By George A. Ricker
At the end of my book, Godless in America: conversations with an atheist, I make the following statement, As I said at the outset, atheism is the absence of god-belief. It is a simple thing, a place to stand without fear and without apology.
Atheism is a loaded word. It provokes controversy. Simply declaring ones atheism can generate hostility from otherwise mild-mannered people who assume it is an attack on their religious opinions. For most of the time weve had dictionaries, most of those dictionaries have been written by theists of one or another sect. Atheism has usually been defined in terms of denying the existence of God and so on.
Because of the close relationship between religions and governments that has existed in most parts of the world for most of humankinds written history, atheism long has been regarded as a cultural sin. Those who would not worship the gods could not be trusted to serve the state. Atheists have been shunned, imprisoned and sometimes executed for their lack of piety. Being an atheist has always been difficult, at least for those willing to admit to it.
Words, and how we react to them, reveal much about our own mental architecture. In the case of the words atheism and atheist, mistaken assumptions about their meaning immediately sabotage the possibility of constructive discussion between atheists and theists.
Many nonbelieverspeople who have no more faith in any sort of god than I dorun away from the word atheism and seek other descriptions for themselves. They choose not to be associated with a label that engenders such negative feelings. And, of course, this leads to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. When the term is abandoned by so many, its easy enough to vilify those who do lay claim to it.
The title of this essay, mere atheism, is an obvious allusion to C.S. Lewis Mere Christianitya book in which Lewis presented what he thought was the essence of Christianity. In this essay I want to present atheism in its natural state without adornment. Many theists, even some non theists, try to load more baggage onto atheism than the word is meant to carry. This effort is aimed at eliminating, or at least reducing, the overload.
What it is
Atheism is best defined as the absence of god-belief. It is the opposite of theism, which is the belief in a god or gods. The theist believes a god exists. The atheist does not believe a god exists. Theists believe in a god or gods. Atheists do not. All of those statements about atheism are accurate reflections of what atheism means.
Now Im not the first person to come up with this definition. Not by a long shot. Its the definition of atheism that George H. Smith used in his book, Atheism: the case against God, which was written in 1989. Its the definition that seems to be preferred by most of the atheists I know personally. It has been used by many other writers in many other places. So it isnt anything particularly new.
Another way to describe atheism is being without gods. An atheist is godless. He or she is a person who has no gods to worship or believe in. In fact, an atheist may be someone who pays no attention to the idea of gods at all, except to acknowledge that there are other people who believe in such things. So atheists are godless, not in the sense of being wicked or evil but in the sense of being without gods.
All of this seems fairly simple and straightforward. Yet, widespread confusion and some disagreement about the meaning of atheism remains. People seem to tie themselves in all sorts of knots trying to make the word mean more than that.
One of the most common misconceptions about atheism is that it requires one to deny the possibility of a god or to assert the absolute conviction that no god exists. Thus, atheists are commonly accused of claiming to know no gods exist. The relationship between atheism and agnosticism also seems to create confusion in the minds of some. Its not at all uncommon to hear or read the statement atheists claim to know there are no gods and agnostics arent sure.
Atheist, agnostic or both?
But the relationship between atheism and agnosticism is not one of degrees of belief. The two words reflect different kinds of statements. Agnosticism is not a convenient halfway house between belief and nonbelief.
When Thomas H. Huxley (a.k.a. Darwins Bulldog) coined the term he meant it to be the antithesis of gnostic, which referred to those who claimed certainty on the question of the existence of gods. The gnostic claimed to know. Agnostics made no such claim, according to Huxley. In fact, they were doubtful the knowledge necessary to speak with certainly about such matters could be found at all.
In a 1889 essay titled Agnosticism, Huxley had this to say, When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis,"had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. *
In Huxleys view, then, atheists were gnostics who claimed to know no god exists and theists were gnostics who claimed to know one did. Agnosticism made no such claim of knowledge and, consequently, took no position on the existence of a deity. However, Huxleys analysis seems inadequate to account for states of belief among those who do and dont believe in a deity.
There are many believers who, while quite devout, will concede they do not know a god exists. They can offer no persuasive evidence or even arguments for the existence of such an entity, yet they are quite convinced, as a matter accepted on faith, in its reality. This is a belief, but it is not a claim of knowledge. There also are some believers who will affirm they simply believe in a deity because it comforts them. Here again, we are not talking about a claim of knowledge.
By the same token, the overwhelming majority of atheists do not claim certain knowledge that a deity does not exist. They may assign the likelihood a very low probability, but most are unwilling to assert that they know as a matter of indisputable fact no god exists. Such atheists cannot be labeled gnostics, nor can the religionists referred to in the preceding paragraph.
So where does this leave us? Are agnosticism and atheism mutually exclusive? Clearly not. Think of two axes: the agnosticism/gnosticism axis has to do with knowledge claims; the atheism/theism axis has to do with beliefs. The gnostic claims to know. The agnostic does not. The theist believes. The atheist does not.
I submit these terms can fit together in various combinations: the gnostic theistone who claims to know a god exists and consequently believes; the agnostic theist one who makes no knowledge claim but believes in a god anyway; the gnostic atheistone who claims to know no god exists and does not believe; and the agnostic atheistone who makes no knowledge claim about the existence of gods and does not believe.
A fifth position is claimed by those who refuse to take any position on the matter of a gods existence. Im not sure how one can be neutral between belief and nonbelief. It seems to me one would have to adopt one or the other stance. But I have had people tell me they take no position vis-à-vis god-belief. I will take their statements at face value and accept them as such. If absolute neutrality on the issue is possible, and clearly there are some who think it is, then that would be, I suppose a purely agnostic position: one who makes no knowledge claim about a deity and refuses to commit to either belief or disbelief.
As for myself, I am an unabashed agnostic atheist. I have no belief in any sort of deity. I do think the probability of any sort of god existing is vanishingly small. However, I do not claim to know no god exists. I dont think we have sufficient knowledge to make such claims, and like Huxley, Im doubtful we ever will.
But if thats all there is to atheism, what about all the other things that are claimed for it?
What it is not
When people start talking about the atheist philosophy or an atheist world-view or anything like that, I know its time to go back to fundamentals.
If you ask me about my opinion of gods, whether general or specific, and I tell you I am an atheist, the only legitimate conclusion you can draw is that I have no belief in gods. Thats it. The statement tells you nothing whatever about my politics, my moral code, my sexual preferences or anything else. Atheism does not provide one with a world-view. It has no opinion of politics. It has no agenda for social change. It presents no moral code. It is not an economic theory. It is neither a religion nor a philosophy. It is none of those things.
Of course, there are things you might surmise based upon my lack of theism. You could reasonably conclude that I dont think a god is responsible for the existence of the universe, or anything else for that matter, and that I dont base my moral convictions on the the absolute laws of some absolute being. Although the morality I practice may conform in many particulars to that practiced by most religionists, it is based on an entirely different perception of the nature of things.
Certainly, there are philosophical, political and economic theories that are secular in nature, in that they are not religious, and there may be some, like communism, that are atheistic, in that they overtly promote nonbelief. But while atheism may be a feature of some secular systems, none of those systems are atheism. None of them define atheism. None of their successes or failures can be laid at the door of atheism, nor can any of the abuses that may have been committed by such regimes. Atheism is a lack of belief. It is not about political coercion, and it certainly is not about interfering with the rights of conscience of any individual.
Those who attempt to conflate communism and atheism are simply being dishonest. As are those who attempt to conflate atheism with any other world-view or ideology. Atheism is not about such things. I repeat. All atheism represents is the absence of god-belief.
Defined by a negative
One of the arguments that gets put forth by many nonbelievers who are leery of the words atheism and atheist is that they are negatives and one should not define oneself with a negative. While I understand the sentiment, I think its an objection with no real merit.
The reason I say that is quite simple. We humans wear all sorts of labels. They can be convenient means of identification. When they are not misunderstood, they perform a useful function. If you made a list of all the labels that may apply to you, you could quite easily come up with dozens, Im sure. Those words might refer to things like occupation, family status, hobbies, political affiliations, social connections, sexual preferences, race, color, religious affiliation, and on and on and on. Ill also bet that if you are honest about it, you will find there is no one label that describes or defines you completely.
So the argument that atheists should find a less negative word to define themselves just doesnt hold up. I have never had the slightest hesitation about acknowledging my own atheism. But I dont think the word defines me, except in one, small area. When I tell you Im an atheist, Im telling you I dont believe in gods. But there is lots more you need to know about me before you can claim to know me.
And if you really are a person who cant get past that word, then I suggest the problem lies with you, not with me and not with one of the words I use to describe myself.
Sticks and stones
There is one claim that gets made regularly about mere atheism. It is the argument that if atheism is no more than the lack of belief in the existence of a deity, then rocks and trees and all other inanimate objects are atheists, as are infants and so on. But while it seems obviously true that reality has an atheistic bias, the argument has no bearing on anything.
Beliefs and their lack represent mental attitudes. We dont attribute nonbelief to inanimate objects and infants for the same reason we dont attribute beliefs to them.
Would it make sense to refer to a rock as a Christian or a Hindu? Obviously not. Why, then, would one refer to it as an atheist? Even if the statement is trivially true, it makes no more sense to call a rock an atheist than to describe the same rock as apolitical or amoral.
By the same token, infants cannot properly be said to have beliefs about anything. In spite of rites like infant baptism and christening, it is wrong to describe a child as a member of a particular religious faith. Infants and small children simply dont have the knowledge needed to comprehend such things or to have beliefs about them. Again, though it may be trivially true to say such infants are atheists (because they lack theistic belief), its also misleading. That atheists lack belief in the existence of gods does not mean they are ignorant of the concept, just that they place no credence in it. Even if all an atheist knows about gods is that there are other people who believe in such things, there is a recognition that such a thing as god-belief exists and one doesnt have it. That is a far cry from the mental state of an infant who has no ideas about things like gods or religions and no notions of belief or disbelief.
It can be easy to score a cheap debating point off this argument. After all, it requires the one who makes it to acknowledge that atheism is the natural state of affairs in the cosmos, something that seems to contradict the notion that a deity is behind it all. Theists usually drop the sticks and stones argument once they understand its full implications.
Mere atheism is such a simple thing Im amazed it is so controversial. Personally, I prefer to describe myself as an atheist, when asked about my religious opinions, because it is a concise description of my position on the question of gods. The word clarifies and crystallizes. It leaves no room for ambiguity. It says, succinctly, what I mean to say. Of course, that depends in part on the person with whom I am communicating having a correct understanding of the word.
Atheism does not confine me or limit my thinking in any way. As an atheist, I am free to consider all propositions, even claims for the existence of a god. Nothing about atheism prevents me from thinking about any idea. It is the very epitome of freethought. Atheism imposes no dogma and seeks no power over others.
My atheism is spelled with a small a. It is neither a career nor a lifestyle. It is simply a word that delineates an attitude, one of many attitudes and ideas that make up my own mental landscape. While it may be an important attitude, it certainly is not the most important feature of my personality or my life.
There are atheists who flatly deny the possibility of any sort of God or claim to be able to prove there is no such entity or claim certain knowledge on the subject, but none of those attitudes is required by atheism and none of them is shared by all atheists. What unites atheists is our lack of belief in a god or gods. Anything more is simply an enhancement of that basic position.
Far from being a negative influence, I have found atheism provides me with the vantage point from which to construct a very positive world-view. I see nothing negative about being an advocate for reason and science. I see nothing negative in seeking to promote genuine human values that are based on our species own biology and history. I see nothing negative in encouraging a respect for all living things and a recognition that all life springs from the same source. I find it exhilarating to consider that all that exists is connected in the most fundamental ways and that each of us is part of the whole in a way that is far more profound than any insight ever offered by any religion.
Those who want to discredit or undermine atheism go to great lengths to insist that only the very narrowest definition of atheism is correct. By insisting that only those who claim to know a god doesnt exist qualify as atheists, they ensure that the numbers of atheists will always be minimized. If I declared that only fundamentalist extremists were Christians, I would be, quite rightly, criticized for unfairly characterizing Christianity as consisting solely of attitudes and ideas that, in reality, are not shared by most Christians.
Yet, many people commit the same error when talking about atheism. Its a strategy that works quite well for those who want to minimize or trivialize atheism. When atheism is confined only to those who are willing to declare they know no god exists, then the number of atheists is diminished. Few people are willing to make such absolute statements. But if atheism is seen for what it really is, the lack of belief in a god or gods, then the number of atheists is much larger and probably growing.
Mere atheism reflects the basic point of agreement shared by all atheists, that we dont believe in a god or gods. The atheist who simply lacks belief in a deity is not less an atheist because he or she does not flatly deny the possibility of such entities. The atheist who declares he or she knows no god exists is not more of an atheist for having done so.
Finally, atheism is not about being angry at god or religions or religionists. Although the popular mythology frequently evokes the angry atheist, the truth of the matter is that atheists are no more likely to be angry than the members of any other groups. One of the things that does tend to make us angry is the misrepresentation of atheism itself.
In fact, if I had to sum up the prevalent attitude toward religion that seems to be shared by most of the atheists I have known or read, I think the most applicable word would be bemused rather than angry. Many atheists are genuinely puzzled, and somewhat amused, by the rabid orthodoxy of some among the religious. Many of us wonder how essentially Bronze Age mythologies could have so many followers at the beginning of the 21st century. Then too, some of us are frightened by the attacks on reason, science and democratic government that seem so prevalent in so many parts of the world today, including these United States of America.
The lack of god-belief does not lead to the impoverished, stunted existence of one who is controlled by anger. On the contrary, the liberation of the mind and the human spirit made possible by mere atheism can result in a life that is rich, productive and joyful.
Mere atheism is neither an answer nor a conclusion. It is nothing more or less than a beginning.
Im not so presumptuous as to suppose this will be the last word on this matter. Unfortunately, we atheists seem to get as hung up on how to define ourselves as some theists are in how to define their positions. The question of the meaning of the words atheist and atheism is the thread that never dies on the usenet newsgroup alt.atheism.
Personally, I think its unfortunate we waste so much time debating labels. Im an atheist because I have no belief in a god or gods. Thats it. In my view, that is all atheism requires. Mere atheism needs nothing more. I recommend it for your consideration.
© 2007 by George A. Ricker
* I ref.er interested readers to Huxleys 1889 essay, Agnosticism, in which he describes how he began to use the word and what he means by it. Its clear Huxley thought atheists belonged to the group who claimed to know whether a god existed. What he was really talking about is the group of gnostic atheists who make up a small portion of the whole. He also makes it clear that he thinks the question of gods existence is probably insoluble.
Any who want to know more about Huxley or read more of his writing should visit The Huxley File, which is the creation of two professors at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., David Joyce and the late Charles Blinderman. Its an outstanding resource for any who want to learn more about Darwins ablest champion.