‘Atheist': a definition

Before I get started on defining ‘atheism’ or ‘what  makes someone an atheist’, it is important to say some things about what ‘atheism’ is not.

‘Atheism’ is not a formal or codified doctrine, like, say, Christianity, or even Humanism, is.

There is no set of ‘beliefs’ or ‘values’ which ‘atheists’ share or subscribe to.

That is because in order to have a shared ‘doctrine’ or ‘dogma’,  a label must describe some types of ‘held’ beliefs or convictions of the people being thus labeled.  ‘Atheism’ does not describe a set of ‘held’ beliefs – or even just one belief.

Instead, it describes ‘absence of belief’:  a very specific absence of one specific belief – the belief in the existence of deities.

Atheist:

An atheist is a person who does not ‘hold the belief’ that God(s) and/or Goddess(es) exist.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Some people refer to monotheism (not believing in the existence Gods or Goddesses – except one) as ‘selective atheism':  people who believe in just one deity necessarily disbelieve in the existence of all deities but one.

Atheists may still belong to a religion:  not every religion has deities in it!  From ‘the big 5′, Buddhism is a religion which does not address the question of deities.  And, no, Buddha is not a God – not in any way, shape or form – and never was.  And – Buddhism is not the only atheistic religion.

Communism, for example, is another example of a religion which does not have any deities:  it requires the ‘belief in’/’submission to’/’acceptance of’ certain principles (of collectivism, in this case) instead.  And, there are countless more!

Describing something as ‘atheistic’ means that it does not address the question of the existence of God or Gods or Goddesses.  Therefore, any and every thing, conversation, organization and so on, which does not specifically proclaim the ‘belief in the existence of deities’ is, by definition, atheistic.

To lump all ‘atheists’ together as if they all subscribed to a common doctrine or school of thought would be even less accurate than lumping all ‘theists’ together:  while all ‘theists’ actually have a positive belief in the existence of one or more deities, defining someone as an ‘atheist’ does not define any actual belief.  It just says what these people do not believe.  It’s like identifying a group of people by saying ‘people who do not die their hair’…this can include anyone from people that have no hair to die, to people who like their ‘natural’ haircolour…all the way to people who would change their hair colour, if only they could (or, if it were easier).

OK – this is getting muddled. Let me try another approach.

Though there are ‘shades in-between’, these are several distinct ‘types’ or ‘major classes’ of atheists.  In order to describe them, please, indulge me and play a little thought experiment with me:

Let’s say that I tell you I have a neighbour. Let’s say that I now show you a picture of a woman with blond hair and say this is my neighbour..  Do you believe my neighbour is a natural blond?

***

Having never thought about my neighbour – much less a blond one – before now, it it not likely that you

  • believe my neighbour is a natural blond
  • believe my neighbour is not a natural blond

Therefore, you are ‘apart from belief’ whether my neighbour is a ‘natural blonde’.

This roughly approximates what I think of as the ‘what are gods and why should I believe in them’ atheists.  Not only do they not hold a belief either way, they don’t see the point of even thinking about it.  They simply do not care – and most of them don’t want to care.

***

Having looked at the picture, you may find there simply isn’t enough information there to make you

  • believe my neighbour is a natural blond
  • believe my neighbour is not a natural blond

Therefore, even though you have taken the time to investigate (you looked at the picture) and to think about it, yet, you don’t ‘believe’ one way or the  other.  You may think it is likely – say, 80% likely – that she might be a natural blonde.  Or not.  Who could tell?

This roughly approximates what I think of as ‘considered atheists’.  They have considered the question of the existence of deities, looked at the religions ‘out there’, thought about it, and did not become convinced enough to hold a belief one way or the other.  They may still be searching for ‘belief’, hoping to find it.  Or, they may not be.

***

Or, having looked at the picture, you may have noticed that the woman in the picture has blond hair with black roots… Therefore, you

  • believe my neighbour is not a natural blond

This is actually REALLY substantially different from the above two types of ‘apart from belief’ groups:  you actually believe in the truthfulness of one of the choices!  You just happen to believe in the ‘not’ option…

While you still ‘do not believe’ that my neighbour is a natural blond, but, in addition to ‘disbelieving’ that her blond-ness is natural, you actively believe that it is not.  Therefore, you have ‘an absence of belief’ in  the first proposition, and active/positive ‘belief’ in the second one.

Many people today refer to this group as ‘strong atheists’.  Frankly, that is not just wrong, it is silly.

The ‘atheist’ label refers to ‘absence of belief’ – and associating it with a belief (the belief in the ‘non-existence’) is inaccurate and misleading.  Unfortunately, the term ‘atheist’ became used in this very sense from very shortly after it was created, because many people find it difficult to understand that ‘absence of belief in Gods’ does not imply ‘belief of absence of Gods’…

…which does not mean that continuing to misuse the term is a good idea.

Plus, it seems to me that holding ANY ‘belief’ is a weakness – NOT a strength.

Therefore, referring to a ‘purist’ non-beliver as a ‘weak atheist’ and to a person who actually holds ANY form of a belief as a ‘strong atheist’ seems, to me, stupid at best. (OK – I’m not being particularly eloquent:  but I am being honest!)

***

Of course, there are many people whose reactions – given this thought experiment – would be quite different.  Like…

  • I believe the woman in this picture is a ‘natural blonde’ – but I don’t believe she is your neighbour!
  • What woman?  You are showing me a picture of a car!
  • Whatever her hair colour is, how natural it is – that is irrelevant.  She should cover her hair!
  • Hey!  This is a crayon drawing!  You drew this yourself!  You are trying to trick me!

….plus about a hundred other possible responses.  But, this post is NOT about THEM.  It is about showing that ‘disbelief’ is different that ‘belief’ – even different from ‘belief in  not’….

Of course, there are people – even self-identified as ‘atheists’ – who just don’t get this.

They did not do their homework.

They are  confusing any and all discussions on this issue.

And, that is too bad…

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3 Responses to “‘Atheist': a definition”

  1. Derek Says:

    I agree with most of thing the things said in this article. I don’t believe communism is a religion as it usually doesn’t involve worship or a voluntary lifestyle toward any principles.
    But you are right, before anybody support or even subscribe to an idea, the terms must properly be defined first.

  2. Agnostic: what it does, and does not, mean « Xanthippa's Chamberpot Says:

    [...] xanthippa One term misused in debates about ‘religion’ almost as often as the term ‘atheist’ is the term [...]

  3. Kitchener mortgage Says:

    Just a quick message 2 thank u 4 your useful post. Do u know where I could find more on this? have a nice day. Claire x

    Xanthippa says:

    Here is what I wrote up about it before – along with links to Jonathan Miller’s ‘A Rough History of Disbelief’. I hope this helps!


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