Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is an "atheist"?

In my first couple of posts (as well as with future posts), I stated that I am an atheist. However, many people do not understand what that means. And if you are one of those people who does not understand, you're going to have trouble understanding my posts. So let's get this cleared up, shall we?

The first thing we need to do is set away the dictionary definitions, as many of these are not quite accurate...though they appear to be getting better...and instead break down the word itself. The prefix "a-" (or "an-" when used with words that start with vowels) means "without." If you then define "theism" as "belief in the existence of a god or gods," then "atheism" means "without belief in the existence of a god or gods." An "atheist" is then "someone without belief in the existence of a god or gods."

OK, now that we have derived a good definition, let's look at some of the dictionary definitions you should throw out:
1. "Denies the existence of any God."

I do not like how they use the word "denies," as if to imply that atheists do deep down inside acknowledge the existance of a god, but "deny" this on the outside.

2. "The doctrine or belief that there is no God."
    "A belief that there are no gods."

The first complaint is that there is no doctrine. The second complaint is that these are too narrow and do not encompass all atheists. I admit that someone who is without a belief in a god can also believe that no god exists, but most atheists I know, if any, actually believe this. This sort of atheist (believing that no gods exist) is often called a strong (as opposed to weak)$ atheist. (Watch the video below for more information.)
Most atheists are just unconvinced by the evidence that has been presented for a god, but are open to new evidence. (What we don't like is the same old shit repackaged and presented over and over.)

Likewise, here are some acceptable definitions:
1. "One who rejects or is ignorant of theism."

I certainly agree with the use of the word "rejects." We must be careful about the word "ignorant," as this word is too often incorrectly used alone to insult a person's intelligence, when really the word just means "unaware because of a lack of relevant information or knowledge." When used as an insult, it is often because the person being insulted is thought to intentionally (or willfully) be ignorant. In other words, it is thought that person does not want to, and even avoids, gathering knowledge. An example of someone who is willfully ignorant would be someone who decides to not read my blog for the simple fact that they do not agree with my views. This definition of "atheist" should not be interpreted with the insulting meaning of "ignorant."

2. "A person without a belief in, or one who lacks belief in the existence of a god or gods."


$ I notice in the Wikipedia link that it interchanges "stong" and "positive" to describe the type of atheism that is a belief that no gods exist. My blog description says that I am promoting "positive atheism," but what I mean by that is a positive view of atheism, as discussed in my second post.

You, too, are an atheist!

Most of the theists who happen to read this will most likely be Christians (so it is to Christians that I speak to in this paragraph, though those of other beliefs can still pick up on the point). While you believe in a three-headed god, you likely¥ lack belief in the gods of other religions. You don't believe in Allah, Krishna, Vishnu, Wotan, Thor, Loki, Ba'al, Marduk, Zeus, etc, etc, you? If you don't, you are an atheist with respect to all of those gods. I just go one god further - yours!

¥ I recognize that there are those who claim that those other gods are really just misinterpretations of the Christian god. I don't want to go into this too much, as it is off topic, but if you are one of these people and if this is true, then your god has demonstrated itself to be a piss poor communicator. Additionally, why should I think you're the one who has it right?

The ugly beast of agnosticism

"Agnostic" is another word that is frequently misunderstood. Frankly, I suspect misunderstanding of this word is directly tied to the misunderstanding of "atheism/atheist." Not surprisingly, there are many poor definitions of the word out there. Here is one that is fairly reasonable:
  1. "The view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable."
The important thing to note here is that agnosticism deals with what a person knows and not what they believe. As atheism deals with what a person believes, the terms are not mutually exclusive. I am, in fact, an agnostic atheist, as are all weak atheists. Too often, however, the word "agnostic" is used in place of "weak atheist" and, likewise, "atheist" is used to only mean "strong atheist." Having said that, most anyone who calls themselves an agnostic is really an agnostic atheist (or weak atheist). Though, there can be (and are) agnostic theists as well, but most of these people admit to being theists. ***EDIT: What I mean by this is that agnostic theists will typically label themselves as theists instead of agnostics. Whereas there are many agnostic atheists who label themselves as agnostics instead of atheists.***

I think I've hit all the main points I set out to address with this post. If you want further information, below is a really good video discussing the definitions. It presents some different perspectives that I did not cover myself.

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