It is a common point on online discussions about atheism to focus on the meaning of the word itself. Atheism, as used by many atheists and the definition that I use when I say I’m an atheist is ‘lacking a belief in the existence of a god or gods’, but this is not a sufficient explanation for some people. I will try to address why I choose the atheist label for myself.
To begin with, many people want to push forward the idea that atheism is the absolute belief that no gods exist. The definition does in fact exist, but it describes a belief that most sophisticated atheists do not hold. It is also notably a subset of the above definition, as you cannot logically have a belief in the non-existence of gods without lacking the belief that one exists, although the opposite is true.
This is a frustrating point in many discussions, since the proponent of the second definition accuses atheists of not knowing what our position is, and subsequently demanding that we defend the second claim which, they contend, reflects our “true position”
This of course is asinine. Once I have clarified what I mean when I use the term ‘atheism’, my explicit position on the subject is what I will maintain. Even if I were to agree that the term solely applied to the second definition, the rational course of action would be to choose a different label to apply to my position, not change my position to reflect the label. Consider how silly this sounds if we try this rationale elsewhere:
– “Hey, I’m a Teabagger.”
-“It means I’m a member of the Tea Party.”
-“No, it doesn’t. This dictionary describes teabagging as a deviant sex practice”
-“Really? *reads definition* Oh well. I better get to it then, where’s the nearest sex shop?”
It’s absurd. Dictionaries reflect usage, they don’t impose it. New coinages and new meanings for old words occur every day, so to deny the definition I proclaim because it isn’t in your reference book of choice is just lazy thinking at best.
this absurdity is rarely mentioned because of the most obvious fault of the position, that my definition of atheism is in fact the one used by most atheists to describe themselves amongst ourselves. This isn’t a new idea, it’s been around of years. This is what we mean, and this is the position I should defend. For a theist to argue with me on the matter of definition is just disingenuous.
A number of the people who promote the ‘belief no gods exist’ definition claim that the ‘lacking a belief in god’ is so vague that babies, animals or even inanimate matter could be classified as ‘atheist’. They claim that these categories can’t be atheist, since they couldn’t accept theism even in principle.
I don’t see that as a problem. Atheism is a negation of theism (which is ‘belief in at least one god’), and the same ‘problem’ can be posited on many words that describe a negative.
A teetotaler is someone who abstains completely from alcoholic beverages. By that definition you can describe a baby as a teetotaler, but that doesn’t mean its capable of going to a bar and asking for a drink. Illiteracy is the absence of the ability to read, which by definition makes both newborns and butterflies illiterate, but doesn’t imply that butterflies can learn. Death is the absence of life, yet we can describe barren rocks as being dead, and even metal objects such as doornails (of the ‘dead as a doornail’ variety) . That you can call rocks ‘atheist’ is not wrong, it just isn’t useful, just like it isn’t useful to call a butterfly illiterate, or a baby a teetotaler.
I will however make a concession here to theists, and that is, when I am talking about atheism being the default position, and when I’m talking about atheism being a rational position, I’m not talking about the exact same thing. They are both lack of belief in gods, but in the former case it is implicit, due to lack of knowledge of any gods, while in the latter it is explicit, that is, the person has been informed of god claims and has rejected them.
Further confusion comes with the misunderstanding of what we mean by ‘god’. The word god means very different things to different people. There are several thousand recorded gods in the various religions and mythologies throughout human history. I can’t say I have more than cursory knowledge of more than a hundred. Then, there are god concepts offered by theologians that have never had an existence outside some theoretical argument, or held the belief of anyone, not even their author. There are god concepts that by definition are unprovable, undisprovable, or both. Even if we discount all of these, there are still infinite possibilities of concepts of gods, some that will be postulated in the future, and some that may never be actualized in theological thought, but could be viable candidates.
Any honest researcher will admit that you cannot make the claim that absolutely no gods exist until you examine every single claim, which is impossible. That is not what atheism claims. I don’t need to disprove any god concept to disbelieve it, and I don’t need to disprove every god concept to be justified in doing so.
There is another way to look at the question “why an atheist?” and that comes from my side of the fence. It’s basically the question of whether ‘atheist’ is the best term for what our position is. I’ll post my thoughts on that on my next article.