Definition of atheism

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Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach (1723 - 1789), was an early advocate of atheism in Europe.

Atheism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and other philosophy reference works, is the denial of the existence of God.[1][2][3][4] Beginning in the latter portion of the 20th century and continuing beyond, many agnostics/atheists have argued that the definition of atheism should be defined as a mere lack of belief in God or gods.[3][5][6]

Historic roots of the word atheism

Donn R. Day in his work Atheism - Etiology wrote:

These two words, "theos" and "atheos" are the root words from where we get "theism" and "atheism": "ism" means; "Greek -ismos; orig. suffix of action or of state, forming nouns from verbs." It's usage today is a "doctrine, theory, system, etc." (Webster's).

At the time "theos" came in to existence, there was no formal "doctrine of god" so "theism" developed sometime later, most likely during the (French) Enlightenment. This period of time is also when the modern form of "atheism" came into existence as well. This tracing of the development of a word is also part of etymology.

Once more formal doctrines came into being, then the word "theism" was created."Theos" god; "ism", belief or doctrine. Thus, the modern use of the word "theism", belief in God. We must remember, however, that the literal, Greek root for "theism" is "theos". "Atheos" then, in modern usage, means "no/without belief in god". But just like the word "theos" (god) is the root, literal meaning of "theism", so too, "atheos"(no god), is the root word for "atheism". That's why when you look in a dictionary, or encyclopedia under the word "atheism", they list the Greek, literal meaning as, "a denial of god(s)."

The following are the definitions offered by two dictionaries of Etymology. The word is followed by the accepted literal meaning from the Greek root word.

  • Atheism: a + theos, denying god, (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology-1966).
  • Atheism: all are coined words from the Greek atheos, denying the gods, a word introduced into the Latin by Cicero in the form; atheos, a-, negative, prefix, and theos, a god, (Etymological Dictionary of English Language-1958)[3]

Advocacy of a broader definition of atheism: 19th century and contemporary efforts

See also: Attempts to dilute the definition of atheism

As noted above, in the late 19th century and more broadly in the latter portion of the 20th century, the proposition that the definition of atheism be defined as a mere lack of belief in God or gods began.[3] It is now common for atheists/agnostics and theists to debate the meaning of the word atheism.[3][7]

Critics of a broader definition of atheism to be a mere lack of belief indicate that such a definition is contrary to the traditional/historical meaning of the word and that such a definition makes atheism indistinguishable from agnosticism.[3][8]

The English agnostic Charles Bradlaugh, in 1876, proposed that atheism does not assert "there is no God," and by doing so he endeavored to dilute the traditional definition of atheism.[9] Since 1979, many atheists have followed Bradlaugh's thinking further and stated that atheism is merely a lack of belief in any god.[3] The motive for such a shift in meaning appears to be to an attempt to shift the burden of proof regarding the existence of God to the theism side.[3]

In the article, Is Atheism Presumptuous?, atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder, a founder of Internet Infidels which owns and operates the Secular Web (the Secular Web is a website focused on promoting atheism, agnostics and skeptics on the internet), states that "I agree (with Copan) that anyone who claims, "God does not exist," must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, "God exists."[3] In short, the attempt to redefine atheism is merely an attempt to make no assertions so no facts need be offered. The attempt to redefine atheism, however, is not in accordance with the standard definitions of atheism that encyclopedias of philosophy employ which is that atheism is a denial of the existence of God or gods.[3]

The purpose of all these exercises in redefinition is to try to slant the rhetorical playing field in favor of the atheists and against believers:

  • By redefining atheism to include agnosticism, they both boost their numbers - there are many non-religious folks who will admit they aren't sure whether God exists, but far fewer who have the presumptousness to claim to know for a fact that He does not - and also make their case easier to make (an agnostic, to justify their agnosticism, need only overcome the positive evidence in favor of God's existence; an atheist, in addition to that, must also find positive evidence against God's existence)
  • By redefining atheism so that babies are atheists, they try to falsely paint atheism as some sort of natural state, despite the fact that religion is a universal across human cultures, up until modern times; there is no traditional culture which totally lacks religious beliefs, and religious belief goes back thousands of years
  • By ignoring the definition of traditional God (which refers to an omnipotent being, not a more limited being such as that found in Greek mythology), they try to claim that Christians are atheists, with respect to all the gods of mythology. However, this specious argument ignores the fact that these other supposed beings are not Gods, only gods. There can only be one God, when the definition of God includes omnipotence.

William Lane Craig on attempts to define the word atheism

William Lane Craig declared:

There’s a history behind this. Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist. Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists....

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist." So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists)...

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position? Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists. If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.[10]

Some purported varieties of atheism

Many atheists like to make a distinction between strong atheism and weak atheism. They define strong atheism as believing God does not exist, while weak atheism as neither believing nor disbelieving. However, this usage is incorrect, and has been invented by atheists to boost their numbers. If you believe God does not exist, you are an atheist. If you neither believe nor disbelieve, you aren't an atheist, you are some kind of agnostic.

Another distinction atheists like to propose is between implicit and explicit atheism. Explicit atheism means active conscious rejection of God's existence. "Implicit atheism" refers to having no belief in God, due to not being aware of the concept. Atheists use this to argue that "babies are atheists", again in order to boost their numbers. However, again, this is an abuse of terminology. "Implicit atheism" is not atheism. Babies, just because they haven't learnt the concept of "God" yet, are not atheists. To be an atheist, you must have encountered the idea of "God", and chosen to reject it. A baby isn't even an agnostic, since an agnostic has encountered the idea, and isn't personally sure whether it is right, or even thinks we'll never know if it is. A baby hasn't encountered the idea yet.

Another specious atheist argument is "Christians are atheists about all Gods but one". But this ignores that god is used in two different ways. Little-g god, refers to a limited being, like the gods of mythology, with immense but not absolute power. It is possible for multiple such limited beings to exist. Capital-G God, refers to an omnipotent being, as conceived in religions such as Judaism and Christianity. It is impossible for there to exist more than one omnipotent being - what happens if two omnipotent beings have a disagreement? So, Zeus is not comparable to the Christian God, and the Christian's disbelief in Zeus is not a form of atheism.

Also, Christians need not deny the existence of the gods of other religions, and hence can not truly be called atheists with respect to them:

  • A traditional belief in Christianity (see 1Corinthians 10:20 ) is that the gods of other religions may be demons presenting themselves as gods. So, a Christian may not deny the existence of Zeus, but understand Zeus very differently from how his worshippers back in ancient times would have (as an evil demon rather than as a good spirit)
  • Another Christian belief is that other religions are distorted versions of the religion originally revealed by God. As such, they do not believe in different gods, but in the same God as the Christian; but only the Christian has an undistorted view of God, while the other religions are laboring under distorted ideas of His nature. It is like comparing a distorted rumour about a person to an accurate account; the accounts can be so different that they seem like different people, even though they are actually both about the same person (but one is accurate, the other highly inaccurate). So too may it be for the various religions and God.

Is atheism a religion?

See also: Atheism is a religion

Atheists claim that atheism is not a religion; that "calling atheism a religion is like calling baldness a hair color". But, to answer this question properly, we need to ask, what actually is a religion? Religion is a difficult concept to define precisely, given the immense variety of different religions that exist. Not all religions believe in God; a good example of this is many forms of Buddhism. So, the mere fact that atheists reject belief in God, does not necessarily imply they are not a religion.

Many of the leaders of the atheist movement, such as New Atheist Richard Dawkins, argue for atheism/agnosticism with a religious fervor. Atheism plays a role in the life of atheist leaders similar to the role which Christianity plays in the life of a Christian minister or author.

Religion scholar Ninian Smart has identified seven dimensions which make up religion: narrative, experiential, social, ethical, doctrinal, ritual and material. It is not necessary in Smart's model for every one of these to be present in order for something to be a religion.[11] However, it can be argued that all seven are present in the case of atheism:

  • Narrative - this dimension is concerned with stories which explain the origin of the universe and the human life. For Christians, there is the Book of Genesis. For atheists, the Big Bang theory, abiogenesis, the theory of evolution, etc., play a similar role[12]
  • Experiential - this dimension is concerned with personal or spiritual experiences. Many religious believers report experiences of being near to God. Many atheists report an experience of "liberation" in the moment when they first rejected God[13]
  • Social - the social dimension of religion is concerned with religious leadership and community in congregations. Contemporary atheism has its own leadership (authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) and social gatherings (e.g. the Global Atheist Convention held in Melbourne, Australia)[14]
  • Ethical - this dimension is concerned with the ethical teachings of a religion. Logically speaking, if there is no God, how can there be any objective ethics? Ethics is reduced to each person's individual whims. Despite this, the leaders of atheism are insistent that they do have ethics, and even claim to have better ethics than religious people[15]
  • Doctrinal - this dimension is concerned with the philosophical teachings of a religion, its claims about the ultimate nature of reality. Some of the central dogmas of atheism include the non-existence of God, the non-existence of afterlife or an immortal soul, that all which exists is ultimately reducible to matter (materialism), and that faith is illegitimate[16]
  • Ritual[17] - this dimension is concerned with rituals, the celebration of rites, ceremonies or festivals. Although atheism at present has few rituals, there are explicitly atheist versions of rituals to celebrate major life events (birth, marriage, death), and some atheists have proposed annual festivals to substitute for Christmas or Easter, such as Charles Darwin's birthday
  • Material[18] - this dimension is concerned with the physical artifacts of a religion, such as buildings, monuments, art, etc., and with physical places considered sacred. Many atheists argue that all nature is sacred

In conclusion, all of these seven dimensions are present for atheism, and hence atheism is a religion under Smartt's model. Although atheism possesses some of these elements more strongly than others, Smart's model does not require all of these dimensions to be present, or present equally, for the existence of religion to be established.

See also

External links

General articles on atheism and agnosticism:


  1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philisophy - Atheism and Agnosticism
  2. Is Atheism More Rational? by Creation Ministries International
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Day, Donn R. (2007). "Atheism - etymology".
  4. Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  5. Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  6. Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.
  7. Discussion on Atheism: Report of a Public Discussion Between the Rev. Brewin Grant, B.A., and C. Bradlaugh, Esq., Held in South Place Chapel, Finsbury, London, on Tuesday Evenings, Commencing June 22, and Ending July 27, 1875, on the Question, "Is Atheism Or is Christianity the True Secular Gospel, as Tending to the Improvement and Happiness of Mankind in this Life by Human Efforts and Material Means.". Brewin Grant Charles Bradlaugh, January 1, 1890, Anti-liberation Society, page 10-12[1]
  8. Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  9. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  10. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  11. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  12. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  13. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  14. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  15. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,
  16. "Atheism: A religion", Daniel Smartt,