There is a constant argument brewing over the definition of atheism. I hope to show that this argument is misplaced.
It is generally agreed that the definition of theism is something like, “belief in one or more gods.” Atheism, however, has some controversy regarding its definition. Some say it means “lack of belief in any gods,” a negative claim. Others say it means “the belief that no gods exist,” an arguably positive claim. It should be clear that broad definitions of this sort cannot be adequately applied to diverse groups.
Why does it persist then? Our minds like labels. It helps us make sense of the world and allows our brain to quickly process new information. Have you ever seen a tall person and wondered whether he or she plays basketball? Have you ever inferred something about a person based on the way he or she is dressed? Immanuel Kant was well ahead of his time when he supposed there were innate categories of understanding built into the human mind. We now understand there are well-documented psychological constructs, called heuristics, which aid us in these types of group processing scenarios. We all tend to do these things. Yet, the labels don’t always apply.
Let’s examine how this can be misused. Here are some sample statements from a message board I frequent. The moderator proposed a definition of atheism and a ridiculous discussion ensued. According to the comments, atheism is:
- duty bound to distrust and disagree with Christians
- intellectually unrespectable
- claiming knowledge that one doesn’t have
- an emotional and religious position, not a scientific or intellectual one
- placing no value on life
I could go on, but I’m sure you can imagine the intellectual level of the discussion I was reading. And this happens in reverse, as well. There are plenty of instances I’ve even felt the need to correct atheists’ comments that were unsubstantiated or baseless personal attacks. Such nonsense does not progress a conversation, and that’s what these occasions are. Whether you are on the internet, at a public debate, or having a private discussion, you are engaging in a conversation involving opposing views.
Recognizing this, it becomes pretty clear what types of statements will not advance the conversation. For example, some say, “Atheists believe something came from nothing.” How many times have we heard this? Wouldn’t it clearly be better to ask, “How do you think the Universe came into existence?” That gives the individual a chance to answer, and then you can discuss that particular answer. This turns the discussion from mischaracterizations and semantics into claim-based arguments, an obvious step forward. Do not simply say, “Prove to me there is no God.” Rather, you can ask, “Do you think you can prove there is no God?” If the answer is no, then you have no real disagreement on the subject. Let’s raise the level of discussion and avoid the consistent building of straw men.
So what does an atheist believe? It’s simple; just ask one.
- Atheist vs. Agnostic
- On Framing an Opponent’s Argument
- Foundations of New Atheism in the Radical Enlightenment