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:

atheism:

[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 am an atheist. My description is simple: there are not now, have never been, will never be, can not be deities. YMMV.

    Y’all can call yourselves whatever you like, just please stop insisting that others conform to your own, private definitions. It’s not that complicated.

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  2. I don’t know how informed, intelligent people can be atheists or even agnostics regarding the Olympian gods. For example, Iv’e seen Apollo with my own eyes as he courses across the heavenly sphere. Haven’t you?

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  3. It’s lousy taxonomy to define a group by a single character. Both birds and bats have wings, but they aren’t very closely related. Similarly, both Marxist/Leninists and American village atheists deny the existence of God, but the beliefs of the former have obvious structural as well as historical affinities with the Christianity while the village atheists have a different genealogy, having diverged, as it were, at an earlier fork in the cladogram, a fact which accounts in part for the distinctly 18th Century flavor of their rhetoric.

    A serious attempt to understand the various atheisms would have to eschew essentialism in favor of the methods of historical sociology. That wouldn’t be much fun, though, and wouldn’t necessarily further anybody’s polemical intentions so this comment is probably the last you’ll hear of it.

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  4. John says,

    “Flew is setting it up so that he can claim that the default view includes all those who are not, in effect, Christians.”

    I guess missed where Christians came into his quotes at all.

    Then,

    “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!””

    Come on John,

    Isn’t this a clear violation of “The Principal of Charity”? This whole debate revolves around the difference between theistic claims that are unjustifiable (or unfalsifiable) in principle and those that can be examined like any other interesting knowledge claim – whether someone says agnostic or atheist will depend on the theistic claim being made. There is an inherent asymmetry here, IMHO.

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  5. Larry Moran doth protest:

    Stop calling me an atheist if you’re using the same definition as John Wilkins. If you going to he honest and consistent then you have to refer to me and Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers as agnostics, just like you.

    Personally, I’m cool with Larry, Dickie and PeeZee being agnostic. But I’m going to have to self-identify as a Millian Huxleyist if they do.

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    1. I’m cool with Larry, Dickie and PeeZed being agnostic, but I’m going to have to self-identify as areligious, which, I hope, will mean I have coined a new word.

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  6. RE: “Whenever I go into a foreign country or a prison or any similar place they always ask me what is my religion.”

    Is there a reason why , when people are asked to state their religion either verbally or on a form, they cannot answer “none” or “MYOB”?

    RE: “The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. ”

    I was under the impression that a person “who is unacquainted with theism” is a heathen, but according to the Compact OED, heathen is a “derogatory” noun “a person who does not belong to a widely held religion (especially Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) as regarded by those who do.”
    However, you may call me a heathen; I won’t be offended.

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  7. I think Jim nails it for me, it’s a single issue, and only becomes a matter of identity for me at least when faith enters the political world and the views I share with others are challenged.

    Within such a group you would expect to find very different perspectives and outlook on all other matters. I may indeed have more in common with friends who belong to faith groups and share the same general political outlook and cultural background as myself despite having a major disagreement on one aspect of life.

    If the debate was just about unjustifiable claims that can not be examined like other claims to knowledge it would have been long dead, long ago.

    As the answer is not a difficult one to reach.

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  8. To me it’s more a matter of fundamentalist beliefs and religion entering the political world than a problem with religion in general that I need to define myself against.

    As long as it’s a private view and does not seek to impose itself on the secular world of politics who cares what individuals think.

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    1. Religion is seldom “a private view,” but a view that seeks to impose itself everywhere in the secular world. As long as individuals feel comfortable about asking others “what is your religion?” it is necessary to care about what individuals think.

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  9. I come from a place famous for sectarian hatred where religious identity is imposed regardless of personal beliefs as it is a cultural indicator with little to do with faith.

    So yes you do have to be very careful about what people think and who they are.
    Often the construction of identity has little to do with the actual arguments presented as they pretend to be something else. I bit like the age old image of the village idiot
    Repeatedly wheeled out by elite administrative groups since the middle ages as a means of creating an exclusive and well defined identity. Still you have to have some hope that things will change.

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  10. What is the correct term to describe someone who has come to the conclusion that gods and religions are the products of human imagination, whose continued existence is the result of cognitive biases, logical fallacies and psychological motives such as wish-fulfillment?

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    1. Well if you drop the psychology you could refer to them as an ethnologist among other things.

      The removal of God and psychology from language in the 18 th century and placing it in a firm historical framework was a shrewd move in my book. I find both approaches often lead to glaring mistakes and assumptions in my subject.

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  11. >I take atheism, as I argue above, to be a statement of knowledge – that God (or all gods, depending on the scope of the claim) does not exist. I take agnosticism to be the view that one can neither know or not if god/s exist/s. Surely that difference is clear.

    So, what would you call someone who believes that there is no god(s) and that the truth of that is unknowable?

    Or someone who has no opinion on the existence of god(s), but thinks the answer is knowable?

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    1. I think the evidence clearly points to the fact that God does not exist. Although I cannot furnish the evidence that a believer would require.

      I would call agnosticism good professional working manners; as an Ethnologist I have to work with peoples belief and on occasion the people who believe such things.

      I have to show respect to views other than my own. Clearly others feel they don’t have to.

      I would suggest you drop the language of the middle ages though. It’s history and usage are very clear. It’s a subject that has been of particular interest for years and if its not being used to define an identity in this case. It’s a first for the term.

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  12. Fascinating how fascinated people are with that god-shaped hole in their heads. It seems to take as much effort to keep it empty as it does to justify what is in there.

    I remain suspicious of anyone who rejects gods as being relevant in their daily lives, yet needs to cast around for a euphemism to avoid the tainted label of atheist.

    If you grant that theoretically, no atheist can prove the non-existence of all gods and likewise no theist can nor is likely to prove the existence of any god; what then the point of the label Agnostic? We are all agnostic and provably so, therefore it is a useless distinction. Unless we happen to need a euphemism in our circumstances.

    It really depends on how you live your life. It all comes down to actions:

    Theist- Follows rules imperfectly, prays,
    bargains, hopes for rewards, worries about punishment.

    Atheist- Follows rules imperfectly.

    Cultural theist- Ditto, but likes to go through some of the motions.

    Agnostic- What? Do you pray to a god that you are unsure even exists? Sacrifice to it? Just sometimes? If you are consistently a practising non-theist, then what more do we need to know?

    So, don’t deny that I am an atheist and push me into your agnostic pigeon hole because I acknowledge that I can’t prove a negative. Of course I’m agnostic. Everyone is, whether they know it or not. It’s a big pigeon hole.

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  13. nme, what do you think of the contention that it takes 2 binary bits to describe the (theist, gnostic) situation, giving 4 states (00, 01, 10, 11)? I can allow that the agnostic variable is the belief that one can or cannot know. I just claim that no-one can prove their belief that they can know, giving 01 or 11 which reduce to just 0 or 1.

    The 2 bit model disallows the common assumption that it is a grayscale, with agnostics somewhere between the canoe and the dock.

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  14. JohnnieCanuck I tend to think both are greyscales, with the terms representing either.

    There are degrees of belief on both scales – I’m pretty convinced there’s no deity but not completely certain, and I don’t think any of the modern versions of god are knowable, though again I have no certainty.

    There’s certainly no way to prove their belief, but I think we’re talking more about labels for belief systems than truth in any objective sense. A devout Catholic will never be able to prove his knowledge of God to me, but as far as he’s concerned he is certainly not agnostic.

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  15. curses. “representing either end”.

    I’m going to stop trying to post while completely distracted.

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  16. The 2-bit/4-state concept appeals to my engineering sensibilities (cue the wisecracks about whether engineers have sensibilities). However, I think the measure of how agnostic a person is should be based on the confidence level of their belief, not their ability to provide convincing proof to others. Those among the devoutly religious who have given the question some thought tend to come up with justifications for their beliefs along the lines of having “different ways of knowing”, and/or experiences that provide sufficient (albeit subjective) proof.

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  17. A worthwhile original posting, about a topic that has received too little attention, especially in this era of “the new atheism”.

    Two references could be explored by WILKINS in his exploratory essay:

    1. WIKIPEDIA has coined a new word, namely, “ignosticism”. This word MAY serve the purposes that WILKINS desires.

    2. Keith PARSONS, in his book, , p.29 asserts (about whom the burden should fall upon):
    “USUALLY THE RESPONSIBILITY IS EVENLY DIVIDED BETWEEN THE TWO PARTIES OF A DISPUTE.”

    These could be worthwhile readings ?

    Cheers,
    ozogg

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  18. Weirdly, this reminds me a bit of Sam Harris’ comments on why we should drop the label ‘atheist’. We don’t have a special word for people who disbelieve in pixies, so why should we have a special word for people who disbelieve in Gods?

    That aside – presuming that you’re still monitoring the comments on this thread – I have a general question to you.

    Consider that I cannot be utterly certain that pixies do not exist, but feel that I am so strongly justified in my belief that they do not that I consider that I know fairies don’t exist. Similarly, I know that if I drop an apple, it won’t suddenly fall up and away from the Earth – though in an absolute sense, I cannot be sure to a metaphysical certainty that this will always be the case.

    Does the above qualify as knowledge?

    If it does, why is it so impossible to ‘know’ God does not exist, when it is possible to ‘know’ that fairies do not?

    If it does not, what possibly would qualify as knowledge? After all, I can feel the keyboard under my fingers, but I cannot really know to a metaphysical certainty that there really is a keyboard under my hands – or even that I have hands, for that matter.

    At what point do we say ‘this is certain enough to be knowledge’? Can we ever say it, in your view?

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    1. “…why should we have a special word for people who disbelieve in Gods?”

      Because even if we don’t call ourselves something, the people who do believe in gods WILL. They will call us names like “sinner”, “heretic”, “apostate”. If we give up using the word atheist to describe ourselves, that will not prevent the pious from making it a pejorative term against us.

      The whole argument of “why do you define yourselves by what you DON’T believe in?” ignores centuries of violence and persecution against disbelievers. No one asks the Protestants the same question.

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      1. Of course – I hope you didn’t think I was attempting to criticize the use of the term ‘atheist’. I was just pointing out that his argument reminded me of Harris’.

        I’d assumed that the use of the word ‘atheist’ in my avatar would have made it clear that I disagreed with Harris – but then again, perhaps I should have been clearer. ^_^

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  19. Being aware of no proof there ever were any gods, and being aware that the forces we do know about in this universe are totally capable of forming all we do know about it, I am an atheist. I have seen no evidence to produce uncertainty about the existence of deities, but only the lack of evidence to support even their possible existence. Since I have this knowledge and can act in total freedom using it, I am not agnostic.

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    1. More power to you. Say it loud. Just don’t say that makes me an atheist, thanks, because I have seen arguments that do make the issue unresolvable. Let’s agree to say I am atheist about one or a small number of gods fewer than you, and several gods more than most theists…

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  20. Reading the above, and browsing a few dictionaries’ takes on the matter, my sense is that usage of “atheism” and “agnosticism” is just terribly inconsistent. But this is a nice discussion. I’m all for John’s staking a claim on the one term and trying to promote the sort of terminological clarity that discourages strawmen, equivocation, and discussion-breakdown. Good luck.

    But I’ve decided the best term for me is “irreligious.” It communicates that no particular religious positions convince me (as if they did, given a presumption of rationality, I would be religious). But also, like your “asportism,” it communicates a general disinterest in the whole business, without misleadingly suggesting I have any particular position on something ambiguous.

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