Dictionary Atheism

Dictionary Atheism October 21, 2014

I’ve been reading about some frustration regarding what some would call “dictionary atheism”. I am one of those that they might call a dictionary atheist, and I’d like to share my thoughts.

I’ll address what is my understanding of the issue.

Some aren’t satisfied with the idea that atheism is just about not believing in a god. There’s more to what atheism is about than that single point, they’d say. Being an atheist comes with implications, such as valuing truth over fiction, or being opposed to bigotry, because the only reason one was bigoted before, was due to religious influences. Thus, if one examines “what it means” to be an atheist, one would find much more than a single answer on a single question.

It doesn’t really bother me if they want to hold this view, though perhaps I’m feeling a little defensive, as an implicit target of some contempt. I’d like to share why I don’t buy it.

Does “Implied” mean “Identity”?

The argument

This is my main point of confusion about what they’re saying. I’m not entirely sure what they’re getting at. There’s a lot of talk about what atheism “implies” – and that seems fine to me, to a degree. Things have implications. I don’t believe that’s enough, otherwise, it essentially can become a correlation/causation error.

One example provided was an example of a person, who was bigoted as a religious person. When this person stopped being religious, he/she realized that his/her bigotry was based on the religion, and without that religion, had no more “justification” for discriminating. This implies that becoming an atheist implies valuing people more, and being more open minded about different types of people.

A number of examples are provided along these lines – people become atheists and start embracing things like skepticism, science, dropping bigotry, etc.


An implication of riding a motorcycle is that one will occasionally drive past traffic accidents. Does that mean that being a biker is about driving past traffic accidents? If we were to tack on every implication, to driving around on a motorcycle, onto what it means to be a biker, we’d have an encyclopedia dedicated to the question.

That’s not typically how we operate.

At the core of the issue is that “what it means to be a _____“, and “being a ____ implies _____” are highly subjective. We may come to a consensus on a more intuitive level. Maybe something just has to be true most of the time, as well as being more immediately associated, before we’ll include it as an aspect.

What it means to be a biker means different things to different people. That’s okay… but the Venn diagram on agreement is going to be fairly narrow.

Other, not-so-flattering implications

Why aren’t we also saying that, what it means to be an atheist, is to be annoying, arrogant and antagonistic? That’s also an implication for a group of people fighting against an prolific adversary, being the Rebel Scum that we are.

Shouldn’t we also be saying that the implications of atheism, and what it means to be atheist, is that atheism is about being male? (most of the time).

I don’t think they’d agree with these.


One could argue, that an implication for being an atheist, is not voluntarily to going to a church/mosque anymore (accounting for closeted atheists). This is probably true 95-98% of the time. My ass-statistician does not lie.

Does that mean that Jerry DeWitt isn’t an atheist? He established/runs a “church” that many atheists attend voluntarily. Or is it that they’re atheists, and the difference is the lack of belief in a god?

That’s where I’m confused on their point. If they’re arguing that being an atheist means more than X-Attribute, but instead includes Attributes Y and Z, wouldn’t contradicting Y and Z mean that one isn’t an atheist?

Distinguishing Characteristics

It’s not uncommon in my discussions with creationists, that they’ll bait-and-switch using different definitions of the same word. Often, they do this with “God”. During the Kalam Cosmological argument, the creationist may try to get you to agree to a “first mover” as a probability. Then, they’ll say “I call that God”… and suddenly, all these other attributes pop into existence. The “first mover” now an intelligent being, had a son who he arranged to have tortured and killed, and is obsessed with foreskins. Creationists can be very shifty about definitions.

Each identifying concept has what I like to call “key distinguishing characteristics.”

The moon is a large, spheroid chunk of mass that is in orbit around the Earth. Is my tennis ball a moon? It’s roughly spherical, so it qualifies under one key characteristic… but it doesn’t match the others. If it did, we’d rightly identify it as a moon.

On the other hand, we could probably come up with a myriad of additional characteristics that my chunk of quartz, on my desk, shares with the moon. Those characteristics are mostly considered irrelevant, as to whether my quartz is a moon. That’s because these additional characteristics aren’t the key identifying ones.

If someone would like to add additional characteristics onto the key features of a moon, we can have that discussion, however, they’ll likely need more than “X is consistent with Y

Correlation does not equal Causation

I think they’re doing it backwards.

My atheism is a conclusion to my world view, not the start of it. My atheism certainly isn’t a world view in itself. I’d say that Humanism, critical thinking and skepticism would lead a person to abandoning religious-based discrimination. Atheism didn’t lead me to any of these things. These things lead me to atheism.

It’s the difference between joining the Army having caused you to continually shave your face (to make for a better seal with a gas mask), versus a person having a continually-shaved face, so he/she joins the Army.

To be fair, that may not be exactly what they’re saying… but when an example comes up that a person dropped discrimination because the religious basis for it stopped, I see it in terms of two angles:

  • Atheism is a cause for eliminating discrimination / bigotry
  • Atheism is consistent with eliminating discrimination / bigotry

While I’m in favor of eliminating discrimination / bigotry, I see either as being conceptually problematic connections…. not without accidentally connecting to things they wouldn’t appreciate.

More than one type of atheist

I also think, to a degree, they may not be accounting for the differences between life-long atheists, and formerly-religious atheists. The latter, having fought their way out of dogma, can be very different from the former. In some countries, where the percentages of life-long atheists are might higher, there’s a lot more unskeptical acceptance of woo, for example, by those people.

With that in mind, they aren’t developing an idea of what it means to be an atheist, they’re developing what it means to be a skeptical, well-reasoning science-minded atheist. The fact I had to place additional adjectives in front of “atheist” says something about where these characteristics are coming from.

A Misc Objection

Dictionary Atheism is Nothing/Unimportant

I don’t agree. Here’s something I think most of us are familiar:

I don’t believe in unicorns, but I don’t call myself an “aunicornist”

Typically, we agree, but point out the reason why the analogy doesn’t work.

We don’t have unicorn-believers passing laws trying to teach Unicornism in schools, or using taxpayer money to proselytize. They’re not passing laws restricting non-believers from holding public office. Unicorn believers aren’t getting special exemptions from following the laws of everyone else. You can fill in the rest.

However, there mere single fact of not believing in a god is sufficient to be fired (or passed-over for employment/promotions), to be banned from public office (unconstitutionally or not), or even imprisoned/executed. It’s sufficient to be disowned by friends/family, etc.

I agree. I don’t think “atheism” is a terribly important distinction. Then again, I’m not the one who made it one of the planet’s most contentious focal points of disagreement.

In that sense, the accusation that “Dictionary Atheism” isn’t an important distinction, is just factually wrong.

I’m all for eliminating the need to have the word “atheist.” I’d be happy to just move on to other things. I suppose I’m on the “God-slayer” end of the spectrum. I see religion as shackles, holding people back… not because atheism is such a great thing, something to strive for, but rather that religion is something that is holding us back.

After that, it’s open-season as to what people believe… as long as proper dosages of skepticism, critical thinking and evidence are consulted.

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