This is a recanted essay!: As a result of feedback with others who have read this, I now recognize this essay as misleadingly incomplete and partially inaccurate. I keep it up as a record of how I have previously thought, but do not stand by all of it.
There’s an large debate over what atheism means, most of it oddly coming from those who believe in God (the theists). For example, Conservapedia, Ray Comfort, CARM, and Norm Geisler all talk about how atheism has to be defined as “someone who is definitively, absolutely, 100% certain that God does not exist”, and that anyone else is merely an agnostic. Ray Comfort himself continues to state that an atheist must believe that something came from nothing, or he is not an atheist.
But this is ridiculous in three ways:
First, it is a massive straw man. I haven’t met anyone who is “definitely, absolutely, 100% certain that God does not exist”. Every atheist, myself included, recognizes that a God who doesn’t want any evidence of his or her existence could not be ruled out. Even Dawkins in his book The God Delusion says that there is only most probably no God. You can’t just redefine atheism for everybody and attack that, you need to attack the positions that people actually hold.
Second, it seems very weird, unreasonable, and uncivil. What’s the point of going up to an atheist who says he lacks belief in God and saying “Oh, that’s not right. You clearly are definitely, absolutely, 100% certain that God does not exist”. You cannot redefine the other person’s belief for them. Us atheists have every right to dictate what atheism means and even change the definition if we want. Given that atheism also has no holy text or central authority, there is no reason two atheists even have to have the same definition of atheism.
Third, even as a straw man, it accomplishes nothing. The redefinition does nothing to actually give a reason to believe in God — it merely redefines the atheists as agnostics and pulls a little “Ha! You’re slightly uncertain, therefore I’m right!” as if that means anything. Just because people exist who say there is only most probably no God doesn’t mean that God is at all likely, especially the Christian one. Such uncertainty doesn’t at all indicate that there is any good reason to believe in a God.
Fourth, as a forced redefinition, it harms religions too. If everyone who is slightly uncertain becomes agnostic, then there are going to be millions of Christians who stop being Christians because they have doubts, there are going to be millions of Muslims who stop being Muslims because they have doubts, etc. In the end, you’re defining only the fanatics as religious or unreligious, and that’s something we really don’t want to have. Especially since there are shades of grey in the uncertainty section that you’re piling together, and since those who are fanatic are very unlikely to change their mind and thus it is rather stupid to even talk to them.
So how exactly do atheists fall into the category of “atheism” without being an agnostic? Instead of having Christian apologists like Ray Comfort tell you, maybe we should… um… ask the atheists what atheism means? Doesn’t that seem reasonable? As an atheist, I will tell you.
Clearly, Ray and others are trying to replace atheism with agnosticism. But they make a mistake — agnosticism is atheism. It is also Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and any other religion. Agnosticism is simply the absence of certainty in one’s worldview. It works like this:
Belief works on two definitions — a dimension of quality (what you believe; theism vs. atheism) and quantity (how certain you are; certainty vs. doubt). Agnosticism is merely an indication and admittance of doubt. Almost all people, atheists and theists alike, are not absolutely certain of their belief. This lack of doubt is not a weakness but rather a sign of reasonability — it means you recognize you could be wrong. Agnosticism is the only truly rational position. Yet, why don’t we call everyone agnostic? How can atheists be atheists and not call themselves agnosticism? Let’s see.
The What and Why of Atheism
Atheism means one specific thing. A person who is an atheist is a person who is not a theist, just like a person who is apolitical is not political, a person who is agnostic is someone who is not gnostic (has a belief in absolute knowledge), and a person who is asexual is not sexual. That’s what the “a-” prefix means. Not a theist? You’re an atheist (though you may primarily call yourself something else, which is ok). There’s nothing more than that.
Here’s the reason more than 90% of atheists (including me) are atheists: they find no good reason to believe in God. I am an atheist because I feel reasonably unconvinced by theism. Others may doubt the reasonability of my rejection, and that is the matter of debate. I have outlined twelve reasons I don’t believe in the supernatural, which would include God. Supernatural claims generally don’t answer anything, instead they simply make the question go away. The idea of God itself is also flawed for many reasons.
“Belief in No God” vs. “No Belief in God”
There is a lot of debate over whether atheists have belief in no God, a belief that no God exists, or simply have no belief in God but recognize that God could, potentially, exist. I think this is a false debate, however. First, the debate over what it means to be an atheist is ridiculous for the reasons said in the beginning of this essay, but secondly I feel that both beliefs are essentially the same.
Consider a-unicornism. This is atheism, except replace “God” with “unicorns”. Unicornists are everyone who believes in unicorns, and a-unicornists are everyone who is not a unicornist. I am an a-unicornist and you very likely are too. I assume that more than 99% of the world’s population are a-unicornists.
We go around saying that “unicorns do not exist”. But what do we really mean when we say “unicorns do not exist”? Certainly we haven’t searched the entire universe for unicorns — perhaps there are unicorns on other planets. Perhaps there are unicorns on Earth but they’re just very good at hiding. Isn’t stating that “unicorns do not exist” kind of presumptuous, just like saying “God does not exist”?
I wouldn’t say so. I think we rather shouldn’t define “unicorns do not exist” so strictly. When we say “unicorns not exist” we are really saying “There is no good reason to believe unicorns exist” or “We are reasonably unconvinced that unicorns exist”. Until a unicorn is found, we are justified in being a-unicornists.
We do the exact same thing with faeries, leprechauns, Santa, living Elvis, UFOs, etc. They’re not logically impossible like square circles, triangles with five sides, or married bachelors. Faeries, leprechauns, Santa, living Elvis, alien encounters, unicorns, and gods all could — potentially — exist. It’s just that we have no good reason to believe in any of those claims. The same is true with gods and atheism. The statement by atheists that “gods do not exist” is the same as the statement by a-unicornists that “unicorns do not exist”. It is not an arrogant statement of absolute knowledge by any means. It is a statement of rationality given the evidence.
Atheists know they can be wrong to the same degree Christians know they can be wrong. Yet I still say that gods do not exist, and when I say that I mean there is no good reason to believe Gods do not exist. My main argument is that the case for God is nearly as unconvincing as the case for unicorns, and therefore I am justified in saying “God does not exist”.
We Don’t Need a “Killer Disproof”
There are still people who proclaim that you can’t believe God doesn’t exist unless you have some sort of disproof. A lot of people think that atheists need some sort of “killer disproof”, some evidence that is so overwhelmingly indicates that God is not real, in order to honestly be an atheist. While I do think that there are some reasons that come close to this disproof that I intend to share in the future, this killer disproof is simply not necessary. A lack of a convincing reason is enough to not believe. Even those who are religious understand that… with other Gods.
First of all, atheists and theists are very similar on practically everything that doesn’t have to do with God. But we also agree on about everything except one certain religion — the religion of the believer. We’re all a-zeusists — all of us don’t believe in Zeus. We’re all athorists — all of us don’t believe in Thor. We’re all ahorusists — all of us don’t believe in Horus. What are our reasons for not believing in Zeus, Thor, and Horus?
It’s not because we have some killer disproof of Zeus, or Thor, or Horus. For all we know Zeus might have had real encounters with the Greek people but then decided to step away from the world for whatever reason and is now hiding himself — we can’t disprove that. Same is true with Thor and Horus. But it’s not the disproof that matters here — we all agree there are no convincing reasons to believe in Zeus, Thor, or Horus. Yet we still say “Zeus doesn’t exist”, “Thor doesn’t exist”, and “Horus doesn’t exist” without being wrong.
Now consider the Christians and the Muslims. Both of them have listed numerous reasons to believe in their respective religion. Yet one side always finds the other side unconvincing. Muslims don’t have some sort of killer disproof of Christianity’s Yaweh, and the Christians don’t have some sort of killer disproof of Islam’s Allah. It’s not a matter of active disproof — it’s a matter of being unconvinced. Christians will still say that Muslims are wrong, not because they can disprove Islam, but because they feel Islam is entirely unconvincing. Likewise, Muslims can still say Christianity is wrong because they feel Christianity is entirely unconvincing.
Why We Don’t Need to Know Everything to Dismiss God
Another idea that has been put out there is that, in order to say “God does not exist”, the atheist must know everything — the atheist would have to have searched the entire universe and know everything there is to know about God. But again, we can use the unicorn example to show how this is ludicrous — we don’t have to have searched the entire universe for unicorns or know everything there is to know about unicorns to say there are no unicorns.
In the end, the answer can always be “God is still out there, somewhere”. But unicorns could still be out there, somewhere. It’s not really rational to be concerned with what merely could be possible, but what is probable. Unicorns most probably don’t exist, and based on the evidence we’ve seen so far, the same can be said about God.
Those who assert that atheists cannot reasonably say “God does not exist” and/or all atheists should be agnostics are, themselves, being unreasonable. Perhaps all theists should be agnostics too. Or is there absolutely no possibility the theist is wrong?
An Atheist By Any Other Name
Now let’s look back at attempts to redefine atheism. They seem really silly. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some sort of name debate over atheism. After all, I don’t go around telling people I’m an atheist — I identify as a naturalist-humanist. Other people don’t call themselves atheists but rather call themselves freethinkers, secularists, humanists, agnostics, physicalists, rationalists, empiricists, materialists, or naturalists. What are all these names and why are they all talking about roughly the same thing?
Most of it has to do with coping in a world where the vast majority believe in some sort of God and an annoyingly large minority think that those who are godless have no meaning in life, no reason to live, lack motivation for morality, and can’t seek justice, find wonder in the world, or love. Such burdens are placed on those that don’t believe in God to explain themselves as if they did something bad, whereas none of these burdens are placed on other religions. Since atheists are the most associated with lacking belief in God, it seems practical to flee that term for something else. Tell people you’re an atheist and they glare at you, tell people you’re a naturalist and they’re curious.
But there is another dimension that terms operate on besides pragmatism. This dimension is that of issue-focus. Atheism is a giant umbrella term for the lack of belief in God, of which people can attain through any reason.
- Those who call themselves freethinkers want to emphasize the liberating aspect of atheism where you think for yourself and don’t abide merely by domga. You can still be religious and be a freethinker if you believe objective, mind-independent facts point toward your religion instead of merely your holy text. Rationalists typically fit in here, saying that one should discern his or her worldview through considering the facts objectively, not through appeals to faith.
- Those that call themselves secularists are not particularly troubled by religion, but dislike the idea of religion within the government. Secularists primarily advocate separation of church and state along with religious freedom. You can still be religious and be a secularist if you think that religion, while great, has no place in the functioning of the government.
- Those that call themselves humanists generally emphasize the ability to achieve morality, meaning, and wonder without God — or emphasize seeing the world and humanity as it really is. Humanism has a more muddled definition, and some versions of humanism allow you to be religious and be humanist whereas some versions do not.
- Those that call themselves agnostics generally emphasize their uncertainty. They might either emphasize that God still has the potential to exist just like unicorns have the potential to exist, or emphasize that the cases for religion are stronger than many atheists believe yet still not strong enough, or emphasize that with such an enigmatic being like God one really can’t know if he/she/it exists or not. You can definitely be religious and be agnostic as long as you are not absolutely certain that a God exists.
- Those that call themselves physicalists, empiricists, materialists, and naturalists generally do not disagree on much. The exact differences between the four terms are complicated and up for debate.
- The general principles behind each are what I describe as naturalism — a belief that everything is reducible to matter-energy in space time, every event needs a physical mechanism, and that it is impossible to transcend or suspend the laws of physics — all adding up to the conclusion that the supernatural does not exist (just like unicorns do not exist). [I have later changed my opinion slightly on this, see "The Metaphysics Dilemma"]
- The typical debate is that empiricists say only that which science can prove exists whereas naturalists allow the inclusion of historical facts, personal observation, and logical deduction. I really doubt you can be religious and be any of these four things.
- Note that materialists here are those who follow the materialism philosophy, not those who are materialistic, or have a selfish obsession with money and other objects.
Here, I think the debate is a non-debate. While it seems that atheists can’t agree on what to call themselves, this is actually a good thing. Atheism is the umbrella term, and people are free to emphasize what they wish. Typically atheists are all these things, yet refer to themselves as simply one thing or another because of a desired emphasis. I personally like to emphasize naturalism and humanism, though I agree I am an agnostic secular freethinker.
There are a lot of different things to emphasize within atheism. People have the right to call themselves whatever they want. There is no reason to pidgeonhole everyone into a certain definition. You can’t just say “No, you believe what I say you believe, and what I say you believe is wrong” — that’s ridiculous, but that’s exactly what Ray Comfort and company are doing.
Atheism is Not a Worldview
One last misconception of atheism that needs to go away is the idea that atheism is some sort of worldview, like Christianity is a worldview. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in Gods, and nothing more. It is an umbrella term and a key feature of many worldviews, but is not a worldview in itself. Consider the fact that being an atheist says nothing about how you see morality, what your purpose is in life, how one gets information, what truths should be held and what truths should not be held (other than the existence of God), or anything about how you actually view the world (other than that you don’t view God to exist).
Just like atheism, theism is also not a worldview. Being a theist means you believe in God — it doesn’t tell you whether you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, New Age, Pagan, a Deist, a Pantheist, or anything else. Just like calling someone an atheist says nothing more, calling someone a theist does not tell you anything about their morality, purpose, or view on the world.
However, just as theism is split up into a number of different religions, atheism is split up into a number of different worldviews. Naturalism-humanism is one of these worldviews (and perhaps the most popular). It has a specific idea of morality, meaning, justice, and wonder, as I illustrate in many of my essays. Atheism specifically says nothing on any of these things. Atheism is not a worldview — instead a worldview is created from the above terms, such as the agnostic freethinking secularist naturalist humanist worldview many atheists do have (but some atheists do not).
Stop the Sweeping Generalizations
While the above does define the positions of a majority of atheists, it does not apply to all of them. There are actually many illogical atheists who dismiss God for no good reason. There are many atheists who honestly haven’t given much thought to the whole Jesus thing and might convert to Christianity. Yet there are many atheists who have thought a lot about religion and dismiss it for good reason.
This means we cannot peg generalizations onto atheists. We can’t say all atheists are naturalist-humanists — some are nihilists and some believe in souls. We also can’t generalize other factors, such as assuming all atheists are liberals, or even communists.
I ask those who interact with atheism to be reasonable. People like Ray Comfort seem to not care at all what atheists actually believe, but instead choose to attack their own straw man of atheism — if Ray Comfort spent ten minutes sincerely reading any atheist blog he wouldn’t be making such ignorant statements of atheists. I would even go as far as to accuse him of bearing false witness against atheism in all forms.
Just because the dictionary tells you what atheism means doesn’t mean the dictionary is right. If you want atheists to stop misrepresenting your religion, perhaps you should stop misrepresenting atheism? Instead of getting focused on the definition of atheism, why don’t we focus on the actual arguments and debates?
Please understand atheists in whatever term they refer to themselves and respect their opinions as much as they respect yours. Be civil, and don’t try to generalize onto atheists or redefine atheism for them. Let atheists tell you what they believe. You can see more on this in Ebonmuse’s essay “How Not to Convert an Atheist”, CARM’s “Mistakes Christians Make When Dialoguing with Atheists”, and in Greta Christina’s essay “Why Are Believers So Hostile to Atheists?”. The reverse also applies to atheists addressing theists.
Followed up in: Defining the Natural and Supernatural
Editor’s Note: More editing and some new material added on Dec 9, 2011.
Before commenting further, please note that this is a recanted essay that I no longer agree with.
I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.