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I don't believe in any deities. Therefore I am an atheist. But if I were to just express that I don't believe in say Zeus, would it be correct to say "I am atheistic towards Zeus"? Take a person who follows and believes in religion X and who doesn't believe in any other religion including religion Y. This person is not an atheist in the broader sense as they believe in the deity of religion X. But is it correct to say that they are atheistic towards Y ? Or even that they are a Y atheist ?

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    You can if you want. – 9fyj'j55-8ujfr5yhjky-'tt6yhkjj May 1 '17 at 14:32
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    By this logic, everyone (except for someone who believes in every religion) is an atheist toward something. Not a very useful descriptor. – Nuclear Wang May 1 '17 at 14:36
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    I would not recommend using this. The idea that "everyone is atheistic towards most religions; people called "atheists" are just consistent about it" is an very stereotypical "internet atheist" type of quip. Rather than convincing religious people that atheism is OK, you're likely to annoy them by making arguments involving overly precise and contrived definitions of "atheism/atheistic" that don't correspond to normal usage. See this response from a theist: jwwartick.com/2011/04/04/all-atheists – sumelic May 1 '17 at 15:29
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    @NuclearWang of course, the point you've just made is the core idea of Stephen Robert's famous quote: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." So it's not an entirely useless descriptor, and is in fact a usage of the word that prominent atheists have sometimes embraced for rhetorical reasons. – Mark Amery May 1 '17 at 17:55
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    @MarkAmery Redefining the word to be synonymous with "human" might be useful or "impressive" as rhetoric, but it's not particularly useful otherwise; nor is it particularly motivating as a logical argument. – jpaugh May 1 '17 at 21:10
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I would say, instead: "I'm a non-believer in/of Zeus."

An atheist believes in no deities, from any religion.

Atheist

noun 1. a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

Dictionary.com Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2017.

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    I see no reason for a downvote, although linking and quoting a definition would help. – Davo May 1 '17 at 14:43
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    Or just "I don't believe in Zeus." – MissMonicaE May 1 '17 at 19:31
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    Right. Agnostic would be a better fit – jpaugh May 1 '17 at 20:52
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    @jpaugh the person in the example already believes in religion X though – c.. May 1 '17 at 22:54
  • The root is the Greek word atheal, meaning "without God, denying God" (OED) if that helps in any way. I think the problem that one may have here is that the whole idea of "atheism" is owed to Western philosophy, and may be informed by a notion of belief as residing at the centre of Judaeo Christianity. I am not certain that in eastern religions belief occupies such an important position. it is probably more a question for the Religion site. – WS2 May 2 '17 at 10:34
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No.

You'd be abusing language by assuming incorrect definitions of "atheist" and "theist".

If, per the comments, your desire is to reach common ground with theists, avoid this misusage like the plague. You'll most likely anger any theists with whom you converse, and destroy any empathy you'd managed to build up.

The reason for this follows from the common definitions of "atheist" and "theist".

Atheist: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

Theism Belief in the existence of a god or gods.

The crucial difference between these definitions and the one implied by redefining "atheist" to mean "a person who disbelieves one or more gods" is the accepted definition of "theist" is a positive declaration of belief.

Reducing "I believe in X, which necessarily excludes belief in Y" to "I have ruled out Y, and haven't bothered to rule out X" is simultaneously patronizing and an accusation of intellectual sloth.

The first will annoy, the second is an ad hominem attack on what is often a foundational part of a theist's identity.

Put another way, how much time would you waste on someone who cheerfully says, "a core part of your identity is a delusion which only exists due to your intellectual sloth"?

Additional Information

Apparently the intuitive explanation given above is insufficient, so down the rabbit hole we go.

First, some definitions:

For the sake of notation, ɢ is the set of all gods and the predicate G() represents "this god is true".

By the definitions of the terms given above, we arrive at these definitions:

T := ∃ g ∈ ɢ: G(g)
A := ∀ g ∈ ɢ: ¬G(g)

Or in other words, theism asserts that there exists some god which is true, while atheism asserts that no god is true.

Additionally, the English language supplies an invariant:

A ≡ ¬T

This comes from the word "atheism" deriving from a negation of the common root of both words ("theos", which is Greek for "god"). Lest I be accused of logical fallacy: this is consistent with the current, common understanding of this term, per the definitions above, and the common use of the prefix 'a-' to negate the following term.

If you attempt to redefine "atheism" to mean "lack of belief towards one specific religion" you arrive at this definition:

A' := ∃ g ∈ ɢ: ¬G(g)

Which is not at all the same thing. This breaks the language invariant (A' ≢ ¬T) and, even if they have trouble explaining why, will generally make people very uncomfortable.

Worse, if they are able to sit and think about it for a while, they'll realize that this implicitly redefines theism as well to correct the linguistic invariant that's making them so uncomfortable.

T' := ∀ g ∈ ɢ: G(g)

The negation here implies that, unless you're an atheist, you believe all gods exist. Therefore, if you don't believe a particular god exists, you are an atheist. If the person you are talking to defines their identity even partially on their belief in a particular god, this is offensive in direct proportion to the sincerity and depth of their beliefs.

Additionally, the following comments provide context to the use to which this will be put:

Thanks Mitch. But just to elaborate a bit and give some context. When some people hear the word atheist they think EVIL / BAD / DEVIL / STRANGE / UNKNOWN etc. I would like to be able to convince such people that atheists are not evil, and that religious people are atheistic towards other religions as well. Do you think it can be used in this way ? – Derek

@NuclearWang of course, the point you've just made is the core idea of Stephen Robert's famous quote: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours." So it's not an entirely useless descriptor, and is in fact a usage of the word that prominent atheists have sometimes embraced for rhetorical reasons. – Mark Amery

Arguing that theism is a limited form of atheism is deeply problematic, as it shifts the burden of proof. The inversion requires a theist to assert that they've examined and rejected all other possible gods, rather than asserting they've examined one to many gods and found reason to believe in at least one.

Particularly the quote from Stephen Robert implies that, if the theist would just stop being intellectually lazy (or cowardly, that's implied as well), they'd be an atheist as well.

Additionally, it begs the question by assuming that theists arrive at their belief by process of elimination, rather than by finding that which they believe to be true and having other options eliminated by default.

As a concrete example, I personally believe in the Abrahamic God, and in His Son, Jesus Christ. As this is an affirmative belief, based on my personal experiences, I do not have to research every single Hindu god to build a case for their individual non-existence, this follows logically from what I already believe to be true.

So when at attempt is made to redefine terms, such that this hard won belief is reframed as intellectual laziness or cowardice, you bet I'm going to be offended. The technical term for this sort of argument is "gaslighting".

How offended I'll be is a function of how well I know the person, and the extent to which I can trust their good intentions.

I don't attempt to characterize the atheism of my friends and family as "spiritual laziness or cowardice", which would be deeply offensive. Don't attempt to redefine the belief system of your theist friends and family.

They won't appreciate it.

It will make them uncomfortable.

If they understand formal logic, they may become quite angry with you.

  • I disagree with your argument, here. I agree that the suggested definition of "atheist" as one who disbelieves in at least one god is essentially the same thing as theism, since almost all theists disbelieve in the gods of other religions. But I disagree that this reduces theism to intellectual sloth, any more than changing the definition of "motorist" to "any person who uses the road" would imply that car drivers are physically lazy for not riding a bicycle. It doesn't change the definition of theism at all, so it can't cast any slight on theists. – David Richerby May 2 '17 at 8:42
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    @David Richerby, it attempts to change the definition because they are inverse, linked concepts. It mutates from "I assert this is true" to "I don't yet assert this is false" - particularly with the context of the question comments. It denies the theist the right to assert their opinions. Speaking as a believer, I can attest this argument is extremely insulting. – Morgen May 2 '17 at 8:49
  • No, it just changes the definition of atheist to "somebody who might be a theist but isn't a pantheist." It's a dumb and completely unhelpful way to use the word "atheist" but it does nothing at all to the definition of "theist". Indeed, your argument seems to rest on an implicit claim that "theist" means "not-atheist", which is itself rather insulting to belief. Changing the definition of "atheist" would just break the etymological link between that word and "theist"; it wouldn't cause the definition of "theist" to change. – David Richerby May 2 '17 at 10:32
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    @David Richerby This comment thread is exactly why this usage is problematic. Your argument so far boils down to "you can't be insulted by this because I say so" - even though you're ignoring that I'm pointing out exactly how to parse that insult. If you negate one term from "ForAll Not Exists" to "Exists Not One", then a term defined as the inverse of the other must also be negated. Your insistence that following this logic and being offended by it's implications is invalid is insulting. The insult is not hypothetical or my interpretation uncommon. Stop telling me what I'm allowed to think. – Morgen May 2 '17 at 13:11
  • I'm not arguing that you can't be insulted: I'm arguing that your interpretation is unreasonable. Theism is not defined as the inverse of atheism. – David Richerby May 2 '17 at 14:37
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Trying to clear a confusion specifically regarding the word "atheist"; I'm aware that this takes up a large proportion about the answer, but I think it's important:

I don't believe in any deities. Therefore I am an atheist.

No. If you stop at this point, you are not an atheist, you are an agnostic.

  • Atheist: denies the existence of gods ("anti-god").
  • Agnostic: denies the sure knowledge of the existence of gods ("anti-belief").

The distinction is profound. Atheists would, if they were extrovert, go and try to remove religious symbols from schools and public places and such things. They would argue with religious people and try to convince them that they are wrong.

Agnostics may or may not care about gods either way; they acknowledge that there well may be gods around; or they may argue that we just cannot know. They would very likely not argue with religious people and concede that their believes might just be as valid as non-belief or non-"knowing".

"Agnostic" is much weaker, and can be used for other things than religion (e.g., "this USB dongle is agnostic about whether it is connected to a PC or a Mac").

"Atheistic" also implies that you are not only against gods, but also in favour of a completely natural universe".

But if I were to just express that I don't believe in say Zeus, would it be correct to say "I am atheistic towards Zeus"?

No. You could be an Atheist and therefore not believe in Zeus (or any other god); but you could also be a member of any other religion (therefore not being an atheist) and denying Zeus because he doesn't fit your belief.

atheistic towards Y ? Or even that they are a Y atheist ?

No, as described above. The usage would also not make sense semantically and is not used this way regularly, linguistically.

The claim is backed by https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheist, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/atheistic, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/atheistic and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism (first line in the article with many links to primary sources):

Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists.

Note that all senses here are always "all or nothing", not against a specific deity.

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    The definition of atheism as merely constituting "lack of belief" is very common and maybe even preferred by most self-identified atheists. See Which definition of “atheism” is the proper usage? Atheism doesn't need to have anything to do with preferences like being "against gods" or arguing with religious people. – sumelic May 2 '17 at 11:15
  • "Agnostics just don't care either way and acknowledge that there well may be gods around, they just don't take any stock in them." Agnosticism is the position that they cannot know, but they may still care. Someone who doesn't care is an "apatheist". – curiousdannii May 2 '17 at 11:18
  • @curiousdannii, thanks, I have changed my wording to reflect the meaning of agnostic a bit more accurately. – AnoE May 2 '17 at 13:17
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    @sumelic; I know what you mean - many people do not know the distinction, or do not care, and I find that something which is worth to rectify (the question you linked has answers in both directions...). You'll note that I have used "would" and "may" in the sentences regarding arguing with theists; obviously not everyone would do that. – AnoE May 2 '17 at 13:20
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    @Yorik, I do not see an argument at all; I hope my answer is neutral enough. This is a linguistic question foremost, I just wish to clear up a confusion in the original question to allow that semantic to go into the actual answer. Hence a lot of "would" and "may" and so on, to paint a big, stereotypical picture; plus lots of links for finer details. – AnoE May 2 '17 at 15:14
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Yes, you can. This usage of the word is supported by Wikipedia:

In antiquity it had multiple uses as a pejorative term applied to those thought to reject the gods worshiped by the larger society, those who were forsaken by the gods or those who had no commitment to belief in the gods. The term denoted a social category created by orthodox religionists into which those who did not share their religious beliefs were placed.

An example of such usage comes from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:

1 Now when Polycarp entered into the arena there came a voice from heaven: "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." And no one saw the speaker, but our friends who were there heard the voice. And next he was brought forward, and there was a great uproar of those who heard that Polycarp had been arrested. 2 Therefore when he was brought forward the Pro-Consul asked him if he were Polycarp, and when he admitted it he tried to persuade him to deny, saying: "Respect your age," and so forth, as they are accustomed to say: "Swear by the genius of Caesar, repent, say: `Away with the Atheists'"; but Polycarp, with a stern countenance looked on all the crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and waving his hand at them, he groaned and looked up to heaven and said: "Away with the Atheists." 3 But when the Pro-Consul pressed him and said: "Take the oath and I let you go, revile Christ," Polycarp said: "For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

So here, Polycarp is referring to the heathens (polytheists, and believers in the Greek gods) as atheists.

So such usage may be antiquated, but the possibility to use the word in that way exists.

All emphasis added is mine

  • Yes. Shades of those who use infidel to mean someone who does not believe what they believe. – Drew May 2 '17 at 1:25
  • @Drew Similar, except that an atheist who believes in no gods couldn't really use it in that way, or wouldn't because that's how they identify. – mbomb007 May 2 '17 at 2:08
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    Your "Yes" should be "No." You've established that, at one time, one could use "atheist" to mean somebody who doesn't believe in the majority religion. So Polycarp, a Christian, was an "atheist" in ancient Rome, and a Hindu would be an "atheist" in modern-day Mecca. But that doesn't support the usage in the question, which is expressing disbelief in a particular god. Polycarp wasn't "an atheist towards Jupiter"; he was an "atheist". And I suspect he refers to the crowd as atheists because, by his belief, the things they hold as "gods" aren't gods at all: they don't believe in any "actual" god. – David Richerby May 2 '17 at 8:33
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Consider skeptical.

This is of course the adjectival form of "skeptic", this sense of which is defined by oxforddictionaries.com as

A person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions; an atheist.

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As pointed out in other answers, that's not a normal usage, and perhaps even technically incorrect.

But it would certainly be understood.

If the only god in consideration is Zeus, and you don't believe in Zeus, then you're an atheist. It's only when we consider other gods, such as the one you hypothetically believe in, that there's a problem. You're basically trying to narrow the scope so that a term which would normally be universal is applying only to this limited scope.

Here's another way to phrase things, which I think those who have objected to your proposed usage may be more comfortable with

As far as Zeus is concerned, I'm an atheist.

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A slight variation on atheist would be agnostic.

Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God or the supernatural are unknown and unknowable.

One could say,

I don't believe in Judeo-Christian morals, as I am agnostic toward the Judeo-Christian God.

A distinction would be that an atheist does not believe in any god, while an agnostic believes that if such a god existed, he or she would be unknowable.

I have heard agnostic used in computer science circles to mean "neutral," for example,

This design is language agnostic.

This answer on our sister site says:

Language agnostic refers to aspects of programming that are independent of any specific programming language. At least, that's how I've heard it used for the last thirty years.

Put another way, language agnostic means, "I don't care what language you want me to implement this in" or "I don't wish to argue which language is better."

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    It's not a slight variation: it's a completely different concept. The question asks about how to express the belief that a particular god does not exist, not the belief that one cannot know whether the first belief is true. – David Richerby May 2 '17 at 8:35

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