What is atheism?
Atheism is the absence of belief in gods. An atheist, therefore, is simply someone who does not believe in gods. An atheist may actively believe that the idea of a god is meaningless or self-contradicting, or may think the hypothesis that there is a god is simple not borne up by evidence; such atheists are sometime called "hard atheists", since their atheism takes the form of an active belief in the nonexistence of gods. Other atheists believe that the question of whether a god exists isn't one that is properly formed, or that the topic isn't one that can be investigated by human means; consequently, their belief is that it is unwarranted either to accept the idea that gods exist or that gods do not exist (such a position is often called "agnosticism"). Finally, the word atheist may be used to describe someone who simply lacks belief in gods. If you were to ask such a person about their atheism, they might say to you: What's that? An atheist? I am no such thing! Yet if they happen to lack belief in the existence of the Norse god of thunder, it is only accurate to describe such people as atheists with respective to Thor. When understood this way, it can be easily seen that most every person is an atheist, to some degree. After all, most all of us lack belief in the great majority of gods that are or have been said to exist.
A very good explanation of modern-day atheism was written by Blair Scott for the American Atheists blog:
“What is atheism” is usually the one question never asked of atheists. Most people do not ask this question because they already have their own ideas about what atheism is and what atheists are. Where these ideas originate vary from their minister to their social circle to myths encouraged by certain media outlets.
Theists usually define atheism incorrectly as a belief system. The ulterior motive behind this incorrect definition is that if atheism is a belief system, then theists can refer to atheism as a religion. If one can refer to atheism as a religion, then one can argue that attempts to uphold the separation of church and state (SOCAS) supports the “religion of atheism.” Laugh if you must, but lawyers tried to do just that in the summer of 2004 in Alabama. Syndicated Christian radio host Kelly McGinley ( Retaking America ) tried it after the courts ordered the removal of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court. Having been a two-day guest on her Christian radio show I can assure you that she was dead serious about this and did not mean it in a sarcastic way. She honestly thought that removing the monument was supporting the “religion of atheism.” Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God” and/or “denial of God.” Some dictionaries go further and say that atheism is “wickedness,” “sinfulness,” “heathenism,” “paganism,” and “immorality.”
Some dictionaries even say that atheism is the “doctrine that there is no God.” At least The American Heritage Dictionary says “God and gods” after the word “doctrine,” but that does not detract from the fact that use of the word “doctrine” is incorrect. Clearly, two thousand years of Christian influence have tainted dictionaries. I am certainly not suggesting a conspiracy. I am only suggesting that the theistic worldview and theistic usage of the word have tainted the definition from the original meaning of the word.
Speaking of the original meaning, the word atheism comes from the Greek atheos , which means “without god.” The original meaning of the word, based on its Greek origins, mentions nothing about “disbelief” or “denial.” A short and single-word definition would be “godless.” The fact that the dictionary definitions use the phrase “there is no God ” betrays the theistic influence in defining the word “atheism.” If dictionaries did not contain such influence, then the definition would read, “A belief that there are no gods .” The use of god in singular form, with a capital G, is indicative of Christian influence. In addition, using words like “doctrine” and “denial” betray the negativity seen of atheists by theistic writers. Atheism does not have a doctrine at all and I certainly do not “deny” that gods exist. Denial is the “refusal to believe.” Atheism does not “know there is a god but refuse to believe in him (or her, for that matter).” That is as silly as saying that you know Big Foot exists but you refuse to believe in him. If the evidence of gods was insurmountable and provable, and atheists still refused to believe, then that would be an act of denial. This is similar to how Scully refused to believe in aliens and UFO encounters even though Mulder had insurmountable evidence of their existence. Scully denied the existence of aliens and UFO's even though the evidence was overwhelming. She was a horrible example of a skeptic!
Atheism is not a belief system. Atheism is not a religion. Atheism may be part of an individual's religious beliefs, but atheism, in and of itself, is not a belief or religion. Some religions do not have a concept of god(s). One out of three religions worldwide is atheistic in nature, meaning that they worship no gods: Taoism, Buddhism, Spiritualism, New Age, and others ( Macmillan Information New Encyclopedia: World Religions, 1998 ). Atheism is a lack of belief in gods, from the original Greek meaning of “without gods.” That is it. There is nothing more to it. If someone wrote a book titled “ Atheism Defined ,” it would only be one sentence long. Is atheism a religion or a belief system? Let us look at the different definitions of religion and see if atheism belongs in any of them (using the American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2006).
1. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe. A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
No atheism resides in that definition. Atheists do not believe in a supernatural power or powers.
2. Beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
Atheism does not have a spiritual leader and atheism does not have any rites or rituals (practices) around such a spiritual leader. Atheism requires no initiation, no baptism, there is no Atheist Bible (Koran, Vedas, etc) to read, no rituals that atheists must go through to join an Atheist Church (temple, mosque, synagogue, sect, etc), and no central beliefs that all atheists must adhere to in order to be “true atheists.”
As I mentioned above, there are religions that are atheistic in nature, and they may fit the second definition. Atheism is not the religion. The religion just happens to be godless. Atheism is not the central tenet of their belief system, nor is it the foundational rock of their belief system. The only common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings. Every atheist is as unique as a fingerprint when it comes to his or her individual philosophy, convictions, and ideals. I have debated fellow atheists on issues as far ranging as the judicial system, the drug war, and alien abductions. I have had these debates because each atheist has a unique perspective on the world and each atheist has different convictions about every issue known to man. Some atheists see a difference between supernatural and paranormal. They may lack a belief in gods but they believe in psychics, ghosts, and other things. Such atheists should recognize that those beliefs are reliant upon faith just as much as belief in god. Because atheists only share a lack of belief in gods, they disagree on many other issues.
I am certainly not going to say that every atheist who reads this will agree with me and I am definitely not going to aver that my view represents all the atheists in the world. Chances are the first comment will take me to task for something the reader disagrees with.
Isn't atheism kind of.... arrogant?
Some people dislike the term "atheist" because they mistakenly think it conveys a certain sense of overconfidence. In fact, saying that someone is an atheist says nothing about the certainty with which that person holds his or her disbelief, or the thought process that brought them to that position.
Here's an analogy. Saying that you believe a ball will fall to the ground when you drop it does not mean that you have faith in the theory of gravity -- it means only that you feel that you have warrant to make such a claim. And if you're a reasonable person, you'd be open to revising the nature of your beliefs about gravitation and falling objects, if new evidence were brought to light that warranted such revision. To take another example, it is hardly a controversial claim to say that phlogiston does not exist; nor could such a claim be called an expression of arrogance or undue conviction. So it is with atheism! If an atheism says she is unpersuaded by claims that the gods described in the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, the Vedas, or any other sort of scripture, are real and existing beings, it is not quite fair to say that she is being arrogant, dismissive, or scornful of theists. She has every right to evaluate the evidence and arguments for the existence of gods, to her own satisfaction, and according to what rules of reasoning she feels appropriate. The same right is enjoyed by believers when they make their own claims to belief (in, say, the divinity of Jesus) or disbelief (in, say, the existence of Thor). The idea that atheism is mainly an expression of hubris, or arrogance, or anger, is really nothing but a form of prejudice.
Really, knowing that someone is an atheist tells you nothing about his or her character, temperament, or ethics. Some atheists are philosophically oriented and enjoy conversation; others are argumentative, and like to go toe-to-toe on topics like ethics, science, politics, and culture. Others are uncomfortable with confrontation and may not even mention the fact that we are atheists except to very close friends. Atheists are musicians, lawyers, pastors (yes, really!) doctors, taxi drivers, teachers, politicians, soldiers, volunteers, computer programmers, yoga instructors, and on and on; they are old and young; they work and live in every national and ethnic community; they raise families; and they vote; and they matter.
Since atheists are such a diverse bunch, you will find many different descriptions of what it is like to be an atheist. For other perspectives and more information, see our links and resources page, and read more about our Boston Atheists community.