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.
"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.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.