25

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?"

  • 14
    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
  • 3
    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
  • 3
    @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
  • 2
    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
  • 4
    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. – BrianH Feb 13 '14 at 23:36
28

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.

  • 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
  • 1
    @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
  • 2
    Why is publication of a book more relevant to dating the terminology than any other use? – Jules Feb 13 '14 at 22:40
  • 1
    @aditya: No: there's no sense of "use" here. – Gareth Rees Feb 14 '14 at 12:11
  • 1
    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
18

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.

  • 2
    But what about the implications of the "lack of belief" definition? – Resting in Shade Feb 13 '14 at 15:29
  • 2
    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
  • 1
    @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
  • 1
    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
  • 3
    @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
8

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.

  • 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. – user39425 Feb 13 '14 at 22:35
  • 1
    Please comment if you choose to downvote and help me improve this answer. – user39425 Feb 14 '14 at 0:30
  • 2
    "Atheism is a belief in not god." is not true – Nanne Feb 14 '14 at 14:59
  • 2
    @Nanne You will have to give me more than that to convince me. – user39425 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. – user39425 Feb 20 '14 at 1:00
3

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.

  • 2
    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
  • 1
    @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
3

Atheism and atheist are forgiving words. The speaker may be referring to

  • believing in the nonexistence of a god, or
  • not believing in (doubting) the existence of a god, which is different, or
  • estrangement from or disobedience of a god which exists,

depending on context, including the speaker’s own beliefs. This is true, not just of usage in the modern era, but clear back to the 16th century when the words were first borrowed from French.

Being estranged from a god which exists was the 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 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.

Some dictionary entries are so short that they lose the nuances of meaning of these words. Unabridged dictionaries and scholarly articles are better guides.

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.

Sources

“atheism”, A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles, Vol 1, A and B. This work is in the public domain. As it is not an easily searchable source, I have transcribed the relevant entries in full :

Atheism (ēⁱ·þiˌiz’m). Also 6 athisme. [a. F. athéisme (16th c. in Littré), f. Gr. ἄθεος : see Aᴛʜᴇᴀʟ and -ɪꜱᴍ. Cf. It. atheismo and the earlier Aᴛʜᴇᴏɴɪꜱᴍ.]
Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.
Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism).
    1587 Gᴏʟᴅɪɴɢ De Mornay xx. 310 Athisme, that is to say, vtter godlesnes.
    1605 Bᴀᴄᴏɴ Adv. Learn. ɪ. i. § 3 A little or superficial knowledge of philosophy may incline the mind of man to atheism.
    1711 Aᴅᴅɪꜱᴏɴ Spect. No. 119 ⁋ 5 Hipocrisy in one Age is generally succeeded by Atheism in another.
    1859 Kɪɴɢꜱʟᴇʏ Lett. (1878) II. 75 Whatever doubt or doctrinal Atheism you and your friends may have, don’t fall into moral Atheism.
Atheist (ēⁱ·þiˌist). Also 6 atheyst, 6–7 athist(e. [a. F. *athéiste (16th c. in Littré), or It. atheista : see prec. and -ɪꜱᴛ.]
1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
    [a 1568 Cᴏᴠᴇʀᴅᴀʟᴇ Hope of Faithf. Pref. Wks. II. 139 Eat we and drink we lustily ; to-morrow we shall die : which all the epicures protest openly, and the Italian atheoi.]
    1571 Gᴏʟᴅɪɴɢ Calvin on Ps. Ep. Ded. 3 The Atheistes which say .. there is no God.
    1604 Rᴏᴡʟᴀɴᴅꜱ Looke to it 23 Thou Damned Athist .. That doest deny his power which did create thee.
    1709 Sʜᴀꜰᴛᴇꜱʙ. Charac. ɪ. ɪ. § 2 (1737) II. ɪɪ To believe nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any Cause, Measure, or Rule of Things, but Chance .. is to be a perfect Atheist.
    1876 Gʟᴀᴅꜱᴛᴏɴᴇ in Contemp. Rev. June 22 By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.
2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him ; a godless man.
    1577 Hᴀɴᴍᴇʀ Anc. Eccl. Hist. 63 The opinion which they conceaue of you, to be Atheists, or godlesse men.
    1660 Sᴛᴀɴʟᴇʏ Hist. Philos. 323/2 An Atheist is taken two ways, for him who is an enemy to the Gods, and for him who believeth there are no Gods.
    1667 Mɪʟᴛᴏɴ P. L. ɪ. 495 When the Priest Turns Atheist, as did Ely’s Sons.
    1827 Hᴀʀᴇ Guesses Ser. ɪ. (1873) 27 Practically every man is an atheist, who lives without God in the world.
B. attrib. as adj. Atheistic, impious.
    1667 Mɪʟᴛᴏɴ P. L. ᴠɪ. 370 The Atheist crew.
    1821 Lᴏᴄᴋʜᴀʀᴛ Valerino II. xi. 316 Borne from its wounded breast an atheist cry Hath pierced the upper and the nether sky.

“atheism”, The Catholic Encylopedia:

Since its first coming into use the term atheism has been very vaguely employed, generally as an epithet of accusation against any system that called in question the popular gods of the day. Thus while Socrates was accused of atheism (Plato, Apol., 26, c.) and Diagoras called an atheist by Cicero (Nat. Deor., I, 23), Democritus and Epicurus were styled in the same sense impious (without respect for the gods) on account of their trend of their new atomistic philosophy. In this sense too, the early Christians were known to the pagans as atheists, because they denied the heathen gods ; while, from time to time, various religious and philosophical systems have, for similar reasons, been deemed atheistic. … Atheism, historically considered, has meant no more in the past than a critical or sceptical denial of the theology of those who have employed the term as one of reproach, and has consequently no one strict philosophical meaning.

For there are gods : for our knowledge of them is indistinct. But they are not of the character which people in general attribute to them.
—Lucretius Carus, Laert., Life of Epicurus, XXVII

Indeed, this one citation perfectly illustrates the fundamental historic meaning of the term, atheism.

“atheism”, Concise Dictionary of Religion, Irving Hexham, 1999:

originally used in Greece of all those who, whether they believed in a god or not, disbelieved in the official gods of the State : Socrates was the classic instance. In the Roman Empire the term was applied to Christians but sometimes Christians, like Polycarp, would turn the term against their persecutors. Until the expression “agnosticism” came into general use in the nineteenth century, the term “atheism” was popularly used to describe those who thought the existence of God an unprovable thesis.

“atheism”, Free On-Line Dictionary of Philosophy 3.0, 26-03-2001:[PDF]

the belief that, or the philosophical position according to which, God, gods, deities, and supernatural powers do not exist. In this respect it is similar to secularism and opposed to any variety of theism. … Popularly, atheism is often taken to imply a lack of any ideals or values whatsoever (see immoralism), but this connotation rests on the controversial assumption that religious or supernatural values are the only real values.

“atheism”, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

negative atheism … includes someone who has never reflected on the question of whether or not God exists and has no opinion about the matter and someone who had thought about the matter a great deal and has concluded either that she has insufficient evidence to decide the question, or that the question cannot be resolved in principle. … Atheism can be narrow or wide in scope. The narrow atheist does not believe in the existence of God (an omni-being). A wide atheist does not believe that any gods exist, including but not limited to the traditional omni-God.

“atheism”, Philosophy Pages, Garth Kemerling:

Belief that god does not exist. Unlike the agnostic, who merely criticizes traditional arguments for the existence of a deity, the atheist must offer evidence (such as the problem of evil) that there is no god or propose a strong principle for denying what is not known to be true.

“atheism”, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia:

n. The doctrine that there is no God ; denial of the existence of God.
n. The denial of theism, that is, of the doctrine that the great first cause is a supreme, intelligent, righteous person.
n. A practical indifference to and disregard of God ; godlessness.

“atheism”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

1 a : a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
1 b : a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods
2 archaic : godlessness especially in conduct : ungodliness, wickedness

atheism, Webster’s Revised Unabridged, 1913 Edition:

n. 1. The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.
2. Godlessness.

“atheism”, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition:

• The belief that there is no God, or denial that God or gods exist.
• Godlessness.

atheism, Dictionary.com:

  1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
  2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

“atheism”, Collins English Dictionary:

• The belief that there is no God.
• Rejection of belief in God or gods.

“atheism”, Webster’s Dictionary, 1828:

• The disbelief of the existence of a God, or Supreme intelligent Being.

“atheism”, Webster’s New World College Dictionary:

• Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.

“atheism”, Macmillan Dictionary:

• The belief or theory that God does not exist.

“atheism”, Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries:

• The belief that God does not exist.

“atheism”, Cambridge Dictionary:

• The belief that God does not exist.

  • +1 for "estrangement from or disobedience of a god which exists". A lot of people don't realize that historical perspectives on "belief in God" was more about physical acts of worship, rather than intellectual acceptance of the religion as fact. Though, I would adjust the wording to "... of a god assumed to exist by the society or culture". – user39425 Feb 25 '17 at 17:49
1

The definitions are not competing, the first one clearly implies the second, while the second without the first is a specific form of atheism that could obviously only mean those naive and pure enough to not have been pestered to think about and commit to god, so that you wouldn't actually be in a place to know what they think, and hence couldn't label them.

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