English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

This seems to be a creeping problem in that two competing definitions are being used for the term "atheism" that aren't necessarily compatible with one another.

One the one hand we have what appears to be the classical definition of "atheism" which describes it as the solid position that there is no God by describing at as the "belief that there is/are no God(s)"

Support: Stanford

On the other hand there are some selected groups (and many atheists that you ask on the internet will tell you) that the term is the "absence or lack of belief in God(s)."

Support: Wikipedia

Which definition is the proper usage? Are these competing definitions untenable and contradictory or can they be inclusively used as the Wikipedia article suggests?

What are some of the implications of "lack of belief" definition? Under that definition would babies be atheists? What about animals? Could inanimate objects technically be described as "atheistic?"

share|improve this question
Both meanings are in common use. Ergo, both are legitimate definitions for the term. One of them is more useful, and perhaps it is worth promoting that one in religio-political discourse, but until such a time as one definition is clearly dominant they are both "proper". – Niel de Beaudrap Feb 13 '14 at 15:23
I'm surprised to see that anyone thinks there is a second, different meaning of the word. In my life, I've only heard of atheists being people who do not have any religious beliefs. They do not believe in any god or gods. – Tristan r Feb 13 '14 at 16:12
@Tristanr The two definitions given in the question are both different from yours, so you need to consider things more carefully before talking about "a second, different meaning". Somebody who doesn't have religious beliefs is "non-religious". There are religions that don't have gods so it's possible to be an atheist and still be religious. – David Richerby Feb 13 '14 at 21:05
This question is dangerously close to off-topic. We can discuss meanings of the word atheist, but discussing atheism is off-topic. You can take that to Philosophy or wherever, but it doesn't belong here. – Kit Z. Fox Feb 13 '14 at 21:42
I think I have a definitive answer for the exact title question: atheism should be defined as "a love of hugs". Maybe theism should mean "a love of hugs" too, because wouldn't that just be lovely? It's not what people mean when they use either word, but I think it should be. – BrianDHall Feb 13 '14 at 23:36

When this distinction is made, the usual terms are:

  • negative or weak atheism — lack of belief in gods (or a particular god)
  • positive or strong atheism — belief in the nonexistence of gods (or a particular god)

(See for example Wikipedia, or "An Introduction to Atheism" at infidels.org.)

I have four observations to make about this issue:

  1. This is a very recent distinction, at least in mainstream discourse.* On Google Books, I can't find any relevant citations for weak/strong atheism/atheist before 2000. The distinction is not mentioned in the entry for "Atheism and Agnosticism" (2004) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example.

    (* People were making the distinction in the Usenet group alt.atheism at least by the early 1990s — see the FAQ from 1993 for example — but the OP's concern seems to relate to mainstream usage.)

  2. The distinction between not believe and believe not is one that is not usually made in ordinary English. When someone says, "I don't believe in Santa Claus," they mean that they believe that there is no Santa Claus. Linguists describe this fact by writing "believe is a verb of medium subordinate negative implicature" (see this answer for an explanation). So insisting on a distinction between "believe there is no X" and "don't believe in X" runs contrary to ordinary use of English.

  3. This distinction relies on the way that belief is sometimes modelled in epistemic logic (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Here a predicate B(x, y) may be introduced, meaning "agent x believes proposition y". Then the logician can distinguish between ¬B(x, y) meaning "it is not the case that x believes that y is true" and B(x, ¬y) meaning "x believes that y is false".

    But is the predicate version of belief really a good model? It can be criticised on the grounds that it presumes certainty in the agent — B(x, y) can only be true or false, whereas in real life there seem to be degrees of certainty of belief. This criticism leads to probabilistic epistemic logic, in which the sharp distinction between weak and strong versions of disbelief is replaced by a gradation of strengths of belief.

  4. It's usual for words to have multiple closely related nuances, so there seems no barrier to continuing to use atheist without regard to this distinction, except perhaps in technical works on the philosophy of religion.

    The OED, for example, defines atheist as

    One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

    where disbelieve has the meanings:

    (1) To reject the truth or reality of.

    (3) Not to believe in; to have no faith in.

    so the OED's definition of atheist covers both the weak and strong versions.

share|improve this answer
Precisely the answer I was going to give, and then some (quite a bit more, actually)! Nicely done. (This from a psychologist with strong interest in studying religion. :) – Nick Stauner Feb 13 '14 at 19:51
@MSalters: They are similar, I agree, but I'm not sure that the older term quite maps onto the current one. Agnosticism in Huxley's sense is more like a combination of skepticism and empiricism, and so somewhat orthogonal to the modern distinction between types of atheism. – Gareth Rees Feb 13 '14 at 20:55
Why is publication of a book more relevant to dating the terminology than any other use? – Jules Feb 13 '14 at 22:40
@aditya: No: there's no sense of "use" here. – Gareth Rees Feb 14 '14 at 12:11
Overall I like your answer, but your point 2 flies in the face of what I call common sense about English usage. I'll grant that there's an imprecise, logically confused vernacular usage like you describe, but I don't think that makes it correct. An analogy would be the use of double-negatives as emphatic negatives rather than negation-of-negation. – R.. Feb 15 '14 at 4:38

It appears the situation is just as you described: there are two competing definitions, so neither could be said to be 'correct' or 'incorrect' from language point of view, as both are used.

Atheists tend to be biased towards the latter, often choosing a finer scale - a non-absolute theist/atheist and gnostic/agnostic system. (Some choose to add 'strongly care / doesn't care' into the mix.) Theists, especially vehement opponents to atheism are prone to choose the former as it presents atheism as just another belief, a religion without a god. That definition conforms to "strongly caring, gnostic atheist" in the "sliding scale" system, a relatively small sub-group of a much larger and more varied atheist society.

In essence, in the gnostic/agnostic theist/atheist system, the first definition would describe what is known as "gnostic atheists", actually a fairly small sub-group of the atheist population; ones who don't follow the agnostic atheist idea: "there is no proof for existence of God, and so far science can explain everything without God, so it's logical to assume there is none and follow up on that assumption", but actually negate the idea claiming there isn't any God for sure.

share|improve this answer
But what about the implications of the "lack of belief" definition? – Resting in Shade Feb 13 '14 at 15:29
Some atheists prefer to use the latter. There are atheists whose position could be characterized as "call me when you've got a proper reason for me to care about the idea of god". Historically, some such people have called themselves apatheists or ignostics, but at least some call themselves atheists. Bertrand Russell (with his infamous teapot, which desipte its fanciful imagery puts forth a problem of epistemology which Russell would have taken seriously at least for his own private contemplation) is arguably an example, and he referred to himself variously as an agnostic or atheist. – Niel de Beaudrap Feb 13 '14 at 15:33
@RestinginShade: Children before they learn of the idea of religion are the epitome of agnosticism: they simply don't know - not even hesitating between two options but ignorant of their existence. As such they sit squat in the middle of the atheist/theist axis: no belief nor disbelief. – SF. Feb 13 '14 at 16:13
This answer IMHO gets to the crux of the problem. Often in belief disputes (political or religious) the two sides argue over which word(s) to use to cover a given concept. In this case, the two sides are instead arguing over which of two meanings to give the same word. – T.E.D. Feb 13 '14 at 16:17
@SF. I have to say the categorical "Theists prefer..." in this answer is an inaccurate generalisation; There are a lot of theists, and many of them do not adhere to the same beliefs regarding the best methods of combating atheists. – user867 Feb 14 '14 at 2:44

Re-appropriating the term atheism is what is causing the issue. If we break the word down it is clear that the first definition is what should be intended when using the word atheism. The prefix a has long been used as a reversal, or negation, for the term that follows it. The suffix ism has long been used for any kind of belief or organized thought system. The actual term is derived from the Greek word for god.

Here's what we are left with:

  • Theism is a belief in god.
  • Atheism is a belief in not god.

The confusion leading to this re-appropriation is from misplacing the negation. If we were to say that atheism means not a belief in god (notice the misplacement of the reversal/negation) then we are not being true to the word's structure and implied definition. The ism suffix already implies what it is, a belief or school of thought, and placing the negation on that is contradictory. The a does not negate the ism; it negates the root, theo. It is akin to saying that it is not a belief or school of thought, but (and the following might be better on philosophy.se) that is the same as saying that atheism and theism are in fact not opposites and are therefore in a different class of terms, which can lead one to think that they are not mutually exclusive, however their regular use suggests otherwise.

Atheists who want to re-appropriate the term's meaning are insistent that what they hold to is not a belief (however they might likely accept school of thought), so to overcome the above contradiction they replace the negation with the word lack, leading us to the second definition that you provided.

There is already a word for that, however: agnosticism. Agnosticism (also a school of thought, but not necessarily a belief) is characterized by confessing uncertainty on the topic entirely. Essentially, saying one is agnostic is the same as saying that one is unsure on whether there is a god or not. They are unsure if belief in a god is warranted, therefore, there is a lack of belief.

If one would characterize his opinion on the topic as certainty that there is no god (notice the negation placement) then one should rightly call oneself atheist. If one would characterize his opinion on the topic as not having a belief or opinion (notice the negation again) or a lack of belief or opinion then one should rightly call oneself agnostic.

Now this is a sensitive topic for some people. Trying to place what you believe into a single word is difficult at best and laying down the three terms, theism, atheism, and agnosticism, and demanding that all persons fit neatly into only one of them is not fair to them and does a great disservice to the greatest of all human quests: finding meaning in our lives.

But with that said, the re-appropriation of atheism is confusing at best and completely redefining it at worst. It would be best to stick to the original meaning, the first definition that you supplied, and if one finds oneself not quite fitting into the mold of one of the three then err on agnosticism when forced to use a single word and speak up to be heard when there is no such restriction. Even coin your one phrase if necessary; it might catch on.

share|improve this answer
I'm reminded of the word skepticism. That is an appropriate word for an agnostic who might believe if there was convincing evidence. Add on scientific skepticism and that would be appropriate for the apathetic position that some have toward all religion, because, in their mind, it cannot be scientifically supported. – fredsbend Feb 13 '14 at 22:35
Please comment if you choose to downvote and help me improve this answer. – fredsbend Feb 14 '14 at 0:30
"Atheism is a belief in not god." is not true – Nanne Feb 14 '14 at 14:59
@Nanne You will have to give me more than that to convince me. – fredsbend Feb 14 '14 at 16:17
Seriously, downvotes do not help make posts better all by themselves. Comment with something substantial and let me know. – fredsbend Feb 20 '14 at 1:00

Some uses of atheist in practice are:

  1. Someone who does believe in any god.

  2. Someone who believes that there is no god.

  3. Someone who does not believe in the god that the speaker considers it self-evident to be the only god.

  4. Someone who does not believe in an ultimate monotheistic creator-god, though they may believe in several other beings who are commonly also termed* gods.

  5. Someone who believes that there is definitely not an ultimate monotheistic creator-god, though they may believe in several other beings who are commonly also termed gods.

Now, of those, (and I'm not claiming the above is exhaustive), there are differing opinions as to whether they are correct at all.

They may also depend on context; number 5 could cover both polytheists for whom their disbelief in an ultimate monotheistic creator-god is not a significant item of theology, but also those Buddhists who do believe in gods (not all Buddhists do) for whom the doctrine that there is no ultimate eternal being is an important doctrine. This might lead us to use atheist of such Buddhists, but not of other such polytheists for whom the belief is more incidental.

This is a bit of a nuisance when we're talking in detail about religious belief, or lack thereof, but not a great nuisance; in such cases we can simply define our terms.

The idea that we would be sure to find an answer to the question to "Which definition is the proper usage?" is untenable and contradictory.

We're talking about a language here in which we can't find a single definition by which to decide whether berry includes tomatoes or not. We have several definitions of integer within the field of mathematics alone. It's hardly surprising to find that there are overlapping definitions of a term relating to human belief.

For that matter, agnostic too has at least two common definitions:

  1. Someone lacking belief in god(s) or belief in their being no god.

  2. (As originally coined by Huxley) Someone who holds that nobody knows if there is a god or not.

And again, I'm not claiming to be exhaustive.

*"Commonly also termed" because by definition, if you are using atheist in this way you are focusing on the definition of god that expects an eternal, all-powerful being, which is rejected by some views (such as Buddhism) and of little interest to some others ("They quite realise that there must be some great 'Prime Mover', some Supreme Deity; but they think that if It gives them no means of knowing It, it is because It does not want to be known" - Gerard Gardner, though personally I disagree with the assumption suggested in "They quite realise that there must be"). As such, some may reject the use of god for those beings they do believe, while others my not (I personally fit the fourth definition above, but don't use it, and hence don't call myself an atheist). Really, it comes down to god having been defined in more than one way too, combined with the difficulty of translation the further afield one goes from the European, Middle Eastern and North African "known world" of the time it came to have the definitions it does have.

share|improve this answer
This list sounds unusual. It gives me the impression that it's created by a monotheist who uses atheist as a slur. For instance, (4) is derogatory towards polytheists (whose gods are only commonly termed gods) in addition to heaping polytheists and atheists together. – MSalters Feb 13 '14 at 20:30
@MSalters no, it's inclusive of those who do not agree with the term god being used. Whether the Tuatha Dé Danann, or devas, for example should be considered gods or something different is something that not all those who believe in them agree on. Number 3 certainly is about monotheists who use atheist as a slur, but such people do exist, and so the word is definitely used that way. – Jon Hanna Feb 13 '14 at 21:00
It's definitely not the first usage that comes to mind, but fair enough. It fits the definition well enough. As to Agnostic having multiple meanings, I cannot buy that. A-gnostic meaning not knowing. It's pretty cut and dried. Otherwise, I have to accept the usage of literally to mean figuratively just because of common improper usage! (Stupid dictionaries knuckling under!) – David M Feb 13 '14 at 21:04
@DavidM "That it is wrong for a man to say he is certain of the objective truth of a proposition unless he can provide evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what agnosticism asserts and in my opinion, is all that is essential to agnosticism." - T H Huxley (coiner of the term agnostic). – Jon Hanna Feb 13 '14 at 21:08
Perhaps you misunderstood me. I agree with Huxley, not the usage of agnostic to mean atheist. It's the opposite of the Gnostics. For which I cannot find a reference that does not strictly refer to the Christian movement. I know the concept of gnosticism through the Kabbalah, etc. – David M Feb 13 '14 at 21:10

Atheism derives from atheist, and both atheism and atheist are very forgiving words. Atheist can mean a believer in the nonexistence of a god, or a nonbeliever in the existence of a god (which is different), but it can mean even less: it can mean a person estranged from a god which exists.

In fact this was its original meaning. The term atheist wasn’t invented by atheists; it was invented by religious believers as an epithet (a disparaging word). It literally means “without god”, and was used to characterize people who denied the gods or were merely estranged from the gods in some way. The religious still sometimes use it in this sense.

Atheists co-opted the word in the way that Americans co-opted the term Yankee. Subsequently, the meaning of the term mutated quite a bit, as people argued over time about the existence of a god and what you can know about it.

The best hope you have when you hear either term is that the person using it defines it in context. That is also the best thing to do when you use it yourself.

share|improve this answer
This answer requires citations of sources in which these claims are substantiated. – H Stephen Straight Feb 19 '14 at 2:23

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 14 '14 at 15:10

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.