What is an atheist?

Theism scale/Thomas J. Brown
Theism scale/Thomas J. Brown

With atheism on the rise worldwide, it’s no wonder non-believers are in the spotlight more frequently. More attention has brought with it a new and unanticipated struggle: the struggle to correctly define who atheists are, and what we believe. With so much incorrect information floating around out there, I’d like to clear up a few misconceptions about America’s fastest-growing religious segment.

There’s just one problem: I can’t.

You might think that, being an atheist, I could easily answer the questions and put this all to rest, but it’s not that simple. Even among those people who call themselves atheists, there isn’t a clear consensus on how the term should be defined. In fact, at a recent meeting of the Spokane Secular Society, members had a lively discussion that resulted in — well, we never did come to a clear decision.

Things only get worse as you include more atheists in the discussion. There are so many flavors of atheism — New Atheism, “strong” and “weak” atheism, implicit versus explicit — and no two seem to quite match what the others espouse.

Moving outside of the non-theist community, you’ll find misconceptions, misinformation, and outright lies about what atheists believe. But if we atheists can’t agree on a single definition, what hope do we have for being understood by the rest of the world?

Merriam-Webster defines atheism as, “a disbelief in the existence of deity.” In general most atheists agree that, in all likelihood, no gods exist. We don’t just limit it to the Judeo-Christian god, but all gods of all religions. When we talk about deities, most of us tend to just say, “God,” partly because Christianity is the dominant religion in the United States (and indeed, the world), and partly out of convenience. A friend of mine, when asked why he doesn’t believe in God, likes to reply, “which god did you have in mind?”

At its root, most atheists simply lack a faith that any gods exist. Most of us don’t proclaim any sort of knowledge about their existence, however, and you’ll find that the majority of atheists are open to the possibility.

This brings up something that is, for me, somewhat of a pet peeve. Many people who are functionally atheists reject the label, instead latching on to the term “agnostic,” citing their lack of knowledge as the reason for the distinction. In other words, because they don’t know for sure that no gods exist, they feel they cannot be atheists. However while agnosticism answers the epistemological question regarding knowledge about the existence of deities, it doesn’t tell me whether or not you actually believe. I contend that knowing whether or not there is a God is, by definition, ultimately unknowable (and in the Christian religion, this is an important point). Illusionist and comedian Penn Jillette covered the topic splendidly in 2008 on his web-show Penn Says.

I say it’s time for atheists to collectively agree on a clear set of standards regarding our beliefs. Define the different levels and types of belief, and then assign appropriate monikers to express those ideas. We may have to invent some new words (much like what the Brights movement has done), we may no longer all be called atheists, but in the end what we’ll have is a better understanding of ourselves and each other.

Check Also

Gonzaga Basketball

There Is No Divorcing Your Team

My dear wife Carla is getting a divorce. Not from me. She is divorcing Gonzaga basketball. We go through this ritual every March when the Zags fall short of the long-sought national basketball championship as they did again Saturday night. “I’m done,” she will say. “Burn the T-shirts.”

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Nice Job Tom!

As a fellow atheist, I totally agreed with all of that.

I want to add a point as well. I want to express my take on the moral dimension of atheism.

Epistemology doesn’t exist in a vaccume. We human beings make decisions about how the world is, and we then ACT on those decisions. When we have a flawed understanding of the world (which is all the time) we are prone to act in ways that have un-intended moral consequences. Therefore I feel that I have a MORAL OBLIGATION to be honest with myself about what I do and do not know.

That is to say, I find it morally un-defensible to go running around believing in ideas that have no basis in reality. Now I recognize that as a limited human being this puts me on the horns of a dilemma. I am far too limited in my understanding of the world to have a great deal of confidence in my own opinions, but at the same time, I can’t very well live a life of complete in-action either.

So I have to compromise. I have to take action in full knowledge that I can’t necessarily predict the outcome. Still, I feel that I have a moral obligation to at least be honest with myself about how uncertain I am about what I am doing. As such, I have to hold myself to a clear standard.

Namely: The fact that I am uncertain is NOT a moral license to believe whatever I want!

This is a moral grounds for atheism. The fact that most people believe in a god or a soul or an afterlife is NOT EVIDENCE that these things exist, therefore I am morally obligated to refrain from reliving in them. The fact that authority figures (like parents or priests or the bible or the Koran) make supernatural claims is not evidence that these claims are true. I feel that I must hold my own beliefs to higher standards of evidence than these sources have to offer.

Doubt and uncertainty are default epistemological positions to hold, and while they are not particularly comfortable, I feel morally obligated to keep my own doubt in mind, so that I can avoid the pitfall of un-warranted certainty that has lead so many to so much tragedy. I do not always succeed, and even when I do succeed in remaining doubtful, I sometimes make bad decisions, but that’s the best that I feel that I can do.

My impression is that this is a common component of the moral code of most atheist. It is also fairly similar to some of the things that the Buddha taught, although I think that faith does a lot more magical thinking than I do.



“reliving” = believing

Darn spell-checker! 😛

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x