Definition of atheism

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

In terms of contemporary definitions of atheism, the Webster-Merriam dictionary defines atheism in two ways: "1) a lack of belief or a strong disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods 2) a philosophical or religious position characterized by disbelief in the existence of a god or any gods."[1] Oxford English Dictionies defines atheism as "Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods."[2]

Atheism, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and other philosophy reference works, is the denial that God exists.[3][4][5][6] See also: Strong atheism

Paul Edwards, who was a prominent atheist and editor of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, defined an atheist as "a person who maintains that there is no God." [7]

Beginning in the latter portion of the 20th century and continuing beyond, many agnostics and atheists have argued that the definition of atheism should be a lack of belief in God or gods.[5][6][7][8] See: Purpose of redefining atheism and Weak atheism

William Lane Craig writes:

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. But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof. So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions. They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.[9]

See also: Atheism and evidence

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)[5]

Influential Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy denies atheist request to broaden the definition of atheism

Eric Hatfield states at the website Is there a God? concerning the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: An atheist wrote to the Stanford Encyclopedia a few years back, requesting the definition be changed to the more modern usage, but the editor declined, pointing out that the older definition was still the one used by philosophers, and saying that Flew hadn’t persuaded his peers on this matter. It is worth reading both the letter and the response.[10]

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

See also: Attempts to dilute the definition of atheism and Definitions of atheist and agnostic

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.[5] It is now common for atheists/agnostics and theists to debate the meaning of the word atheism.[5][11]

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 the word agnosticism.[5][12]

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.[13] Since 1979, many atheists have followed Bradlaugh's thinking further and stated that atheism is merely a lack of belief in any god.[5] 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.[5]

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."[5] 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.[5]

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.[6]

Weak atheism and strong atheism

See also: Weak atheism and Strong atheism

Weak atheism is an individual merely lacking a belief in God/gods. Using this broad definition of definition of atheism, there are atheists who argue that babies are atheists.[14]

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.

Weak atheism is an individual merely lacking a belief in God/gods. Using this broad definition of definition of atheism, there are atheists who argue that babies are atheists.[15] 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.

Traditional definition of atheism, strong atheism and accusations of dogmatism

Implicit and explicit atheism

See also: Implicit and explicit atheism

Implicit atheism and explicit atheism are types of atheism coined by the atheist George H. Smith. Smith belonged to the objectivist school of atheist thought.[16] See also: Schools of atheist thought.

Implicit atheism as defined by Smith is "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it", while explicit atheism is "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it".[17]

Due to various research findings in the social sciences, global desecularization, the increase of religious immigration to the Western World and other developments, the usefulness of the terms implicit and explicit atheism has diminished (see: Implicit and explicit atheism).

A diagram showing the relationship between the definitions of weak atheism/strong atheism and Implicit/explicit atheism. See: Implicit and explicit atheism

Atheism is a religion

See also: Atheism is a religion

The British atheist Sanderson Jones is a founder of the Sunday Assembly "atheist church" movement.[18]

Atheism is a religion and this has implications in terms of the disciplines of religion, philosophy, Christian apologetics and law.[19] In addition, although many atheists deny that atheism is a worldview, atheists commonly share a number of beliefs such as naturalism, belief in evolution and abiogenesis.[20]

If the view that there is no God (or are no gods) is a religion, it is argued its expression is constitutionally protected in the United States.[21] The government cannot force atheists to recant and adopt the opposite belief.

If atheism is not a religion, then the expression of atheistic ideas is still covered by the First Amendment, but only by the free speech and free press clauses.

The implications go deeper, affecting public education. If atheism is a religion, then the atheism adhering to the methodological naturalism of physical science cannot be given excessive government support. That would violate the establishment of religion clause. So, evolution education would have to allow students freedom to dissent from the "orthodox" pseudoscientific view that human beings evolved from earlier forms of life without any intervention from God. It should be noted that biology courses only require knowledge of what the theory of evolution, its mechanisms, and the evidence supporting it, rather than belief that evolution occurred.[22]

In 2013, a trend of atheist services began and atheist services were reported in the New York Times, The Blaze and other major news outlets.[23]

Common argument by atheists relating to the defining of atheism

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.


See also: Atheism quotes

  • "But lack of evidence, if indeed evidence is lacking, is no grounds for atheism. No one thinks there is good evidence for the proposition that there are an even number of stars; but also, no one thinks the right conclusion to draw is that there are an uneven number of stars. The right conclusion would instead be agnosticism." - Alvin Plantinga[27]

See also


External links


  1. Atheism, Webster-Merriam dictionary
  2. Atheism, Oxford online dictionary
  3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Atheism and Agnosticism
  4. Is Atheism More Rational? by Creation Ministries International
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Day, Donn R. (2007). "Atheism - etymology".
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  7. 7.0 7.1 Putting the Atheist on the Defensive by Kenneth R. Samples, Christian Research Institute Journal, Fall 1991, and Winter 1992, page 7.
  8. Britain is a less religious country than the United States and the online Oxford Dictionaries offers both the narrow/broad definitions of atheism (As noted in a previous footnote the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is a traditional American dictionary, offers a more narrow definition of atheism similar to the definition that major encyclopedias of philosophy use). Oxford Dictionaries: Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.[1]
  9. Definition of atheism by William Lane Craig
  10. Atheists, agnostics and theists
  11. 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 [2]
  12. Are babies born atheists? by Matt Slick
  13. Are babies born atheists? by Matt Slick
  14. Rebuttal of George S. Smith's book Atheism: The Case Against God
  15. Smith, George H. (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus. pp. 13–18. ISBN 0-87975-124-X.
  16. Atheist Church Split: Sunday Assembly And Godless Revival's 'Denominational Chasm', Huffington Post, 2014
  17. Is Atheism a religion? by Daniel Smartt, Published: 4 May 2010(GMT+10)
  18. The Supreme Court has said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the court described "secular humanism" as a religion. Court rules atheism is a religion
  19. See Kenneth Miller's testimony in Selden v. Cobb County', available at [3], p. 178
  20. Defining Atheism can be a liability Part I by Robert Meyer
  21. Atheism Symbols - Atheist Symbols by Ken Ammon at True Freethinker
  22. Disagreement Among Self-Described Atheists about the Meaning of "Atheism" by Jeffery Jay Lowder
  23. Evidence for atheism?