(This post is largely taken from a presentation by John Ferrer. No doubt his statements were much better than my summary, so I attribute any successes to him and any failures to me.)
Adolph Hitler is often presented as an icon of evil, and no side wants him on their team. How do we determine which banner to place him under?
Most religions have a way to determine what is a true follower of that religion, even if there is room for disagreement. For example, some Muslims disagree over who is a true Muslim. they can do this because Muslims have a body of teaching around which they can have a discussion. Our case here is that atheists have a significant problem surrounding what is compatible with atheism.
To explain their non-belief in God, atheists can say:
1. There is no good evidence to demonstrate there is a God.
2. There is good reason to demonstrate there is no God.
Many atheists stop at 1 and do not assert 2, holding 1 sufficient. Atheists make the claims of 1 in an attempt to put the burden of proof on the theist without having to prove anything themselves. They claim their position is then of not having a belief, nothing more. (Of course, this is a fallacy….see here). But as a matter of fact, most atheists would agree with 1 as being the only necessary criteria to define atheism. They go to great lengths to tell us that the burden of proof is on the theist, for the atheist is not making a claim to having any belief. They tell us repeatedly that they are a-theists, simply without God. Therefore regardless of whether the atheist agrees with only 1, or 2 also, the definition of atheism can stop at 1. Atheism’s definition can be summarized as non-god as a sufficient condition. They are quick to tell us this, and remind us often that this is atheism.
In Christianity, it is possible for someone to make a claim to be Christian, but not truly be one. This is supported by several passages in the New Testament:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation . . . (Jude 4)
These passages, and others like them, demonstrate that some people can claim to be Christian, but are not really. The New Testament gives us instructions to mark these people out as false Christians, even though they claim to be one. So just because someone says they are Christian, we have grounds for disputing this and declaring them non-Christian.
What is the criteria for being a Christian? We do not have space to exhaust the topic here, nor is this our main purpose at this time. But I think we would all agree that there are things that define what it means to be Christian: teachings on sin, salvation, Jesus, heaven, hell, and humans. While some of the details might be in discussion, it is the case that there are Christian teachings and non-Christian teachings, and we can tell the difference. This is true because we have a body of teachings, the New Testament, that define for us what it means to be Christian.
Atheism, on the other hand, is only defined by non-god, a lack of belief in something. Therefore atheism is compatible with a wide range of positions, teachings, and views. The criteria to determine whether someone is or is not an atheist is reduced to agreement with non-god.
If someone were to claim to be Christian, but upon further investigation we learn that their behavior and beliefs were incompatible with the New Testament, we can objectively determine that they are not. If Gandhi claims to be Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian all at the same time, we can declare that he is not truly Christian, for no Christian would say such a thing. We have a body to teaching to compare Gandhi’s statements to.
However, in atheism, all we have is non-god. When Stalin claimed to be atheist and did the things he did because of his views (see here), atheism has no tools to separate atheism from Stalin, for Stalin’s views and actions are compatible with atheism. In fact, the worst and best things we can think of are compatible with atheism, as long as they include non-god.
Current atheist rock star Richard Dawkins has stated that there is, at bottom, no good or evil, only blind pitiless indifference. With such a view, someone could stand up and declare that the most heinous actions are not truly evil but completely amoral, and no atheist could deny this on the basis of atheism. In fact, as long as atheism stays within the bounds of atheism, it has no grounds for separating itself from any teaching, whether good, bad, or indifferent, for the only criteria available is non-god.
If we examine Hitler, we can determine objectively that his beliefs, statements, and actions were not compatible with Christianity, for they do not align with the teachings of the New Testament. Such a person as Hitler was not Christian, no matter what he claimed in public or private (see here). Even the Muslim, when faced with the accusation of terrorism, has some room within Islam for a conversation. But when we present to the atheist a topic for discussion, as long as it includes non-god the atheist has no grounds for dispute without bringing in something from outside atheism. From within atheism, no one can lay claim to supporting good morals or denying evil ones. It’s only criteria is non-god.
Lest anyone claim we are using the No True Scotsman fallacy, let us remind you that this is an informal fallacy, and informal fallacies only apply when they apply. It is actually the case that no true Scotsman is a non-Scotsman, and no true Christian is non-Christian. The atheist has much thinner ice to stand on when claiming something to be non-atheist.