Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Group 1: What is atheism?

I'm glad you asked :-)

Oddly enough, I was asked to do a blog post on this very question in the not-so-distant past. So just for grins, I'll reproduce it here (with my gracious permission.)

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.

Having shared that, I find that I like most of what Baggini has to say on the subject. I'm sure our group will have more to say about it on Thursday.


  1. Factual questions: How does Baggini define atheism?

    Answer: the belief that there is no God or gods.

  2. I've been reading through the Baggini book slowly I like it so far, I think she makes the case in an easy to understand and reasonable manner. I've always found the Dilemma to be very convincing, and I like especially what she said about the source of morality perhaps being awareness that the welfare of other beings counts and is important. But of course, I'm biased, since that's what I said goodness was in our introductions. :)

  3. I agree, as I have never heard a convincing case for morality originating outside of people and their interactions with each other (I recall saying something along those lines in my intro too.) And I'm pretty sure Julian is a dude :-)

  4. I just want to put in a word of appreciation: I really admire the respectful and articulate level of discourse you've all been hitting in the course so far, in the classroom and in this space. It's been a real treat reading and listening to your contributions. I'd be inclined to keep this site up and running and maybe even open to the wide world after semester's end, if there's any interest in doing that.

  5. One more thought: the quality of blog posts has been so good, if anyone wants to do a thematically-related series of posts in lieu of a more formal essay for the midterm or final project I'd be fine with that.

    1. I might be interested in that, actually. I assume we can discuss the details during class, for everyone's benefit.

  6. Yes, please remind me in class.