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What is an atheist? June 1, 2007

Posted by Joe in agnosticism, atheism, freethought, god, immorality, nihilism, religion, skepticism, theism.

An atheist is nothing less and nothing more than a person who has no belief in god. It is not an actual belief in itself, but merely describes the lack of belief in any of the god or gods.

Despite this simplicity, it is a term often misunderstood by believers. Some believers seem to equate it with nihilism, belief in nothing, satanism, anti-religion, god-hating, evil, immorality, etc… Any given atheist may be any or none of these things. I and most of the atheists I know are none of them. Atheism does not imply any particular political beliefs, or any stance on any particular social issues. On many issues there are more atheists on one side or the other, but there is rarely an issue where they all agree.

One of the most common responses when a believer hears someone state that they are an atheist is something along the lines of “You don’t believe in anything?” I assure you this is not what atheism means.

I am tempted to go on about all the things that atheists believe in to counter this claim, but I don’t want to mislead you. I don’t know what atheists believe (regarding anything other than god) anymore than I know what a chef believes. There is only one thing that all atheists have in common.



1. Richard Wade - June 2, 2007

Joe, you’re right, atheists are more disparate than even theists in all their other views. We’re a very independent and individualist bunch. I once heard someone say that getting atheists to agree is like trying to herd cats. Often suspicious of groups, we also often desire camaraderie because we can end up isolated by the secrecy we sometimes must practice about our views. It’s not a friendly world for us.

I fit the definition of atheist in your first paragraph, technically called a “weak atheist,” having simply the absense of belief in god or gods. There actually are a very few “strong atheists” who assertively believe that there is no god, but even though they are very rare, they are often portrayed by opponents as the typical atheist. It is often difficult for people to see the important difference between not believing in god and believing there is no god.

From your list of absurd stereotypes that uninformed or misinformed people have of us, only one does exist. Sadly there are some anti-religious atheists who want to see religion eliminated from culture. A few of them have written best-selling books that do harm as well as good for the rest of us. The end of religion may eventually happen in about a thousand years, but it will be from attrition not abolition.

To add a foil to your remark about atheists believing in other things, I want to say that it is my goal to rid myself of all belief. Here I have to explain the definition of belief that I’m using, one that others might not exactly use: For me belief is the persistent assumption of the truth of something in the absence of acceptable evidence.
I have opinions, I have preferences, I have hunches, I have confidence in specific things that I have seen confirmed repeatedly, but I try very hard to cleanse myself of the assumption of the truth of anything in the absence of acceptable evidence.

I see belief as a kind of lunacy. It’s a kind of purity I’m pursuing. This became important to me when I saw what belief gets people to do. The awful description of all that is too long for this forum.

So at least by my definition, I offer myself as one atheist who doesn’t believe in anything, or at least has been unable to find any of it left inside for quite some time. As a result I’m happy, healthy, able to relate positively with others, and live a satisfying and meaningful life.

2. Ed Yong - June 3, 2007

I would call myself an agnostic atheist, which meanst that I do not believe in the existence of God (the atheist bit), nor do I believe that I can ever truly disprove the existence of God (the agnostic bit).

3. Joe - June 4, 2007

Richard: Very interesting perspective on “belief”. I sort of see that kind of belief as something we are supposed to grow out of. When you are a child and don’t have the luxury or ability to examine every bit of data that comes your way it is advantageous to accept whatever knowledge is handed down from an authority, but as one grows up and learns that authorities are fallible that type of belief should be eliminated completely. It is difficult for people to get to those deep core beliefs that they have had for years that bring them comfort and community.

Ed: I would also call myself an agnostic atheist. Agnostic because there is no way to disprove the most ethereal definitions of god. Atheist because there is no compelling evidence to believe in any particular god.

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