The works cited below are all specialized reference materials, designed not to provide general information for a general audience but, rather, information on specific topics like religion, sociology, or other social sciences. Their value here is in the fact that they provide some insight into what scholars from different specialized fields think of when it comes to the concept of atheism. As you will see, very often they use the broader understanding of atheism rather than the narrower one we sometimes encounter.
Definition of Atheism in Religious Reference Works:
New Dictionary of Religions, edited by by John R. Hinnells.
- Atheism: Disbelief in the existence of any Gods or of God. This may take the form of: (a) dogmatic rejection of specific beliefs, e.g. of theism; (b) scepticism about all religious claims; or (c) agnosticism, the view that humans can never be certain in matters of so-called religious knowledge (e.g. whether God exists or not). An atheist may hold belief in God to be false, irrational, or meaningless.
Although the above definition incorrectly suggests that agnosticism is incompatible with theism and most forms of atheism, it nevertheless recognizes that athiesm is more than simply the denial of the existence of gods. Instead, it also includes under the concept the idea of rejecting theistic claims without asserting the opposite and simply ignoring/not bothering with theistic claims.
Encyclopedia of American Religious History, by Edward L. Queen, Stephen R. Prothero, and Gardiner H. Shattuck
- Atheism, literally the absence of belief in God, has always been a minority viewpoint in American culture.
Although the authors do not have much to say about atheism, they specifically describe it as being generally an absence of belief in the existence of God. Such an absence of belief encompasses both disbelief and denial.
The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion, edited by by Jonathan Z. Smith and William S. Green
- atheism: Gk. a-theos, "no god"
A critical stance toward divinity. Ancient forms of atheism, for example, the Greek atomist school of philosophy, did not deny the possible existence of gods but did deny their permanence and immortality. The atomists viewed the gods — if they existed — as merely higher forms of life within nature. Buddhism does not exempt the gods from the cycle of karmic reincarnation. Modern naturalistic atheism descends from atomism but goes further and denies the existence of any superhuman beings, of any form of transcendent order or meaning in the universe. These notions, it insists, are merely temporary human projections onto a reality alien to human thinking. In practice, atheism denotes a way of life conducted in disregard of any alleged superhuman reality. Existential atheism is a positive form of the teaching: it argues that if humans are to be authentically free in the universe, then it is necessary that God not exist since that would limit human liberty.
- agnosticism: Gk. agnos, "unknowable"
The view that there is insufficient evidence to posit either the existence or nonexistence of God, and by extension, of the immortal soul. Agnosticism functions as an intellectual mid-position between theism and atheism. The term was coined in 1869 during the Victorian debate over Western biblical faith and the new Darwinian outlook in science and cosmology. There are, as well, forms of religious agnosticism, which avow ignorance about the mystery of the divine nature.
The above definition at first defines atheism simply as the denial of the existence of any gods, but then it proceeds to acknowledge that, in practice, atheism simply involves the absence of any belief in a "supernatural reality."