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Defining Atheism

Disagreement Over the Definition of Atheism


If atheism is such a basic concept, what is there so much disagreement over how to define it?


There are many rancorous debates over the definition of atheism, with quite a few theists insisting that atheism should be defined in a very narrow sense: the denial of the existence of any gods. When theists simply assume that this is what atheism is, there can be a lot of miscommunication and misunderstanding in their discussions and debates with atheists.

Why do these errors occur? Why do some theists insist that the broader sense of atheism simply does not exist? Possibly some theists feel that since they are claiming the existence of their god, then anyone who does not agree with them must be claiming the exact opposite — a serious misunderstanding of not only basic logic but also how human beliefs operate.

A factor which many atheists will encounter is the fact that so many common dictionaries simply fail to provide a full and adequate definition of atheism. Prejudices and assumptions about atheists are quickly confirmed when someone picks up a small dictionary and reads that atheism is “wickedness” and “denial of God,” something often encountered.

Fortunately, larger and more comprehensive dictionaries provide more accurate explanations of what atheism is. The use of poor dictionaries can be addressed by pointing people to the fact that all of these superior sources indicate something different. If someone is interested in an honest conversation, then they will acknowledge that sources like the Oxford English Dictionary, among many others, are more informative and authoritative than their pocket paperback.

Unfortunately, not every person entering such discussions does so with intellectual honesty. Thus, another reason often seen for insisting that only the narrow sense of atheism is relevant is that it allows the theist to avoid shouldering the principal burden of proof. You see, if atheism is simply the absence of a belief in any gods, then the burden of proof lies solely with the theist. If the theist cannot demonstrate that their belief is reasonable and justified, then atheism is automatically credible and reasonable.

There is also a tendency among some theists to make the error of focusing only on the specific god in which they believe, failing to recognize the fact that atheists don’t focus on that god. Atheism has to involve all gods, not simply one god — and an atheist can often approach different gods in different ways, depending upon what is necessitated by the nature of the god in question.

Thus, when someone claims that a person is an atheist because they “deny the existence of God,” we can start to see some of the errors and misunderstandings that statement involves. First, the term “God” hasn’t been defined, so what the atheist thinks of it cannot be automatically assumed. The theist cannot simply assert that whatever they have in mind must also be something which the atheist has in mind. Second, it is not true that whatever this god turns out to be, the atheist must automatically deny it. This concept might turn out to be too incoherent to justify either belief or denial.

As a matter of fact, many exchanges between atheists and theists turn out to be frustrating and unsatisfactory because no one ever bothers to stop and explain what is meant by the key term “god.” Until that happens, no serious, productive, or rational discussion can take place. Unless we know what the theist means by “god,” we’ll never have any chance to judge if anything said in defense of belief is adequate. Only when we know what the theist means by “god” will we be able to seriously critique their concepts.

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