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 agnosticism. Agnostic 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!