Atheism Defined: Introduction
How does one come to be an atheist? For that matter, what is an atheist? What does it mean to embrace atheism? What do atheists believe?
I’ll tell you what they don’t believe. Atheists don’t believe in God. That, at least, we all can agree on. Yet for many who adhere to religious faith of one kind or another, and believe in God, such a concept is not only dreaded, it’s downright detestable. This is why religions of various stripes often deem atheism heretical.
As such, there have been many attempts to define atheism according to the theistic worldview, since atheism is in opposition to theism, but still many people are under a misconception about what atheism is and what it means. It is to the point where the majority of atheists get marginalized in society and are frequently discriminated against as moral abominations (see: the article “Atheists as “Other”…” in the American Sociological Review). I wish to set the record straight about what atheism means and what an atheist is. Hopefully my general overview of atheism will be agreeable with what the majority of atheists think. I know there is controversy surrounding the term, but we will discuss this shortly.
Atheism Roughly Defined
Just as theism is the belief in a supernatural God, atheism is the lack of belief in God and the rejection of the theistic proposition. Atheism, based on this crude designation, is the contrary position to theistic belief, therefore atheism is opposed to theism, in this sense atheists often find theistic beliefs unwarranted (for reasons we will soon get to). Contrary to what some on both sides of the argument have espoused, atheism isn’t the claim that theism is false, since this would be a positive statement and is incorrect for the following reasons. Atheism isn’t a positive truth claim, it’s the rejection of one which fails to stand up to scrutiny. Therefore atheism doesn’t claim anything is ‘false’ because this would be assuming that said thing might probably ‘true’ in the first place. The theist claim that God is real cannot be confirmed, and so, cannot be said to be true or false. The existence of God is, at this time, simply unknown. So nobody can correctly assert the claim is true, therefore there’s no reason to believe that this truth claim is false since the truth claim technically cannot be made to begin with. There can only be the rejection of the claim. We can, however, argue that the belief in God’s existence is false for various other independent reasons.
I don’t disagree with the idea the atheists believe that the concept of God is false, but Atheism itself is the ‘absence’ of a certain type of belief, not the presence of an equivalent belief. It feels wrong to advance the lack of a belief as correct, let alone established. True and false claims only work if you are starting from a position of not knowing, with regards to the existence of God this would mean we would have to start from the default position of agnosticism; not of absolute certainty. Therefore atheism is NOT the claim that theism is false, but instead atheism is the rejection of the theist assumption that theism is somehow the de facto truth.
The Dictionary Definition of Atheism
The Oxford Dictionary of English (2005) allows for both definitions stating that atheism is: either the lack of belief that there exists a god, or the belief that there exists none. So there is, in essence, positive and negative atheism with regards to the theist stance.
This attempt to supply a definition is probably not definitive, but I would be remiss if I didn’t at least try. As I understand it, the term atheism breaks into two basic meanings depending on one’s perspective with regards to theism. This leaves us with 1) a positive claim, that there is no God, and 2) the negative claim, a plain lack of belief in said God.
Therefore we might say, depending on one’s atheistic outlook, that…
Positive Atheism is: the position that there is no available, substantive evidence for the existence of any God or gods, and thereby rejects theism.
Negative Atheism is: the lack of belief, for various reasons derived from objective experience, common sense intuition, and perhaps cultural upbringing so that, all things being considered, the theistic claim rings untrue and cannot be believed without further validation.
This covers both definitions, according to the two listed in the Oxford Dictionary of English. I think both definitions are sound. That said, however, there is no plausible reason to use the modifier of positive or negative before atheism, since according to the Oxford Dictionary, the final authority on the English language, both meanings are encompassed within the single term Atheism.
Of course, as some with attention to detail may point out, there are all sorts of varieties of atheism. There are hybrid terms such as Christian Atheist, Millitant Atheist, Naturalistic Atheist, and so on. But as a rule of thumb I rely on the principle of parsimony when it comes to defining atheism. Why create so many new variations of the term when the current terminology suffices? Excess terminology is needless since one can simply clarify their point in just a few words. There’s no reason to create terms like “militant-atheist,” or “Christian-atheist” or “Reactionary Atheist,” “Blue” or “Green Atheist,” etc. They’re all superfluous since the term atheist encompasses them all.
What we need to sort out beforehand is the position of atheists (or at least the majority of them) on the existence of god(s) and the truth merit of religions. This can be defended, as “what atheists think,” far less awkwardly. The belief that no God or gods exist may seem like a substitute system of belief, but it’s not. It’s the absence of a belief system. What needs to be brought to everyone’s attention is that the belief that there is no God or gods is predicated on, as we will soon get to, naturalistic observations.
The Rejection of the Supernatural
Atheists merely look at the available evidence of theistic “truth” claims and find them to be lacking in all the areas that matter, mainly empirical evidence and subsequent support, and as a consequence are completely unconfirmed, unjustified, and unproved. Based on this we cannot presuppose God exists, and so the proposition must be rejected on the basis of intellectual honesty. Reason dictates that if something is unreasonable to believe, lacks any real tangible empirical evidence, fails to predict the world it claims to define, and frequently predicts wrongly, then we are within our right to reject it. To accept something at face value which is virtually lacking in any veritable proof whatsoever would be a position of faith. Hence the rejection of theistic claims is predicated on the fact that they lack support, so are not trustworthy, thereby cannot just be assumed without further validation.
What follows then is that atheists do indeed reject the supernatural for the very same reason they reject theism. There is no verifiable evidence to support theistic claims about God or the metaphysical claims about the supernatural.
Atheism does not arise out of one’s stubbornness to accept the theist proposition (which is what one must tacitly assume if one is to believe that atheists don’t reject the supernatural), rather atheists must reject the supernatural for the very same reason they reject God, otherwise they would be in danger of cognitive dissonance.
Problematic Terminology: Debating Misnomers
In truth, one of the reasons atheism is so appealing to ex-Christians like myself is that it doesn’t leave us with any cognitive dissonance. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an ex-Muslim has said the same. Theism is totalitarian in design because it sets up a system of legalistic thought which is under the rule of a supreme Lord with uninfringeable decrees, sacred rights, and divinely sanctioned moral precepts. To adhere to the theist position means to subject one’s self to the rules of a higher authority, thereby relinquishing one’s autonomy. For many people this gives order and a sense of security to their lives. Everything is being overseen, they are looked after, and for them this is a comforting thought. I know this because I can speak from experience, not only because I was a deeply religious believer for three decades, but also because most of my family members are still deeply devoted Christians and they have expressed as much to me in our religious discussions.
In contrast, the feeling one is left with after embracing atheism is pure liberated, joyous, enlightenment. It’s freedom of thought, pure and simple. It’s full autonomy independent of any divine overlord or imposing religious hierarchy. And unless you were first an atheist, only to later take up a rigid belief system with doctrines and rules, with ordained practices and dogmatic convictions, well, I don’t see how any theist could properly define atheism from within the enclosure of a sheltered faith. I’m not saying they couldn’t come to understand or comprehend atheists, but unless they’ve experienced it firsthand, theirs is not the final say on whom or what an atheist is.
Granted, the term atheism causes people a great deal of confusion. Why it this? Because it’s a strange term which, according to a naturalistic worldview, shouldn’t even exist. Perhaps the irony of this can be better explained via analogy. Consider the person who doesn’t collect stamps. It’s not in their interest, it’s not their hobby, and it may be that in their whole life they never had the slightest urge to collect stamps. What do we call them? Nothing. We call them absolutely nothing. But along come the dogmatic stamp collectors, zealot aficionados, who find any disinterest in stamp collecting an offense. You don’t collect stamps? What’s wrong with you?! From now on you shall be called the non-stamp collector!
How silly is that? Yes, I am aware of the irony of calling myself an atheist, and I can’t help but find it a little gratuitous—except for the theist need to define those who don’t subscribe to their faith based beliefs—atheism is largely a senseless term. Yet because of theistic opposition, which has increasingly become necessary, we find that atheism becomes not only a valid term, but essential.
Drawing the Line in the Sand: On Atheism and Advocacy
Atheism is now used to mark a line of delineation, and is used as an indicator in society to mark a separation between those who believe and those who don’t. But more importantly, the very existence of atheists shows us that there is a reason to doubt those who offer the theistic worldview as the only valid one, and to expose the deficiency of their beliefs by challenging them. Some have called this militant atheism, but again, it’s simply the rejection of theism with the added reasons of why. If theists ask why we reject their beliefs, accordingly we must give just reply, and that will entail giving an explanation for why we lack or reject the theistic claims. Therefore there is no such thing as militant atheism. We are free to explain ourselves as we may.
Someone might raise the objection and ask, “But then why do you feel you have to call yourself anything?” Obviously, that’s easier said than done—especially with every religious believer, and there are a lot of them, trying to tell us what we do and don’t believe. I don’t know about anybody else, but I can make up my own mind, thank you. And whether we like it or not, if we don’t want to be pigeonholed or stereotyped, we have to stand up for the word and wrangle in the terminology so that it can’t be so horribly manipulated. This is where I disagree with both Sam Harris and Dan Dennett, the former proposing we don’t use the term atheist or atheism and the latter offering an alternative terminology in its place. Neither seems to work in lieu of the ubiquity of religious beliefs. Moreover, the religious would be free to pigeonhole atheists if we didn’t take back the right to define atheism with regard to the atheist’s position and understanding of what it means to be an atheist—which is something I personally find unacceptable.
Supernatural Reasoning vs. Rational Naturalism
Having discussed why the term atheism is necessary, we now can turn toward analyzing how the term comes about in the first place. By what right can atheists claim the term atheism means what it means?
Let’s try to think of it from another angle. Atheists don’t claim that the existence of fairies is false, because we don’t need to, so there is no reason for A-fairy-ism. Fairies are, according to the literature, supernatural entities with magical properties. There is nothing in the real natural world to suggest fairies exist, so we simply do not believe they exist. If proof became available today that fairies were real then the existence of fairies would be verified, and so belief in fairies would become justifiable. If this were the case we would not offhandedly dismiss little ole Tinker Bell’s existence (we’d probably want to ask her on a date).
As such, it is safe to assume that no well grounded rationalist believes in the existence of magical fairies. It’s not that we reject the truth “Fairyism” thereby stating it’s false, rather, “Fairyism” is invalid because it is untestable, unverifiable, and does not correlate with the nature of reality as we know it, and so cannot be believed.
Unchecked flights of imagination aside, no matter how many people may think fairies exist or how badly they want Tinker Bell to be real, the truth is that it takes faith to believe in any of it. At this point, only the most delusional and misinformed individuals could believe in fairies contrary to what the evidence says. This is why it is so easy to trick children into believing that Santa Clause is real. They have little to no real world experience, much of their perceived world is simply the mind design working out via inference the difficult to fathom attributes of a complex reality, and therefore children are entirely gullible when an authority figure, such as an adult or a parent, tells them that Santa Clause is real.
Presents at Xmas time miraculously appearing under the Christmas tree seem to be valid enough proof, and so children can buy into the delusion that much easier. Not only this, but parents deliberately misinform their children as to Santa’s whereabouts, not to mention his levitating sleigh with magical flying reindeer and chimney spelunking abilities, as to keep the fantastic farce going. If nobody ever told the child that Santa was not real, then the child would undoubtedly continue to believe in it–the delusion is maintained–until of course someone tells them otherwise. Inevitably, a brother or sister, a friend, a classmate, or the parents themselves reveal the truth and the jig is up. It goes without saying that kids who do not receive Christmas presents or have the illusion of Santa maintained by their immediate culture do not likely believe in the Santa myth (after living six years in Japan, a culture where the Santa clause story is only viewed as a holiday practice in Western societies, I can verify this for a fact).
The problem with religious belief arises in the fact that religious institutions have been largely designed to block out this sort of doubt and skepticism. Religion safeguards the God delusion by making it so its parishioners never have to face the cold hard facts of reality—they never have to grow up—they can keep living in Never Never Land forever.
If there was real world evidence for the existence for God, and it was testable, and then corroborated numerous times by independent sources, then atheists may be more inclined to change their minds. We’re not stubbornly defiant of the truth, we want the truth.
The fact is however, there is no testable or demonstrable evidence for the existence of God. We atheists don’t find it a false concept; we find it an erroneous one. Therefore, we reject metaphysical supernatural claims for the same REASON we reject theist claims. They lack in support, do not stand the test of scrutiny, therefore are not trustworthy, and so cannot simply be assumed.
Yes, atheists do in fact reject the supernatural. This doesn’t mean we can’t be duped by our senses into thinking supernaturally. This brings us to the realm of psychology, and modern psychology along with anthropology and neuroscience justifies a naturalistic worldview and so lends positive support for atheism (see HERE).
Is Atheism Predicated and Mutually Dependent on Naturalism?
One may wonder whether there is a distinction to be made between atheist and naturalistic atheist, i.e. an atheist who subscribes to naturalist philosophies. I, for one, do not believe so. For me they are one and the same. Please allow me to briefly illustrate why I think so.
If you are an atheist, you can begin by asking yourself, why don’t you believe in God? If you’re an atheist and haven’t yet asked yourself that, then one might conclude that you’re a rather confused atheist.
At any rate, I am assuming that most atheists have asked themselves this at one time or another, and if you’re an atheist, I am guessing your answer will be standard atheistic response. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would posit a standard atheist’s response would resemble this, basically that because there is no genuine or reliable evidence for the existence of God, we just can’t infer from the natural world that God is at all real. Something that lacks in support cannot tacitly be assumed. For that reason as an atheist, we feel we are within our right to reject the idea of God. I think most atheists would agree with me up to this point.
What I’d like to ask is: how is this not a naturalistic position? Do we not arrive at our atheism through the same naturalistic means? I think that, all considered, we find that we do.
Hypothetically speaking, I guess it could be possible for an atheist to be raised by secular parents with no concept of God from day one, and presuming they never questioned their beliefs (however unlikely), there may be such a thing as atheism apart from naturalism. But then how do they differentiate between the supernatural claims of religions if they can’t ground their position in naturalism?
There are those who were raised in secular societies that do not hold a belief in any particular God or gods that are not opposed to theism, but these people hardly are ever called atheists. They are called non-believers or free thinkers, and mainly exist in predominantly secularized cultures.
Atheism entails an awareness of theism. In order to reach the atheist’s conclusion one must traverse the logic of naturalistic philosophy. If you reject naturalistic philosophy, then in so doing, you are opening yourself up to any interpretation no matter how unfounded, including supernatural claims. However, this would mean then that God could not be rejected for the reasons which justify atheism with regard to its understanding of the natural world. Naturalists, however, often reject God for the same reason. Consequently, the majority of naturalists are atheists as well.
So coming back to the question of whether or not atheism is predicated and mutually dependent on Naturalism, the answer is, yes.
Knowing what atheism entails, what it means, and how we arrive at an acceptable definition of atheism, I see no need to retract my statement that atheism is derived from juxtaposing the theistic “truth” claims with the real natural world and considering the implications—leads us to dismiss those claims based on naturalistic reasons. Therefore atheism depends on naturalism in order to take the contrary position to theism, which means that naturalistic atheism and atheism proper are one and the same.
One possible objection may be that I’m conflating the terminology. Alone they are separate meanings, as Naturalism is a philosophy, but atheism is the lack of a theistic belief system. I am aware of the difference, but we’re not talking about two separate things with regards to this question, we’re talking about atheism—not naturalism. Atheism is anchored to naturalistic philosophy because without a naturalistic philosophy we couldn’t properly define atheism apart from theism in the first place. It becomes clear when we objectively ask, how could we prove that atheism is not dependent on the natural world? If it was completely independent of reality, then our concept of atheism could be anything, it would be at the mercy of our subjective whim.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t change the fact that the two terms are interrelated and so atheism is dependent on the reality of the natural world and so inseparable from naturalism. If not, then atheism alone cannot be validated because it could not appeal to the natural world for support. In fact, atheism independent of naturalism would be thinly veiled deism. Therefore we know that naturalism and atheism are codependent with regards to the theistic claims. As such atheism is derived from natural philosophies and natural philosophies in turn lend credence to atheism.
Atheism properly defined can only be derived at via a naturalistic understanding of the real tangible world. If I’m wrong about this, I sure would like to know. But I don’t think I am. I have investigated my beliefs in depth, and I find no other explanation which can pass muster. I hope other atheists find this explication of atheism beneficially agreeable.