Friday, January 14, 2011 Login

What is Atheism?

The most basic meaning of the word “atheism” is simply a lack of belief in a god or gods. That is to say, an atheist is a person who does not believe in one god or one hundred gods.

Notice that there is no mention here of the reason why someone might be an atheist. Atheists can be atheists for any number of reasons – even completely irrational ones. The mere fact that someone is an atheist cannot tell you the reason behind his or her atheism.

This simple definition can also be discovered by examining the word itself. The Greek word theo means “god” while the prefix a means “without”. The suffix ism refers to a belief or ideology, so altogether atheism simply means “without belief in god”. Since one either believes in a god or one does not, the two terms are mutually exclusive and all-encompassing. One can either be a theist or an atheist.

Theism, then, is a generic term for belief in god, and thus, a theist is simply a person that believes in a god. No two theists are necessarily alike, and likewise, no two atheists necessarily share similar ideals or passions.

Flavors of Atheism & Theism

The word agnosticism is often confused as an alternative position to either theism or atheism. The problem is that the term agnosticism refers to knowledge and not to belief. In other words, atheism and theism concern belief while agnosticism and its counterpart gnosticism concern knowledge.

The root gnost means knowledge, therefore the term “a-gnostic” simply means without knowledge. While theism and atheism refer to the presence or absence of a belief in gods, agnosticism (and its opposite term gnosticism) refer to the absence or presence of knowledge of god. One can be “agnostic” with regards to things other than god, but one must be agnostic with regards to something. The term “agnostic” by itself does not tell us what your agnostic of, although the implicit assumption is god.

Knowledge can be divorced from belief. That is to say, I can believe in something (like god) even if I honestly do not know if it exists. In this way, I can be both agnostic and a theist. Alternately, I can just as easily be both agnostic and an atheist if I choose not to believe in that which I have no knowledge of.

Thus, we can actually further categorize atheists and theists based on the question of knowing whether or not god exists:

Agnostic Atheism
I don’t believe in god because I don’t know if god exists (alternatively referred to as ‘weak’ or ‘broad’ atheism).

Gnostic Atheism
I don’t believe in god because I know that god doesn’t exist (alternatively referred to as ’strong’ or ‘narrow’ atheism).

Agnostic Theism
I believe in god even though I don’t know if god exists (a leap of faith).

Gnostic Theism
I believe in god because I know that god exists.

Another way that I distinguish agnosticism and atheism is by noticing that they address two separate questions:

Do you believe in god? No (atheism)
Do you believe in god? Yes (theism)

Do you know if god exists? No (agnosticism)
Do you know if god exists? Yes (gnosticism)

One problem that is very common is that some people assume that atheism only refers to gnostic atheism. This leads some people to question why a person is an atheist if he or she doesn’t know that god doesn’t exist. The mistake here is simple. An absence of belief is justified in the absence of evidence. A lack of belief in god is not equivalent to denying god’s existence, rather, it’s a position of skepticism with respect to god’s existence.

This has been called The Presumption of Atheism.

Another term that I sometimes see is nontheist. This term is generally used to mean agnostic atheist when “atheist” is understood as gnostic atheist, in order to differentiate the two. However, I believe that my distinctions made here are much clearer.