(A word of warning: this is primarily a rhetorical, rather than philosophical, post.) Apparently, in the late 1960s a prominent atheist by the name of Antony Flew redefined atheism from the belief that there is no God to the lack of belief in God. This was in light, I think, of what was becoming the primary atheist argument, largely popularized (if not invented) by Bertrand Russell:
You can’t make me believe in God!
That’s not the standard phrasing, which is usually some variant of this:
I don’t see any evidence for the existence of God.
I’m not sure if Bertrand Russell was simply being dim-witted or if he was a liar—he was at least a serial adulterer so honesty was by no means his strong point—but in any event the problem with the “I’m not convinced” argument is that it’s always open to the rejoinder:
But how on earth does that prove your contention that there is no God?
And indeed it doesn’t. By refusing to rationally engage the subject, the atheist of yesteryear simply took himself out of all discussion. A great many people are fine with this—they’d rather not be in any sort of philosophical discussions at all, really—but it sits very badly with pretentious intellectuals who want to be admired for understanding the universe through gross oversimplification. I mean, for their brilliance. Hence the redefinition of atheism to something which doesn’t need defense because it’s not a proposition about the world. Now it’s the default position which doesn’t need to be defended! Hurrah! Even better, now all children start off as atheists, so it’s not weird, it’s normal! Could it get any better!?
Well yes, it could, in the sense of actually better, since aside from the few minor points mentioned above, this puts the atheist in a terrible (rhetorical) position. Just for starters, it is not usually a compliment to someone’s understanding to call it childish. Proudly proclaiming that one knows no more about the world than a babe in its mother’s arms is… a dubious compliment to give oneself.
Then if you really think about it—and by “really” I mostly mean, “for more than two thirds of a second”—anything without a mind lacks a belief in God. Trees lack a belief in God, as does algae and literal piles of what the germans call “hund scheisse”. This means that the post-Flew atheist is in the position of proudly proclaiming that he’s no smarter than a gallon of dead krill.
This also puts the atheist in the embarrassing position of the best argument in favor of atheism being a tire-iron to the head. Cause enough brain damage and you will guarantee that any theist will instantly become an atheist. Which does raise the question, “is atheism actually a form of brain damage?” Lesions to the brain can cause loss of memory or the inability to learn certain things. If atheism can be reliably induced through brain damage, is all atheism just brain damage? I’ll leave that one to the lack-of-belief atheists to figure out. (Or not, since they might be too brain-damaged to do it.)
This also puts the atheist into the very weird position of saying:
Intelligent people might believe in God—even partial idiots might believe in God—but complete idiots are all atheists.
Well, if that’s the company you want to keep… Of course being the sort of atheist whose goal was to cheat so he wouldn’t have to defend his position, the lack-of-belief atheists will immediately claim something to the effect of:
Obviously atheism is a lack of belief in people who are capable of belief.
And will then probably do some metaphorical version of throwing the hund scheisse at you, claiming that you’re as stupid as the stuff he claims to be as stupid as. Pointing out people’s inconsistencies usually makes them angry at you.
Anyway, unless he’s claiming that his lack of belief has some sort of positive aspect, it cannot be distinguished from the lack of belief of a brick. His lack of belief has no properties. The brick’s lack of belief also has no properties. There is, therefore, nothing by which they can be distinguished. On the other hand, if he claims that his lack of belief has a positive aspect, he has thrown away his argument because now that positive aspect is a claim which must be defended.
Of course what’s going on is plain to anyone who isn’t trying to eat his cake and still have it afterwards too. He’s trying to imply that a rational mind—which most atheists being Materialists don’t believe in, but whatever—would have come to belief if there really was a God. This always remains at the level of insinuation, however, because it’s obviously false.
Consider: I lack a belief that the prime minister of France had a pet dog as a child. I’ve got a mind capable of believing that he did. Does my lack of belief in his pet dog mean anything at all with regard to his possible pet dog’s existence? Obviously not. I’ve never so much as looked for any evidence that he had a dog or didn’t. I don’t even know what the prime minister of France’s name is. My ignorance about his childhood pets doesn’t mean anything at all except that it would be a bad idea to ask me for information on the subject.
So it is with lack-of-belief atheists, of course. The main difference between asking them and a dead bucket of krill about God is that only one of the two is likely to answer with verbal hund scheisse. Other than that, well, I’ll leave it to them to make the positive argument that the way that belief in God doesn’t exist in them is somehow different from the way it doesn’t exist in a brick. I mean, other than lack of belief in God possibly indicating brick damage to their brain but not brain damage in the brick.
Update: Fixed a spelling error to Antony Flew’s first name and tightened up the language in the conclusion slightly. Also included the “brick damage in their brain” joke at a reader’s request.
By the way, since this definition of atheism results in all inanimate objects being atheists (so far as we know), it means that more than 99.9999999999% of atheists are incapable of rational thought. So the next time an atheist gives you guff, ask them for evidence that they are capable of rational thought and remind them that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Remember: them being capable of rational thought is a positive claim and the default is to assume that they’re as dumb as a bag of bricks unless they provide you with clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
And if they’ve really ticked you off, point out that you don’t need to bother listening to evidence presented by something which is incapable of rational thought since being incapable of rational thought there can’t be any evidence which shows that they are capable of it. (Do bear in mind, though, that whatever defect of intellect or character makes this joke about someone appropriate will almost guaranteedly prevent them from getting it. Like Chesterton said about madmen in Orthodoxy, if they could get the joke they would be sane, and it wouldn’t apply to them.)