Recently, I hosted an AMA entitled, “Ask an Atheist.” I only received one question and not from a theist. (Hey, I tried.) This person asked about how to respond when a theist tries to shift the burden of proof onto the atheist. I’ve seen this done on YouTube debates, particularly with William Lane Craig.
I think, to be honest, that this is a dishonest move. Usually, the theist will try and define atheist as a positive claim that “God does not exist.” This is, instead of, atheism being defined as a “lack of belief.” Many times the theist might try to claim that history or language back up their claim. The theist, then, may try and get the atheist to claim agnosticism, or they might outright derail the debate by demanding proof that a deity does not exist.
My response? It doesn’t matter what the history of the word atheism is, and the theist is not in the position to define atheism. What do I mean? First, words evolve over time, and even if the word atheist meant something different in the past, it means “lack of belief” now. Why? Lack of belief is the common way the word is now used. When someone tells a fellow unbeliever that she is an atheist, the unbeliever will understand it as “lack of belief.” Secondly, what matters is what a person means when they use a particular word, especially when they are describing themselves. A theist is not in a position to start labeling the atheist. It is up to the atheist to explain their views and describe themselves NOT the theist. Unless the plan is to bring a psychologist to the stage to interview the atheist, the person who knows the atheist best is the atheist.
Furthermore, if the atheist were using the term atheist to both mean “there is no God” and “lack of belief in God,” that would be dishonest on the atheist’s part. Only then, would a debate over the term atheist be justified. I can see no other reason why the theist would have a legitimate reason to try and argue over what the word atheist means.