The Definition of Atheism

It’s about time people started to understand that atheism is NOT a belief. It is the ABSENCE of belief. It is the OPPOSITE of belief.

The root of atheism is, of course, theism:

belief in the existence of a god or gods ; specifically : belief in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race and the world who transcends yet is immanent in the world

Now, the prefix “a” means not or against.

So, a-theism means AGAINST a belief in the existence of gods which is NOT the same as a belief that gods do not exist as christians (and some agnostics) like to claim.

6 thoughts on “The Definition of Atheism

  1. It’s an important point you’re making here Cameron and I personally thank you for making it. “Atheism” isn’t a set of positive beliefs but rather the result of positive beliefs that cause you to reject the positive beliefs of theists. The theist’s positive belief is “There is a god”. The “atheist’s” positive belief might be something like “Nature is all that exists and the only path to human knowledge pertaining to it is accurate observation and consistently logical reasoning.” The “atheists” positive belief isn’t “there is no god”. That would simply be a consistent conclusion from the real positive position. The point isn’t that an “atheist” doesn’t believe what a theist believes, but rather that an “atheist” believes certain things to be true about nature and about themselves which makes the claims of theists unacceptable in the interest of intellectual consistency. I think of myself as a “rationalist”, an “empiricist”, a “materialist”, a “Bright”, a “secular humanist”, an “objectivist”, an “environmentalist”, and many more labels that may at one time or another be appropriate. Although some call me “atheist”, it isn’t a label I need to discuss my beliefs. It is rather a label needed by others to label me according to their own beliefs. It really has nothing to do with my positive viewpoints.

    “Atheism” is necessary only to theists.

  2. Depends on whose usage of the word you’re going by, unfortunately.

    The word’s origins may suggest a lack of belief rather than a positive belief about the non-existence of Magical Sky Gods, but that’s largely irrelevant to the way in which people use it, as it’s normally taken to be the latter – even by philosophers.

    For example, in his essay ‘What is an Agnostic?’, Bertrand Russell explicitly defines the ‘An Atheist, like a Christian, holds that we _can_ know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know that there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.’ He then goes on to define agnosticism and answer a series of questions concerning the moral and philosophy of agnosticism, asked from the perspective of a Christian. Good article.

    In popular discourse, the word ‘atheist’ generally follows this definition. So, I think you’re tilting at windmills by trying to argue the definition – it’s just not worth the effort.

    With respect to your letter concerning whether or not you’re an atheist, you say that you’re a weak agnostic, then outline why – I’m not sure what in that outline makes your position weak. You say you’re not 100% sure there’s no god, but you see no reason for one to exist – that’s pretty much the definition. You can hold the position that there is no evidence, and therefore a God probability of virtually 0 without necessarily believing holding the positive belief that there is no god, thereby flipping to atheism. That’s where my beliefs sit, certainly.

    So, to your original question. Sure, the word ‘atheism’ may have those origins, but it no longer has that usage. We can argue about which meaning is more important, and whether it’s worth trying to act to change it back, but it’s not a terribly useful argument outside linguistics. And, in educated discourse, I actually like having words for the two separate positions.

    Practically, I tend to find that every time I discuss this topic with someone, I’m either talking with people who I think are sufficiently educated to grasp the distinction, in which case I say I’m an agnostic, or I’m not, in which case I just say I don’t believe in God. Or Super-Darwin, the victorian super-hero from Galapagos. Or Xenu, for that matter. Especially not Xenu.

    Someone should draw Super-Darwin, the victorian super-hero from Galapagos..

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