We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. ~Richard Dawkns
Fundamentalist what? Yeah, you read that right. I consider myself a fundamentalist atheist and this blog entry is part explanation of what that means and part rant about how believers misuse the words atheist and atheism.
Recently, I have been involved in yet another annoying conversation about what it means to be an atheist on a forum I frequent at Delphi Forums. It is annoying because some of the theists, aka believers in gods and goddesses, and one annoying agnostic participating in the discussion about religion are determined to claim the right to define what I and the other atheists on the forum believe about their (the believers’) gods and why. It is annoying because when those of us who ARE atheists speak up and disagree with their assessment of atheists and atheism we are dismissed as if what we think about ourselves and our beliefs is irrelevant.
Let me preface the rest of this post by saying I have been an atheist for over 25 years. This is not a position I took easily nor one I continue to take lightly. Suffice it to say that the road that led to my disbelief was difficult and emotionally draining.
My lack of belief in gods and goddesses may be the most definitive aspect of my persona because it effects every other aspect of my life to one degree or another. My lack of belief in the Christian god in particular colors my thoughts about my roles as a human being, a citizen of Wisconsin and the USA in general, a woman, mother, writer, political junkie, etc., etc. It is annoying as all get out to be told that I MUST believe ABC to claim the distinction of atheism by people who are determined to portray atheists and atheism in the worst possible light.
One of the most egregious claims by believers is that ALL atheists, by default, positively deny the possibility of the existence of gods or goddesses and claim to know without a doubt that NO higher power or supreme being exists in the universe. This leads to the next ridiculous claim that an atheist’s beliefs requires just as much faith as a theist. These theists (and one extremely annoying agnostic) often go one step further and claim that atheism is just as much of a religion as any Christian sect or denomination such as Catholicism or Southern Baptist or religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, or Islam.
All of these claims are absolutely untrue. There is only one criteria to be an atheist. That is a lack of belief in gods and goddesses. Let me say that again. The only thing all atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods and goddesses and that is basic or what I call fundamentalist atheism. Why fundamentalist? Because a simple lack of belief is fundamentally what makes an atheist an atheist regardless of any other position they take on gods and goddesses.
Lack of belief does not equal the complete denial of the possibilities that could be true. Gods and goddesses could exist. They might even actually exist. I know quite a few atheists online and offline. Very, very few of them actually claim that they do not believe that gods or goddesses could or even might possibly exist. I certainly don’t.
However without knowledge that they do, atheists such as myself simply cannot believe they do. For us, belief requires knowledge that is based on verifiable, objective, empirical evidence–material things that we can experience directly through our five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). The preponderance of a lack of such evidence for any of the gods and goddesses posited to date certainly makes me skeptical that any exist but there is no evidence that would cause me to know that none exist and substantiate a claim that they do not. So I don’t make such a claim.
It is true that some atheists will positively state that gods do not and cannot exist but they are few and far between. Theists who claim that atheists who completely deny the possibility that gods and goddesses exist are correct when they say that that position takes just as much faith on the atheist’s part as their own belief. Since faith is belief without evidence, any atheist who states uncategorically that there is no god is basing his or her beliefs on faith (belief without evidence). However, since the vast majority of atheists do not take this position, theists are being disingenuous in applying such criteria to all atheists or they just don’t understand what atheism really is.
As for the assertion that atheism is just as much a religion as any other theological belief, that is just plain bunk. To quote Penn Gillette, one of my favorite atheistic celebrities, “Atheism is a religion like NOT collecting stamps is a hobby.” Aside from our lack of belief in gods and goddesses categorizing atheists into neat little boxes based on our beliefs is like herding cats. We have no creed or dogma that all atheists must subscribe to in order to qualify as an atheist aside from that simple fundamental lack of belief. There is no umbrella organization that all atheists could or would join that would represent our lack of belief.
Part of the confusion and the cause of these misconceptions is that the people who do believe in a god(s) or goddess(es) and make these claims can pull out a dictionary (or several) and point to the definition of atheism found in it. For example:
the belief or theory that God does not exist
Theists who want to argue that atheism is a religion requiring faith will completely ignore the “lack of belief” definition if that is even included in the dictionary they consult and focus on the belief, theory, and doctrine parts of the definitions. Unfortunately, while I am very fond of dictionaries, I have to make the assertion that the popular desk dictionaries on the market and online can be and often are wrong. They are good guidelines for understanding the way language is used by a social group or culture but they are not the end all and be all of definitions.
You’ll notice that the Onelook website has links to 47 dictionaries that define atheism. Most of them will contain very similar definitions of the word atheism or atheist. Very few pay attention to the etymology of the word or the way in which atheists define themselves which is where the truth about what being an atheist means is to be found.
Cheap modern desk dictionaries record the popular usage of words and since the majority of the populous tends to be theistic, atheism is defined on their terms and not by atheists themselves. Unfortunately a really good dictionary like The Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary is terribly expensive even online. You would probably be able to find an unabridged dictionary at your local library (my local library will look a word up for you if you call the reference desk) but very few people have ready access to one. Luckily for me, for the purposes of this essay Austin Cline includes the definition from The Oxford Dictionary on his About.com website.
Oxford English Dictionary
atheism: (from Greek atheos, “without God, denying God”) Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God. Also, Disregard of duty to God, godlessness (practical atheism).
First the etymology of the word is very plain. It stems from the Greek theos or the feminine thea which simply means gods or goddesses(Thea was one of the Titanic Greek Gods, mother of the dawn, Eos, the sun, Helios and the moon, Selene. Reference:Theoi Greek Mythology) Being a theist means to believe in the gods and goddesses. According to Robertson’s Words for a Modern Age, adding the prefix “a” to make the word atheism simply changes the meaning to without belief in gods or goddesses: (a=without + theos = gods). Atheism is simply a lack of theism much as asymmetrical means a lack of symmetry.
More importantly, the way atheists define and describe themselves should be given primary consideration. They are, after all, the ones who have come to the conclusion that they cannot believe in gods and goddesses. Netizen_J, a self-described atheist who also posts at the same Delphi Forum I do, eloquently puts it this way:
Failing to believe that a deity exists is NOT the same thing as believing that no deities exist. KNOWING that there is a paucity of actual evidence FOR any deity is not the same as a BELIEF that no deities could possibly exist.
Atheism is a religion like bald is a hair color.
Austin Cline, a philosopher who writes for About.com, has published an entire series of articles dealing with the definition of atheism and the myths about atheism that exist versus the way atheists define themselves. His personal definiton of atheism can be found in his FAQ. Cline includes a couple of pages of definitions of atheism by more prominent atheists on About.com’s website. My favorite is from Dan Barker’s book, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist:
It turns out that the word atheism means much less than I had thought. It is merely the lack of theism [...] Basic atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of belief. There is a difference between believing there is no god and not believing there is a god — both are atheistic, though popular usage has ignored the latter [...].
Absence of belief (fundamental atheism) requires no faith because it leaves the question of whether or not gods and goddesses exist open. There is no positive denial that gods and goddesses cannot exist. Just a simple assertion that the atheist lacks the belief any gods or goddesses do. The reasons for that lack of belief are about as varied as the Christian sects and denominations that exist but generally it includes the fact that there is no verifiable, objective, empirical evidence for gods and goddesses. There is no dogma, philosophy or creed connected to the absence of belief that every atheist must subscribe to. There is no umbrella organization an atheist could join even if they wanted to that requires any adherance to a set of principles or guidelines to be a member so it does not qualify as a religion.
What do I mean when I say I am an fundamentalist atheist? Very simply, I lack belief in any of the gods and goddesses that have been posited to date because there is no verifiable, objective, empirical evidence that any of them do exist. That is the fundamental criteria for atheism, in my opinion. It is the only thing that all atheists will agree on.
I’m not wedded to atheism—should someone actually provide such evidence I would happily change my stance and become a believer/theist again. Most atheists would. Do you have any?