April 6, 2020

The Meaning of Atheism Remains Controversial

camel smoking cigar

As obvious as the meaning of atheism seems to me, I sometimes forget that many atheists disagree with me about what atheism means. Fortunately, a few minutes on Twitter is all it takes for me to be reminded of this fact. I'm not being sarcastic. I really do think I need such reminders periodically. The primary point of contention seems to be whether atheism requires an explicit rejection of gods or whether merely lacking god-belief is sufficient. My position is that lacking god-belief is sufficient.

There may be other scenarios that could be used to illustrate this particular disagreement, but the one I've encountered more than any other involves the question of whether we are born atheists. I can't say I regard this as a critically important question, but my position is that we are born atheists. The way I see it, a baby is an atheist because a baby has never heard of gods and has no capacity to understand god-belief. The baby is "without theism" and is, therefore, an atheist. Atheism is the default position from where we all begin. Once a child has been subjected to religious indoctrination, atheism is often replaced with theism, at least temporarily.

Of course, those who view atheism as requiring an explicit rejection of gods do not agree that babies can be atheists. It should not be difficult to understand why. If a baby has never heard of gods, the baby could not possibly have rejected them. From this perspective, both atheism and theism require one to consider the question of gods and make a choice. I wonder, then, whether there is an age requirement. Can a 4-year-old be an atheist (or a theist)? How about a 10-year-old? I also wonder how realistic this idea of making a choice is. I never chose to be a Christian or an atheist, but I was a Christian, and I am now an atheist.

When I said above that I don't see the question of whether we are born atheists to be an important one, I did not mean to imply the same about the meaning of atheism. I think that how we define atheism is important and that there are advantages to defining it as I have. At the same time, I recognize that there are different types of atheism, some of which do involve explicit claims about gods. I know this won't be a popular notion with some atheists, but maybe it is okay that we give other atheists the space to define their atheism differently from how we define ours.