Who are You Calling an Atheist?

If you wanted to be sure that you are talking to an atheist, what would you listen for? Asking about god, or about atheism, is pretty direct. Would you get a direct answer? Atheists dubious about god may not be sure what to say to you.

Why not just ask, “Do you accept atheism?” The atheists are the ones who like atheism, right? Not so fast. If atheism had the same sharp meaning for everyone, atheists would all see how to agree with atheism. Obviously, they don’t. Counting nonreligious people has never been easy. For example, bad polling has been reporting how few unbelievers can be found, yet up to 20% of Americans no longer believe in God.

It’s only natural to suppose that ‘atheist’ and ‘atheism’ necessarily go together. Wouldn’t that be like any other pairing of an ‘-ist’ person and an ‘-ism’ belief? An X-ist believes in X-ism, one would think. A pacifist had better be committed to pacifism, for example. How could someone saying that he is a pacifist also say that pacifism really isn’t his thing? You’d suppose that this person is confused about the point of being a pacifist. What could we make of another person feeling uncertain about atheism yet comfortable with being called an atheist? Next, imagine someone proudly endorsing atheism yet unwilling to be called an atheist. Confusing indeed. All the same, for some “isms” the simplistic equation of ‘-ist’ = ‘-ism’ doesn’t work. It is fallacious to assume that every ‘ist’ endorses the corresponding ‘ism’.

Confusion about who is getting called an atheist is commonly found in the secular world. It’s a sign of the times, and it’s not even the fault of secular people, really. Religions used to reliably declare who the atheist was: the unbeliever, someone who didn’t worship the true God. Around the world, you don’t hear that sort of talk as much. Only vast religions completely dominating their societies, or small sects feeling vastly outnumbered, still speak that way nowadays. Where multiple religions and religious denominations warily live in the same neighborhood, such as a pluralistic country, one less frequently hears the condemnations of ‘atheist’ thrown around. It can still happen, of course. When an evangelical Christian taunts Muslims as ‘atheists’, or a Muslim taunts Christians as ‘infidels’, perhaps they think that worshipping the ‘wrong’ god practically amounts to having no god.

Over the centuries, most religions have lowered their hostility and calmed their tone, saving the accusation of ‘atheist’ for only those people who don’t believe in any religion’s deity. The godless worshipped no god, and the Greek word for ‘godless’ was ‘atheos’. Among dictionaries that track the most commonly used meaning for words over modern times, the Oxford English Dictionary reigns supreme. The Oxford English Dictionary records this primary definition for ‘atheist’: “1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a god.” OED definitions offer synonyms, but they don’t stutter. The OED isn’t just repeating itself about ‘atheist’, since denying a thing has a different meaning from disbelieving. To disbelieve something, don’t believe it. You don’t have to think that it is incorrect. To disbelieve P isn’t the same as believing not-P. When I’m in a state of disbelief about an idea, I’m not already thinking that the idea is entirely wrong. I don’t have to deny the idea. I’m simply not believing it because it seems questionable or uninteresting to me.

None of this is news to religions. Religions have never been fooled about who unbelievers truly were. Open unbelief wasn’t hard to notice, eventually. However, counting loud-mouthed atheists isn’t the same thing as measuring unbelief across the realm. Religions did want to know who was opening defying god, of course. And religions are also troubled by secret unbelief – people unable to believe in God in their hearts but perfectly able to don a pious disguise and behave religiously in public like everyone else. Quiet disbelief is a kind of atheism, and secret atheism is atheism all the same.

Modern pollsters have largely replaced brutal inquisitors, but the same problem remains. Counting the people able to say, “I don’t believe in God,” or something like, “Categorize me with atheism,” couldn’t total up all genuine atheists. Still, pollsters must do their best. If pollsters could honestly report the large number of people not saying that they believe in God, that would be the most accurate measurement possible through simple question-and answer methods. And all those people are atheists, because they either deny or disbelieve in God. Saying “I don’t what to think about god,” or “I have no opinion on God,” or “I have no idea about God,” or “I don’t have a belief either way,” are all indicators of unbelief. Not believing in a god is a very common way to be an atheist – you simply don’t believe in any god.

Only misinformation and myth stand in the way of using English words correctly. The typical ‘myths’ about atheism are usually more like clever pieces of disinformation than legends. Three myths dominate discussions about identifying atheists, in particular. The biggest myth is very common no matter whether one is religious or nonreligious. Two additional myths, one spread by religionists and one spread by atheists, confuse what should be a simple matter.

Myth One. The first myth is that every atheist has to endorse atheism. That’s the ‘ist’ = ‘ism’ fallacy. Because a person can be an atheist without ever telling anyone about their unbelief, or ever telling another person that they shouldn’t believe either, it just isn’t true that endorsing atheism in general is required for personally being an atheist. There is no “solemn oath” test for being an atheist – there is no written test, no swearing in, no public affirmation, not even a private ceremony.

Myth Two. Because so many religionists commit the fallacy in myth one, they spread the next myth: Atheists foolishly think they know there is no god. Since atheists say that atheism is correct (supposedly), and atheism says there is no god, then all atheists are saying that it is correct that there is no god. Religion’s defenders are delighted to depict atheists as thinking they know no god exists. Any supernaturalism just smart enough to avoid self-contradiction is beyond strict disproof, so atheism looks intuitively wrong. No one should be sure there is no god, religionists keep repeating, so atheists seem irrational. Throwing charges of irrationality around is so much easier than showing how long-discredited theological arguments actually succeed.

Myth Three. Because so many atheists commit the same fallacy involved with the first myth, and they see how the second myth is real trouble for them, they think that redefining ‘atheism’ is the escape route. They can spread the third myth: Atheism is simply “not having belief about god.” The burden of proof appears to lift off atheists, who are simply not believing instead of believing something about God, so that the justification burden seems to fall entirely on religion. Atheists can say, “The faithful must prove that God exists, while we don’t have to demonstrate a single thing.” They don’t even have to explain atheism to each other. If atheists keep busy reasoning and justifying how gods probably don’t exist, then that would be re-assuming a burden. What tactics remain for debating religion with believers? No wonder derogatory and dismissive attitudes seem the only options, especially for those feeling hostility towards religion already. Throwing charges of irrationality around is so much easier than learning enough about religion and theology to accurately expose their failings.

Waking up from these myths means that religious and nonreligious people have to learn more about each other. Just as importantly, it means that being an atheist doesn’t require subscribing to atheism. There are plenty of people unable to think that a god exists, yet they aren’t the sort of people who suppose that others should agree. They feel unsure, or just don’t care, about what others should or shouldn’t think about God.

Fortunately, to disbelieve god, no assertion or expression of belief about god is needed at all. A person just has some set of beliefs about the world that has no place for a deity, so that this person doesn’t believe that a god exists. If a person happens to not believe in god while they are comfortable with their other beliefs, that’s enough to be an atheist. For example, an agnostic is an atheist, since the agnostic has other firm beliefs that leave god’s existence beyond estimation or simply uninteresting. The agnostic just doesn’t feel comfortable telling others how they should deny god. Perhaps, as far as an agnostic can tell, it is possible that other people could have information making god-belief plausible for them. Yes, all agnostics are atheists. The only way to avoid being an atheist is to think that a god is real.

An atheist is a godless unbeliever: a denier or disbeliever in god. Setting aside today’s polemical and accusatory labels to return to the plain meanings of words is so liberating, for everyone involved. Letting go of pure rhetoric also permits atheism to return to what it always was: Atheism is an ‘ism’ that recommends disbelief in god for everyone. I define atheism as this assertion: “Believing that no god exists is reasonable, for any person.” Or, put negatively, “No one is reasonable for thinking that a god exists.” These are statements of atheism, NOT definitions about who is an atheist. Atheists don’t have to accept either of these two assertions. Again, not all atheists affirm atheism. Only atheism undertakes a burden of reasoning (not proof!) that aims at showing how believing in god fails to be reasonable. Atheism universally recommends disbelief in god. Atheists individually can speak about their own godlessness as they please.

Advocating atheism is one thing, while being an atheist is another. Haven’t plenty of nonbelievers been trying to express this idea? It’s time to take more seriously what atheists are saying about god, as well as what they aren’t saying. Being godless is just about what a person regards as real and what they don’t. Whether people want to publicly deny god is their own business.

A person can live a secular life without taking a confrontational stance against religion. More and more Americans are doing just that. Living this secular life has become a permanent part of America’s pluralistic landscape. I’d say that’s a fact that should be recognized by everyone.

 

About John Shook

John R. Shook, PhD, is a scholar and professor living in the Washington, D.C. area. He is research associate in philosophy and instructor in science education for the University at Buffalo. He is also President of Partners for Secular Activism, an educational nonprofit offering online classes of interest to the secular side of life at secularactivism.org. Click the About tab under the header to learn more about John.


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