Popular Misconceptions: The Definition of Atheism

Quite a few of the conversations I’ve been involved in with theists lately seem to start off with a basic misconception about what atheism actually is. Since there is such a disconnect between the definition of the term and what people think or believe that it means I’d like to clarify a few things.

Most recently multiple pastors have asserted that the term atheist was best defined as  ” to be certain there is no god” or “to believe that there is no god” – both definitions are decidedly incorrect.

Theism is defined by Mirriam-Webster‘s as:

belief in the existence of a god or gods


The operative word here is belief in the existence of a god, as opposed to the knowledge that there is a god. Conversely it is important to note that the addition of the “a-” precedent denotes that something is “without”.  So “atheism” despite what popular (Christian owned) dictionaries may falsely say would be properly defined as:

without belief in the existence of a god or gods

Any change from this definition is decidedly incorrect. It need not be further explained with different “levels” of disbelief, it is simply the complete lack of   belief. Adding anything else to this definition would require an additional adjective as opposed to a manipulation of it’s definition.

To put this in mathematical terms:

if belief = 1


belief – 1 = 0

atheism= 0


Why is this concept difficult?

Ultimately I believe this concept is difficult for the theist to grasp for one of two reasons; the first being an intentional manipulation of the real definition in order to make the discussion center around one faith system vs. another, and the second being a genuine lack of understanding because of the popularity of the erroneous definition.

For those intentionally using a definition they know to be incorrect I believe that the motivations are to move any debate to be about “belief in a god” vs “belief in no god” – not only does accepting such a term make reasoned discussion nearly impossible, it removes the scientific process from the debate wherein one must begin at the point without presuppositions as to the existence of a god or gods. To fall prey to a presuppositional argument is to forget what science is all about – asking questions and seeking evidence for the answers as opposed to making conclusions and seeking evidence to back those conclusions up.

Repairing misconceptions:

I think it’s important for outspoken atheists to take the time to communicate with members of the religious community in order to find ways to correct common misconceptions about what we are – and because we have no doctrinal statement or governing body to refer to we have to be representatives of ourselves first and allow positive associations to be built around who we are that will eventually become positive associations for the rest of atheist activists.

It is equally important for scrupulous believers to open themselves up to dialog with non-believers which is why I recommend inviting local atheists into your church to have open discussions about pertinent issues – dialogs with believers have, for me at least, turned into a way of finding common ground and goals  as well as to squash the misconceptions both parties may  have of one another.  Having an “Ask the Atheist” night for your youth group or Bible study groups would certainly be a step in the right direction. If you are a pastor in the Middle Georgia area and interested in something like this you may email me.