The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 1: Clearing The Air

by | June 28, 2015

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:

DefinitionSurveyIn 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.

12 thoughts on “The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 1: Clearing The Air

  1. dusttodust

    I’m with Diana MacPherson…until proven otherwise. I’m with Indi. I can not stand here and assert that there is/are no god/s. I can reasonably conclude that there aren’t due to the lack of observable, verifiable evidence (as I wrote in that other discussion). But when you go to the other side and assert/claim/state that there are no gods then you need to prove it. Of course you can’t prove a negative. Thus my talking about what I called the null hypothesis. I make no claim. The believer has to prove it because they claim it’s so.

    1. Tim Underwood

      Of course the “believer” will be one of a few different particular types of adherent. These guys know there is a God because they know their particular story is true.
      Knowing stories to be true is what they call ‘faith’.
      Our word for this is ‘delusion’.
      Last weekend I was told the story of a lifelong Lutheran who had read through the Bible three times over a very long period of time. His final testament to his lifelong friend was, “The more I read it the less I understood it”.

      This is one of the few claims to having read through the entire contraption I believe to be true. This was the same experience my father had had.

      Religious scholars spend much more time reading about the Bible, as analyzed by earlier scholars of various types. This reading of previous analysis provides much more coherency than trying to untangle the source material in isolation.

      What we can learn from this is that following a religion has to be assisted by carefully controlled teaching traditions (seminaries).

      The takeaway message is: the weakest link in the God belief phenomena is the literature not the logic.

      The stories are just nonsense and criticism of this nonsense destroys the God delusion.

      1. Deborah Underwood

        What do you mean by true. Myths are true in the sense of trying to tell you a truth through a story even if it is not literally true. People still learn from Greek mythologies and other myths why not the Bible.

    2. B.Green Adams

      I think this is a distinction with really no significant difference. There are good arguments against the existence of any gods.

      I’m going to start covering some of them in my podcast.

      But generally, it is not unreasonable to believe that supernatural entities do not exist, particularly given the claims of the nature of these beings by their proponents.

      1. dusttodust

        I’m not sure there are arguments against the existence of gods. There are plenty of ways to refute the assertions made by believers or to blow holes in their arguments. There are plenty of ways to doubt and conclude that there are no gods. I just don’t think it’s right to assert there are no gods when we can’t back the assertion up with evidence. There is no evidence. Ergo…no assertion to be made. You have an assertion to present…let’s see how robust it stands with your provided evidence.
        When I see some kind of tragedy in the news, I think how tragic and then mumble to myself yeah where’s your god now?

  2. B.Green Adams

    Number 3 is included in number 2 in my view.

    There really is little point in looking at the history and structure of the word. As we can tell from the wor “gay” these meanings change extensively over time.

    The issue here should be: what am I trying to convey by the term, and do I think my listener or reader will conclude from my usage if the term?

    I use the term to distinguish a person or set people from those who believe in gods. But if that is not what my audience will hear when I use the term, all my evidence of etiology is useless as I will still be misunderstood.

    The word seems to be in transition, and is used differently by different folks, even in the same context. This is easily rectified by briefly stating what I mean, to avoid confusion. There really is no point to us trying to establish what the “true” meaning of the word is. That’s not how words work.

  3. Corwin Post author

    Great comments so far – thanks to everyone who’s contributed to the discussion. Future posts in this series (which will probably be three or four posts long in total) will address the question of whether it’s worth maintaining atheism and agnosticism as separate, mutually exclusive categories, as well as the question of whether one can “prove a negative”. For now, I’ll just say that I would answer both questions in the affirmative, at least for reasonable values of “prove”.

    @B. Green Adams

    There really is no point to us trying to establish what the “true” meaning of the word is. That’s not how words work.

    I agree completely, which I why I said I’d argue for my preferred definition of atheism on pragmatic grounds. In other words, I’m not chasing the will o’ wisp of “true” meaning, just building a case for widespread adoption of the definition I think will make it easiest to discuss matters of belief and disbelief in clear and meaningful terms.

  4. billybob

    Damn you dictionary atheists, atheism includes secular humanism and an unwavering love of beer and bacon.

    Box 2, there is no other choice!

    1. Corwin Post author

      …an unwavering love of beer and bacon.

      Especially appropriate for lunch, now that it’s Ramadan!

  5. Pingback: The Meaning Of Atheism, Part 3: The Meaning Of Agnosticism | Canadian Atheist

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