What is atheism?

Atheism is a nebulous term for many people. Some people think it means that an atheist rejects god. Others are of the opinion that atheism simply means disbelief in god. There are even some who say that atheism is a religion. So what is atheism? I will attempt to explain that and a small number of related topics below.

What does the dictionary say?

A logical place to begin the explanation of what atheism is, is the dictionary. Here for instance is what dictionary.com has to say about atheism:

1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.

2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/atheism

Another good place to begin our exploration is the etymological dictionary. For those unfamiliar with that term, allow me to explain that etymology is the study of where words come from and how they evolved over time. Looking up “atheism” in an etymological dictionary, we learn the following:

Greek: atheos “without a god, denying the gods,” from a- “without” + theos “a god”

https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=atheism

Here again, we see the double meaning of “denying the gods” and “without a god”. We may conclude that atheism can mean one of two things: the belief that there is no god or disbelief in the existence of a god. This may seem like a distinction without a difference but it is not. The first statement is a knowledge claim but the second isn’t.

If someone says “I believe there is no god”, that means this person has determined that there is no god, assuming it is possible to know such a thing. If someone says “I don’t believe in a god” this person is saying they don’t believe in a god but it says nothing about whether or not a god exists. Most atheists are the latter type and say “I don’t believe in a god or gods”. However, there are some who are convinced there is no god.

Atheism is the opposite of the word “theism” which means belief in the existence of a god or gods.

Agnostic

To make matters more difficult, there is another term that is often used: agnostic. The dictionary definition of agnostic is as follows:

1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience.

2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study.

3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic: Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality.

https://www.dictionary.com/browse/agnostic

The term “agnostic” was introduced in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley. He described agnosticism as follows: don’t claim to know or believe something for which you have insufficient evidence. Many see agnosticism as a sort of middle ground between atheism and theism. They say that atheism is the belief there are no gods, theism is the belief that there is a god or gods. Agnosticism says “I don’t know” one way or the other.

There is some debate about whether agnostics are atheists. In fact, there are philosophical treatises on the definitions of the words atheism, theism and agnosticism. While these are interesting to read, they aren’t much use on a daily basis. Some say that agnostics aren’t atheists, some say that agnostics are atheists. It’s my opinion that agnostics are atheists. I will explain why below.

Gnostic and agnostic atheism

To make things more clear, people sometimes distinguish between gnostic and agnostic atheism. They define these terms as follows:

  • gnostic atheism:
    those atheists who claim that there are no gods
  • agnostic atheism:
    those atheists who lack belief in gods but acknowledge there might be gods

Both groups don’t believe in a god or gods but the first group makes the knowledge claim that no gods exist. This position is also known as hard atheism while the other is called soft atheism. I lean strongly towards gnostic atheism because it seems to me that gods are things that we made up.

Anti-theism

People who profess to be anti-theists are of the opinion that theism is to be opposed. They believe that belief in a god is harmful and that the influence of religion should be opposed. Most of them are atheists. Believing in a god and thinking that such a belief is harmful is probably rare.

Other terms

The word “atheist” has negative associations so there are people who are technically atheist but don’t want to use that word. Instead they use other terms to describe their position: secular, humanist, non-religious, skeptic, disbeliever, freethinker, non-believer, pagan or even heathen are all words that people use.

Let’s stay practical

Philosophical discussions are interesting and in philosophy it is important to define your terms precisely to avoid confusion. However, most of us aren’t philosophers and our use of words is more casual. Instead of getting hung up on dictionary definitions and philosophical treatises, I suggest we turn to how people use these words.

Most atheists define atheism as a lack of belief in a god or gods. If this is how atheists use the word, why argue about the dictionary definition? If we accept that this is what atheists mean when they use the word atheism, it is clear enough.
Defining atheism as a lack of belief in a god or gods, also makes the position of agnosticism clear. Agnostics are atheists because if you say that you don’t know if a god exists or not, you have no belief in a god.

Definition of atheism
Definition of atheism

What is atheism (to me)?

The above means that I see atheism as an umbrella term. It includes any position which isn’t theism, any position that doesn’t express a belief in god(s). I define atheism as a lack of belief in god. Whenever I use the word atheism on this blog, I mean lack of belief in a god or gods. Note that I am not making a knowledge claim by saying that. I don’t claim to know there are no gods, I am merely stating that I see no reason to believe in on based on lack of evidence or argument.

If I had to describe my position on the spectrum of atheism, I would say that I am a gnostic, anti-theistic atheist. That means I am fairly convinced there are no gods, I feel that religion is a bad influence on much of society and obviously I do not believe in gods.