How do you define ‘atheist’?

This is a very important question with a very simple answer – but after I give my answer, I find that I often have to do a lot of clarification afterwards.

I define ‘atheist’ thusly:

a*the* ist – n – A person who does not have a belief in any gods.

That’s it. I don’t believe in any of the gods that others have chosen to follow, past or present.

Please pay special attention to what is missing from this definition:

  • Any claim of knowledge. I do not claim to know that no gods exist. (Some atheists do, and this is where some split this distinction between strong and weak atheism. I would count as a ‘weak’ atheist here.)
  • Any distinction between gods. Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Odin, Pele, Andromeda, Kung-Kung – I lack belief in these equally. I’m not just singling out your god for disbelief.
  • Any mention of being anti-religion. Just because I don’t believe in it doesn’t mean that I think you shouldn’t be allowed to. We’ll cover this more in an upcoming installment.
  • Any mention of the Big Bang or any explanation of the origin of the universe. That’s a different subject.
  • Any mention of evolution, the origin of species, or Darwin. Again, different subject.

It’s not a title that I am 100% satisfied with, but it works until something better comes along. My primary issue with it, aside from the negative response it often inspires, is the way that it is proclaiming something that you lack. “Atheist,” etymologically, means “one without religion.” It’s a way of describing yourself by stating what you’re not, like saying you’re a Non-Stamp Collector (which happens to be the username of a popular atheist on YouTube).

It reminds me, in a humorous way, of the 80s band Men Without Hats. We can dance if we want to…

There have been several alternatives proposed in the past. I quite like the term freethinker for what it implies about a person, but at the same time I worry if it really represents the difference between atheists and theists. Likewise, the term brights gives off the impression (at least to me) of claiming to be “smarter than thou.” I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins, the originator of that term, but I’m not sure how helpful it is.

So, barring anything better, atheist it is.

There’s a response that atheists frequently get once they’ve defined their term: “Don’t you really mean you’re an agnostic?”

No. An agnostic is someone who believes that knowing the existence or nonexistence of any gods is impossible, and attempts to prove or disprove godly claims are futile. This doesn’t prevent them from believing, and you can find both agnostic theists and agnostic atheists (though I would think that the former are somewhat rare).

So, to recap – I’m a person who doesn’t believe in any gods. That’s what atheist means. It doesn’t mean I worship science or Darwin, it doesn’t mean that I think I’m smarter than Einstien, it doesn’t mean that I want to destroy your faith or close your church or burn your holy books.

It also doesn’t mean that we can’t get along perfectly well together, and even be friends.

And we can dance. If we want to.

– Laurence


2 Responses to “How do you define ‘atheist’?”

  1. 1 Emma
    December 31, 2009 at 12:42 am

    I’ve considered myself agnostic ever since I became conscious of religion, so I’m not among the target audience of your blog – but I greatly enjoyed reading your entries today. Thank you for writing about these questions! Your answers have helped clarify issues for me that I hadn’t even realized /were/ issues, and prompted me to think about what my answers would be. I’m glad I stumbleupon’d your blog!! 🙂

    – an agnostic atheist

  2. 2 funandprophet
    December 31, 2009 at 5:34 am

    Glad to be of service, Emma!

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I am an atheist, a person who does not believe in the existence of any gods.

Many people don't know a lot about atheists, and have questions about them. In this blog, I do my best to answer them, to help build an understanding between atheists and theists.

Do you have a question? You can post it in the comments to any of my blog entries, and I will do my best to answer it in a new entry.


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