Friday, 20 January 2012

Defining atheism

Richard Dawkins has famously noted that organising atheists is akin to herding cats; they think independently and will not conform to authority. Indeed, here in the act of defining the atheist, I leave myself open to a greater amount of criticism from self-identifying atheists much more than I do from theists. As such, I must state for the record, that the definitions laid out in the following text are a broad- brush treatment, designed to be as inclusive as possible to the multitude of atheistic leanings that exist, without watering down the meaning to the level of incoherence.

I have found that dictionary definitions are all but worthless at this task; limited, as they must be, to sound-bites and vagaries. Not that they are wholly without merit, but as will become apparent here, their definitions are accurate only to a point, and inaccurate to several degrees of magnitude when considering the wider context. This treatment hopes to approach each of the definitions of the more commonly used dictionaries, and to unite them under an umbrella term for atheism that is truly representative of all atheistic positions.

Before we go onto understanding the definition, it would be helpful to understand what is at issue here. The etymology of the term derives from the Greek prefix a- 'without', and -theos 'deity, god'. There is an important distinction in the etymology of this term, and the etymology of 'agnostic' - again Greek - meaning 'without knowledge of a deity or god', where gnosis means 'spiritual knowledge. Gnosticism and agnosticism are positions on the knowledge of the existence of a god or gods, as opposed to atheism and theism being positions on the belief in the existence of a god or gods.

This, in it's negative form, serves as an umbrella term for all atheistic positions. But there are complications which need addressing.

Atheism and theism are the opposite sides of a two dimensional coin, hence the answer is binary; one either believes or one does not. There is no room here for fence-sitting. Indeed, there is no fence upon which to sit. To use the coin analogy again, a two dimensional coin has no edge upon which it can rest to warrant any other positions. There are those that say they don't know, or that they believe sometimes, but not others. Unfortunately for such people, these are not valid boundaries upon which one can prevaricate. 

If your claim is that you don't know, then you have ignored the question of 'belief', and answered a question on the 'knowledge' of the existence of a god or gods. Quite what it means to say that you don't know, but believe all the same is for each individual to wrestle with himself, but for the purposes of this argument, it serves no useful function. 

Also, those that are undecided or change their minds on the matter of belief are similarly evasive. To say that you believe sometimes, is to admit that - at any given point in time - one does believe, and that - at any other given moment in time - one does not believe. So if I ask you for your answer on your belief at this exact moment in time, one is forced into the binary 'yes' or 'no'. The 'sometimes' response is not an answer at all, but an evasion.

Crossover atheists
"Crito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt."
- Socrates final words , 399 BCE.
Atheists have, over the millennia, been treated rather shoddily, to say the least. In western classical antiquity - during the time of Socrates - atheism was a capitol offence. Socrates chose to end his life by poisoning himself, rather than flee his responsibilities under his 'social contract' with the state. He was probably not an atheist as we understand it today, but he is certainly regarded as one of the earliest examples of impiety and as someone who stood against the state gods.

So was Socrates an atheist? Well, on the face of things, it would appear that he was. However, he did lend weight to other non-state gods, in the form of Daemons; good or benevolent nature spirit beings of the same nature as both mortals and gods, similar to ghosts, chthonic heroes, spirit guides, forces of nature or the gods themselves (see Plato's Symposium). So he was an atheist with regard to the existence of the state gods, but not those of the Daemon.

The question remains, then, was he a theist, an atheist or both? This question rings as true today as it did 2,400 years ago. We are all atheists with regard to one god or another. Anyone professing a belief in the existence of a monotheistic god necessarily lacks a belief in the existence of another god. But to say that these believers are atheists, negates the observance of a theistic position. Therefore, it is more accurate to define those that have a belief in one god (or set of gods) as theists rather than atheists, because they do have a belief in the existence of a god or gods.

Socrates, then, was not an atheist, and neither is anyone else that professes a belief in any form of god or gods.

So our umbrella term still serves us well;
An atheist is someone who lacks a belief in the existence of a god or gods.
Note that this definition must hold for one's position on all forms and concepts of a god or set of gods, and cannot apply to those that hold a singular belief to the exclusion of all others. It is simply dishonest and misrepresentative of the theist's position to say otherwise, although it does form a good argument for explaining to a belligerent sort why atheism is a rational position.
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.
Stephen Henry Roberts
Positive and negative atheism

Also known as strong/weak or hard/soft atheism, the positive and negative positions that can be held as atheistic, are very similar to the atheistic/theistic positions inasmuch as they are assertions on the non-existence of a god or gods.

The positive atheist does believe in the non-existence of any god or gods, asserting there to be none, whereas the negative atheist refers to any other type of non-theism, wherein a person does not believe in the existence of any god or gods without asserting there to be none.

Theists and dictionaries alike, tend to identify atheists as the former, to the exclusion of the latter which makes up the vast majority of self-identifying atheists.

The problem with the positive assertion that no god or gods exist, is that in making such an assertion, one has the burden of proof to supply evidence for it. Whilst absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, this does not mean that positive atheism is an argument from ignorance, just that for the assertion to be true, each god posited must be refuted in turn. There are estimated to be over 2,800 gods which the positive atheist must dismiss before his assertion can be deemed 'true'.

One can, of course, be a positive atheist with regard to a specific god - or even a host of them - and still be a negative atheist with regard to the others.

The negative atheist, on the other hand, makes no such assertion, and presents himself as someone who is not convinced by theistic arguments for the existence of a god or gods without making any assertion that none exist. Hence the burden of proof lies with those making the assertion that one does. The negative atheist simply does not feel the evidence amounts to an existential claim, and is therefore more a critique of theism than an assertion in its own right.

Whether or not one self-identifies with either positive or negative atheism (or maybe a mixture of the two depending on what evidence one can provide), still comes under the umbrella term as it stands. Regardless of whether or not one is wholly positive that no gods exist, or if one sees no reason for one to exist, both positions are still adequately defined by the expression, an atheist is someone that lacks a belief in the existence of a god or gods'.

What atheism is not

Many active atheists are also sceptics and have little truck with woo and the supernatural, but it must be born in mind that there is nothing in the definition of an atheist - as it is stated here - that precludes them from believing in quack science, ghosts or conspiracy theories. One's lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods says nothing else about the atheist beyond his lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods.

Theists are often prone to uttering tropes that belie this definition, in an attempt to misrepresent or create straw men arguments. One of the most prevalent is that atheists don't believe in anything, as if atheism were a world-view that encompasses all other aspects of reality. This could not be further from the truth, and whilst there is certainly a good degree of agreement amongst atheists on a number of subjects, this is neither necessary nor is it anything to do with atheism. The equivocation of atheism and a world-view is a fallacious straw man in itself, and deserves no more consideration.


This article has set out to define atheism in the broadest terms, and it is inevitable that certain aspects of the debate have been left unsaid. This is deliberate, and I will approach these more in-depth aspects in other posts. Even a broad-brush treatment was likely to be lengthier than most blog-reader's concentration will allow, but I hope that those of you that have taken the time to read it in its entirety will walk away from it with a clearer understanding of what atheism is.

An atheist is someone who lacks a belief in the existence of a god or gods.

It is imperfect, and in my next article, I would like to expand upon it to explain why atheism isn't a religion. It should be obvious, but I find myself defending the fact that it is not, more often than I care to mention, so it deserves putting to bed.

What have I missed? What aspects of atheism do you think require further elucidation? Please let me know.


  1. I think very, very few people would match your definition of "positive atheist". No one atheist I have ever met has stated that the existence of god(s) is impossible. They all admit that the existence of god(s) is possible but so phenomenally improbable that the hypothesis is not worthy of consideration. These folks, myself among them, place the probability of there being a god on the same level as the likelihood of the existence of pixies. They are willing to state : "God does not exist" with the same certainty that they (and, ironically, most theists)are willing to state "Leprechauns do not exist". These are what I'd call "positive", "hard" or "strong" atheists.
    Negative/Soft/Weak atheists, I would posit, are those who think the god hypothesis is not totally unreasonable but, given the lack of evidence, they are not convinced that god(s)exists. I can't understand this position as I'd bet they, too, would willing state "Leprechauns do not exist". Shows the power of indoctrination that this one irrational hypothesis (i.e. god) is given more credence than other less fantastic ones.

    1. Oh...and I meant to add that my form of hard atheism does not shift the burden of proof from the theist.

    2. I agree. There are very few 'positive atheists', for the very reasons you have stated. This, of course, means that the vast majority of common or garden atheists are negative atheists.

      However, with regard to the burden of proof, I have to disagree. If one makes a positive claim - as the positive atheist does - the burden of proof lies squarely with them. Personally, I find this an untenable position, but that does not mean to say that I haven't encountered these sorts. I just don't buy it myself.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

    3. Meh--the burden of proof has not been shifted from the believer. There are now two positive claims, so each of them could be asked to support their stance. That the positive atheist can only point to a lack of gods where gods might be expected, does not let the theist off the hook for needing to point to evidence of a god. The positive atheist's claim does not suddenly mean that "god exists" is the null hypothesis. Rather, the more neutral "we cannot claim that god does or does not exist" would serve as a workable null in the case where we have positive claims in both directions. (Think one-tailed and two-tailed hypotheses in statistics.)

    4. I still think that in a discussion which begins with someone saying "x is real" while not providing any evidence and someone else replies "no it isn't", the burden of proof lies with the first speaker. Atheism (hard or soft) only exists because theists make an unsubstantiated claim. Substitute easter bunny or garden pixies rather than god for "x" and I think you'll agree.
      I consider myself a hard/positive atheist because I am willing to state "god does not exist" even though I recognize that "anything" is possible.

  2. The words of Voltaire might aid us here: “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one”. We should first establish if certainty defines an absolute knowledge, or something akin to the mathematical concept of a limit, where we get ever close to the goal without ever reaching it. I suspect that event the most hardened of atheists would concede that certainty can never be an absolute position, given that an absolute knowledge in the lack of one or more gods is impossible. The same argument, of course, applies to theists in obtaining certainty about a god or gods. To the extent then that certainty does not refer to absolute position, it certainly can refer to a position where we approach it, and it is in this regard where the theist is found wanting.

    If we allow ourselves to start halfway between theistic and atheistic certainty, then by weighing up the evidence we move closer to one of the extremes. To state that a hardened atheist makes claims about the non-existence of a god is simply to say that he has considered sufficient evidence to be very close to the atheistic certainty limit.

    This would imply that an atheist refuting the existence of god without having considered all the evidence should really be called a soft atheist, because he finds himself in the same position as an unread theist. Ultimately it is the inability of theists to provide concrete evidence in favour of a god that allows the atheist to move ever closer to certainty, and drives the theist ever closer to faith. Finally, the theist’s assertion that the burden of proof rests with the atheist is laughable.


Only Google Accounts accepted for comments.