The collective moans of all those reading the title of this article can be heard. I wouldn’t blame you for moaning either. After all, who needs another article arguing for what the definition of atheism is? And I would agree with that! There are plenty of arguments out there about what the ‘true’ definition of atheism is, and why it is the ‘true’ definition of atheism. Getting into an argument about the definition of atheism is also pretty simple. Just go on Twitter or in any Facebook group dedicated to atheism or the atheist vs theist debate, and post ‘There are multiple definitions of atheism’. You’ll soon find yourself surrounded by people arguing for a singular definition.
That’s not what this article is about. If you want to know my views on the atheism definition debate you can check out my video ‘Atheism: A Tale of Two Usages’. No, this article is about something else. Instead, this article is going to discuss why I think having a discussion about the definition is important, and it’s not for the reason you are probably assuming right now. So, why do I think atheists discussing atheism is important?
Why is it important?
Well, there’s actually lots of reasons I think it is important. So, you’ll have to bear with me while I discuss them all. Let’s start with one of the first and most important reasons though, scepticism. What do I mean by that? Well, whenever discussions about the definition of atheism are brought up many atheists will claim that there is only one definition of atheism, or that other definitions are wrong, or are redefinitions. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong. Many people may only have learned one definition, or may have learned from others that there is only one definition. That isn’t the problem, the problem comes after that.
The problem comes when we actually try to discuss whether the claims of a singular definition are true. Most discussions that centre around whether or not that claim is true usually become shouting matches, and can more often than not end up in you being blocked by other atheists and sceptics. That’s not to say that all conversations are like this. It was a very pleasant and interesting conversation about the definition of atheism that inspired this article. However, those atheists that dig their heels in, yell at those arguing differently, refuse to accept evidence to the contrary of their view, and block people for arguing to the contrary, need to be discussed. As stated previously, this kind of behaviour is the opposite of good scepticism.
There are lots of ways that people in the sceptic and atheist community define what scepticism is. Most have a sort of common theme that runs through them all. If you ask the average sceptic today what scepticism is then you may get some idiosyncrasies in the definition, but most will agree to something like ‘scepticism is doubting (or not accepting) a claim until provided with sufficient evidence and justification’. Some of the words used may be different, but that is the general idea of scepticism that floats around the sceptic and atheist community today.
So, it could even be argued that when presented with the claim ‘there is more than one definition of atheism’ some atheists and sceptics are doing their due diligence as sceptics. They are being confronted with a claim that contradicts what they currently believe to be true. Meaning that, of course, it will be doubted. After all, there are people considered to be authorities on atheism, like Matt Dillahunty and Aron Ra, arguing that very thing. They are also surrounded by other atheists online, and possibly in real life, arguing that there is a singular definition of atheism. To them, the claim that there are multiple definitions of atheism is the unusual claim.
Which means that there is nothing particularly wrong with some of the scepticism we see towards the claim that there is more than one definition of atheism. No, that is not where the problem lies per se. As mentioned previously, it is what comes after the initial scepticism that is the problem. Many will dig their heels in that the claim is wrong, regardless of what evidence is presented to them. Let’s consider one of the popular rebuttals often offered by sceptics as evidence that there is only one definition/usage of atheism – the oft touted dictionary definition.
Good reasoning and evidence
Many atheists will simply make a brief trip to the Google search engine, type ‘definition of atheism’ into the search bar, and then screenshot the definition that shows in the results. The screenshot is then presented as evidence of the claim that there is a singular definition of atheism. Which seems to be a fair enough response at this point. This is what they have been taught is the only definition, and that this is evidence that it is the only definition. Therefore, we should expect them to repeat it. However, other definitions of atheism can be found in other dictionaries. In general dictionaries, as well as in philosophical dictionaries. When these dictionary definitions are presented as counter-evidence to the claim there is only one definition, many atheists will simply declare that those dictionaries are ‘wrong’.
Which means that those atheists are disregarding their scepticism as soon as they are confronted with evidence that counters their claim. It seems that there is a selection bias happening in their evidence collection. Anything that favours their claim that there is a single definition of atheism is ‘evidence’, anything that does not favour their claim is ‘not evidence’. It seems to be the case though that if a dictionary is evidence of how a word is used, then all dictionaries are evidence of how the word is used. That’s what dictionaries do – they describe how words are used. So, rather than adjusting their claim to the evidence, they adjust the evidence to their claim. That is not how good scepticism works.
Of course, the discussion could, and sometimes does, lead on to how dictionaries work, how language works, what counts as evidence, and similar topics. Many times, though, the discussion never gets that far. Standard arguments are generally trotted out for why atheism means only one thing. When those arguments are confronted and countered too, many atheists will resort to the mute or block option. Though some will simply declare that they aren’t interested in ‘semantics’ or ‘semantic games’ and walk away from the discussion, and continue to argue that there is only one kind of atheism. This attitude is also promoted by some of the bigger names in atheism, like Matt Dillahunty and Aron Ra.
Which adds another problem to this kind of behaviour from atheists and sceptics. Not only is it bad scepticism, but it creates dogma among atheists and sceptics. Something that is antithetical to scepticism. A sceptic is supposed to question dogma, not create unquestionable dogmas. This gives us another reason why the discussion about the definition of atheism is important, it fights against the dogma that is being created among atheists. Of course, there will be atheists that argue here that there is no dogma in atheism, and therefore atheists can’t be following dogma. That reasoning is faulty though, because the dogma need not necessarily come from atheism itself. The dogma can come from within the atheist communities, and from people considered authorities about atheism.
Unquestioned and unquestionable authorities
Which leads us to another good reason why we should be having these discussions. People like Aron Ra, Matt Dillahunty, the ACA, and the American Atheists, have become not only unquestioned authorities, but unquestionable authorities. Questioning or criticising Aron Ra or Matt Dillahunty will often lead to being blocked by them. Often during discussion their words, or the words of the ACA, the American Atheists, or the Canadian atheists, being presented as if their word settles the matter. Questioning their authority, or what makes them authoritative on the subject will usually lead to remarks like ‘well they would know’ or ‘I would trust them over you any day’ and other such retorts. The cycle is then repeated, with the end result usually being those who are arguing against them are dismissed, muted, or blocked. So the discussion is worth having because it can help to curb the creation of these unquestionable authorities, and also keep these so-called authorities in check.
All of these seem to be pretty important reasons, at least for a sceptic, to have the discussion about the definition of atheism. There are also lots of other reasons, such as it leads to the questioning of other claims and arguments made by many atheists. With many claims and arguments being held with the same sense of unquestionable dogmatism that the definition of atheism is held with. The discussion about the definition involves good scepticism, epistemology, the avoidance of dogmatism about atheism and from atheists, the questioning of authorities, what makes someone an authority, what makes something evidence, and much more.
Are these important?
Accepting that these are important, and accepting that this discussion needs to go on, could also open the many closed minds of many sceptics and atheists. It can also help us to avoid the creation of echo chambers in the atheist community. Something that also seems antithetical to good scepticism. After all, good scepticism cannot happen in a place where people are only allowed to be sceptical of pre-approved topics. That seems less like scepticism, and more akin to the creation and promotion of ideology.
To go into detail about every reason why the discussion surrounding the definition of atheism would lead to a very long article, and this article is long enough as it is. However, the reasons presented here seem to be good reasons for why the discussion should be had, rather than avoided. It simply makes for better sceptics, scepticism, atheists, and atheism. The one caveat I would add here though is that there is one element of that discussion that is not worth having. That element is to argue what the one true definition of atheism is. The reason being that there is no one true definition of atheism, no matter how much people like Aron Ra and Matt Dillahunty argue there is.