Defining “Atheism”

A comment, though marked as spam, poses an interesting problem nonetheless:

Some of the ambiguity and controversy involved in defining atheism arises from difficulty in reaching a consensus for the definitions of words like deity and god. The plurality of wildly different conceptions of god and deities leads to differing ideas regarding atheism’s applicability. The ancient Romans accused Christians of being atheists for not worshiping the pagan deities. Gradually, this view fell into disfavor as theism came to be understood as encompassing belief in any divinity.

I had always meant to do a post on the difference, as I see it, between atheism and agnosticism.  This seems like as good a time as any.

First, does it matter that there are a plurality of conceptions of God?  And I would have to say, for all practical purposes, the answer is no.  Atheism, as I will show, isn’t a point of view (as supernaturalism is).

Supernatural is outside of nature.  Nature is your context: the container in which you find yourself.  Therefore, that which originates in this universe is natural to us.  However, that which originates outside the universe is supernatural.

Flip it, and that makes us supernatural to God, since we don’t reside on the same plane of existence.

Atheism is making a claim about how things are ordered, regardless of your particular perspective.

But who (or what) is God, then?  True, there have been a plurality of conceptions of God.  Accepting one over another doesn’t make all of those who reject your particular deity atheists.  Infidels, yes.  Atheists, no.

Think of it like this: in an election, I have several candidates to choose from.  The front runners are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.  Or I can simply abstain and not vote.  The gray area is this: If I vote for Obama, does that mean I think Romney is unfit for the job?

Well, not necessarily.

There’s no meaningful way to vote against Romney without voting for Obama.  So if I want to afford Obama the chance to see his economic plan through but think that Romney would do an adequate job if elected, then I’m not anti-Romney per se.

On the other hand, I may think that Romney and Obama are equally wretched as leaders and statesmen, but vote for Obama because he’s currently more experienced.

Bottom line: a vote for one is not necessarily a vote against the other.

Which is an accurate description of agnosticismAgnostic literally means “without knowledge.”  Agnostics really don’t know whether there is a god, but they remain open to finding out.  While they don’t see adequate evidence for God, they find no reasons to deny the possibility of God’s existence.  They don’t know.

Finally, the burning question: what is atheism?  Atheism is the rejection of all God-belief.  In our election example, these guys are staying home from the ballot because the actively reject both candidates.

It is not simply “lacking belief in God.”  Lacking indicates they could be persuaded with the right evidence.  Nothing sways most atheists.  Read these comments if you don’t believe me.

Atheism is a rejection of the divine, no matter one’s conception of it.  It matters not whether that divine is supernatural (as monotheism posits), or within nature (as paganism posits), or in ourselves waiting to be unleashed (as New Age theology posits).  Atheism rejects it all in one fell swoop.

Tomorrow, atheism and the burden of proof.  That should both be interesting, and infuriating to my atheist readers.  Because, spoiler alert, you guys have a burden of proof!

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on August 11, 2012, in Apologetics, God, Religion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Cory. Here’s something to consider. What about triangularity? Would that be natural or supernatural?

  2. I believe you are correct in asserting that the nominal issue is much more nuanced than most people realize, but I believe you’re incorrect in defining atheism. Atheism is merely a lack of belief in the supernatural or God or whatever you’d like to say. But there are many people who call themselves Atheists who actively assert there is no God rather than passively comment that they lack belief in God. And that’s the crux of the problem. We must develop a new term that describes the group of people, such as Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Dennett, who actively assert there is no God. I would propose, just off the top of my head, Nithiests. It’s a mixture of the term Nihilist and Atheist. They claim that there is nothing, no God, no supernatural, nothing outside of the material.

  3. For someone who fancies himself a philosopher and armchair apologist, you have some extreme toy myopic views and arguments. You find a few atheists who say they would refuse to accept the existence of gods even with evidence and you build an argument on that? Those atheist would be foolish to continue not believing in god after evidence. Atheist accuse theists of believers of believing without evidence. To disbelieve in the face of evidence would be even more foolish.

    Here is the thing: there is no evidence.

  4. I find it is more charitable to let people choose their own definitions to describe themselves, instead of forcing a category upon them, which may not fit.

    Cory Tucholski, surely you tire of being asked why, as a Christian, you don’t stone gays to death? Because the definition of “christian” includes a requirement to stone gays. (/s)

    • @Boz. Ah. Let people choose their own definitions. Let’s see how well this works.

      I define a Christian as someone who is right in all that he affirms.

      I affirm that God exists and Jesus rose from the dead.


      Now we can keep going this way or we can see that some words really do have meaning in themselves as does the word “atheist.”

  1. Pingback: •ρ• Tricky Ears « Reflections on Reality

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