Atheists tend to be a gloriously disputatious bunch, which is not surprising for a group united only by rejection of the blandishments and superficial consolations of religion. Atheists, it sometimes appears, are people who can argue about anything – and as if to prove the point, we Canadian Atheist readers and writers had a good discussion (see comments on this post) about what it means to be an atheist in the first place.
I have to admit that my preferred solution to this problem is a boringly straightforward one. Suppose we were to present Canada’s population with the following survey question:
In my opinion a theist is, more or less by definition, someone who would check Box 1, whereas an atheist would check Box 2 and an agnostic would check Box 3. However, not everyone would agree that these categorizations are reasonable. My co-blogger Indi, for example, volubly defended an alternative framework in which atheism was defined simply as a lack of belief in gods, rather than a positive belief that there are no gods. This viewpoint is clearly expressed by American Atheists:
Atheism is usually defined incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods. Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God.” Some dictionaries even go so far as to define Atheism as “wickedness,” “sinfulness,” and other derogatory adjectives. Clearly, theistic influence taints dictionaries. People cannot trust these dictionaries to define atheism. The fact that dictionaries define Atheism as “there is no God” betrays the (mono)theistic influence. Without the (mono)theistic influence, the definition would at least read “there are no gods.”
The idea of atheism as a lack of belief is arguably supported by the structure of the word, which of course places the Greek “a-“ (expressing “absence or negation”) before the Greek-derived word “theism” (meaning “belief in at least one god”). However, structure (or morphology, etymology, morphemes – call it what you will) is a lousy guide to meaning. Words can be coined either appropriately or inappropriately, with regard to their structure, and after being coined they can evolve with usage. Nobody, to repeat an example I brought up in that earlier discussion, thinks a butterfly is literally a winged insect made of butter. In fact, “atheism” originally meant something like “refusal to worship the gods that everyone else does”:
The tolerance which the Roman government showed towards all foreign creeds and the result of which in imperial times was, practically speaking, freedom of religion over the whole Empire, could not be extended to the Jews and the Christians; for it was in the last resort based on reciprocity, on the fact that worship of the Egyptian or Persian gods did not exclude worship of the Roman ones. Every convert, on the other hand, won over to Judaism or Christianity was eo ipso an apostate from the Roman religion, an atheos according to the ancient conception.
That “ancient conception” of atheism, of course, is now obsolete. In modern times, the idea that atheism should be defined as a simple lack of belief in gods certainly has its advocates, American Atheists included. A fastidiously composed English dictionary that took a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to the language would have to, in good conscience, contain this usage. However, it would also have to list as an alternative my preferred definition of atheism as a denial of belief in gods, which is at least as prevalent and well-established. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, kicks off its discussion of atheism (in an article called “Atheism and Agnosticism”, by one J. J. C. Smart) with the following sentence:
‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.
This usage also boasts some historical depth. In “A Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), John Locke fulminates against us infidels in the following terms:
Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.
One hardly has to agree with Locke to see that he regards atheism as a denial, not only a lack, of belief. In a more neutral and recent statement about atheism, Bertrand Russell writes:
The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not.
Russell considers both positions distinct from (and mutually exclusive with) that of an agnostic, who necessarily “suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial”. However, he also points out that an agnostic might assign such a low probability to the existence of gods to end up being “for practical purposes, at one with the atheists”.
I think I’ve established the contemporary and historical respectability of regarding atheism as a denial of the existence of gods, rather than a mere lack of belief in them. However, I’ll save my argument for the superiority – in pragmatic terms – of the former definition for another post.