February 11, 2011

Let Me Tell You About My Atheism

Worldview

There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the atheist blogosphere recently over the meaning of atheism. This is a good thing because atheism is often misunderstood and because how we understand it has important implications. Unfortunately, some of us involved in the discussion have not been communicating clearly. In fact, it is starting to appear that the two sides agree on far more than many realize. I think I can clear things up a bit. Maybe.

Defining Atheism

The definition of atheism is extremely simple. Atheism refers to the absence of theistic belief. It is not a worldview, philosophy, religion, or anything similar. One who does not accept the theistic belief claim - that some sort of god or gods exist - is an atheist. Thus, the only thing all atheists have in common is that they answer the question of god(s) with something other than an unqualified "yes."

The Limitations of "Dictionary Atheism"

atheistsThose who have been criticizing "dictionary atheism" are absolutely correct to point out that no atheists actually define themselves in the limited way described above. If I am permitted to use myself as an example, I'd say that I meet the above definition but that many additional concepts are needed to fill out my worldview (e.g., skeptic, etc.).

Unfortunately, this is also where much of the confusion enters. Some have suggested that the definition of atheism itself should be expanded to include many additional constructs. Others insist that the definition of atheism should be left alone, recognized as incomplete, and that we should instead view it as one of many building blocks supporting our worldviews. I count myself in this second group. And so, it appears, does PZ Myers.

So What Was PZ Saying?

In a follow-up post, PZ clarified that he is not attempting to expand the definition of atheism and was merely railing against those who insist that it is sufficient to describe them. I've never encountered such a person, and I am admittedly skeptical about their existence. However, it would not be fair to assume that PZ has never met one. He may well have, and I suppose we'll have to take his word about that.

My Atheism

I think it is to our advantage to share a limited definition of atheism and to recognize its limitations. I am an atheist, but this is hardly sufficient to describe my worldview. I am also a skeptic. I also reject the existence of any sort of spirit world, of souls, demons, devils, angels, monsters, and the like. I value reason, the pursuit of knowledge, and civil rights for all. I can package all of this (and much more) together and call it "my atheism," but it makes far more sense to identify this package as my worldview.

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