Jan 07

What is atheism?

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:

  • stupid
  • sin-loving
  • 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.

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  1. William

    I think theism could better be defined as belief in one or more gods that interacts with the universe, Deism is a belief in a god that doesn’t interact with the universe and is surprisingly prevalent.
    Atheism I think should include deism in it’s definition if we were going off of the root of the word.

  2. Mike

    Hmmm. That could get a bit tricky. I think on many points the atheist and deist would agree. The absentee landlord notion would certainly explain a lot of things, but could the two groups agree about the landlord itself? What role would this being play? Is there an afterlife under this view?

    I think the groups would agree that we just don’t have a good explanation for how everything got here, and maybe such an explanation is not possible. But then why the extra step of assigning will and power to the unknown?

  3. William

    I was just trying to point out that atheism does not necessarily involve lack of a belief in gods or that theism is the only form of religion with gods. To answer your questions:
    Agree about the Landlord?
    No because we don’t believe in a god and they believe in a passive god.
    What role?
    None according to atheism and none in this life according to deists.
    Depends what form of deism, do not consider me an expert.
    Well under this there doesn’t seem to be much power under either belief (especially under full atheism).

  4. Mike

    I agree about how it’s hard to apply. That’s precisely why I argue for moving away from the definition itself and toward the actual claims. An even better example than deism could be Buddhism – it’s certainly a religion, just not a theistic one (in some cases). Yet, there is definitely a difference between what we think of as an atheist and a Buddhist.

  5. William

    Buddhism is different, it is basically a category with other similar religions, it has no gods and many people are buddhist atheists, but somehow different. Although I agree there is some theistic buddhists.

  6. John-Paul Mitchell

    Atheism is easily and succinctly defined as the antithesis of theism. Theism, therefore needing definition, is the positive belief or assertion that one or many gods, supernatural entities or other-worldly forces exist and either have or still do effect the lives of human beings or the existence of the universe. Atheism, then, is the opposite of that positive belief; which means is can be either the lack of belief, as a rock, dog or new born person would lack, or positive assertion that no god exists, as any rational skeptic would make. Thus this way of defining encompasses all atheists and agnostic, excludes most Buddhists, all Scientologists, and any jerk who says they are a skeptic but still keeps his or her pet theistic belief safely tucked away from skeptical energies is also exempt.

  7. William

    Atheism literally translates to “Not Theism” basically so any belief in a god that is technically not theism like deism or panentheism is a form of atheism. Buddhism is not a form of theism and buddhism does not require a belief in gods, or anything that we could be defined as “Theism” in fact I wonder why it is still considered a religion and not a philosophy of life (at least most of the main stream forms do not have a god, but otherwise you could be a Buddhist atheist or even a buddhist christian (although I assume there is no Christians that will ever read this comment)).

  8. Brian Colon

    Well it took a few months, but a Christian just read your comment. You make an excellent point about Buddhism being better described as a philosophy of life rather than a religion. However, I don’t think that it is possible for a true Christian to be a Buddhist on account of the fact that the Christian philosophy of life includes the importance of worshiping the one true God. Also, Buddhism’s concept of reincarnation is incompatible with Christianity’s views on eschatology. From what I understand about Buddism (which is very little by the way) it seems to have a lot in common with gnosticism which was a belief that has been historically rejected by Christianity (with the exception of Saint Augustine who imported a few gnostic beliefs into Christianity such as original sin, the assumption of Mary, celibacy for priests etc.)

    You also make a good point in your final statement that we should just ask the Atheist what he believes, rather than just pin him with a label. Perhaps I can do that with you now:
    How do you think the world came into existence?
    Do you believe that God does not exist?
    Do you believe you can prove that God does not exist?
    Do you believe that there is no proof for God’s existence?

  9. Mike


    I’m not sure how the world came into existence (assuming you mean everything in existence). I’m not particularly troubled by this ignorance, though; just add it to the huge list of things I don’t know.

    I think it’s fair to say I believe that God does not exist. It’s a bit tricky because it’s a positive belief, but largely based on negative reasons, if that makes sense.

    I cannot prove that God in general does not exist. ProvIng non-existence is a messy business. I could probably prove certain iterations of God to be false, though, based on internal contradictions.

    Yes, I believe there is no proof of God’s existence. If there is one, I’ve never heard it.

  10. Mike

    Also, Brian, I wonder if I may ask you some questions.

    Do you believe in an everlasting Hell?

    Would it be fair to describe experience of this Hell as torture or anguish?

    Is belief in Jesus the only way to avoid Hell?

  11. William

    Well they can be considered separate parts of your philosophy in fact I do think I have heard of a buddhist christian. I bet you can combine these beliefs.

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