Atheism is a word that has quite a rich history going all the way back to ancient Greece and the definition of atheism has changed quite a lot throughout the years. There’s also quite a contentious view pushed by some people who identify as atheists that there is only one definition of atheism. This is not the case.
Whilst I have a preference for a definition of Atheism in this video and article I’m not planning on pushing any above the rest. That’s not an agenda that I have, and I’m not even going to make arguments for why I think it is the better definition.
Instead, the ideas in which I hope to convey include some of the history of atheism, the various uses it’s had and whether any of those uses are still present and used today, as well as clearing up some misconceptions people have.
If you prefer a video version, then please click this link and watch instead:
Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll have an understanding that there are many definitions of atheism and how atheism has evolved throughout the years. I hope there’s a bonus of you learning something new too, perhaps there’ll be something about its history that you weren’t aware of before.
I also hope that once it is realised there is more than one valid and legitimate definition of Atheism in use today, we shouldn’t be arguing for the right definition of atheism or tell people who use another one that they “know nothing about atheism” and instead focus, if we want the definition discussion, on why we prefer a particular definition.
At the very least, build an understanding that it is more important to stipulate what each of us mean by atheists when we’re going to be using the label.
Remember, we are more than our labels and the important thing is to be understood.
Atheos is the etymological root of atheism and it’s often taken to mean without gods. This is understandable because that would be a direct translation of the terms, however, the further back in history you go direct translations don’t work as well.
In fact, you can even think about it in modern language. Pomme de terre in French translates to Apple of the ground/earth and originally translated to Fruit of the ground/earth but it means potato which is a root vegetable. So, not a fruit, not an apple.
Just like potato atheist has a different meaning to the literal translation. Originally it was used for someone that was down on their luck and they had lost the favour or support of the gods which is why they were without the gods or were “god forsaken”
The Greek word atheos which first appears in the 5th century BC, implies the absence (a-) of god (theos). The older meaning implies someone who has lost support of the gods. Someone who is “godless” or “godforsaken” in the archaic English sense.Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh
This version is no longer used.
Atheos then traversed into a definition that was used for anyone that didn’t believe in the pantheon. For example, folks like Socrates, who believed in a prime mover, were considered atheos because they didn’t believe in the pantheon.
The term was even used to describe the Christians because they didn’t believe in the pantheon.
So, the root of atheism in both these early definitions was used for those that actually hold a belief in some form of deity.
It eventually evolved into a definition that was used for anyone that didn’t believe in the sanctioned gods of the state, so Christians would go on to call the pagans atheos. So we can see that this definition, like the original use, has a little bit more to it than simply being without Gods. This definition of atheos is no longer used but it has similarities with local atheism which I’ll come to later.
From Athéisme to Atheism
Doctrine or attitude based on the negation of a personal and living God. Anton. deism, theism.
A.− DOGM. Refusal of religious beliefs, by blindness of the intelligence relative to the existence of God.
B. – PHILOS. Atheism (absolute). Explicit denial of the existence of God, generally with the establishment of a humanism without religion.
C. – SOCIOL., POL. Denial of God in the practice of social or political action.https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/ath%C3%A9isme#:~:text=masc.-,ATH%C3%89ISME%2C%20subst.,un%20Dieu%20personnel%20et%20vivant.
Atheism first entered the English language from the French in about the 16th century, and at that time it was denial, negation or disbelief in the existence of God.
Disbelief is another term that’s polysemous but in epistemology today and in the context back then it meant the belief something was false. So, disbelief in God or disbelief in God existing is essentially the same as saying the belief God does not exist and this definition is still used today though it might be refined in a few other ways.
Practical atheism, or a practical atheist, was used as an insult it was used for those that believed in a God but didn’t act in accordance with Christian values. It isn’t necessarily used so explicitly today however you will find some Christians saying things like, “there’s no difference between a sinner and an atheist!”
Basically, even if you are a Christian and you’re sinning you’re no different to an atheist. I have heard a few use the term practical atheist, but it is more often described than said explicitly.
Atheism as a Derogatory Expression
This leads me on to a derogatory form of atheism. Whilst practical atheism was originally used as a derogatory term, it could actually describe anyone. For example, if you understand there are different types of non-theist one would perhaps say for practical purposes they’re all the same as atheists. They all live as atheists, none of them go to church or to the synagogue, and they may as well be atheists.
This could be a simple way of describing a secular non-theist rather than making a derogatory statement.
It does become a derogatory statement when it’s used to discredit dismiss or devalue someone or things that they’ve said. This could be because they’re taking the opinion that because they’re an atheist they shouldn’t be listened to (perhaps because they think atheists are evil or clueless) or they’re talking to someone and they are comparing them to an atheist and saying you know atheists are bad and that’s how you’re acting right now.
This is obviously fallacious reasoning but it does happen. It might happen between theists saying the other isn’t believing in the true god so they are atheists, they interpret their god’s message wrong and that’s making them act like an atheist or anything along those lines.
Atheism as a Proposition
Atheism can be seen as a proposition. The proposition “gods do not exist” and the reason for this is an -ISM isn’t usually something describing a psychological state.
An -ism is USUALLY a system of values or a philosophy, political ideology or something like that. It is the -ist that follows or acts in accordance with an -ism so for example, a communist follows communism, a socialist follows socialism and so on and so forth so when atheism is described as the belief gods do not exist, what it’s doing is it’s talking about the propositional content of the belief. If one accepts the proposition of atheism they become an atheist because they believe gods don’t exist. They think the proposition is most likely true.
The idea of negative atheism was put forward by Antony flew in his paper ‘the presumption of Atheism’ in 1972. He accepted the current uses of atheism, which was that aforementioned propositional sense, and agnosticism as its own mutually exclusive position, much like Huxley coined it to be.
What Flew said was, the negative atheist is not the same as either the current atheist which he would go on to call the positive atheist and the agnostic because he concluded that both the positive atheist and agnostic had already presupposed at least one definition of God or gods that was legitimate for consideration.
His take on the negative atheist was actually that there isn’t a legitimate definition of gods. What the negative atheist should do is actually try and investigate the definition of God before considering things further. What is this God? What are its qualities? What does it do? What are the defining characteristics? from here, look for any contradictions within and if so, therefore, maintain this negative stance.
The negative atheist was still an active position on the topic of whether gods exist or not. It’s not a total absence of a position, but rather “I’ve heard of this God concept it’s just this God concept seems a little bit you know illogical to me I’ve not heard a coherent definition so could you provide me one?”
It’s also worth noting a similar position was already in existence coined in the 1960s by Sherwin Wine known as ignosticism and that is still used today, however, Flew’s negative atheism did come with a method to extract a better definition of a God for discussion, so it’s always worth looking into his work just to take that part from it.
Hard/Soft Weak/Strong Explicit/Implicit
When it comes to terms like hard and soft or strong and weak atheism we can find ourselves getting a bit confused. These are terms that can mean different things to different people, sometimes crossing over, sometimes being subsets and so on.
It can actually be quite hard to work out what these people mean by them.. sometimes it can relate to the amount of psychological certainty someone had from having a really weak amount of certainty so you’re totally uncertain as to whether gods exist or not to strong as in being sure that they don’t exist. Sometimes it’s akin to Flew’s use of negative and positive atheism. Sometimes people might have them as sets within sets and it gets all a little bit confusing but it goes sort of like weak atheism is basically anything that lacks belief so it’s an all-encompassing anything not a theist is a weak atheist and then you might have the soft atheism within that sort of weak atheism bubble as someone who has heard of gods but is suspended in judgment they’re uncertain strong could mean that it’s thinking that all gods are false whereas hard is saying they’re definitely all false.
It’s interesting that there are all these different modifiers popping up for atheism that seem to represent other positions people hold and already have labels for. With the fact there doesn’t seem to be a consistent use, it is probably best to check with someone each time you hear the term.
Atheism as The Lack of Belief in God or gods.
One of the common definitions you’ll find of atheism, especially on social media, is the lack of belief in God or gods. Even though an -ism isn’t usually a psychological state, that is how this particular definition is described. If you lack belief in God or gods you are an atheist, although technically if atheism is the psychological state of lacking belief then you would actually be an atheism or you’d have an atheism.
This definition is sometimes called lacktheism which was coined by Ozymandias Ramses II to differentiate between the way atheism is usually used within philosophy, which is the propositional sense of atheism, and the lack of belief use of atheism.
Whereas one uses the a- for not as in negation the other uses -a to mean lack or without. It made sense when he did this and I can understand the intent. The problem is, this has become a bit of a pejorative term “ugh lacktheists”, “uh lacktheism” “oh you’re such an idiot” so there’s now a lot of baggage assigned to this and even if someone doesn’t necessarily mean it in a negative way it still comes across. It’s a shame because it’s a quick way to actually say lack of belief atheist versus philosophical atheist.
Local atheism is essentially when you believe your local gods, or a specific kind of god, don’t exist. It’s most commonly used for the God of classical theism/Abrahamic deity, especially if you’re somewhere like the UK or in the US. If you believe the Abrahamic deity doesn’t exist, you are a local atheist.
A local atheist could still technically be either a global agnostic or even a global theist though a theist probably wouldn’t describe themselves as a local atheist, whereas it is more common to hear a global agnostic say they are locally atheist, much like one of our authors, Kristyn Pyke.
Global atheism encompasses one that believes no gods exist it’s essentially the same as that propositional atheism. One could be, as was mentioned, a local atheist but globally agnostic because there are certain gods that they haven’t looked into enough to conclude whether they exist or not they’re suspending judgment so a local atheist Global agnostic or if one is a global atheist then they believe no gods exist.
Global atheism is notoriously harder to justify than local atheism. Most theists and atheists will have a very singular idea of a god concept they will either accept or reject, and largely not be subjected to, or subject themselves to, the variety of different concepts.
We must consider the following things:
- What makes a legitimate god concept?
- What are the minimal characteristics of something to be regarded as a god?
- What are some of the less mainstream god concepts and do they fit in the above?
- Are there any gaps in our knowledge that could only be explained by some sort of deity?
- What are the implications of there being a deity that just hasn’t communicated with us?
You might have heard of the Gnostic/Agnostic quadrant. It splits the atheist here into a ‘gnostic atheist‘ or an ‘agnostic atheist‘ and they will say that a gnostic atheist is one that claims to know gods don’t exist and lacks belief in Gods and an agnostic atheist is one that doesn’t claim to know if gods exist or not and lacks belief in Gods.
I’ve done an extensive breakdown of the ‘issues with agnostic atheism‘ and whether you’ve watched it in its ‘shorts‘ form, its long (full video) form, or read the article, I think you can understand that there are some issues there. With Gnostic atheism, some of the issues are the same but essentially one issue is where Gnostic comes from. Gnostic relates to the gnostics that claimed to have special knowledge-of God. It’s not talking about epistemological knowledge necessarily. If you take it back to its roots it sort of refers to knowledge-of or certainty and that sort of thing rather than actually speaking about knowledge so it could be something that signifies the strength of the belief or strength of the lack of belief it’s all a little bit confusing and, in fact, if you want a bit more information on the whole agnostic Gnostic thing I suggest checking out the video by Emerson Green. He’s done quite a good breakdown on some of the problems with it.
Non-theism as Atheism
There are some that use non-theism and Atheism interchangeably, so if you don’t accept that at least one God exists you’re an atheist.
The issue with this definition being so broad is it would include anyone that has not heard of gods existing or those that lack the cognitive ability to consider if gods exist.
Now I would agree that they are a type of non-theist, but it seems like it’s too much to say that they are an atheist too. They haven’t chosen a position on the board, they aren’t even aware the board exists.
Is Atheism a rational position?
The problem with including those not even on the board is, a lot of us atheists say that atheism is a rational position.
What is a rational position?
One that is reasoned.
If someone is atheist just by fiat of not hearing about gods then it’s not a rational position.
If someone is an atheist because they lack the cognitive abilities to consider the proposition gods exist, that includes babies and people with brain damage, and therefore the average IQ of atheists actually drops quite low.
It would also include anyone who had slipped into a coma with minimal brain activity, so if a theist happened to go into a coma and they could no longer actively hold that belief in their brain they would suddenly become an atheist and again I don’t think that that is fair because we’d consider them atheist still because that’s what they were before they slipped into the coma.
Anything Not Theist as Atheist.
There are some that actually broaden the definition of atheism to not just anyone (as in, person) that lacks the belief in God or gods but any THING that lacks the belief in God or gods.
They will claim that anything lacking this belief is atheist or some might say atheistic.
Other than Theist/Atheist being a false dichotomy or a bit of a black-and-white fallacy, it poses other issues too.
For example, it includes people making claims that rocks are atheist.
This definition is problematic, whether you mean it atheist as in an atheist or you mean atheist as in atheistic.
It would include things like Bibles and churches as atheistic things because they don’t actively hold a belief in God or gods yet we wouldn’t call them atheistic because they promote or house a place of theistic belief.
You then have to concede that either this definition doesn’t work or there are things that are both theistic and atheistic at the same time, which seems to be a contradiction.
There’s a variety of different definitions that get used by all sorts of people. Hopefully, you’ve found this somewhat informative and can understand how there are many different definitions and that there isn’t necessarily any one correct definition.
You might have reasons for preferring one over the other, that all would fit you, or not really care either way. The important thing, though, is that you understand that there are multiple legitimate definitions of atheism and there’s no point in telling people that they’re wrong for using a different definition.
You can, of course, have a discussion on whether you prefer a particular definition and the reasons behind it and I think that can be quite a good discussion to have. You can learn a lot just from holding that conversation and in turn, you might realize that some of the reasons you’re holding a particular definition might not be as well-founded as you think.
Posts About Atheism
- Rockin’ Atheism Part 3: Atheism in Greek Antiquity
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
- Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
- The Problem With ‘Atheism is the Default Position’ Arguments
- The Null Hypothesis: How it Relates to Atheism and God – SciPhi Shortz
- “Atheism is a Conclusion, Not a Belief” – SciPhi Shortz: BAM!
- Agnostic Atheism
- Is The ‘lack of belief’ Definition of Atheism The Most Common One Used?
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Video]
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Podcast]
- “If atheism is true…”
- Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
- In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
- Pitfalls of ‘New Atheism’
- Has Atheism Become an Ideology?
- Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof?
- Are we Born Atheist?
- Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- Philosophy in The Atheist Community – SciPhi
- Do Non-Theists Live as Atheists?
- Atheism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Atheism and Agnosticism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
- Defining Atheism and the Burden of Proof (Acedemia.edu)
- Normatively Atheist
- On the definition of atheism (By Philip Müller)
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt. 1: The Wrongness of Aron Ra
I’m Joe. I write under the name Davidian, not only because it is a Machine Head song I enjoy but because it was a game character I used to role-play that was always looking to better himself.
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