What is an Atheist?

It is certainly true that much contemporary discussion between (and about) atheists and religious believers suffers from the tendency to assume that “God” means (and can only mean) one thing, usually the classic theism of Christianity as reduced into the understanding of popular Christianity today.

Equally problematic, however, is a lack of clarity about what is meant by atheism and atheist. Does being an atheist mean one denies theism? If so, then one can be a deeply spiritual atheist, even a religious atheist. In fact, one can even be a Christian atheist. On the other hand, if atheism means one denies any notion of “god” whatsoever, any form of religious belief, anything other than reductionist materialism, then I know many “atheists” who will probably no longer be entirely comfortable bearing the label.

So what does “atheist” mean to you? And is the solution to the confusion simply to point out that just as “Christian” and “God” do not refer to single positions, concepts or definitions, so too there are different brands of atheism, and different understandings of what it means to be an atheist?

This post is largely a response to a post on EvolutionBlog entitled “Saving Religion from Religion Scholars” (see also The Bad Idea Blog and Unreasonable Faith, as well as Liberal Pastor and Threads from Henry’s Web). I’m not sure Jason Rosenhouse is concerned with saving religion from scholars so much as saving atheism from scholars like me who raise this issue about what it in fact means. Take a look!

  • Brian Westley

    “Atheist” means “not a theist.”

  • Carlos

    Here’s another way of seeing how difficult the issue is, proceeding by way of the discernment of family-resemblances. Consider historically influential “atheists” such as Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, and Russell. One might plausibly think that they are all atheists? But are they? Certainly none of them had any fondness of institutionalized Christianity as they knew it in their own time. Spinoza denied that God is a person, so if “theism” means “the belief in a personal God,” then sure, Spinoza is an atheist. But on the other hand the concept of God figures centrally in his metaphysics and in his ethics. Hume certainly did not think that Christianity was rationally warranted, but this has more to do with (I think) his extraordinary skepticism with respect to the powers of the human mind to know anything at all about ultimate reality. While Nietzsche is one of the fiercest (and often funniest) critics of Christianity, there is an incandescent spirituality that shines through his prose that he himself calls “Dionysian faith” — a faith that is fully immanent and life-affirming. And while Russell was certainly hostile towards Christianity as well, he was not without a Spinozistic faith of his own, as comes through clearly in “The Value of Philosophy” at the end of Problems of Philosophy. In short: whether any of these philosophers are atheists — and all of them were regarded as such in their own time! — depends on what one takes theism to be. And that’s just as fluid, open-ended, and contested as any other human concept. I’ll let Nietzsche have the last word: “only that which has no history can be defined.”

  • Wjw

    Atheism is one of the things that we are born with that others want to remove from us as soon as possible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04262012749524758120 Eamon Knight

    Oh, golly, do you know what you’ve asked? ;-) Even on ungodly forums like alt.atheism you’ll get spirited debate on the meaning of “atheism” and whether it properly includes “agnosticism”.My way of cutting the cake of unbelief is this:I recognize there’s a large ensemble of god-concepts out there (having worked my way through a few of them myself over the years). Some of them I regard as inconsistent or absurd, and I explicitly deny their reality. Call this “hard” atheism. Others could possibly exist, but I see no evidence for them, and so assume they don’t (“soft” atheism). Then there are concepts that seem simply incoherent or ill-defined. Since poorly-defined questions cannot be answered, I remain agnostic (in the strict sense) about those gods.But for everyday use, “atheist” describes me best. Certainly, either lack-of-belief or frank denial characterizes my attitude towards the god-concepts I encounter in popular culture.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Carl:When you talk about historical atheists having “faith”, are you confusing “faith” as used by everyday people when they accept something based on their personal experience with the modern meaning among the Faithful as something you must have “in” Jesus in order to be Saved? That is such a loaded term in this context that we need to be extra careful in using it.Also, when we question the precision of the term “atheist” and then start throwing “spiritual” around we are headed for ruin and chaos.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13329095505931992436 Shaved Regressor

    For me, atheism has always meant not following a religion or believing in the supernatural. I think of atheism as a synonym for materialism (in the philosophical sense, not the collecting-material-goods sense).Growing up without any religious beliefs, I was always amazed how many people believed in odd things like ghosts, magic, gods, psychic powers, and reincarnation. “Atheist” was how I identified myself in contrast to that.On the other hand, a more common definition is simply not believing in a god or gods. By this definition you could be an atheist who believes in reincarnation (which seems bizarre to me). This more common definition also fits the etymology of the word better.In everyday conversation, I think it is useful to define an agnostic as someone who thinks the existence or non-existence of a god are both reasonably possible, or someone who puts a great stress on how we cannot have absolute knowledge of the matter. In contrast, an atheist is someone who does not see a god as a reasonable possibility. In other words, an atheist does not have to claim absolute knowledge, but would dismiss god as being about as likely as fairies in the garden.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04262012749524758120 Eamon Knight

    Oh yes, and one other point related to the Carse essay: both before, during and after my religious period, I was captivated by the wonder of the universe. One of my tensions as a fundamentalist was just how much of that wonder that culture denies (particularly, the truncated timescape of YECism).I have no idea which atheists Carse has been reading, but Dawkins, PZ Myers and the rest of the SciBlogs & associated atheists certainly don't fit his description.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    How ’bout: An atheist is someone who does not accept that any transcendent (non-physical?) Will affects the universe.Would this be sufficient to exclude the pantheists, panentheists, etc?BTW: I hope you do not intend to saddle atheists who find wonder in the universe with the label of spiritual. Personally, I am not interested.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew

    I have always found the notion of an atheist who also makes claims to spirituality quite puzzling. Now we can say that there are atheist religions like Buddhism – there is a lack of belief in deities (not exactly – in forms such as Vajrayana there are demons and angels and so forth). the point is that a Buddhist in general does not take issue with a belief in gods of some sort.What puzzles me is that there are so many atheists who are adamant that there are no gods, but at the same time will say that there is a thing such as “spirit”. I debated many times an anti-theist who also practices Zen Buddhism. When I pushed him on how completely inconsistent he was being, he simply stuck to the I don’t like God and think they are stupid tact. Hypocrisy or just stupidity?Part of the definitional problem is that I think Dawkins and others have done a great disservice to the term agnostic. He would rather call it “soft-atheism”.I am not sure how one can be an adamant atheist (in the ilk of Dawkins, etc.) and still hold some belief in any kind of immaterial existence that has regulative power over experience.Of course this begs a question since there are indeed immaterial forces that regulate experience. The question is if one projects that to deity or not.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10828225180668865911 Mystical Seeker

    Interesting you should pose this question, because I was thinking about this issue when Spong responded to the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” question about a certain percentage of self-described atheists who said they believed in God. Spong’s response was to say that the problem was that many people confuse religion with theism. Spong uses the word “theism” as a catch-all term to describe classical theism, which he rejects. The problem I have with Spong is that he is clearer on what it is he rejects than on what it is he actually believes in. I’m not sure what the alternative is to the theism that he proposes–it is clearly Tillich-influenced, but other than that I’m not really sure. He never seems to address things like panentheism, which is clearly different from classical theism, but isn’t it still, in some sense, a theism? That is why I think that Spong confuses things when he uses the term “theism” in this sense. Still, that was basically the point he was trying to make–that “atheists” who reject classical theism can still believe in God.

  • Steve Ballmer

    This takes more faith to believe than the other

  • Carlos

    Scott,With respect to my use of “faith” — for one thing, this is a term that Nietzsche himself explicitly uses, in the English translation. I haven’t checked the German. As he puts it:”Such a spirit who has become free stands amid the cosmos with a joyous and trusting fatalism, in the faith that only the particular is loathesome, and that all is redeemed and affirmed in the whole — he does not negate anymore. Such a faith, however, is the highest of all possible faiths: I have baptized it with the name of Dionysus.”(This is in Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes of an Untimely Man” section 49.) As for how I interpret this — I would say that here Nietzsche is using “faith” to mean something like “one’s basic existential orientation towards reality” — and other passages in Nietzsche lead me to think that he would evaluate different faiths according to a variety of metrics, such as psychological plausibility, consistency with natural science, and affirmation of sensations of vitality and powerfulness (“life”). Christianity fares very poorly according those standards; Buddhism somewhat better; and his idiosyncratic, “Dionysian” faith fares very well — as he says, it is “the highest of all possible faiths.” But I didn’t introduce this in order to score some cheap points about the history of philosophy. My real point is that we hamstring ourselves, intellectually (and also, I would add, morally and spiritually) whenever we insist on convenient labels to pin on ourselves and on others. That discussions such as this one usually get hopelessly mired in definitional wrangling is one way of illustrating this point. The diversity and complexity of different views that gets collapsed under the label of “atheism” is another way of illustrating it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    Ah the dreaded “define atheism” question!Try this explanation.“Most of the North American public define an “Atheist” is a person who believes that no deity exists…But they may be in the minority. Many, perhaps most, Atheists simply have no belief about deity. For them, Atheism is not disbelief in a deity or deities; it is simply a lack of belief in any of them.”Also commonly referred to as strong and weak atheism. So, for example, I assert with high probability (not certainty) that the Christian version of God does not exist. However, I generally lack belief in the umpteen hundreds of other deities that humankind has cooked up. As for some “force” in the Universe that we’d call God (assuming we can reach agreement on what defines God) I’m an agnostic. “A person who feels that we have no method by which we can conclude whether a deity exists is an Agnostic.”This is why I’ve decided it’s much easier to punch and kick things. ;-)Now how many atheists will fit through the eye of a needle?~BCP

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03203694356448028420 Duane Smith

    From my own perspective, an atheist is a person who finds these kinds of questions uninteresting and/or irrelevant and sees no reason why anyone would think otherwise.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    The words ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’, irrespective of their etymology, are relics of a bygone age – a time when it was considered perfectly normal to believe in god(s).Thanks to science, we now know different – and as such, these words are now completely redundant. They’re the only words in the English language which identify a person by a specific NON-belief in something.The words are loaded with negative connotations too – immorality, being the most common slur encountered. Plus, the word ‘atheist’ sounds anarchic and militant, cold and unfriendly.We’re not ‘atheists’ who are into ‘atheism’ – we’re just normal, rational, thinking people. We’re not the ones who need a special label for not believing in things which are *supremely* improbable, without a shred of evidence. It’s ludicrous.Labels are destructive and divisive, but for identification purposes, I have no qualms calling myself a ‘non-theist’ or simply ‘non-religious’. If I am asked for my religion when filling in a form, I always write ‘none’ or ‘not applicable’.I think by allowing ourselves to be labelled ‘atheists’, we create the false impression that it’s some kind of religion itself and that lends a certain amount of credibility to the theistic worldview.Remember, without ‘theists’ there would be no ‘atheists’. As Sam Harris said “I think we pay a price every time we use the word”. Labels are destructive and divisive. I say we reject it and disassociate ourselves from it, to the point of finding it offensive and disrespectful, much like the word ‘nigger’.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    NS -What term or terms do you and Mr. Harris propose we use?At least here in the Midwest I still run into situations where I’m asked. I usually say I’m not religious which kills half the questions. If pressed I’ll just say atheist or agnostic depending on how you define God. However, depending on my mood, I’ve also said: “I usually do not like to discuss my religious beliefs because once I tell you I’m not I have to spend the next 20 minutes hearing why I should be.”-B

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05830094293166211231 Robin

    Defining the term “atheism” is a lot like what happened when people tried lumping a bunch of philosophers together under the term “existentialists”. They were PISSED.The -ism implied some sort of shared dogma or belief system, when in fact the only thing existentialists had in common was a seeking of a certain sort of knowledge, in a highly pluralist fashion, with no dogma whatsoever. I’d argue the same is true of atheism and atheists. You’re asking a group of people who cohere only in their lack of belief in some thing to define themselves dogmatically. The question itself is flawed. As is the English language. Perhaps this is why most successful existentialism was done in German and French – they just made up words when none existed to fit their explorations. I wouldn’t look to history to tell you what an atheist is. As mentioned above, Spinoza was routinely called an atheist (as were many of the deist founders of America) but all it meant to the insult-flinger was that so and so lacked belief in THEIR particular god.I, however, will happily stand with John Dewey, who wanted to reclaim the notion of a religious or spiritual experience from everything supernatural and place is squarely back in the realm of the awe of the natural world.In conclusion, I quote the fine philosopher Bueller when he said “-isms, in my opinion, are not good.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    I’ve honestly just never understood what’s supposed to be so hard about this. It could plausibly be argued that it’s difficult to precisely define theism such that it encompasses all possible theistic conceptions, including those that are ambiguously or confusingly defined. But by and large, it’s just not true that theism is poorly understood: 99.9% of people know what you mean by it. And atheism is easy to define regardless of how problematic the definition of theism is. It might be hard to define exactly what you believe in. But it’s very easy to recognize something you don’t believe in, because the you have a finite list of “beliefs” to survey, and it’s pretty easy to determine whether anything even remotely like conventional or even ambiguous theism is amongst them.As to whether agnosticism is compatible with atheism: good grief. It’s simple modal logic! Belief and knowledge are two independent things. One can believe in God with or without claiming knowledge of God, and one can not believe with or without claiming to know that no Gods exist. So of course one can be an agnostic atheist. And you cannot simply be an agnostic: whether you believe in god or not is a binary proposition, like whether or not you have an apple in your hand. Trying to answer “agnostic” to a question of the possession or lack of a belief is to misunderstand the question and answer a different (though perhaps related) one.One of my chief beefs with Dawkins is that his taxonomy in this area just adds to the confusion. George Smith did a good job laying out all these issues in his “Atheism: The Case Against God” and I’ve never encountered a serious argument against his taxonomy that seemed more compelling than his take.”I am not sure how one can be an adamant atheist (in the ilk of Dawkins, etc.) and still hold some belief in any kind of immaterial existence that has regulative power over experience.”You seem to have an underlying assumption here that doesn’t make much sense: that a supernatural realm requires a God. But that’s just silly. If one level of reality (i.e. the material world) doesn’t necessarily require the presumption of God to explain its nature, why should two? Or three?”Of course this begs a question since there are indeed immaterial forces that regulate experience.”Either I disagree with you here, or you’re just equivocating on the word “immaterial.” Certainly there are abstract concepts that we use to think about experience. But this is not evidence that there are actual immaterial “forces.” I’m not even sure what such a term would even mean. I don’t identify as a materialist myself because, honestly, I don’t think anyone has any sensible or useful description to offer me as to how anything can be classified as either material/immaterial. I’ve never found the classification useful or informative about any matter. I mean, what are the descriptive characteristics of an “immaterial” object, as opposed to a bunch of roundabout ways of saying “not like a material object?” Things that exist cannot be just a list of things that they aren’t. Atheists aren’t theists, but they are all sorts of other things.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15978997781556741350 Mike L.

    If somebody says “I believe in God”, but yet they cannot explain what it is (animal, vegetable, mineral, thought, moral code, molecular substance, ghostly presence, black-hole, etc) then what good is their assertion? What have they really declared? When theists say they believe in God but don’t know what it is, then to me that is the same thing as saying they are an atheist or agnostic.I don’t believe in belief. I have deep faith, but no desire to claim certainty in anything without evidence and a reasonable theory for what that evidence represents. I’m perfectly open to a God theory. I’ve just never heard any reasonable theory for what it is. However, I do have faith. I still follow Jesus’ mission. For me, I think that is the definition of faith. I have faith because I act on my allegiance to Jesus and accept that his teaching will work without being certain of (seeing) his existence. The bible seems to favor this type of faith without certainty. Theistic existence and Jesus’ divinity are irrelevant to my faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Carl,Thanks for explicating what sense of “faith” you are employing. I did not intend to accuse you, specifically, of verbal legerdemain. It is good, however, to be careful about language – as this discussion highlights. I would argue that this “mire” in which we have so willingly immersed ourselves results from our refusal to use labels. If we insist that God doesn’t mean God then we are left with no linguistic reference with which to communicate. The wrangling results from people like James (sorry!) insisting that he is Christian but then obfuscating by appealing to the 101 varieties of heresy and mysticism. Pointing out that individuals have believed all sorts of things may be a defense but it is not a definition that allows us enter a conversation. The human mind is conditioned by language and language requires labels in order to function. Hence, employing the Sloppy Logic Axiom (SLA), the human mind requires labels. Q.E.D.:)I guess my point is that I can not see how requesting a definition is so anathema to understanding a position.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Upon further reflection, maybe this discomfort with labels is a feature of the very mysticism that James seems to admire.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13338677991161252796 Metro

    Generally, I feel that atheism is a belief the way vacuum is an atmosphere. Or, as I read elsewhere, atheism is a faith the way bald is a hair colour.Atheism simply means not believing in a god or gods.However, I feel that it’s equally hard to define a Christian. Are Jehovah’s Witnesses Christians? How about Catholics? These questions are also subject to lively debate in many places.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17336244849636477317 John Pieret

    When arguing over words, it’s well to remember that they are fluid things. For example, Thomas Jefferson called John Calvin an atheist because Jefferson thought Calvin worshipped a false god.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    The word 'atheist' (often seen spelt with a capital 'A' which seems to be favoured by religious folk for some reason) makes as much sense as calling a non-smoker an 'Asmokerist'.I don't believe in smoking and I don't practise it. I don't believe in religion and likewise I don't practise it. I also think religion and smoking are bad for you and the people around you.Why can I be called a 'non-smoker' on hand, and an 'Atheist' on the other.Shove your -ists & -isms.There is no reason for believing that any sort of gods exist, and quite good reasons for believing that they don't exist and never have.Calling me an 'atheist' to my face is likely to result in a smack in the mouth (not really – but it might cross my mind).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07225890125470949454 Bad

    I guess a key point here is ones motive for using words, and defining them a certain way.My motive is clarity: to create a taxonomy of classifications that makes useful and informative distinctions, and does not set out to confuse or tempt people into equivocation (i.e. switching around meanings and exploiting various connotations mid-argument).If you don’t like the word atheist, we can for the sake of discussion use the word “granzoples.” But I still would like people to be clear on exactly what I mean when I use the word, and hopefully that everyone will get the meaning as clearly as possible.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    NOT OKAY:Atheist, infidel, dissident, Devil-worshipperOKAY:Non-believer, non-theist, non-religious, normal

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    NS -Refusing to use the term atheism might be more trouble than it’s worth. Academia has long since embraced it. Those pesky experts!And please don’t smack me in the mouth. I’m a gentle snowflake. ;-)

  • John Phillips, FCD

    If it helps, as well as being an atheist (though an old one not a new one :) ) I am also an azeusist, afaerist, aclausist and so on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    Well Bob, if some clever dick at Cambridge University has written a entire book on it, then I better get hold of a copy and find out exactly who or what I am.All these years I just thought the word meant I didn’t buy into religious mumbo-jumbo, but obviously there’s a lot more to it than that.For £45, it must contain more pages than the Bible! Hmmm, that’s given me an idea. I should write a book about what it means to NOT believe in fairies. Damn, if only there was a word for that.

  • benjdm

    …suffers from the tendency to assume that “God” means (and can only mean) one thing, usually the classic theism of Christianity as reduced into the understanding of popular Christianity today.Well, yes. I tend to assume that commonly used words mean their commonly used definition. I’m weird like that.Does being an atheist mean one denies theism?Well, yes, I would think so. Just as I would expect someone who calls themselves a theist to affirm theism. It seems like a clear enough way to communicate.So what does “atheist” mean to you? God: 1. the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe. Do you believe there is such a being (y/n)? If no, then you’re an atheist. If yes, then you’re a theist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    Ben, I almost agree with you.This is how I think it should go:”Do you believe there’s a god?(yes or no)If yes, then you’re a ‘theist’.End of story.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    You make it sound so wonderfully simple! But what happens if you ask a Hindu? A Hindu will most likely answer the “god” question with a “yes” (and may say there is more than one). But the same individual may deny that any of those deities is the ultimate reality…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    James, if a Hindu (or anyone else) says they believe in the existence of god(s) then they are, by definition, a ‘theist’.I don’t believe in god or gods, therefore I am a ‘non-theist’.Makes perfect sense to me – and yes, it’s wonderfully simple too!

  • benjdm

    You make it sound so wonderfully simple! The KISS principle is very dear to me. :) Especially as one who so often fails the 10% rule. (You must be 10% smarter than the equipment you attempt to operate.)But what happens if you ask a Hindu?I don’t know. In what language? Are they very good at English? If so, I expect them to use the words the way they’re commonly used in English. If not, I expect to have to go through some investigative questioning to figure out what they think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    NaturalSelection,Is “polytheism” just a form of “theism”? Hinduism is particularly problematic, because on the one hand, gods are simply powerful beings, and plenty of “atheists” have no reason to disbelieve that there are more advanced civilizations around in the universe that can do some pretty “god-like” stuff. On the other hand, the ultimate reality is not a personal God, and so their view of ultimate reality may be akin to Einstein’s (if they are well educated Hindus, at any rate).benjdm,Plenty of Hindus are speakers of excellent English, whether in India or elsewhere. But their English may not be precisely the same as yours. Why should English, much less American English, be allowed to determine the discussion? So what happens if they object to your use of English as definitive, and say that no English word corresponds to what they are talking about? What if they ask your view about Brahman as well as Devas?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    James, you asked:”Is ‘polytheism’ just a form of ‘theism’?I’m not sure if that was just a rhetorical question – but my answer is – yes, of course it is!As for Hinduism, I don’t know enough about that to comment.

  • Carlos

    Naturalselection,Part of James’ point, or what I take from it, is that the ‘debate’ between atheists and theists takes place against a basically Christian context, and it’s really quite difficult to know what to do with those terms when the context is shifted to Hinduism, to Buddhism, etc.I say “Christian” in part because I find that Christianity is rather unusual in its insistence between redemption and metaphysics. In Orthodox Judaism, for example, one participates in the project of redemption through correct practice — one’s metaphysical views are not relevant. (The same is true, from what little I’ve been told, in Islam.) But because metaphysics is so important to Christianity, the debate about theism and atheism becomes much more important.I think this is another way of getting us to see how confused it is to regard either theism or atheism as ‘natural’ or ‘fundamental’ or whatever. If the diversity of ‘atheisms’ and of ‘theisms’ wasn’t enough!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    I find it hard enough to grasp the fact we’re even having this kind of discussion *at all* in the 21st Century.The idea of the existence of *any* god, is just so stupefyingly implausible, it really is a joke of cosmic proportions.I’m sick of it, quite frankly.

  • benjdm

    Why should English, much less American English, be allowed to determine the discussion? Only because that’s the language I speak. If they want to bring in additional concepts and/or use a different language, then we’ll go from there.If we’re switching from English to a different language, who cares about English words like theist or atheist?So what happens if they object to your use of English as definitive, and say that no English word corresponds to what they are talking about?Then I’ll listen until I understand what they are trying to communicate. Or if for some reason I am really interested in finding out where they fall in the atheist / theist divide (I can’t imagine why), I’ll try and explain the proposition as thoroughly as I can and ask the yes/no.What if they ask your view about Brahman as well as Devas?Then I say I’m unfamiliar with them and ask “Who or what are they?”In day to day life in the U.S., the word God is commonly used, and it has a common meaning. It’s part of the National Motto printed on every piece of U.S. paper currency and every coin. Sunday school teachers and churches full of people will tell you what they mean by the word. Organizations that exclude people who don’t belief in God’s existence like the Boy Scouts of America or the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks or the Knights of Columbus don’t seem confused on the concept.If you are going to deliberately use such a common word and concept differently than everyone else, I don’t see how you have any reason to complain about being misunderstood. Or to complain if people say ‘well, you can call yourself what you like, but by our common understanding of words, I would call you something different.’

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    “The idea of the existence of *any* god, is just so stupefyingly implausible, it really is a joke of cosmic proportions.”N.S. -Even though you don’t believe that the devil exists, I have to play his advocate. I am a “non-believer” and I find the existence of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim versions of god implausible. However, I have to admit I have not studied the other hundreds of gods and goddesses with the same rigor as I have the “Big Three”(tm). So it seems to me the rational choice here is to take the agnostic position on at least some of them. Otherwise we become just as hypocritical as the fundamentalist who dismisses other beliefs without much–if any!–thought. I don’t know about you but as a former Christian of the fundamentalist flavor, I have no intention of once again painting the world in shades of only black and white. Honestly, it’s a little disconcerting to admit that “I don’t know” but after a while you get used to it.When I get into these discussions I always remember something one of my criminal justice professors once said: “Every viewpoint is a view from a point.” At the end of the day I think the rational theists and non-theists are searching for answers to some of the same questions. ~BCP

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    Well Bob, since no-one can prove that gods exist or not, we’re all technically ‘agnostic’, but that word too is just religious pandering. We all know the burden of proof is not on us.I don’t completely agree that “rational theists and non-theists are searching for answers to some of the same questions”, because it really seems to me like theists have found what they were looking for.It’s seriously lamentable what religion has done to some otherwise healthy minds.I guess I was very lucky to have been raised in a non-religious environment, so it’s hard for me to empathise with believers. I’ve always thought the best solution is to round them all up, put them in a field and bomb the bastards! ;-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    I assume by the smiling wink you are joking. If not, I rest my case.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    Yeah, it’s just a line from an 80s British comedy. I simply couldn’t resist. Early morning. Pre-coffee.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13599662252662686373 BSM

    That’s a relief. :-)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07193739990940756819 NaturalSelection

    ‘There Is No God (And You Know It)’ by Sam Harris”Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. It is, moreover, a job that the atheist does not want.It is worth noting that noone ever need identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist. Consequently, we do not have words for people who deny the validity of these pseudo-disciplines.Likewise, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist.Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma. The atheist is merely a person who believes that the 260 million Americans (eighty-seven percent of the population) who claim to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence – and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day.Only the atheist appreciates just how uncanny our situation is: most of us believe in a God that is every bit as specious as the gods of Mount Olympus; no person, whatever his or her qualifications, can seek public office in the United States without pretending to be certain that such a God exists; and much of what passes for public policy in our country conforms to religious taboos and superstitions appropriate to a medieval theocracy.Our circumstance is abject, indefensible, and terrifying. It would be hilarious if the stakes were not so high”.Full article:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/there-is-no-god-and-you-_b_8459.html

  • jk

    A theist is one who believes in one or more gods (some form of greater-than-human non-natural entity).A poly-theist is a “many-theist”, or someone who believes in many gods.A pan-theist is an “all-theist”, or someone who believes all (i.e., the physical universe) is god.etc….Therefore, an a-theist is a “non-theist” or is “not a theist”. Thus, an atheist is “one who does not believe in one or more gods.”Under these definitions, there is no such thing as an agnostic. You either “do believe in one or more gods”, in which case you are some form of theist, or you do not believe in one or more gods, in which case you are an atheist.There is no third option.

  • iconoclast

    I understand God as “I will be what I will be” – this as a metaphorical way of meaningfully, humanly speaking about God (who is only a who in a metaphorical sense). God is what is and we can only speak of God from a limited human perspective. With my understanding of God the concept of atheism is nonsensical and therefore can best be defined as a kind of pointless Modernist wankery based on silly presuppositions.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11805021768974135945 Jesse

    I know this is an old post, but I’ll put my cent in.To me, I am an atheist because I don’t think that the universe is the result of intention.

  • Alex

    Hullo! My name’s Alex, and I’m an atheist.

    My understanding of atheism is somewhat well explained by the etymology of the word, from the greek prefix a-, meaning without, and theos, meaning gods. Therefore, atheists are godless people. And that’s pretty much exactly it. Atheists don’t believe in god, gods, deities of any kind, colour, and flavour. Simple as that. There is no force out there, no mysterious intelligence, no all-powerful beings.

    Some devote time to god, are touched by the holy spirit and feel amazement at god’s beauty. I just can’t get it. I am amazed by our mere presence here, by the fact that since the big bang 13.7 billion years ago, nearly an infinity of things could have happened that would have not allowed the creation of the sun, the solar system, our planet, our evolution here, etc etc etc. I am amazed, my mind is utterly blown, with the immense and incomprehensible size of the universe, and at the fantastically counter-intuitive world of the infinitely small. We live in a world that’s standing on the edge of a near vertical cliff, a small horizontal platform of dimension, curving upwards to infinitely grand scale in the universe, and curving downwards into the infinitely small scale of the subatomic particles. And while I am standing on that small ledge, peering up, down, left and right, trying to see, to comprehend, to grasp this fantastical universe that is ours, other people sit in groups feeling blessed by something I cannot see, looking only at themselves, barely looking at the cliff we are located on if at all. And I cannot understand. If god exists as the god of the bible, then he is pitifully small compared to the universe, pitifully weak compared to supernovas and black holes, infinitely less interesting than what’s going on up there in the cosmos and down there in our molecules.

    I training to become a scientist, thus I am biased towards science, but one doesn’t need science to not believe in god. One doesn’t need to reject god to follow science. being an atheist simply means that you don’t believe there is a god, don’t pray to him, basically live out your life like there is no god and expect no afterlife, no reward, no divine justice.


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