Definitions of atheism

I have religious friends, and atheist friends, and they both disagree with me on one point: my claim that I am not an atheist. My religious friends note that I lack a belief in God, and therefore I am not with them. My atheist friends note the same thing and presume that I am with them. Now, I have argued my case for being neither before, but what I noticed in the course of replying is that the definition of atheism has shifted recently, and what seems to be going on is that we have duelling definitions.

Take, for example, this definition in 1878:

What is Atheism ? As a theory, with regard to the nature and constitution of the universe, the word means either that the mighty something, the το παν, the all, was produced out of nothing, nobody knows how, and goes on producing itself into something, nobody knows how; or that it has existed forever, and will exist forever, as a mighty confused complex of something that acts, called force, and something that is acted on, called matter; but it takes its shape from no intelligent or designing cause, merely from blind chance; or at least that it is a self-existent combination of forces and the results of forces, of which, in their unity, no intelligible account can be given. [John Blackie, The Natural History of Atheism p3]

Hardly a fair definition, and obviously self-serving, but clearly the definition here is the denial of intelligent design in the natural world. The author is religious, and defines it in terms of the denial of that which he thinks is most reasonable. Atheism is defined in relation to some other view, to that of traditional religion, that God exists and is responsible for the way things are. Of course, this immediately eliminates any belief in gods that are not responsible for the world, such as the gods of Gnosticism.

A few decades later, in a historical work, Atheism in pagan antiquity by Anders Bjørn Drachmann in 1922, we get this:

A difficulty that occurred at the very beginning of the inquiry was how to define the notion of atheism. Nowadays the term is taken to designate the attitude which denies every idea of God. Even antiquity sometimes referred to atheism in this sense; but an inquiry dealing with the history of religion could not start from a definition of that kind. It would have to keep in view, not the philosopical notion of God, but the conceptions of the gods as they appear in the religion of antiquity. Hence I came to define atheism in Pagan antiquity as the point of view which denies the existence of the ancient gods. It is in this sense that the word will be used in the following inquiry.

“Atheism” is historically defined as the denial of some specific deities. When Hume was called an atheist by his contemporaries, it was because he rejected the orthodox Christian God and religion; he was most likely a deist, someone who believes in a deity that is not directly involved in the ordinary affairs of the universe. Drachmann goes on to note:

Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek ; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotes; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed; we even meet with philosophers bearing atheos as a regular surname. We know very little of the men in question; but it can hardly be doubted that atheos, as applied to them, implied not only a denial of the gods of popular belief, but a denial of gods in the widest sense of the word, or Atheism as it is nowadays understood.

In this case the word is more particularly a philosophical term. But it was used in a similar sense also in popular language, and corresponds then closely to the English “denier of God,” denoting a person who denies the gods of his people and State. From the popular point of view the interest, of course, centred in those only, not in the exponents of philosophical theology. Thus we find the word employed both of theoretical denial of the gods (atheism in our sense) and of practical denial of the gods, as in the case of the adherents of monotheism, Jews and Christians. [p4-5]

The historical definitions go back to the 16th century in English (and French), and are broadly of the following kind:


[a. F. athéisme (16th c. in Littré), f. Gr. ?????: see ATHEAL and -ISM. Cf. It. atheismo and the earlier ATHEONISM.]

Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism) [Oxford English Dictionary, 1989 edition]

1587 GOLDING De Mornay xx. 310 Athisme, that is to say, vtter godlesnes. …

As Fichte wrote

What they call God is to me an idol; they are the true atheists; what they call atheism is that I refuse to recognise their idol instead of the true God.”

So, as it stood around the first quarter of the century, atheism was understood to be the positive denial of either religion or God. When did it change?

Information is hard to come by without several weeks’ worth of library stack time. But it seems to be that it changed very recently. Here’s a 1999 book on the philosophy of religion:

To be an atheist in the broad sense is to deny the existence of any sort of divine being or divine reality. Tillich was not an atheist in the broad sense. But he was an atheist in the narrow sense, for he denied that there exists a divine being that is all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good. [p157]

Notice what is implied here: the narrow sense of atheism, and the narrow sense of theism that it relies upon, is basically the monotheism of Christianity and Islam. It is in other words a cultural imperialist definition: one that relies upon our religion as the touchstone. It means, literally interpreted, that Hindus and Zoroastrians are not theists, but atheists. The only justification for this kind of definition of atheism is that it is something culturally bounded, that atheism is a crime against the status quo. This is the sense in which Socrates, who explicitly ascribed his views to the influence of “the God”, was regarded as an atheist by the Athenians, because he failed to support the religion of the State. Similar aspersions were cast by the Romans on the Jews and early Christians, who likewise failed to follow the state religion, and were charged with “atheism”.

The other interesting thing about this definition is that it makes atheism an assertion rather than a lack of belief. It makes atheism a positive belief about a particular state of affairs, not a lack of knowledge or interest. The authors, Stump and Murray may not be consistent here, as they too lump agnosticism in with atheism, although earlier, on page 132 they said that agnosticism was the view that “one just does not know (and has no good way of finding out)”, which is more in line with my view. In the 1880s, Thomas Henry Huxley invented the term, agnostic, to denote someone who thought that God’s existence was unknowable in principle.

In the 2003 second edition of the book Atheism and Theism, a debate between Jack Smart and John Haldane, Smart defines theism and deism in the ordinary way and then says “Atheism I take to be the denial of theism and deism”. So the traditional view of atheism as a positive claim about the knowledge of the existence or not of a class of beings, is still in play.

But look at the internet definitions, and that’s not what you find. There are two distinctions that have become popular, and are to be found, for example, in the Wikipedia article.

George H. Smith in 1979 distinguished between implicit atheism and explicit atheism. He wrote

The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist. [p14]

This is implicit atheism, he said. Explicit atheism is the traditional sense of a denial of God. Now, why should we adopt this distinction? Are newborn children also implicit abaseballists? Are they little implicit aconservatives or aliberals? If we have to say they are not, then the only justification for calling newborn children or those who have never heard of a religion of theism “atheists” is that you have already privileged the view they do not have as primary. This is that cultural imperialism I talked about before. We’ll get back to that. For now, let me merely say that I find the distinction to be without merit as a taxonomy of beliefs.

The later distinction is between “weak” atheists and “strong” atheists, and this is the most common distinction made on both sides today. It appears to have been suggested by Antony Flew in 1976. In a landmark essay “The Presumption of Atheism”, Flew argued that the onus of proof lies on the theist, not the atheist, but he remarks:

The word “atheism,” however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of “atheism” in English is “someone who asserts that there is no such being as God,” I want the word to be understood not positively, but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix “a” to be read in the same way in “atheist” as it is customarily read in other such Greco-English words as “amoral,” “atypical,” and “asymmetrical.” In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels “positive atheist” for the former and “negative atheist” for the latter.

But why? Why not just call the former “atheist” and the latter “agnostic”, according to traditional usage (and, I argue, good taxonomy)? Flew does a nice little bit of special pleading: agnosticism has a “degenerate” meaning in ordinary use, that you used to believe in God but now you are not sure. That is, in my view, total baloney. I never, for one, ever thought that was the case for agnosticism, and neither I warrant, did anyone else who published on the matter. Flew is setting it up so that he can claim that the default view includes all those who are not, in effect, Christians.

Why would atheists like this distinction? For similar reasons to the reasons why theists do too: it means that the battle lines are drawn precisely, and that “if you are not for us, you are against us” and “if you are not against us, you are for us” are simultaneously true. There is a nice term in political history – revanchism. This is all about the desire to gain or regain territory. Christians and other theists like to think that it’s all about them, so having agnostics defined as atheists means that it is. Atheists like to claim non-theists as atheists (but weak ones, not very good thinkers). It all looks like that game we used to play when we were kids at the beach. “I dare you to cross that line!” “Now you’re on my side!”

Revanchism doesn’t lead either to good borders or good taxonomies. I have previously given my reasons for thinking that the right taxonomy is between those who do and don’t assert knowledge (just as Huxley explained when he declared himself the first agnostic), and of those who do, between those who do think there is a God (or gods; let’s not be revanchist ourselves), and those who do not, which gives us theists, who do, and atheists, who do not. [See other posts here, here, here and here.]

Some theists have claimed not to know if there is a God (or gods), and declared themselves agnostics. I think this is a bit of a verbal trick. If you ask them do they believe there is a God or gods, they will, if they are theists, declare that they so believe. Belief is a kind of knowledge claim (not, maybe, a justified one), and so I think that theist agnostics are a contradiction in terms.

So, to summarise, when an atheist says to me I am an atheist because I lack a view, I am minded to reply, “I am also an asportist” for failing to have a team in any sport that I support. It makes about as much sense. Flew’s faux etymology is just special pleading. While I agree that there is a presumption that there are no gods for some people, I do not think this is a truth of nature or fact about logic, as some seem to. What counts as the “default” view is a historical contingency, and we have to recognise that. In my history, the burden of proof falls on those who wish to make any kind of knowledge claim one way or the other.

Agnosticism, not theism or atheism, is the default position… for me, at any rate. So I repeat: I am not an atheist. I am myself, and I self-identify as an agnostic.

64 thoughts on “Definitions of atheism

  1. I think there’s value in thinking of atheism and agnosticism as two separate things. From one of the FAQs on my site:

    One of the key points is that agnosticism is a separate axis from the presence or absence of actual belief in the individual. It is a statement about whether or not the existence of deities is knowable, rather than about whether the person in question is a believer or not.

    The value in the distinction is not, as our esteemed author has argued, one of “territory” but rather one of precision. It helps get away from using the terms as value judgments and instead lets them be used as actual descriptors of the reality of a person’s belief system. From a more solid understanding you can then move on to the juicy shouting bits.


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