When encountering claims like “atheists believe x” or “an atheist would say y” I often find myself unable to resist the urge to add my view to the discussion. This generally involves pointing out that atheism is an absence of belief in gods. Responses vary from “you’re a God denier” to “believing there’s no God is the same as not believing God exists”. It seems that although I’m trying to be clear about my view of what an atheist is I could be clearer.
I’d like to start with two quite different definitions of the word “atheist”.
“…a person who believes there is no God.”
“A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods”
To some people these definitions are for all intents and purposes the same but they’re in fact quite distinct. One difference is the notion of lacking belief. I prefer the word “absence” over “lack” since “lacking” implies that something is missing, while “absence” conveys non-existence or non-location. Another difference is between notions of believing something negative and disbelieving something positive .
Let’s pretend that my mind is a basket and beliefs are objects. I might believe for example that things I drop will fall. I can represent this belief in gravity as an apple and place it in my basket. Then perhaps someone makes a claim that ghosts exist. This can be represented as a bed sheet and I’ll exclude it from my basket because I’m not convinced by their evidence, that’s to say I disbelieve their claim. I’m then told that Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist. I can represent this belief as a toy dinosaur and place it in my basket since I’m convinced by the suggestion that if we can find whales in an ocean we ought to be able to find Nessie in a loch. So in my basket (mind) I have an apple (gravity), a dinosaur (Nessie) but no bed sheet (ghosts). I believe in gravity, I believe the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist and I have no beliefs in ghosts existing. My holding a negative belief (Nessie doesn’t exist) is not the same as the absence of a positive belief (ghosts do exist). Likewise, the belief the gods don’t exist is not the same as the absence of beliefs that they do.
Merriam-Webster’s definition that an atheist is “…a person who believes there is no God” is an example of a negative belief. People who are atheists may hold negative beliefs about specific gods but this isn’t a function of their atheism. Atheism has no evaluative tools or framework that might be used to form a belief about gods. There is no atheist epistemology. We notice that Merriam-Webster capitalise the “G” in God so they’re referring to something by name rather than a class or category. Their use of the word “God” is in the singular so we’re dealing with the god of a monotheistic religion. The assumption of the inherent legitimacy of monotheism and the creation of a false binary of only being able to believe God does or doesn’t exist is glaringly obvious and dishonest. The Oxford Dictionary definition does a much better job but could be improved by substituting the word “lacks” and removing the superfluous word “God”. Monotheists are aware that there are other gods. The reason they refer to their god as “God” rather than by the god’s name (where it’s known) is a mixture of cultural normalisation, aversion to blasphemy and elevating their god above others. In the last sense saying “God” is a sort of shorthand for “the one true god”, which has no bearing on the meaning of the word “atheist”.
After thinking about belief of absence and absence of belief, and considering this distinction in relation to the two dictionary definitions above, the following is perhaps a clearer way for me to phrase my position on what atheism is:
Atheist: a person who has no affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.
Atheism: an absence of affirmative beliefs in the existence of gods.
The descriptive power of the word “atheist”, like “theist”, “monotheist” or “polytheist”, is quite weak since it’s an encompassing word. It offers a way of expressing the absence of beliefs that are sometimes assumed to be present. It says nothing about how beliefs are constituted or by what means decisions about beliefs are reached. Yet it’s a useful word that deserves to be protected from being defined through a monotheistic lens.