a hard time identifying any practical distinction between these two positions.  Consider shifting the question of belief from God to something else, say, Santa Claus.  In reply to the question of whether Santa Claus exists, it seems silly to respond, “It’s not that I believe that Santa Claus doesn't exist; rather, I simply don’t have a belief in his existence.”  Again, Huh?

Perhaps those who make such a distinction are really saying that they do not want to be put in the position of arguing for the nonexistence of God, since it can be unreasonable to have to defend a negative fact.  But atheism is a reference to personal belief, not existence or nonexistence as a matter of knowledge or fact.  To me, this is better handled by the distinction between atheism (belief) and agnosticism (knowledge).

Having said all that, those who describe themselves as atheists can differ widely in their belief that God does not exist.  To a large extent it depends on what god one is talking about.  It also depends on the history of a person’s relationship to religious belief.  It might be helpful to address this through a series of questions.

First, what is the nature of the deity that the atheist does not believe in?  Of course, over the years there have been thousands of deities that various cultures have invented, and it is a truism to state that Christians are atheists as to all but one of them.  So here I am generally referring to what Christians denominate as the one true god.  But the nature of this one true god varies greatly among Christians.  Some see him as a personal god who not only created the universe specifically for humanity but who continues to intervene in human affairs, performing miracles as well as venting his wrath in consequence of humans’ sinfulness, and who will ultimately determine the eternal fate of each and every human.  Toward the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that some agency (call it a deity or not) is responsible for the existence of the world and, in consequence, our existence as part of that world, but that such agency has no further interest in the world and certainly does not intervene in human affairs.  And of course, there are all manner of variations between these two extremes.  

It should be clear that these different conceptions of a deity are really different gods that are called by the same name.  And those who consider themselves atheists may have different beliefs regarding those different gods.  An individual may consider herself an atheist as to the existence of an active theistic god but be less certain in her nonbelief with respect to a more detached agency that has no involvement in human affairs.  

Second, what led an individual to abandon belief in God?  For me it was primarily a combination of an upbringing in a fundamentalist faith and exposure to scientific facts that contradicted those fundamentalist beliefs.  After learning some basic facts in geology, astronomy, biology, and paleontology, I found myself embracing the rational analysis that science provided and abandoning the authoritarian approach dictated by my religion.  Others have abandoned their belief in God because of what they consider to be moral abuses occurring in the name of religion or because the rituals and beliefs of Christianity lost their relevance to those individuals' lives.

And, of course, there are individuals who grew up without any significant exposure to religious belief.  Years ago I had a friend who was raised in a secular Jewish community.  When I asked him if he believed in God, he laughed and replied that if he had to bet a nickel, he would bet against God’s existence.  The issue just wasn’t important for him.  For some of my atheist colleagues who did not grow up in a Christian environment, the question of whether or not God exists is simply a nonissue.  They are fully engaged in finding personal meaning in their lives—raising a family, pursuing a career, enjoying friends and hobbies.  The question of God’s existence simply isn’t a factor in their lives.  In my experience those whose atheism is colored by their exposure to religion are inclined to be more strident in their opposition to religion.  Those who grew up in a secular environment are more likely simply to ignore the debate and get on with their lives.

Finally, what has been the progression in the nature of the individual's nonbelief?  I and many of my atheist colleagues grew up in an environment of Christian faith.  That environment included a version of God that we ultimately rejected or discarded.  In that sense, our atheism, at least initially, was a nonbelief in a particular version of God.  “Ah,” many Christians will respond, “we’ve been telling nonbelievers that they are simply rejecting the wrong description of God.  The true God is very different from the primitive version atheists grew up with and rejected.”  That may true of some nonbelievers, and it is certainly true that for those of us who grew up in a religious environment the nature of that initial rejection can continue to color our attitude toward religious thought as well as the parameters of our atheism.  However, most of my atheist colleagues have gone beyond that conception of God and have come to understand the world as one that doesn’t require the presence of any supernatural agency for its existence or operation. 

© 2017 John M. Phillips


  1. Very well written, John. I learned that not all atheists believe alike. Very interesting

  2. John, I like your explanation of the differences in atheism. I find myself more like the group that doesn't give much thought to whether or not there is a God. There are many other things in my life that are much more important.
    Don Parsons