19 Jul 2011

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.


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written by
Matt is a former Christian who, through facing his own doubts found a life without faith. Now atheist he dedicates his life to helping people transition through stages of belief via private counseling. Matt is currently working on his first book - Embracing Doubt, and contributing to the dialogue between atheists, Christians, and skeptics.
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  • Sarah

    I think it's absurd for anyone to try to teach another group of people what other people believe. I remember being in church and having very strange ideas told to me about various religions (like Satanism, Wicca, etc. We hadn't quite had 9/11 yet so there wasn't much talk of Islam.) Then I would meet someone at school who practiced those religions, they would be completely normal people and we'd talk about our different beliefs and I'd find out that the vast majority of what I'd been taught was dead wrong.

    I think they should stick to mastering their own religion before they try explaining what other people believe in. Love the math equation, btw.

    • http://www.ragingrev.com RevOxley

      I spent a very long time studying resources for religions outside of my own – sadly a big chunk of that time was through overtly Christian and biased sources like CARM.org and other ministries….it wasn't until I started to pick up the resources directly from the believers of these alternative faiths that I truly began to understand them.

      I've learned that I can learn a lot more about a book by reading the book as opposed to reading the cliffs notes.

  • Fil Salustri

    While I appreciate your obviously sincere effort to make the case that atheists (like me) are good people, I would suggest a couple of things:
    1. There's no reason to define atheism with respect to the dictionary definition of theism. One can just look atheism up. Doing so, one finds things along the lines of "The theory or belief that God does not exist." It's an interesting semantic problem. The thing is that languages change over time, and etymology, while interesting and useful, isn't always accurate or authoritative.
    2. You might be interested in http://evolvingthoughts.net/2011/07/atheism-agnos… written by a gentleman who knows logic and philosophy rather well. It's quite a thick article to read, but, I think, very useful.

    • http://www.ragingrev.com RevOxley

      Thanks for your comment Fil – and for your link.

      on 1: I suggest that perhaps the inaccuracy of the commonly used definitions for atheism are quite possibly intentional and misleading – attributing more to the definition than they should when the appropriate etymology simply means "without belief". For more detailed definitions we have different words. So as in 2: where the writer concludes that one can mean the other I believe he is ultimately correct but would be better served to use adjectives to further describe anything outside of being "without belief in a god or gods". Such as: Gnostic Atheist – the knowledge that no god or a particular god does not exist. Also Atheist Anti-theist – a person without belief in god whom is opposed to belief in a god or those that do believe in a god.

      I'd like to read over that post one more time though to ensure that I've reached an appropriate conclusion – but I see this as a method of simplifying the definition for the purpose of better discourse and to clarify miscommunications about what the words themselves actually mean.

      • Fil Salustri

        There's all manner of nomenclature. And let's not forget "anti-theist," per Hitchens. I'm one of those too. Then there's positive and negative atheism, per Wilkins. The problem is that the language quickly gets too complicated for the religious zealots who are the first and biggest problem we face.

        I've been told plenty of times that I'll burn in hell. It bothers me that such can't see past a single belief of mine to the life I live. I consider their remarks as hate speech. I certainly don't think they have the capacity to understand the possible nuances of "atheism."

        I didn't offer up alternatives in order to "correct" you; I just meant to stimulate thinking. In any case, I'm of the school that says however a word is commonly used today is its best definition. That's a foundation in English and, I think, a key reason why English has become the Earth lingua franca. Hence the difference between usage and etymology.

        Certainly dictionary definitions are wonderful as starting points for discussions, but to keep a language alive and pertinent to the culture that uses it, I would argue that words should be allowed to drift.

        …that's our problem, isn't it. Atheists stimulate thinking. :)

        Unfortunately, the atheist community is not particularly well-organized and I think the kind of simplification you advocate (which is a good idea generally) make just cause more friction among us. Such are the foibles of humanity.

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  • Ben

    I will attempt to be brief, but according to your source, the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, atheism is "a disbelief in the existence of a deity" or "the doctrine that there is no deity" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism). Then if you want to look up disbelief it is "the act of disbelieving: mental rejection of something as untrue" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disbelief). This is an action; therefore, the atheism = 0 idea is incorrect. Rather, atheism would be -1 as I argued before. Philosophically, there is no material substance, including humans who "believe" things, that can be zero. We are substance (atoms, etc.); therefore, we are influenced by other atoms (our environment). This shows that we are not zero. Zero is similar to nonexistence. As long as you even believe you exist, you are making a positive or negative action. It is nice for atheist to pretend they are unbiased with no presuppositions, but that is just foolish. Everyone is biased and every belief is biased. They all contain presuppositions, except if you believe in nonexistence, which I believe is philosophically absurd.

    Mathematics is the closest thing we have to absolute truth that is known. Be careful how you use it. Dark matter is probably the closest thing we have to 0 in the natural world, and it still seems to contain mass. Hope I helped in the discussion and articulated clearly. Please consider the proposition in the argument carefully before replying in anger. I respect atheism, but I do think it is a negative belief whether you like it or not. My own past pursuit of atheism led me to this conclusion.

    • Mike aka MonolithTMA

      "It is nice for atheist to pretend they are unbiased with no presuppositions, but that is just foolish. Everyone is biased and every belief is biased."

      Agreed, but I don't know any atheists who think they are unbiased, do you?

      Sadly, when some define atheism, it is as part of the foundation for their straw man version of an atheist, similarly to what they do with other world views.

      I shudder to think of the "world religion" books I read that were published by Christian authors, they were naught, but proselytizing tools, made to show how other religions were inferior or conflicted with Christianity.

      • Ben

        I do belief many atheists believe they are unbiased, at least with respect to belief or disbelief in God. Let me give an example: My closest atheist friend, president of the freethinkers club at my last university, used to claim that he had no belief, that atheism is the absence of belief (similar to what Matt is arguing). This assumed no bias in approaching the whole question of "Is there a God?"

        I also think there is an issue with the way people will discuss conflicting topics. People discuss the topics without also indicating biases that each person involved has. I think people, atheists and theists, need to begin to discuss with more humility and respect for alternative ideas. My reasoning is based partly on how I attempt to conduct research. The greatest advances in science came when people stepped out of the current paradigm in their subject and did extraordinary research. If people are willing to stop bickering about a concept being completely falsifiable (because most are not), then they are able to be less biased in thinking about a current issue in science, or at least recognizing the bias their department may have. Modern universities are beginning to move in this direction by having more interdisciplinary research being done. I believe this is progress in attempting to tear down the walls between each specialty (and their biases) and allow new, advanced concepts to emerge.

        I think the same needs to happen with respect to theists and atheists. Agnostics and the new possibilians (coined by Dave Eagleman) typically are better at this than the New Atheists. The New Atheists will gain a following the same way the fundamentalist Christians have, but truth is being overlooked for being right.

        I do not completely have a problem with proselytizing books, but they must actually state their bias in some way, possibly by declaring they are coming from a Christian-based worldview. Now if these are textbooks, I think that might be a problem. I also think world religions books from a secular point of view are also biased, sometimes showing how all religions are inferior or conflicting with true rationality.

        • http://www.ragingrev.com RevOxley

          I think I always attempt to make my biases known and I have no intent to hide the fact that my predisposition is decidedly anti-theism – however I do pride myself in the ability to put those ideas aside and allow facts to speak for themselves in a more sterile environment. Not everyone can do that.

          • Ben

            Matt, I definitely think you do a very good job with this. Thank you for the way you discuss this topic. Most atheists I have encountered (especially on the internet) enjoy ranting and accusing rather than actually discussing. Keep it up, and I hope you see my point with regard to a null belief.

  • bezboznik

    Since he’s quoting MW, here is the definition for atheism from merrim-webster collegiate dictionary….

    athe•ism “a-the-‘i-zem noun [MF atheisme, fr. athee atheist, fr. Gk atheos godless, fr. a- + theos god] (1546)

    1 archaic : ungodliness, wickedness

    2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity

    b : the doctrine that there is no deity

    …and instead of looking up “atheism” he just makes up a definition……

    >”would be properly defined as: without belief in the existence of a god or gods”

    ……and creates an “Intentionally misleading definition of atheism”

    oh the irony, what a hypocrite

  • Fil Salustri

    Well said.

    Yes, it would be more productive to talk to theists. And I encourage my fellow atheists to do so. My own position is rather specific. I've tried to 'discuss' things – matters always go south, as in this discussion on LinkedIn: http://lnkd.in/VY3XKi. Instead, I've now reached the point where I'm becoming more 'militant' about it. Near as I can tell, anyone who accepts any one of the conventional gods of the major religions condones the horrors that religion has visited on man in the name of that god. And I will do everything in my power to undermine them at every turn. This includes the use of vulgarity and insult, as required. I would not advise others to pursue this approach as well. I'm just at a point where I've had it with the bullshit.

    But talking to theists – the ones who need a good talking to – is painful to me. They're usually so ignorant, so uninformed, so unaware of their own motivations and how their upbringing influenced them, so blind,…. every once in a while, I need to talk to some atheists and cool down.

    For that, I thank you.

  • ronwise

    Personally, I agree with the term of atheism meaning "without theism", due to the prefix "a-". The concept of theism must necessarily exist before the concept of atheism can exist. Sam Harris makes a good point when he states that "a term like atheism should not exist. There isn't a specific term for a non-astrologer." As for biases, many (not all) atheists reach this position due to skepticism towards theistic claims, and adopt a null hypothesis. The null hypothesis and the skeptical attitude is my bias, and if that's a bad thing, then so be it, because I like to face reality on reality's terms instead of what would be comfortable for me. Open-mindedness is not the same as gullibility.

    • Nimrodel

      I agree with that definition. However, keep in mind that astrology, at least in modern times, is not as wide-spread or devoutly believed as the various theisms. If over half of the world's population were practicing astrologers, perhaps we would need a term for "non-astrologer".

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