I hate that I have to explain this yet again. Hopefully this one last time will be all I ever need say about it from now on.
The list of atheist organizations includes the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Foundation Beyond Belief and Secular Student Alliance, among many others. Not all of them have “atheist” in their name because if you use that word, then you have to explain what you mean by that, and you’ll have to argue with those who insist that it doesn’t or can’t really mean what we all mean when we identify as such.
If you Google ‘atheism’, you will see that it is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” This is the common usage. Notice that Google also defines “disbelief” as “inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real”, not necessarily belief that it is false. The issue here is that some philosophers insist that ‘disbelief’ cannot simply mean that one is unconvinced that the claim is true; they argue that it must also be a conviction that the claim is not true. Similarly, some philosophers say that atheism cannot merely be the absence of belief that any gods exist, but that it can only be the presence of belief that no gods exist.
Wikipedia explains: “Atheism is, in the broadest sense, an absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is a rejection of the belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.”
If theism is the belief that at least one deity exist, then atheism is NOT a belief that any deity exists.
The contrast is between believers and unbelievers,
NOT between believers believing that the claim is true vs believers believing that the claim is false.
I’m told that there are reasons why some philosophers insist on this unnecessarily restrictive and counterproductive definition, which only serves to diminish atheists individually and collectively, but thus far the only explanation these antagonists have given for why they insist on imposing this prescriptive restriction is that I must be stupid and dishonest, as if everyone who shares my opinion is dishonest too. Yet there are an awful lot of people who honestly share my opinion and for good reason. Each of the organizations who identify as atheist agree with me on this.
For example, the National 501(c)(3) organization of American Atheists says: “Atheism is one thing: A lack of belief in gods. Atheism is not an affirmative belief that there is no god nor does it answer any other question about what a person believes. It is simply a rejection of the assertion that there are gods. Atheism is too often defined incorrectly as a belief system. To be clear: Atheism is not [necessarily] a disbelief in gods or a denial of gods; it is a lack of belief in gods.”
Similarly, Atheist Alliance International agrees: ”Theism is the belief in a god or gods. The prefix ‘a’ means; ‘without’ or ‘lack of’. Therefore, atheism means ‘without a belief in a god or gods’ or the ‘lack of a belief in a god or gods’. We often hear theists say, “If you don’t believe in God, you must believe God does not exist!” but this is simply wrong. Lacking a belief in a god does not entail believing that no gods exist. A person could reasonably say she doesn’t know if any gods exist, and there are none that she currently believes in. …It is not necessary for an atheist to claim that no gods exist, nevertheless, some do. People often call this position hard atheism. Hard atheism is atheism with the additional conviction that there are no gods anywhere either inside, or outside, of the universe.”
Atheist Republic also agrees: “Atheism is a very broad term, even though it is basically interpreted as the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. The term is contrasted with theism, which suggests that there exists at least one deity. The word atheism dates back to the 5th Century BCE Greek word atheos, which means “without gods.” Over the years, the application of the word has been narrowed down significantly, thanks to the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry and an increase in the criticism of religion. Today, there are very few people who understand the concept completely and that is why atheism is often misunderstood and even vilified to a large extent. Different people perceive atheism differently, and hence, it is difficult to determine the total number of atheists in the world.”
Note that this last citation says that the original definition of atheism was simply “godless”, being in some sense “without god(s)” or “without theism”, and that later on, some philosophers imposed a newer narrower restriction, essentially a redefinition which each of the organizations above uniformly reject. All of these and each of the other activist groups promoting skeptical atheism, science education, secular policies and humanist values identify as unbelievers as contrasted with believers. Irreligious unbelievers are also the fastest-growing demographic respective to religion, already out-numbering Catholics and even Protestant Christians in the U.S. Thus religious philosophers could impose the more restrictive definition as an impediment to that movement, minimizing the impact of unbelievers by keeping us divided.
Note that neither of these definitions includes a belief in gods. So the “lack-belief” definition is still inclusive of both sets. Yet some antagonistic philosophers seek to prohibit atheist groups from identifying by the one criteria that matters to us, by insisting instead that we cannot NOT believe. Instead they say we must believe in NOT, that we must take a position even if we don’t want to, and adopt a belief that no gods exist, no matter how senseless that sounds. Otherwise, [they say] we should be denied association with atheists, and that some unbelievers would have to call themselves “lack-theists” or some use other lame label instead.
Such antagonists cite the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as one of few sources to share their definition, even though it also says that “it is important to recognize that the term “atheism” is polysemous—i.e., it has more than one related meaning—even within philosophy.” Thus “weak atheism” (as a lack of belief) “is certainly a legitimate definition in the sense that it reports how a significant number of people use the term. Again, there is more than one “correct” definition of “atheism”.”
That said, I have to point out two things the S.E.P. got wrong. One is where it supposes that: “If, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists.” However, the original and still persistent consistent common standard definition cited by every one of the self-identifying atheist organizations is that Theism is the psychological condition of believing that one or more gods exist. Thus atheism is the absence of the psychological condition of believing that any gods exist.
The other error is where the SEP says that the philosophical redefinition “has the added virtue of making atheism a direct answer to one of the most important metaphysical questions in philosophy of religion, namely, “Is there a God?” There are only two possible direct answers to this question: “yes”, which is theism, and “no”, which is atheism.” This is wrong. First of all, a detriment is not a virtue. Second, and more importantly, the metaphysical question was never “is there a god?” That question is a topic of idle philosophical pontification of no real consequence. Whether God exists or not is irrelevant. It changes nothing either way. All that matters is the question of whether we believe there’s a god.
Throughout history, we have been warned that we bet our alleged souls, as well as our livelihoods, and sometimes even our very lives on that one question: Do you believe in God? Christians and Muslims both insist that after we die, we will be judged, not over whether we were good or bad, but only over whether or not we believed in God, thus disproving the notion that He is a righteous judge. If we didn’t believe, then we are guilty of a thought crime. It was never about morality. The Abrahamic god itself is not moral.
It doesn’t matter how evil you are. All sins may be forgiven if you but believe. But if you don’t believe, then it doesn’t matter how good you are, because the only sin that cannot be forgiven is the sin of disbelief. Believers are offered an impossible promise of a posthumous reward, while unbelievers face the threat of a fate worse than death. We’re commanded to believe whatever we’re told without question, reservation or reason, since neither evidence nor logic supports any of this. You can only believe it on faith. Thus gullibility is the sole criterion for redemption. If that still doesn’t scare you into compliance, the Bible and the Qur’an both say that believers will be blessed and unbelievers will be cursed in this life as well as that other life that doesn’t really come after this one. History has also shown that theocracies deal with heresy and apostasy as capital crimes punishable by death. So you had better believe or pretend to believe and fake it convincingly, not because God will punish you, but because his self-appointed minions will.
So whether we’re standing at the pearly gates or before a theocratic magistrate, the question before us was never “is there a god”, the question imposed upon us throughout history and theology is and always was “do you believe in God?” A “yes” answer = Theist. Whoever or whatever collective cannot answer yes to that question is atheist; they do not have the psychological condition of believing that a god exists.
Even the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “The term “atheist” describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists. Worldwide there may be as many as a billion atheists, although social stigma, political pressure, and intolerance make accurate polling difficult.”
That’s why this is important from the perspective of a secular activist. We have no strength as a demographic because we can’t even tell how many of us are there? Because people have been so misled that most atheists don’t even know that they are atheist. I was unknowingly atheist for fifteen years before I finally learned what that word really meant. Then I was an agnostic atheist for another fifteen years after that, simply lacking sufficient reason to believe. It was only a few years ago that I had learned enough to have sufficient reason to believe that God is not even a possibility. For me, there was a gap of a few years from being unconvinced as to whether any version of God might exist to being convinced that no sort of god actually does exist. I was repeatedly misled by those who pretend that atheism is limited only to those who possess a belief in no-godism, and that anyone who disagrees with that is dishonest.
Religionists point to various studies showing how gullible, impressionable and irrational people can be, and they argue that this means that humans are born believers. Of course studies of history show the opposite too, “casting doubt on the idea that religious belief is a “default setting” for humans“.
I’ve even heard the argument that we are born believing everything anyone ever believed, and that as our brains develop, we go through long lists of innate beliefs to systematically eliminate whichever ones we no longer keep, until we whittle our way down to whatever we still believe as adults. Obviously that can’t be true. We can’t be convinced of a claim if we’ve never even heard it. The mind of a newborn infant is not yet capable of believing anything beyond what it perceives through its own senses, and even that has to be learned. So it is NOT the case that we must either believe “for” or believe “against“. Instead we either have a belief or we don’t. Neither could we choose not to take a position, because the lack of belief is the default position, and the only way to withhold judgement is not to believe. So the only choice is whether we believe or not. There are no other options.
Do they believe?
Yes = Theist. No = atheist.
That’s all there is to it.
We can tentatively accept what appears to be factually supported and call that belief, but that isn’t the same thing as religious belief, which is more akin to make-believe. Faith means believing things that are not evidently true, which often requires an act of will. Those beliefs have to be heard, understood and adopted, or made-up from our own imaginations. We are not born with beliefs. No child was ever born Mormon or Hindu or Zoroastrian, nor with any other form of theism. We were all born atheist, and we would likely remain so until someone lies to us.
I would have identified as atheist as a young boy, had I not been lied to so often by everyone I knew and the media too. I was Christian for a while, because I was told that God was a conclusively proven scientific fact, when that is really just baseless speculation assumed and asserted without warrant.
I had heard of atheists, but they were always cast as the least reasonable sort of person imaginable, closed-minded, cynical, evil, reality-denying nihilists. Now I realize that was all propaganda. Religious apologists have to misrepresent the unbelievers to keep people from recognizing free thought as preferable and superior. So I was told that “atheists believe in nothing” when (if they were honest) they should have said that atheists don’t believe anything only on faith. I was told that atheists are dour, selfish and sinful devil-worshiping liars who were angry and depressed, perverted and hooked on drugs, all because they didn’t know Jesus. However I didn’t believe that lie because I knew too many Christians who fit almost all of those same descriptions at once.
However there is one lie about atheists that is so pervasive, that I was duped by it, and that was about what atheism is, what I’m talking about now. The fact that I was so misled drives me to counter and correct that misdirection at every opportunity. It was the lie that one is either agnostic, because we can’t actually prove that gods do or don’t exist, or that we’re atheist, excluding even the possibility of gods or anything else beyond what we can see or touch, just to be unreasonable. Even Carl Sagan was duped by the same lie that I was. Because he famously said that “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know. An atheist is someone who knows there is no god. By some definitions atheism is very stupid.”
Yes, that definition was deliberately designed to make atheism seem very stupid! A mutual friend, James Randi says that Sagan eventually understood what atheism really is, and that it applied to him.
It seems that “Darwin’s Bulldog” Thomas Huxley must have heard some irritating arguments from his contemporaries, claiming perhaps that having just discovered all this evidence of evolution disproved the Bible and consequently disproved God. Now, I would say that I know that the Bible god doesn’t exist, and that I know that to the same degree and for the same reasons that I know leprechauns don’t exist. I’ve even met Christians who claim to know that leprechauns don’t exist simply because (1) there is no evidence of them, and (2) everything we’re told about them is impossible. So my dismissal of the Christian god is justified even by the standards of religious believers. But I understand why Huxley would have been annoyed at the notion that having natural explanations necessarily disproves even higher concepts of God than the one we find in the Bible.
Still, instead of correcting their reasoning, Huxley decided to distance himself from these other atheists by making up a new word, “agnostic”, explaining that “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe”. Note that this does not allow an agnostic to deny that lacking belief in a god means they are actually atheist.
Imagine the soul of an agnostic arguing with St Peter that “Yeah, I didn’t really believe there was a god, but I didn’t believe there was NOT a god either.” That doesn’t make any difference. The agnostic is going to Hell anyway, because he didn’t believe in God. That is the only important distinction between Theism and atheism. Did you believe? Yes = possible forgiveness. No = eternal damnation. It doesn’t matter which sub-category of unbelievers you identify with.
Huxley’s new word had no practical value, not for its intended purpose anyway, because he did not change the pre-existing definition of atheism. I’ll make up a new word myself to illustrate this. “Nosossary” means exactly the same thing that “unnecessary” already did, (something that isn’t needed) but my word also means that it doesn’t need to be eliminated either. We know that unnecessary already meant that too, but it’s not explicitly spelled out in the definition. So knowledge of my new word might prompt some philosophers to treat “unnecessary” as though it meant “something that must be eliminated”. They may even insist that it can only mean that and not what it originally did. That’s what “agnostic” does, tries to redefine atheism through association with a new word that only leads to a misuse of the old word.
To prove that, remember that Huxley invented his word, “agnostic” in 1869. So I looked up “atheism” in Websters 1828 Dictionary:
“The disbelief of the existence of a God, or Supreme intelligent Being.”
Once again, Webster was not a philosopher, so he did not apply philosophical definitions. Because this is a dictionary, we know exactly what he meant by the word “disbelief“:
“Refusal of credit or faith; denial of belief.”
Not denial of the claim, but denial of belief in the claim, That’s important. It also proves again that I’m right. Especially when we also look up “disbelieve“.
Not to believe;
to hold not to be true or not to exist;
to refuse to credit.
So the common definition of ‘atheism’ 40 years before Huxley’s attempted redefinition was already the same one that we’re still using a century-and-a-half after that too. Although there have been a few philosophers like Ernest Nagel, Paul Edwards and Kai Nielsen in the 20th century following Huxley’s lead, vying for the “rejection of God” restriction, while George H. Smith, Michael Martin, and Antony Flew argued for the continued inclusion of negative, weak and implicit atheism along with positive, strong, or explicit atheism.
Some antagonists have argued that the “lack of belief” definition that I and all the atheist orgs are using is the redefinition, and that the “denial of God” is the original, but they’ve got that turned around. One of my critics produced a Wikispeedia article from McGill School of Computer Science, which he insists proves me wrong. It differs from Wikipedia’s own article on the history of atheism in that it gives the wrong primary definition.
Wikipedia says: “Atheism (derived from the Ancient Greek ἄθεος atheos meaning “without gods; godless; secular; refuting or repudiating the existence of gods, especially officially sanctioned gods”) is the absence of the belief that deities exist.”
Wikispeedia says: “Atheism is the disbelief in the existence of God and other deities. It is commonly defined as the positive denial of theism (ie. the assertion that deities do not exist), or the deliberate rejection of theism (i.e., the refusal to believe in the existence of deities). However, others—including most atheistic philosophers and groups—define atheism as the simple absence of belief in deities (cf. nontheism), thereby designating many agnostics, and people who have never heard of gods, such as the unchurched or newborn children, as atheists as well. In recent years, some atheists have adopted the terms strong and weak atheism to clarify whether they consider their stance one of positive belief no gods exist, or of negative unbelief. Many self-described atheists share common skeptical concerns regarding empirical evidence for spiritual or supernatural claims. They cite a lack of evidence for the existence of deities.”
I had said earlier that the first use of the Greek ἄθεος was as a pejorative against Christians, because Christians didn’t have centuries of theology like the Jews or the Hellenists did. Instead, Christians worshiped some guy, a mortal man whom the Romans had just recently killed. And the Christians used atheos as an insult against the pagans too. This is true, except that the word is much older than I thought. Otherwise my critic’s own source agrees with me completely. It says the word originally meant “godless”, just as I said, but that “the word acquired an additional meaning in the 5th Century BCE, severing relations with the gods; that is, “denying the gods, ungodly”.
Now moving from atheos to atheism:
“In antiquity, [the Greek ἄθεος “without god(s)] had multiple uses as a pejorative term applied to those thought to reject the gods worshiped by the larger society, those who were forsaken by the gods, or those who had no commitment to belief in the gods. The term denoted a social category created by orthodox religionists into which those who did not share their religious beliefs were placed. The actual term atheism emerged first in the 16th century. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope.”
No longer the pejorative that “atheos” had become, what did the new word, atheism mean to the people who willingly adopted that label?
In his book, The First Atheist: Matthias Knutzen’s Writings and Legacy, translator Kirk Watson said:
“Knutzen became the first atheist known by name: i.e., the first person in modern times to write or proclaim themselves, publicly and without a pseudonym, an atheist. And when this positive atheism appeared, it carried the seeds of a whole civilization: along with the denial of God, much of the modern secular worldview (along with a foreshadowing of radical left political ideology), seems to have sprung fully-formed from Knutzen’s brain: in the same sentence as atheism he taught anarchism, sexual freedom, reliance on reason, secular education, and a humanistic society.”
The funny thing is that I read all of Knutzen’s works, as translated by Watson, but I noticed something very different, maybe because I’m one of those “radical leftist”, free-loving Humanist science education nerds that Watson seems to be so worried about. In all of Knutzen’s writings, he mentions the word ‘atheist’ only once [in German]. Regarding the question of whether he is an atheist and not a Christian. Knutzen replies “That is true; I believe in no God, nor do I accept your Bible, except to refute you:” Knutzen then adds “I also say that all priests and authority must be driven from the world, since people can live well without these things.” So Knutzen acquiesced that he is an atheist, in that he does not believe in any god or in the Bible either, but he prefers to identify as a Conscientarian. He goes on to describe himself as the author of a new religion which is not merely atheist in its lack of belief, but that his new religion “also” denies god, as well as the Bible and the Qur’an and all their associated clergy, believing instead in reason, or knowledge, which he summarizes as “conscience”.
“I say, we see the Bible as a neat fable, which offers enjoyment only to irrational beasts, that is, Christians, who bring their reason into captivity, and are intentionally irrational. In addition, we deny God, we utterly despise magistrates, rejecting the temples and all priests. For we Conscientarians are satisfied with the knowledge, not of one only, but require that of the many (Luke 24:39): See, etc., (εἷς enim ἀνὴρ οὐ πάνθ᾽ ὁρᾷ) and accept CONSCIENCE in conjunction with it. This is, our Conscience, was given to all by Nature, our good mother. This, for us, can serve in place of a Bible (Romans 2:14, 15), in place of the Magistrate, according to Gregory Nazianzus (vol. II, Orat. XV, in plagam grandinis pag. m. 447), it is the true tribunal, and replaces the priest, for it performs the duties of a learned Doctor, teaching us to harm none, to live honorably, and to give everyone their due. If we live wickedly, it will take the place of a thousand torments, and even of Hell: if we do what is right, it will be our Heaven during this one life we have. This same conscience is born with us, and it perishes with us at death. Those are our innate principles: whoever rejects them, rejects himself. I hope to be able to address this question at greater length another time. However, when it comes to the Christian articles of faith, my co-religionists and I always have these words ready:
LET THE CHRISTIANS BELIEVE IT,
THESE ANOINTED MEN AND WOMEN,
Matthias Knutzen; A Friendly Wish From A Friend To A Friend (1674)
As you can see, if atheism did not include a rejection of belief in the proposition of God, but was instead limited to a required rejection of the proposition, then it doesn’t make for a very good argument, and significantly weakens the atheist position.
The “religion” Knutzen describes is not anything we would recognize as a religion today. Every religion universally accepted as such by both adherents and critics is a doctrine of ritual traditions, ceremonies, mythology, and the associated dogma of faith-based belief systems that all posit the idea that a supernatural essence of “self ” (be it a soul or consciousness, or memories, etc.) somehow transcends the death of the physical body to continue on in some other form. Knutzen doesn’t believe in any of that, but he does hold a belief. Rather than identify with mere atheism, which he recognizes as lacking belief in any god, he promotes “Conscientianism”, which he says is also a positive belief that there is no god. This is what we call “strong” or “gnostic” atheism today. Although, I won’t use that term anymore. Instead, from here on, I may compare agnostic atheists to Conscientarian atheists instead.
By rejecting both God and all religions and all religious clergy, Knutzen is describing anti-theism, which is another word for the positive belief that no god exists. So we could say that atheists lack belief in gods and that anti-theists have a belief that no gods exist. However anti-theism is, I think, more commonly understood the way Christopher Hitchens described it: “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”
Next came Philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), who is today commonly considered to have been atheist, though he did not use that label himself; probably because it was still pejorative and Knutzen did nothing to change that. Here the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy admits that their impractically exclusionary definition is too narrow to work in Hume’s case.
“Given the more open-ended and inclusive nature of Hume’s outlook and aims, the label of “atheism” perhaps suggests a more narrow and doctrinaire position than Hume is comfortable with or concerned to champion. Granted that the label of “atheism” is in these respects potentially misleading, and that “scepticism” and “agnosticism” fail to properly identify and highlight Hume’s wholly hostile and critical attitude towards religious dogma and doctrine (in its orthodox forms), what alternative label is available to us? The most accurate and informative label for describing Hume’s views on this subject is perhaps irreligion.”
How about you get back to the original and common definition of atheism, which literally means “irreligious”?
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also explains why the narrow definition, being limited to “strong, hard, or explicit” atheism, of “having a belief that no god exists” is unworkable in the case of Hume.
“Given the comprehensive critique that Hume levels against religion, it is clear that he is not a theist in any traditional sense. However, acknowledging this point does little to settle Hume’s considered views on religion. There remain three positions open to Hume: atheist naturalism, skeptical agnosticism, or some form of deism. The first position has Hume denying any form of supernaturalism, and is much more popular outside of Hume scholarship than within. The reason for this is that it runs contrary to Hume’s attitude regarding speculative metaphysics. It has him making a firm metaphysical commitment by allowing an inference from our having no good reason for thinking that there are supernatural entities, to a positive commitment that in fact there are none. However, Hume would not commit the Epistemic Fallacy and thereby allow the inference from “x is all we can know of subject y” to “x constitutes the real, mind-independent essence of y.” Indeed, in Part XII of the first Enquiry, Hume explicitly denies the inference from what we can know from our ideas to what is the case in reality.
These considerations against a full-fledged atheist position motivate the skeptical view. While atheism saddles Hume with too strong a metaphysical commitment, the skeptical view also holds that he does not affirm the existence of any supernatural entities. This view has Hume doubting the existence of supernatural entities, but still allowing their possibility. It has the advantage of committing Hume to the sparse ontology of the naturalist without actually committing him to potentially dogmatic metaphysical positions. Hence, Hume can be an atheist for all intents and purposes without actually violating his own epistemic principles.”
That’s another problem with the restrictive philosophical definition of atheism. Rather that allow us to simply doubt the belief, we’re saddled with making positively dogmatic metaphysical commitments, based only on a lack of information, which would be potentially fallacious. Rather than say, “I believe this baseless speculation I just made up”, it would be better to say that “I DON’T believe the baseless speculation YOU just made up”.
Although Matthias Knutzen is recognized as the first atheist, at least the first one who didn’t deny the label, he didn’t exactly wear it proudly. The first person to defend atheism as the preferred label of choice was Paul Henri Thiry (Baron d’Holbach) (1723-1789). Throughout his work on The System of Nature (1770), Baron d’Holbach used the word ‘atheist’ over and over again. Wherein he provided an in-depth description and defense of atheism in the broader sense of those who lack belief, whom he praised, and explicitly NOT those who reject the God proposal, whom he called “fools”.
“This granted, we shall be competent to fix the sense that ought to be attached to the name of atheist; which, notwithstanding, the theologians lavish on all those who deviate in any thing from their opinions. If, by atheist, be designated a man who denieth the existence of a power inherent in matter, without which we cannot conceive nature, and if it be to this power that the name of God is given, then there do not exist any atheists, and the word under which they are denominated would only announce fools. But if by atheists be understood men without enthusiasm; who are guided by experience; who follow the evidence of their senses; who see nothing in nature but what they actually find to have existence, or that which they are capacitated to know; who neither do, nor can perceive any thing but matter essentially active, moveable, diversely combined, in the full enjoyment of various properties, capable of producing all the beings who display themselves to our visual faculties, if by atheists be understood natural philosophers, who are convinced that without recurring to chimerical causes, they can explain every thing, simply by the laws of motion; by the relation subsisting between beings; by their affinities; by their analogies; by their aptitude to attraction; by their repulsive powers; by their proportions; by their combinations; by their decomposition: if by atheists be meant these persons who do not understand what Pneumatology is, who do not perceive the necessity of spiritualizing, or of rendering incomprehensible, those corporeal, sensible, natural causes, which they see act uniformly; who do not find it requisite to separate the motive-power from the universe; who do not see, that to ascribe this power to an immaterial substance, to that whose essence is from thenceforth totally inconceivable, is a means of becoming more familiar with it: if by atheists are to be pourtrayed those men who ingenuously admit that their mind can neither receive nor reconcile the union of the negative attributes and the theological abstractions, with the human and moral qualities which are given to the Divinity; or those men who pretend that from such an incompatible alliance, there could only result an imaginary being; seeing that a pure spirit is destitute of the organs necessary to exercise the qualities, to give play to the faculties of human nature: if by atheists are described those men who reject systems, whose odious and discrepant qualities are solely calculated to disturb the human species—to plunge it into very prejudicial follies: if, I repeat it, thinkers of this description are those who are called atheists, it is not possible to doubt their existence; and their number would be considerable, if the light of sound natural philosophy was more generally diffused; if the torch of reason burnt more distinctly; or if it was not obscured by the theological bushel: from thence, however, they would be considered neither as irrational; nor as furious beings, but as men devoid of prejudice, of whose opinions, or if they prefer it, whose ignorance, would be much more useful to the human race, than those ideal sciences, those vain hypotheses, which for so many ages have been the actual causes of all man’s tribulation.
Baron d’Holbach is known as the “father of atheism”. He defined what atheism is, and what it means to self-identify as an atheist. In his book, Good Sense (1772) Baron d’Holbach again explains that his atheism is not necessarily a rejection of the god proposition, but rather a lack of belief as the inevitable result of a lack of evidence or arguments providing any reason to believe.
“You say, that presumption alone makes Atheists. Inform them then what your God is; teach them his essence; speak of him intelligibly; say something about him, which is reasonable, and not contradictory or impossible. If you are unable to satisfy them, if hitherto none of you have been able to demonstrate the existence of a God in a clear and convincing manner; if by your own confession, his essence is completely veiled from you, as from the rest of mortals, forgive those, who cannot admit what they can neither understand nor make consistent with itself; do not tax with presumption and vanity those who are sincere enough to confess their ignorance; do not accuse of folly those who find themselves incapable of believing contradictions; and for once, blush at exciting the hatred and fury of sovereigns and people against men, who think not like you concerning a being, of whom you have no idea. Is any thing more rash and extravagant, than to reason concerning an object, known to be inconceivable?”
In the same book, the Baron even explains that, “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God. Are they then criminal on account of their ignorance? At what age must they begin to believe in God? It is, you say, at the age of reason. But at what time should this age commence?”
I have argued this same thing myself!
Antagonists insist that atheism cannot even exist except as a response to theism. But because the psychological condition of belief in God must be acquired and added to the prior position of being without that psychological condition of belief, then, just as asexual reproduction preceded sex, atheism, the absence of theism, necessarily pre-dates the invention of god-beliefs. Before anyone believed in gods, no one did. Everyone was “without theism” or atheist.
I’ve queried a number of people who accept this much, and then accept that children born into atheist societies would of course always have been atheist. It’s not like they would have to wait until they hear, understand and then reject the claims of theism first, because they already don’t believe in that. They would only have to hear the arguments for theism in order to become believers. They’re already in the default position of non-belief. Newborn babies are already atheist to start with, since they don’t have any psychological condition of believing in gods. If they’re atheist from birth, then there is no minimum level of cognition required to NOT have a god belief. You only need cognition in order to HAVE a belief.
Newborn infants don’t have a psychological condition of any kind, much less one believing in gods. The same is true of trees and rocks. None of them have a belief in the proposition, and they don’t have a belief in the falsity of the proposition either. Nor could they have knowledge of such things either way. So they’re all both atheist and agnostic.
Some people say that it’s silly to admit that rocks are atheist. But I think it’s silly to deny that. Everyone agrees that rocks and babies are not airline pilots. No one thinks one has to be able to fly before you can be a non-flier.
I’ve heard many impressively bad arguments from antagonists in defense of their prescriptive restrictive redefinition, but I have not heard even one good one. I should have kept a running list. One I remember was that “it’s not enough that you don’t believe; you also have to believe that you don’t believe!” Why do they keep adding unnecessary criteria? Why do they insist on turning unbelievers into believers? I think that the reason is to keep the total number of atheists down to as few as possible.
The best counter-argument I’ve ever yet seen was when someone shared a link to an article on How Not to Define ‘Atheism’ by Dr. Bill Vallicella, “The Maverick Philosopher”; an actual philosophical scholar who explained that, “atheism cannot be identified with the lack of theistic belief, i.e., the mere absence of the belief that God or a god exists, for that would imply that cabbages and tire irons are atheists.”
So his argument is that atheism can’t be what it is because that would make it the default position that it always has been. Get that? That’s the REASON he gives! That a lack of belief as the default position would lead to a logical conclusion that he doesn’t want to admit. That’s not evidence, nor a reasoned argument either. That’s just an admission of bias!
From there, his argument moves on to projection, flipping the tables to turn atheism into the proposition rather than theism. That’s fallacious! Specifically the fallacy of shifting the burden of proof, demanding that the unbeliever disprove a the believers’ unsupported assertions rather than expect the believer to show the truth of his claim. Worse, this means that when we atheists say “I don’t believe you”, somehow THAT becomes a proposition, AND we’re told that we have to provide a burden of proof to justify why we don’t believe you.
Why are we letting a Christian philosopher from a Catholic school redefine what atheism is? Telling us that rocks can’t be atheist? Christians are the ones who say that rocks will sing praise to Jesus.
How do you know whether some body or collective is theist or atheist?
Do they believe in any gods?
Yes = theist. No = atheist.
It really is that simple.
Everyone who answers “yes” is theistic, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Hindus, despite all their disagreements, they’re all recognized collectively as Theists and their numbers swell accordingly. But look at every subdivision that can NOT answer yes to that question. Those are the atheists, every one of them. The explicit hard atheist and the implicit soft atheist both answer the question of god belief the same way. “No”. Neither one believes. So are they all collectively recognized as they should be? No. Instead the antagonists have created many artificially-contrived sub-categories to keep the non-believers divided from their allies and confused about their own identity.
According to the antagonists’ prescriptive restrictive definition…
If you don’t believe in any gods because you don’t have a brain or because your brain hasn’t yet developed enough to entertain such farcical beliefs, then you’re not atheist, you a non-cognitivist. Because (for whatever illogical reason) you can’t be unable to believe until you’re able to believe.
If you’re capable of belief, but don’t believe in miraculous deities because you were lucky enough to live in a secular society where such silliness as gods and magic were never even mentioned, then you’re not atheist, you’re only an “innocent”. Because you can’t be “without theism” until you’ve had theism thrust upon you.
If you’ve heard the pitch for theism, but object to the question because the terms ‘god’ and ‘supernatural’, ‘immaterial’ and ‘miraculous’ all lack any sensible definition, then you’re not an atheist, you’re an igtheist. Because you can’t be an atheist until you know what the god is that you don’t believe in; even when the people who do believe in that god don’t know themselves what it is.
If you’ve heard and understood the arguments for divinity, but you just don’t care whether gods exist or not, you’re not atheist, you’re an apatheist. Because you can’t be atheist until you show enough interest to take a position, even when you’re starting from the default position already.
If you’ve heard and understood the pitch for God, and you’re still not convinced, but you allow that some gods maybe could exist, by some definition perhaps, and you’re sure you would change your mind if given good reason to, you’re still not an atheist then either; You’re only agnostic, which is pretty much the same as “soft atheism” already was, but you’re not supposed to figure that out.
If you’ve heard and understood and considered the arguments for theism, yet you still have no belief, you’re still not atheist. You’re only a non-theist or lack-theist, both of which mean exactly the same thing as “atheist” always did, but you’re not supposed to notice that either.
If you’ve heard and understood and considered the arguments for theism, yet not only do you still have no belief that it’s true, you actually have a belief that it’s false, well then you can’t really be an atheist then either, because there’s no way to know for sure that there’s no god, not without proving an unfalsifiable negative.
However, the fact remains that none of the above groups believes in any god. So they’re all atheist.
As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy clarifies: “It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to affirm the non-existence of God. Anthony Flew (1984) called this positive atheism, whereas to lack a belief that God or gods exist is to be a negative atheist. Parallels for this use of the term would be terms such as “amoral,” “atypical,” or “asymmetrical.” So negative atheism would include someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle.”
The whole and sole division of theism from atheism is to distinguish and contrast the godless from the godly, believers from unbelievers. Every Theist in the world is playing a game of make-believe with what appears to be a magic imaginary friend, and the only ones who are not pretending are atheists. That is the utility and the value of using the properly inclusive definition rather than imposing the unworkable unreasonable and ungainly debilitating restriction of forcing unbelievers to believe in the rejection of the proposition instead of simply not having to assume a belief at all.