Answer by Jim Ashby:
Atheism is disbelief that gods exist. This negation of the existence of gods could be rephrased as an affirmation of the nonexistence of gods , "Atheism is the belief that gods don't exist." Belief . . . disbelief . . . it's the same either way.
Take a look at this graphic:
Each of these four quadrants (Agnostic Atheist, Gnostic Atheist, Agnostic Theist, Gnostic Theist) represents an approach to God. All four approaches assert two specific claims: the first is a subjectivebelief claim; the second is an objective knowledge claim. The left (agnostic) half makes no false claim of objective knowledge: the right (gnostic) half, on the other hand, does makes false claims of objective knowledge. Where claims of objective knowledge are concerned, the left half is honest; the right half is dishonest. Both theists and atheists can, potentially, make either honest or dishonest claims to objective knowledge.
Although the graphic doesn’t mention the subjective versus objective, I am emphasizing them here because, when people mix and match the subjective and the objective in their thinking, confusion invariably ensues. To avoid confusion, it helps to be mindful of the distinction between the subjective and the objective in one’s assumptions, ideas, concepts and word selection. So, to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s define, from Dictionary.com, how I’m using the words, ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’.
existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought (opposed to objective ).
not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.
With the groundwork established, we can now do away with some common mistakes that confuse or conflate the subjective with the objective or vice versa.
Knowledge is a form or subset of belief:
Words have multiple meanings. To avoid confusion, it helps to be precise and consistent with word selection. Yes, I believe what I know to be true. But the words, ‘believe’ and ‘belief’, are not synonymous: they’re related but not the same. Knowledge and belief are distinct from each other because knowledge is objective but belief is subjective. If I had objective support for a belief, it would no longer be a belief; it would be knowledge. In one limited sense, knowledge can be considered a form or subset of belief. We believe what we know but that doesn’t mean the words, ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’, are interchangeable.
Believers can’t back up their beliefs with evidence:
This notion is confused because it’s conflating the subjective (beliefs) with the objective (evidence). Subjective belief claims don’t need to be backed up with objective evidence. If you could do that, they wouldn’t be subjective beliefs now, would they? Disbelievers can’t back up their subjective disbeliefs with objective evidence either! Belief . . . disbelief . . . both are subjective. But evidence is objective. Once again, conflating the subjective with the objective invariably leads to confusion.
Subjective belief claims and objective knowledge claims necessarily have different means of support: subjective reason or objective reason, respectively. Subjective reasons would be things like logical arguments, statistics, expert opinions, etc. Objective reasons would be evidence, proof, unassailable logic, etc. But belief claims don’t have to have support at all. People can believe anything they want for personal or emotional reasons . . . or no reason at all. However, valid reasons are nice to have.
Atheism is a religion:
Religion is a system of beliefs. Atheism isn’t a system of anything. It’s just the disbelief in the existence of gods; the belief that gods don’t exist.
Many atheists balk at the notion that atheism is the belief that gods don’t exist. They insist atheism should only be defined in the negative (disbelief) rather than the positive (belief). But, to me, that’s ridiculous. Belief is the subjectiveaffirmation of something: an opinion or conviction. Disbelief is the subjective negation of belief in something: like belief, it’s also an opinion or conviction. When I say ‘atheism is the disbelief in the existence of gods’, I am subjectively negating belief in the existence of gods. When I say ‘atheism is the belief that gods don’t exist’, I am subjectively affirming that gods don’t exist. In other words, I can negate a positive or I can affirm a negative. They accomplish the exact same thing. It’s easy enough to illustrate this fact:
If I say, ‘Atheism is disbelief in the existence of gods’, how many gods am I claiming?
That’s right . . . zero.
If I say, ‘Atheism is belief that gods don’t exist’, how many gods am I claiming?
That’s right . . . zero.
It makes no difference whether I negate the positive or affirm the negative.
Atheism can legitimately be defined as the belief that gods don’t exist. But that doesn’t make it a religion. And neither does it make any objective claim of fact. It’s a subjective belief claim: an opinion or conviction. Atheists with a knee-jerk reaction against the notion that atheism is a mere subjective belief, opinion or conviction are confusing or conflating the subjective with the objective. Sorry guys but atheism is not an objective claim of knowledge or fact. If you think it is, then prove it: what’s the knowledge or fact you possess that nobody else does? Is it not easy enough to defend atheism? Don’t we have plenty of valid reasons? Why do you want to make it easier than it already is? That’s lazy at best and dishonest at worst.
Flip it around. If a believer says he believes in God but does not claim his existence is an objective fact, he is merely expressing his subjective belief, opinion or conviction that God is real. He’s not making any objective claim of fact. He may not have a reason at all. But if he claims or pretends to have knowledge of God then he’s a gnostic theist making claims of knowledge he can’t possibly possess and is just as dishonest as a pretentious gnostic atheist.