February 20, 2013

How To Know If You Are An Atheist

Proof Of God
Proof Of God (Photo credit: ed7929)

Even if we understand the meaning of atheism, it is not always easy for someone who was brought up in a religious family and/or living in a predominately religious culture to acknowledge that he or she might be an atheist. Such an individual may have been raised to believe that atheists are evil and that it is not possible to be a good person without faith in god(s) of some sort. There are likely to be many psychological barriers that could prevent such a person from wanting to acknowledge that he or she may be an atheist. In addition to the psychological barriers, many people realize that atheists are still regarded as second-class citizens (or worse) and are not eager to face the bigotry that often results from allowing others to know one is an atheist.

The good news is that it is fairly easy for you to figure out whether you are an atheist. By the end of this post, you will know if you are an atheist. What you choose to do with that information is up to you. If you live in an area where atheists are likely to face negative consequences for being open about their atheism, you may want to give some thought to how open you want to be.

Do You Believe in God(s)?

Theism refers to the belief in some sort of god or gods. Theistic belief, or what some refer to as the theistic claim, refers to the proposition that some sort of god or gods exist. Thus, a theist is someone who accepts this claim (i.e., "I believe that at least one god exists"). The polytheist believes in more than one god, and the monotheist limits oneself to a single god.

The easiest way to understand atheism is to recognize that it is nothing more than the lack of theistic belief. An atheist is someone who does not accept the theistic claim that god(s). Some atheists will take an additional step and tell you that they are certain that no gods exist (i.e., gnostic atheists). Other atheists will make no such claim about certainty and tell you only that they do not think that the theist has met his or her burden of proof (i.e., agnostic atheists).

What is important to recognize here is that the question of atheism vs. theism is not about certainty. The person who thinks it is possible but extremely unlikely for some sort of god to exist is still an atheist. The person who somehow has never heard of any sort of god is an atheist. How can this be? These individuals lack theistic belief. Neither believes in god(s). Without theistic belief, one is by definition an atheist.

So how do you know whether you are an atheist? Ask yourself the following question:

Do you believe in some sort of god or gods?
If you answered "yes," you are a theist. You believe in god(s), and that makes you a theist. If you answered anything other than "yes," you are an atheist. You may prefer a different label, but you are in fact an atheist because you do not accept the theistic claim.

Wait a second! What if you aren't sure what you believe? What if you answered "I don't know" or something similar? You are confusing the question of what you believe with the question of how certain you are in your belief. These are separate questions, and only one of them has any direct bearing on whether you are an atheist. If you are not sure whether you believe in god(s), it seems safe to conclude that you lack god-belief. After all, how could you believe in something while simultaneously being so unclear about whether it exists? That makes you an atheist. The question is not whether you are 100% certain that god(s) exist; the question is whether you believe in god(s). How certain you are of your belief is a different question.

What About Agnosticism?

There are many misconceptions out there about atheism and agnosticism. They are not alternative positions but answers to different questions. For example, I am an agnostic atheist. This means that I am an atheist (i.e., I do not believe in gods) but make no claim to know with certainty that they cannot exist. For the more visually-oriented, this diagram might help. As you can see, agnosticism is not an alternative to atheism. It can even be a complementary position.

Here's another way to look at it…imagine someone who maintains that they are not even remotely sure whether they believe in god(s). Perhaps they've never bothered to think about it at all. One thing is undeniably true of such a person: they do not accept the theistic claim, at least not yet. They are an atheist. Should they change their mind at some future time and accept the claim that god(s) exist, they would be a theist. Until that happens, they are an atheist.

Now What?

If you found out that you are an atheist, you may be wondering what's next? That is up to you. You certainly do not have to tell anyone you are an atheist if you do not want to. I know it can be difficult to acknowledge that one no longer believes in gods. It took me a couple of years to come around to the point where I could admit it to myself. That process was far more difficult than deciding to tell others.

What I can tell you is that there are many great people out there who happen to be atheists and who are nearly always thrilled to meet another atheist. If you have local atheist groups, consider checking one out. And if not, there are plenty of atheists who are active on the Internet and would love to hear from you. This is something you can ease into gradually at your own pace.