What Atheism Means

by Al Serrato

Comedian Ricky Gervais is fond of expressing his atheism in sound-bite size tweets. Not long ago, he summed up his views this way:

“Atheism isn’t ‘I claim no god exists.’ Atheism is ‘I don’t accept your claim that god exists.’ No claim. Just no acceptance. You’re welcome.”

Trying to dress up the respectability of atheism in a few short sentences is no easy task. With basic critical thinking skills, it’s not too difficult to see the flaw in his thinking, but then again, we’re living in a culture that hasn’t been promoting critical thinking for quite some time.

The place to begin is with definitions of the words being used. The key word here appears to be “claim.” He rests his position on the assertion that he isn’t making a claim – he isn’t saying anything. He’s just refusing to accept what someone else is claiming. Now, that should cause the reader to be

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skeptical. The verb “claim” is not difficult to define: in the sense used here, Merriam-Webster defines it as “to say that something is true when some people say it is not true,” and “to assert in the face of possible contradiction.” So, just on its face, Gervais’ first comment is nonsensical. Of course “atheism” is a claim, the claim that there is no deity. The same online dictionary actually defines it that way – as “a disbelief in the existence of deity” or more broadly, “the doctrine that there is no deity.” Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question, atheism is a positive denial that such a being exists.

Contrary to Gervais’ assertion, to hold to a position of atheism is exactly to make the claim that no god exists – that you have moved beyond being unsure, or perhaps not caring, to a position of confidence that the being known as God is not there, that he does not exist. Moreover, not accepting a claim is itself a claim…

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