Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What is atheism? Midterm Blog Project, post #1

Since my midterm project is going to concern comparing and contrasting the concepts of atheism and agnosticism, I figured I would recycle my previous post on atheism to get the ball rolling.

I would also like to take this opportunity to openly express my gratitude to Dr. Oliver for making this class available, and to all of you who make this class so terribly enjoyable. They say time flies when you're having fun, and I am consistently surprised when our time is up each week. Thank you all for sharing your unique thoughts and insights.

Now, enough of the mushy stuff. Back to #stridency!

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 on “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.

Next, I will attempt to define agnosticism. Then, I will move on to trying to find what common ground (if any) the two positions share.


  1. Thanks for the mush as well as the substance, David. And to paraphrase Yogi Berra, thanks too to everyone for making this class necessary. (Of course Yogi meant the necessity of possibility.)

  2. One important point that I should have touched on in preparation for my follow-up posts: the difference between strong and weak atheism. The difference between the two is an important one, and surely the source of much of the unnecessary conflict between atheism and agnosticism.

    Weak atheism (the position held by the majority of atheists) is simply the lack of belief in gods, or an absence of theistic belief.

    Strong atheism (a minority position among those professing atheism) is characterized by not only a lack of belief in the existence of gods, but also goes the extra step of denying the existence of gods, or at least specific gods.

    There is quite a bit of overlap between all these different versions of atheism and agnosticism. For example, if a hypothetical strong atheist were to make the statement "I know that no gods exist," has he just made a statement regarding his belief, his knowledge, or both? Obviously, there is some difference between claiming to "know" something, and claiming to "believe" something (even if you believe it strongly.)