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Please begin with an informative title:

Any self-respecting atheist diary series needs a "What do the words mean?" article, and this year it falls to me to write it.

What is an "atheist"? What's an "agnostic"? Why are non-believers so adamant about these words and what they do or don't mean? These are the kinds of issues that need to be hashed out at the beginning of any in-depth discussion of non-believers and our ideas. The idea is to head off a number of disputes that constantly bedevil public discussion of atheism and related concepts; the disputes in question are based on common misconceptions regarding what "atheism," among related terms, even means.

So, if you're tempted to respond to any diary in this series by pointing out, say, that atheism requires just as much of a "leap of faith" as belief in God does, please read this diary first. It is very likely that you are operating from an understanding of the term "atheism" that conflicts severely with the widespread consensus, among self-declared atheists, regarding what that term means. At the very least, you need to be aware of that conflict.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

A. The Words

the•ism (IPA: ˈθiɪzəm) n: The affirmative belief that one or more gods exist.

a•the•ism (ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm) n: A lack of belief that a god or gods exist. Frequently divided into two constituent categories:

  • strong a•the•ism (strɔŋ ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm) n: The affirmative belief that there are no gods.
  • weak a•the•ism (wik ˈeɪθiˌɪzəm) n: A lack of belief (a.k.a. disbelief) that a god or gods exist, without an accompanying affirmative belief that there are no gods.

ag•nos•ti•cism (ægˈnɒstəˌsɪzəm) n:

  1. The affirmative belief that it is impossible to know whether god(s) exist.  Contrasts with gnosticism (NOT Gnosticism), the belief that such knowledge is possible.
  2. A lack of knowledge as to whether god(s) exist.
These same definitions have been examined in numerous other works, such as the following:
The Scope of Atheism (George H. Smith, from his book Atheism: The Case Against God (1980))
Atheism (Michael Martin, entry in Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia)
What is Atheism? (Cliff Walker, positiveatheism.org)
Atheism 101 (Austin Cline, atheism.about.com)
Definitions of the term 'Atheism' (religioustolerance.org)

Atheist Digest: Semantics, a DKos diary by Chicagoa that served as the glossary for Atheist Digest '09, covers the above turf as well, and it also defines some additional terms that will inevitably come up in this series—such as "science," "religion," "spirituality," and (perhaps most importantly) "god":

Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods
This definition comes from Merriam-Webster, and it's a decent one, although I would use the term deity instead of god. This is an important distinction because people seem to love the word god, and will go out of their way to use it for all sorts of things. Spiritual types often say things like:

"God is just love"


"God is the universe"

No! Love is love, and the universe is the universe. Why use the loaded word god to describe things that we already have words for? In this series when we say god we mean deity - a supernatural / celestial / transcendent being. If you want to use the word god for something else, be it "love", "universe", or "turkey baster", please try to use those words instead.

The primer on atheism that's nearest to the hearts of a certain generation of online atheists is An Introduction to Atheism, a FAQ file posted by "mathew" on the Usenet group alt.atheism in the mid-1990s. Here's how mathew dealt with the same issues raised above:
"What is atheism?"

Atheism is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in Gods is often referred to as the "weak atheist" position; whereas believing that gods do not (or cannot) exist is known as "strong atheism."

Regarding people who have never been exposed to the concept of 'god': Whether they are 'atheists' or not is a matter of debate. Since you're unlikely to meet anyone who has never encountered religion, it's not a very important debate...

It is important, however, to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. "Weak atheism" is simple skepticism; disbelief in the existence of God. "Strong atheism" is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming that all atheists are "strong atheists." There is a qualitative difference in the "strong" and "weak" positions; it's not just a matter of degree.

Some atheists believe in the nonexistence of all Gods; others limit their atheism to specific Gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

"But isn't disbelieving in God the same thing as not believing God exists?"

Definitely not. Disbelief in a proposition means that one does not believe it to be true. Not believing that something is true is not equivalent to believing that it is false; one may simply have no idea whether it is true or not. Which brings us to agnosticism.

"What is agnosticism then?"

The term 'agnosticism' was coined by Professor T.H. Huxley at a meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1876. He defined an "agnostic" as someone who disclaimed both ("strong") atheism and theism, and who believed that the question of whether a higher power existed was unsolved and insoluble. Another way of putting it is that an agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know.

In recent years, however, the term agnostic has also been used to describe those who simply believe that the evidence for or against God is inconclusive, and therefore are undecided about the issue.

To reduce the amount of confusion over the use of term agnosticism, it is recommended that usage based on a belief that we cannot know whether God exists be qualified as "strict agnosticism" and usage based on the belief that we merely do not know yet be qualified as "empirical agnosticism."

Words are slippery things, and language is inexact. Beware of assuming that you can work out someone's philosophical point of view simply from the fact that she calls herself an atheist or an agnostic. For example, many people use agnosticism to mean what is referred to here as "weak atheism," and use the word "atheism" only when referring to "strong atheism."

Beware also that because the word "atheist" has so many shades of meaning that it is very difficult to generalize about atheists. About all you can say for sure is that atheists don't believe in God.

The distinction between "weak" and "strong" atheism—between a lack of belief in gods and a belief that there are no gods—is confusing to many people. But it's really not all that complicated: if a person actually holds the belief that "there are no gods," she is a strong atheist. If she does not hold that belief, but also doesn't hold the belief that "one or more gods exist," she is a weak atheist. Note that in either case, she's an atheist because she lacks a belief in god(s). The "strong" label merely means that she also holds a separate, affirmative belief.

Just to clarify further, here are a few things that the strong/weak (sometimes, alternatively, called "hard""soft" or "positive""negative") distinction doesn't involve:

  • Certitude. Weak atheists can be (and indeed many of us are) all-but-100% convinced that belief in god(s) is untenable. Meanwhile, strong atheists can be somewhat uncertain about gods' non-existence—though not uncertain enough that they end up lacking an affirmative belief that gods don't exist.

  • Outspokenness. Weak atheists can be extremely explicit, candid, and loud about their non-belief, and many are. Strong atheists can be entirely closeted, and it's safe to say that many are.

  • Attitudes toward manifestations of theism. Weak atheists can believe that religions, and other matters connected to theism, are severe burdens on human life that our species would be better off discarding. Strong atheists can believe that religion is a wonderful thing (for example, on the theory that theism is a "noble lie") that does not deserve to be criticized or attacked.

  • Physical strength. This "weak" atheist would like all of you to know that he can bench-press more than 425, so watch your step.

The point of all of the above is merely to emphasize that "weak" and "strong" atheism are abstract philosophical positions rather than broad personality types. It is certainly not the case, for example, that all weak atheists are "all-but-100% convinced that belief in god(s) is untenable," "extremely explicit, candid, and loud about their non-belief," staunchly opposed to religion, or awe-inspiring archetypes of hulking muscular might. There just isn't anything about the weak atheist category that renders any of the above a logical contradiction.

Plenty of theists, and a few strong atheists, allege that a "lack of belief" on this question is impossible. To clarify the weak atheist position a bit, I have occasionally resorted to that old Philosophy 101 standby, The Case of Julius Caesar's Teeth. Check it out if you're interested (or confused).

Finally, it's important to note that an extremely broad consensus of atheists understands "atheism" to denote the absence of belief in god(s), and not merely the affirmative belief that gods don't exist. If you wish to maintain that only "strong" atheism is real atheism, you need to understand that a broad swath of atheists in the English-speaking world fundamentally disagree with you. This position has some serious implications for a minority group's right to self-identification, addressed below.

B. Some Important Related Issues

          "Why understand 'atheism' that way?"

The precise justifications we atheists provide for our broad understanding of our own category are extremely well (and repeatedly) treated in the documents linked above. A reader would be at least as well off examining mathew's or Smith's accounts of the linguistic issues as she would be reading mine. Nonetheless, this being a full-service Digest diary, I'll take a shot.

First, the meaning of "atheism" flows straight from its etymology: the word comes from the Greek a-, "without," and theos, "God." The notable point is that a- is not anti-; "without" does not mean "against"! Think of "asymmetrical," "apolitical," "amoral," "atypical," "asexual," "amorphous," "asymptomatic".... Those terms aren't about denial or refutation, they're about absence. The same goes for a- theism.

Second, confining "atheism" to the affirmative belief that gods don't exist leaves a very large number of us out in the definitional cold. If atheism is nothing more than what I described above as "strong" atheism, the many millions of us who are unwilling to assert an affirmative belief in either the existence or the non-existence of gods are left with no label at all. ("Agnostic" doesn't fit, either; both Huxley and the Greek root he was building on are concerned with knowledge, which has no necessary connection to theism or atheism.) But we are without god-belief: a- theist.

Third, the broader conception of "atheism" better reflects the sociological reality of those many millions of us who are without god-belief. Theism is extremely common and overwhelmingly politically powerful in most of the world, and as a result those of us who don't have it—from the quietest, most milquetoast doubter to the most firebreathing critic of god-belief—have something fundamental in common: we lack something big that everyone else has. It's a common practice to recognize the factors that unite particular minority groups: for the same reason that (for example) gender theorists group transsexuals, transvestites, people who identify as genderqueer, and others into a category called "transgender," nonbelievers in gods are a cognizable group as well. In a world in which god-belief has tremendous power, nonbelievers can't help but have some important things in common, regardless of whether we even like it. "Atheism" gives us a name, which is no small benefit.

          "But my dictionary says..."

Several dictionaries do, indeed, focus on the conventional "denial" understanding of atheism and atheists. But one hopes that anyone interested in discussing philosophy and theology would understand the pitfalls of allowing dictionary writers the absolute last word (so to speak) in deciding what our (ir)religious terminology means.

First, it shouldn't be terribly surprising that dictionaries reflect the conventional wisdom regarding nearly any word. Indeed, that's a big part of their function: to report the way that words are actually used in the real world. And in that world, alas, people do use "atheism" to denote what is more accurately termed "strong atheism."

Second, dictionaries are written by human beings who bear the same kinds of biases and flaws that all the rest of us have; as a result, they are no less prone to prejudice and objectionable omission than any other human endeavor is. Not incidentally, atheists have been a despised minority for a very long time. Socrates was put on trial for his life in part on the charge of atheism; Thomas Paine was left to rot in a French Revolutionary prison because the U.S. administration considered him (as Theodore Roosevelt memorably put it a century later) a "filthy little atheist"; we've been baited with garbage like "There are no atheists in foxholes" for nearly a century; we are at serious risk of losing custody of our children during custody disputes in court on the specific grounds that we're not religious; … and so on.

In light of the serious societal prejudice against atheists, it should hardly be surprising that dictionary writers are less sensitive to atheists' concerns than they could be. Even today, one prominent Web dictionary still lists "ungodliness" and "wickedness" in its primary definition of "atheism"! What gives? [In a comment below, Indexer shows the problem with this logic. Withdrawn!]

All that said, though, there are in fact plenty of reference works that have picked up on the more accurate and more widely self-expressed understandings of "atheism" and "atheist." (Actually, most dictionary definitions of "atheism" are adequate; it's just that one particular word used in many of
them—"disbelief"—is a poor choice, because it's so widely misunderstood. As mathew noted in "An Introduction to Atheism," quoted above, "disbelief" actually means a lack of belief, not an affirmative belief in an opposing proposition. As a result, folks who try to browbeat atheists with a dictionary frequently fail to notice that said dictionary refutes their argument.)

Finally, contrary to allegations from certain quarters that the "lack of belief" conception of atheism is a new (and, by implication, disingenuous) development, it has in fact been around for a rather long time:

All children are atheists — they have no idea of God.

 - Baron d'Holbach, Good Sense (1772)

ATHEIST, in the strict and proper sense of the word, is one who does not believe in the existence of a god, or who owns no being superior to nature. It is compounded of the two terms ... signifying without God.

 - Christian theologian Richard Watson, A Biblical and Theological Dictionary (1831)

[N]o position is more continuously misrepresented [than atheism.] Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God.

 - Charles Bradlaugh, The Freethinker's Text-Book (1876)

The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one. I know nothing about God and therefore I do not believe in Him or it. What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny 'God,' which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.

 - Annie Besant, The Gospel of Atheism (1877)

[T]he Oracle [of Reason, a mid-Nineteenth Century freethought periodical], pursued a logical course of confuting theism, and leaving "a-theism" the negative result. It did not, in the absurd terms of common religious propaganda, "deny the existence of God." It affirmed that God was a term for an existence imagined by man in terms of his own personality and irreducible to any tenable definition. It did not even affirm that "there are no Gods"; it insisted that the onus of proof as to any God lay with the theist, who could give none compatible with his definitions.

 - J. M. Robertson, A History of Freethought in the Nineteenth Century (1929)

[The "negative atheism" of Richard Carlile, Robert Cooper, George Jacob Holyoake, Oracle of Reason publisher Charles Southwell, and other Nineteenth Century atheists] did not prove that there was no God.... On the contrary, Southwell was typical in placing the onus probandi on those who affirmed the existence of God and Holyoake regarded himself as an atheist only in his inability to believe what the churches would have him believe. They were content to show that the Christian concept of the supernatural was meaningless, that the arguments in its favor were illogical, and that the mysteries of the universe, insofar as they were explicable, could be accounted for in material terms.

 -  Edward Royle, Victorian Infidels (1974)

[R]efer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God. ... Etymologically, as well as philosophically, an ATheist is one without God. That is all the 'A' before 'Theist' really means.

 - G. W. Foote, What Is Agnosticism (1902)

The atheist is not necessarily a man who says, There is no God. What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds.... [E]very man is an atheist who does not believe that there is a God, although his want of belief may not be rested on any allegation of positive knowledge that there is no God, but simply on one of want of knowledge that there is a God. ... The word atheist is a thoroughly honest, unambiguous term. It means one who does not believe in God, and it means neither more nor less.

 - Christian theologian Robert Flint, Agnosticism (1903)

If one believes in a god, then one is a Theist. If one does not believe in a god, then one is an A-theist — he is without that belief. The distinction between atheism and theism is entirely, exclusively, that of whether one has or has not a belief in God.

 - Chapman Cohen, Primitive Survivals in Modern Thought (1935)

Atheism - The absence of theistic belief.

 - Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia (1950)

(Cites and further information here, here, and here.)

          "So what? Why should we care how you define

So atheists generally understand themselves to be people without beliefs in gods. What difference, one might wonder, does that make? Why does anyone else need to respect that?

One hopes that tolerant people of whatever perspective on religious questions will agree that minority groups have the right to self-definition. The idea that most any minority group is required to accept the characterization that an uncaring (if not hostile) majority thrusts upon them seems notably illiberal, not to mention oppressive.

Words like "Negro," "Colored," "Black," "African-American," "homosexual," "gay," "queer," "Indian," "Native American," "handicapped," "disabled" and so on, one hopes, carry the meanings and background connotations that the minority groups denoted by them say they carry. (The same, only with more oomph, goes for words like "nigger," "faggot," "dyke," "redskin," "cripple," etc.) The idea that any of these groups should be expected to knuckle under to a frequently ignorant conventional wisdom is repugnant.

Especially in light of recent evidence that atheists are among the most despised groups in the United States, it would seem that the definition of "atheism" that is broadly accepted by those of us who are actually in the minority group deserves considerable attention.

Imagine that this discussion were about sexuality instead of atheism. Imagine, moreover, that a DKos commenter had expostulated broadly about how awful it would be for Kossacks to accept homosexuality as a valid part of the human experience—because homosexuality, "by definition," is a mental illness that necessarily involves disgusting promiscuity and terrible disease. (Once upon a time, that was indeed the conventional wisdom regarding gays and lesbians, and one could easily find plenty of reference books to support it.)

In that context, now, imagine that a gay DKos commenter replied to the above attack that the whole "mental illness" claim was strikingly ignorant and then argued for a conception founded on healthy sexual orientation, etc. Would you dismiss him because his self-definition failed to reflect the (ignorant and hateful) conventional wisdom? One sincerely hopes not.

For the same reasons, atheists' consensus self-description doesn't deserve to be simply flattened by an ignorant conventional wisdom. That approach amounts to passive acceptance of the generally unthinking tyranny of the majority—and no liberal can seriously expect any minority to give in in that way. People who don't understand us (and frequently don't respect or like us much, either) have no right to tell us what and who we are.

The substantial majority of self-declared atheists understand "atheism" to mean the absence of belief in anything one considers a "god," not some dogmatic insistence that "god" is a crock. That ought to be what matters.

As atheist and queer blogger extraordinaire Greta Christina puts it:

Defining one's self is among the most powerful acts a community and a movement can take.
When gay people started insisting on being called gay; when women started saying, "Please don't call us girls, we're women"; when transgendered people politely but firmly request that people address them by the name and gender they identify as... those are powerful acts. Defining one's self says to the world, "We are not who you say we are. We are who we say we are." It says to the world, "You have to deal with us on our terms — not just yours." It says this to the world... and it says it to other people in the movement.

Defining one's self is among the most powerful acts a community and a movement can take.

And people who desperately wish for a community and movement to disappear are not voluntarily going to let us have that power.

They are going to keep trying to define us, so they can continue to make us look like rigid, hysterical, unreasonable dogmatists who don't have to be taken seriously. They are going to keep trying to define us, so they don't have to think too closely about who we really are and what we really think. And they are going to keep trying to define us, simply because they can: because defining a marginalized group is a way of saying that your definitions, and not theirs, are the ones that count.

We have to not let them do that.

 - "Atheism and Self-Definition"


...And finally, a word from our Master of Ceremonies, XNeeOhCon:

Next diaries by XNeeOhCon:

Fri. August 13th, About 9:30 AM PST –  On Christian Claims to Moral Superiority

Mon. August 23rd, About 10:30 AM PST -  Ben Stein is a Moran, The Infinite Probability Fallacy.  

Wed. September 1st, About 5:30 PM PST –  Conclusion diary

Stay tuned for diaries from other users including Brahman Colorado, rfall, Something the Dog Said, and Warren S.  (Look for "Atheist Digest '10" in the Tags and Diary Title)

I hope to post a diary examining the concept of religious privilege in a few weeks as well. See you then!


That is, "more than 425" ounces. But a whole hell of a lot of reps.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Rieux on Thu Aug 05, 2010 at 11:11 AM PDT.

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