Atheist is a dirty word in modern American society. In the minds of many, it conjures images of Communism, immorality, Satanism, and the like. Rather than encouraging accurate definitions and working to correct misconceptions, far too many atheists avoid the term altogether, referring to themselves as "non-believers," "brights," "freethinkers,", or "agnostics." I see this as a neglect of our responsibility and argue that standing by an accurate definition of atheism is in our interest. Within our community and without, we face a bewildering variety of definitions. Confusion over the meaning of atheism is an important obstacle to increased acceptance of atheists in society. It is in this context that I offer the following thoughts.
To understand the meaning of atheism, we need to start by defining theism. Theism refers to belief in a god or gods of some sort. Thus, a theist is one who believes in a god or gods. If I tell you that I am a theist, all I am telling you is that I believe in a god or gods. We can add the prefix "mono" to limit ourselves to one god or "poly" to specify belief in multiple gods. Christianity is a subcategory of monotheism. Christians are monotheists because the Christian doctrine posits one god. However, not all monotheists are Christian because Judaism and Islam are also monotheistic religions.
So what am I saying if I tell you that I am an atheist? Atheism, from the Greek atheos, is the lack of theistic belief (a- "without" + theos "God"). Thus, an atheist is someone who does not believe in a god or gods. Note that "one who lacks belief in a god or gods" is not quite the same thing as "one who believes that there are no god or gods." This distinction may be subtle, but it is important for reasons I will review below.
As I have stated elsewhere, "Atheism is not a religion, a philosophy, a worldview, or anything similar. It is not the conviction that there are no gods, ghosts, angels, etc." Rather, atheism refers to the lack of theistic belief. A young child or a person living in an isolated community who has never heard of gods is an atheist. In fact, we are all born atheists because we have not encountered any theistic concepts before birth.
There are at least two reasons why most Americans misunderstand the meaning of atheism. The first is the long history of religious propaganda to which we have all been exposed. Historically, the Christian church needed to go on the offensive to maintain its hold on society. Since atheists did not accept the core foundation on which the church rested, we were an obvious target. Through systematic and widespread propaganda, we were turned into haters of the Christian god or victims of demonic forces. In short, our lack of belief in Christian dogma was interpreted as a threat to Christians.
A second reason for the common misunderstanding of atheism is that many atheists do hold some of the other beliefs often attributed to atheism. Many atheists are politically liberal, hold a naturalistic worldview in which the existence of a supernatural realm is denied, base their sense of right and wrong on a non-religious system such as secular humanism, etc. Thus, the perception that atheism includes these attributes is an understandable stereotype with some truth to it. However, anyone who spends any time with atheists will discover that it is inaccurate. I have met socially conservative Republican atheists, radical libertarian/anarchist atheists, atheists who believe in a spirit world, and a host of other examples which shatter this mistaken view of atheism. In other words, because many (even most) atheists are secular humanists does not mean that secular humanism is part of the definition of atheism. To hold such a view would be as absurd as claiming that all theists were Christian.
Implications of How We Define Atheism
How we define atheism has several important implications. First, we must have an accurate definition of atheism if we are to have a serious discussion about religion and the nature of religious belief. Atheism is the default state which is the starting point for all humans. We enter the world as atheists, and many of us subsequently acquire religious beliefs through cultural immersion and indoctrination. Understanding this allows us to explore the nature of religious belief, how it is acquired, and what it means for believers.
Second, it is critical to recognize that atheism does not involve the assertion of any belief claim. An atheist is simply an individual who do not hold the theistic belief claim (i.e., that god or gods exist). In Atheism: The Case Against God, George Smith argues that such a definition reminds us that the burden of proof lies with the theist because this is the person making the belief claim. When the theist says, "God exists," we are correct to expect evidence in support of this claim. Without such evidence, the claim cannot be accepted on rational grounds. The atheist is saying, "I don't accept this claim," and this rejection requires no evidence precisely because it is the default position where no positive assertion is being made. Nobody believes x until someone articulates a claim regarding x. We then expect evidence for x if our belief is to be rational. As I stated in a previous post, "Nobody expects you to prove that you do not have a fairy godmother, but if you claim that you do, we all (including Christians) expect evidence."
If we make the mistake of defining atheism as hatred of god (as many Christians do), we end up with a meaningless emotional reaction which can neither be supported nor refuted. Such a definition presupposes the existence of the subject of our hatred, and this cannot be presupposed. Alternatively, if we make the mistake of defining atheism as the conviction that there are no gods (as some atheists do), we are now guilty of making the same type of truth claim as the theist, namely one for which we are able to offer no evidence. Besides, it is highly doubtful that proving the non-existence of something is logically possible.
I have proposed here that we use an accurate definition in which atheism is defined as "the lack of belief in a god or gods" and atheist is defined as "one who lacks belief in a god or gods." If we refuse to educate the public about this, we must share in the blame for the some of the social stigma surrounding atheism.