What is atheism? Great question, and odds are that you’ll get 10 different answers if you ask 10 different people. People who define words are just like everybody else: they have their own agendas, their own biases, and their own beliefs. As such, you will find that definitions of atheism often say as much about the people doing the defining as the word they are attempting to define. So, let’s look at a few boilerplate definitions to get a feel for the landscape. A quick Google search turns up the following:
1. Disbelief in the existence of God or gods.
2. A lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
3. The doctrine or belief that there is no God.
4. Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.
There are some similarities there, sure, but also some pretty substantive differences. Definition #1 centers around “disbelief” as a key aspect of atheism, but that doesn’t leave room for people who have never been exposed to the hypothesis that gods exist. How can a person disbelieve something that they have no awareness of? Definition #4 suffers from the same problem, but throws in the twist of “denial.” This gets into some semantic sleight-of-hand territory, but in practice “disbelief” and “denial” can rest on the same evidentiary ground. If the evidence for a proposition is found to be lacking, it seems that I can either disbelieve the claim, or deny its veracity. Either way, I don’t believe it. Definition #3 is a great example of the definer’s bias shining through, because I seriously doubt that the word “doctrine” would come up during a discussion about whether or not we have evidence to support the existence of Bigfoot.
So that leaves us with Definition #2, a simple lack of believe in gods. This accounts for people who actively disbelieve, those who have never been exposed to the idea of gods and therefore can’t believe or disbelieve, and those who just don’t care (and therefore lack belief.) This definition also has the added benefit of jiving with our understanding of how the “a” prefix should function in language. Placed in front of a word, “a” simply denotes the absence of whatever follows. So, simply put, atheism implies the absence of theism (a belief in a god or gods.)
Now if all that sounds a little anticlimactic, don’t be too surprised. Theists have done a pretty good job of loading atheism down with lots of baggage over the last few millennia, and it takes time (and a little effort) to dispel myths and misconceptions. But now you know, and knowing is half the battle.