I fire up my trusty RSS reader (FeedDemon) at least once a week to catch up with the atheist blogosphere. Every time I do, I can count on finding at least a few stories in either the mainstream media or various theist-generated sources claiming that atheism is a religion or that atheism requires as much faith as any religion. While easily dismissed, the frequency of such claims is starting to irritate me.
Magic in the Garden
I am about to tell you something I have never told anyone. My next door neighbor has a small garden gnome of the sort you've probably seen before. The thing is, my neighbor's gnome comes to life for one evening a month, always on the twelfth day of the month, between 8:00 and 11:00 pm. The gnome explores the yard and has even climbed the fence to come into my yard. I know this not because my neighbor told me but because I have personally experienced it. I asked my neighbor about it once, and he looked at me like I was crazy. How rude! I've scene the gnome spring to life many times, and I'm confident I was awake, not intoxicated, and of sound mind. Thus, I have no question that the gnome is real.
Do you believe that my neighbor's gnome springs to life on a regular schedule as I have described? No? Well, I suppose you are entitled to your opinion. But how can you know for sure? Isn't it at least possible that what I am describing is real? To doubt that my neighbor's gnome is real requires as much faith as is needed for someone else to believe that it is real.
The mistake is fairly obvious, isn't it? When I assert that the gnome is real, I am making a claim. I am asking you to accept my claim with no evidence whatsoever. That is, I am asking you to take it on faith that the gnome is real. When you refuse to accept my claim, you do not need to offer a counter claim that you are 100% certain that my neighbor's gnome does not behave as I describe it or that other gnomes could never do the same. You are rejecting my claim because I have not come close to meeting my evidentiary burden, right? Your rejection of my claim takes no faith whatsoever. Rejecting my claim is precisely what the rational person must do because I have offered no evidence to support it.
To insist that faith is required for one to reject claims about my neighbor's gnome, unicorns, fairies, Santa Claus, Odin, angels, or gods misses the mark completely. The individual who refuses to accept such claims need not offer any sort of claim of his or her own. All he or she is doing is pointing out that the evidentiary burden has not been met.
If we refer to belief that garden gnomes routinely spring to life as "gnomism," then "agnomism" refers simply to the lack of "gnomist" belief. An "agnomist" is one who does not accept the "gnomist" claim that garden gnomes routinely spring to life, etc. No faith is required, and insisting that "agnomism" must be a religion is absurd unless you really want to argue that we are all "agnomists."
Atheism is no different. An atheist is someone who does not accept the theistic claim (i.e., a god or gods exist). Like the "agnomist," the atheist requires no faith because he or she is not offering any sort of belief claim. In fact, it is precisely the tendency to seek evidence rather than to rely on faith that typically leads one to atheism.
I recognize language evolves and that dictionary definitions change over time to reflect the actual usage of words in addition to their classic derivation. If you look up atheism in a dictionary, you may find something about atheism involving active disbelief or even positive assertions that gods certainly do not or cannot exist. Most atheists refer to this as "strong atheism" and do not consider it synonymous with atheism. This was not part of the original definition of atheism, but it appears in some dictionaries now because usage of the word has changed. I use the word atheist in the classic sense and with the original meaning because I believe this is far more accurate.
Tags: atheist, atheism, faith, belief, religion, philosophy