The words “atheism” and “atheist” are used as insults to denigrate people.
These words are used like “liberal” and “communist” are used by right-wing blowholes on AM radio, who don’t have a clue about the actual meanings of those words. They use those words indiscriminately in order to blur the distinctions between them, in order to create fear and hostility and to promote an Us vs. Them mindset:
- Democrat = Liberal
- Liberal = Socialist
- Socialist = Communist
- Communist = Lying, murdering, evil bastard
But people who actually have some brain cells between their ears use these words with more care, and understand that these words have different meanings, different implications. Not all Democrats are liberals. Some Democrats are moderates, and some Democrats are conservatives. Not all liberals are socialists. Not all socialists are communists. Not all communists are lying, murdering, evil bastards.
The same sort of mindless blurring of distinctions occurs with the words “atheist” and “atheism”:
- Atheist = God-hater
- Atheist = nihilist
- Atheist = anarchist
- Atheist = communist
- Atheist = Lying, murdering, evil bastard
One thing that even some atheists fail to realize is that atheism does not assert or imply anything.
Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is not a philosophy. Atheism is not a worldview. Atheism is not a theory. Atheism is the rejection of theism. If you reject theism, then you are an atheist. If you have not rejected theism, then you are not an atheist.
(Note: Infants are neither theists nor atheists, because infants have neither accepted theism nor rejected theism.)
But, someone will object, atheists DO believe and assert something, namely they believe and assert that: There is no God.
Nope. That is true of many atheists, but not true of all atheists. Some atheists reject theism because they believe that the statement “God exists” is a meaningless statement that is neither true nor false. Such atheists do not assert that “There is no God”, because such an assertion is just as meaningless, in their view, as the statement “God exists”. Both statements are nonsense, according to some atheists.
Theism, on the other hand, does clearly assert something: God exists. If you believe that God exists, then you are a theist. If you don’t believe that God exists, then you are NOT a theist. This claim or belief that is asserted by theists has logical implications. Here are some important logical implications of this claim:
- There is a person who is omnipotent.
- There is a person who is omniscient.
- There is a person who is perfectly morally good.
- There is a person who has no physical body.
- There is a person who has always existed and who will continue to exist forever.
- There is a person who created the universe.
- There is a person who has all of the above characteristics.
Atheism does not assert any claim, and atheism does not have any logical implications. Theism asserts one claim (“God exists”), and that one claim has many logical implications. Theism is not a religion. Theism is not a worldview. Theism is, however, a metaphysical theory which constitutes an important part of various religious worldviews. The Christian worldview, for example, is at the core of the Christian religion, and theism is at the core of the Christian worldview. But theism is also at the core of other religious worldviews, so theism is not exclusive to Christianity.
Why are people theists? Why do people believe that God exists? There is no one correct answer to this question. Different people believe in God for different reasons. I suppose it is theoretically possible that every theist has some great fear of death and their belief in God is unconsciously motivated by the desire to escape death and to live forever. But this seems very unlikely.
I have no doubt that some people who believe in God do so because they fear death, and belief in God helps them to deal with their fear of death. But there are billions of people who have believed in God, and people have very different personalities, cultures, personal histories and experiences. It seems extremely unlikely that every one of the billions of people who have believed in God, believe in God for exactly the same reason, or that this belief has exactly the same psychological cause in every case.
I have no doubt that there are some people who believe in God because after careful examination of arguments for and against God, they became convinced that the pro arguments were better and stronger than the con arguments. This is probably a small minority of the billions of theists who have lived on this planet, but I’m sure there have been and are a few such theists.
What people often fail to realize is that atheism, the rejection of theism, can also have a variety of reasons or causes. I have no doubt that some people reject theism because they had a cruel father, and the idea of “God the Father” was thus a repugnant idea to them. Such a person rejects theism not on the basis of a good reason or a solid argument, but because some bad experiences prejudice them against giving serious consideration to the claim “God exists”.
Just as there are many different reasons and causes why some people accept theism, so there are many different reasons and causes why some people reject theism.
The rejection of theism, tells us almost nothing about what a person does believe. Consider this analogy:
Jane Doe rejects marxism.
Suppose that this is the only information we have about what Jane Doe believes or doesn’t believe.
Can we conclude that Jane Doe is a Republican? No. The Republican party only exists in the USA. If Jane Doe is not a citizen or resident of the USA, then she probably has no option to become a Republican. The country where she lives, in that case, might have some other conservative political party. Furthermore, most Democrats reject marxism, as do virtually all Libertarians. So, if Jane Doe lives in the USA, she might be a Republican, but it is also possible that she is a Democrat or a Libertarian.
Can we conclude that Jane Doe is a conservative? No. There are liberals and moderates who also reject marxism. In fact, there are radical leftists who reject marxism. So, Jane Doe might be a conservative, but she might also be a moderate, or a liberal, or even a radical leftist.
Is Jane Doe a Christian? Well, there are some Christians who are marxists, so being a Christian does not prove that one rejects marxism. Furthermore, there are Jews who reject marxism, there are Muslims who reject marxism, there are Buddhists who reject marxism, and there are atheists who reject marxism, so although Jane might be a Christian, she might also be a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or an atheist.
Well, if Jane Doe has rejected marxism, then we could at least conclude that she is a capitalist, that she supports the capitalist economic system. Nope. Marxism is a complex set of basic beliefs and values. It is a worldview. Marxism is critical of capitalism, but that is just one aspect of marxism. Jane Doe might also be critical of capitalism, but have some other problem or objection to marxism. Perhaps Jane thinks that marxism is anti-democracy, and Jane is a big supporter of democracy. One could be a fan of democracy while not being a fan of capitalism. So, Jane Doe might have rejected marxism and yet NOT be a supporter of capitalism.
Do you get my drift here? The fact that Jane Doe has rejected marxism tells us virtually NOTHING about what Jane Doe herself believes. One problem is that there is not just ONE alternative to marxism; there are many alternative worldviews that are in competition with marxism. Another problem is that there are different reasons why one might reject marxism; there is not just ONE reason why people reject marxism.
The same is true of theism. When someone rejects theism they can do so for a variety of different reasons or motivations. Furthermore, there is not just ONE alternative to theism. There are a variety of different metaphysical theories that are in competition with theism. So, the fact that a person has rejected theism tells us almost nothing about what that person does believe.
- Some atheists are marxists and some are not marxists.
- Some atheists are existentialists and some are not existentialists.
- Some atheists are materialists and some are not materialists.
- Some atheists are naturalists and some are not naturalists.
- Some atheists are nihilists and some are not nihilists.
- Some atheists are relativists and some are not relativists.
- Some atheists are liberals and some are not liberals.
Knowing that someone is an “atheist” does not tell us what that person believes, it only tells us that this person does NOT believe one particular statement: “God exists.”