I was inspired to write this blog because for the past couple of weeks I've been seeing friends and others in my social media circles getting really confused about what the word "atheist" means. There's no shame in being confused about the definitions, as understanding it not only involves some measure of philosophical underpinnings, but also invokes and inflames people's passions because the word atheist carries negative connotations for many.
Put simply, atheism is a rejection of the claims in a deity or deities. That's it. Atheism on its own doesn't assert that there are no gods, it simply rejects existing claims for those gods that have so far been proposed.
The kicker, and the thing that confuses a lot of people, is that there are only two possibilities when it comes to these god claims: acceptance and rejection. Withholding acceptance of a claim is the same as rejection, and so what many people don't get is that taking a neutral position does not allow you to "bow out" of the proposition. If you do anything other than accept a god claim, you are an atheist regarding that god. To give an example: not many people believe in Mithra these days - we are almost all atheists if we are talking about her.
What this means, my friends, is that you might very well be an atheist even though you might not think so...but because that word carries so much baggage, you refuse to consider the idea or adopt that moniker, preferring to label yourself agnostic, undecided or "spiritual". The problem with this approach is that it muddies the waters of rational discourse, because it confuses belief with knowledge, which is sadly not uncommon. Knowledge is a highly refined form of belief, so some errors are bound to crop up when discussing such things, but I find it really important to try and foster understanding in this area, so I'll try to explain my meaning.
You might already be thinking that I'm full of hot air here, so let me simplify what I'm trying to say by using an analogy. First, I must apologize to Matt Dillahunty of the "Atheist Experience" public access show for stealing an example he used on their most recent episode so that I can expand on these ideas with a little thought experiment.
So let's pretend we have a jar in front of us, and inside that jar is an unknown number of gumballs.
Now, without turning it over and emptying the jar, we have no way to know with certainty how many gumballs are in the jar. But we can make any number of guesses, with various criteria, and that guess will be a claim, AKA a belief, about how many gumballs are in the jar. So here is my claim: I believe the number of gumballs in the jar is 93. I've just made a claim about the number of gumballs in the jar. Do you believe this claim? You might use your own judgment and reason to assess my claim, or you might just "go with your gut". But tell me: Are you, like me, a Ninety-Threeist?
Before you get too far down the rabbit hole considering my claim, let's stop and break this down a bit. I'm not asking you if you have a counter-claim about the number of gumballs. I'm simply asking, do you believe my claim that there are ninety-three gumballs in the jar? You only have two possibilities here: Either you believe my claim (you are also an Ninety-Threeist) or you do not (you are an A-Ninety-Threeist). If you wish to maintain the default neutral position about the quantity of gumballs, you are still an A-Ninety-Threeist because you do not (yet) believe my claim. Reserving or withholding your belief is a soft rejection of the proposition, but it is still a rejection.
Now, rejecting my claim that there are ninety-three gumballs in the jar does NOT make any kind of counter-claim about the actual number of gumballs. Being an A-Ninety-Threeist does not make you a Seventy-Eightist. The only thing that makes you a Seventy-Eightist is if you turn around and make your own separate claim, and state your own belief that there are seventy-eight gumballs in the jar.
So to bring this around back to atheism. At some point in the past, a person looked up to the heavens and considered their position in the universe, and that person said "I believe we were put here by something. Some being that is greater than us, and created us." That person has asserted a claim. His fellows, gathered around the campfire for warmth, are now faced with a simple, binary choice. Either they believe the person who made the claim, or they do not. Some will believe his claim. Those who do not might simply leave it at non-belief, while others might put forward beliefs of their own. If one of those people wasn't sure if they believed yet, they have still chosen NOT to believe...yet. If that person who made the claim was the world's first theist, then everyone around who did not agree with the person's claim would be an atheist.
Hopefully this has given you a clearer idea that atheism is simply the rejection of the claims made so far about a deity or deities. The simplest and most concise way of communicating the atheist position is this:
"I do not believe in god(s)".
Yes, it is true that some, maybe many, atheists take it one step further to assert a more powerful phrasing, AKA a belief of their own, such as:
"I believe there are no gods."
The thing is - that position is one that is informed by atheism, but actually goes beyond atheism. Some people in the non-believer communities call it "strong atheism", or "anti-theism", others prefer to leave it unlabeled, as simply a conviction that their lack of belief is so close to the truth as to become knowledge for them. But this belief is not atheism. It exists in addition to atheism, and springs from atheism.
The bottom line TL:DR is: Atheism on its own is not a belief system or a counter claim to theistic propositions. It is a rejection of those propositions, but it can and does give rise to secular belief systems. Because there's no firm name that atheists have agreed upon for this counter-belief, it can indeed be confusing and ends up being associated with atheism, so I hope that this has helped clarify the situation for some of you.
Next time you're in conversation with others, and someone says "I'm an atheist" what they really mean is "I do not believe in god(s)." Maybe give some thought to ask that atheist "So, what DO you believe?". You might be surprised to know that with the exception of the whole "god" thing, we're pretty much just like everyone else. Thank you for reading! :-)