Atheism 101: The Basics

Hello all, and welcome to Atheism 101. Please take your seats. No, that won’t be on the final. May I have your attention please? Thank you.

Today we’ll be discussing some basic principles of atheism, including several definitions and essential principles. I hope you’re all prepared to take notes, because yes, this will be a lecture. However, if at any time you have questions, please don’t hesitate to raise your hand and ask. Good? All right. Let’s begin.

What is atheism?

Let’s start at the very beginning. Atheism is… well, funny you should ask. That’s a rather complicated question. Let’s start with some dictionaries. Dictionary.com defines atheism as “1) the doctrine or belief that there is no God, or 2) disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings”. Merriam-Webster says its “1) a disbelief in the existence of a deity, or 2) the doctrine that there is no deity”. The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the most definitive English dictionary in existence, says “1) disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God, and 2) disregard of duty to God, godlessness”.

A bit of difference there, huh? Atheism appears to be anything from the simple disbelief in a deity to the dereliction of duty to God (who, by that definition, is presumed to exist). How are we to know which is the right way of defining the term? Fortunately, as an applied linguist and a bit of a descripivist myself, I see these varied definitions as merely a starting point. What’s more important to me is how the word is used in our society. And that’s something I can speak about.

Atheism is a personal choice. It’s something all children are born with, but only a limited number retain into adulthood. It’s living your life for yourself, without fear of punishment from on high for fabricated transgressions. Atheism is whatever each person makes it, with one commonality: God isn’t part of the equation. Atheism, as it is understood in the community, does not preclude belief in certain unexplainable things. It does not include the idea that God certainly does not exist. It’s just a way of being that doesn’t take God or any other deity into account. One other critical component: atheism almost always includes a preference for reason over faith. By this I mean that most people who ascribe to atheism are convinced by arguments based on reason, and are generally not swayed by arguments based on faith.

An atheist, then, is someone who prescribes to/follows atheism as their system of (non)belief. I’ve read or met atheists who believe in ghosts, ESP, fortune-telling, and other supernatural things. I’ve read or met atheists who are convinced that God does not and could not exist. I myself fall somewhere between these two extremes. But it’s no good just throwing anecdotes around. Let’s put some words to this.

Strong vs. Weak Atheism

What is strong vs. weak atheism? Is it some kind of nonbeliever weightlifting contest? There are a few terms for this same concept: sometimes it’s known as positive vs. negative, or hard vs. soft. The definition remains the same, and as I’ve seen it used, most people prefer strong and weak as their terms of choice. What does it mean? Let me begin with an example (a parable, if you will).

Two young children, aged eight and ten, are having a debate. The ten-year-old is trying to convince her friend that Santa isn’t real. “How could he visit every house in one night?” she asks, making a play at her friend’s common sense. “Maybe he’s magic,” the young boy answers. “But reindeer don’t fly,” she counters, now appealing to basic natural facts. “There could be reindeer that fly we just don’t know about,” the boy replies smartly. “Okay then, why would Santa even do all this? Give presents and work hard and stuff?” she asks. “He has his reasons,” the boy says, “we just don’t know what they are.” The girl scoffs. “I think the whole idea is dumb. There’s no way it could happen.” The boy pauses a moment. “Okay,” he finally concedes, “it’s sort of crazy. But I don’t think it’s impossible. He could be real. We don’t know for sure.” The two children return to their games.

In this example, the girl is the strong atheist, and the boy the weak atheist. Strong atheism is the stance that God isn’t real. The reasons are not necessarily important; what’s important is the assertion that God does not exist. Contrast this with weak atheism, which is the view that although one may not personally believe in God, the possibility isn’t ruled out. In other words, the strong atheist says, “There is no God”, while the weak atheist says, “I don’t believe there is a God, but I may be wrong“. Their commonality is their lack of belief; their difference is whether God could possibly exist or not.

There is considerable disagreement about these ideas in the community, however. To put it basically, no one is quite sure where to draw the lines. Where do those who think the traditional God of the Bible (omnipotent, omniscent, omnipresent, etc.) is impossible but are open to the idea of a Deist God (hands-off, created the Universe and walked away) fall? Are they strong or weak atheists? Similarly, what about those who aren’t sure if it’s even possible to know about God? This brings us nicely to our next section, and one that I think will provide considerable insight even to those familiar with the terms.

Agnostic vs. Atheist

It’s a common conception: an agnostic is someone who isn’t sure if God exists or not, right? And the atheist is someone who’s sure God doesn’t exist? Well, we’ve already added nuance to the latter of those views: there are atheists who are certain or almost certain that God isn’t real (and couldn’t be real), and there are those who say that the possibility is open. Now let’s add some nuance to the former.

In many people’s minds, an agnostic is someone who is unsure if they believe in God or not. They feel that there are good arguments for both sides, and they haven’t made up their minds yet. And again, as a descriptive language educator, I need to acknowledge this common use of the term. But I recently encountered two things that made me reconsider my understanding. First, I heard nonbelief described as a spectrum, rather than a series of static points. Like any sliding scale, this allows for the two extremes (I am sure there is a God vs. I am sure there is not a God), with agnostic sitting right in the middle and most people falling somewhere on either side.

This understanding is becoming more popular in the nonbeliever community. In essence, it allows for (and demands) that all nonbelievers select their own names. If I say I’m an atheist, then I’m an atheist, and no one can tell me I’m not. If I say I’m agnostic, or Bright, or a freethinker, or whatever else, then I’m that, and the argument of “no, that’s not what you really are” is settled. This way of thinking helps prevent arguments of the kind that plague religions worldwide (“You’re not a true Catholic/Episcopalian/Baptist/Methodist/Mormon/etc”).

Second is this image, and the distinction it makes between gnostic and agnostic.

Reminds me of Alignments from D&D

The picture speaks for itself, but show you one more that adds another level of detail.

As you can see, atheist vs. theist and gnostic vs. agnostic are placed on separate axes, allowing for four possible combinations. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I think it’s a big discussion to have, but I wanted to put it out there and see what others think. Agnostic is not typically used in this manner in my experience, but the concept makes sense and I think it warrants examination. Another time, perhaps. We’re nearly done with our lecture for today. One more topic to cover.

How does someone become an atheist?

Becoming an atheist isn’t nearly as complicated as joining one of the many and varied churches of the world. There’s only one thing you need to do: be born. All babies are born atheist. They are born without any concept of God, awareness of a soul/spirit, or knowledge of any divine presence whatsoever. As I’ve heard it said, there are no Christian/Jewish/Muslim children: there are only the children of Christian/Jewish/Muslim parents. But as we know, a critical piece of every major religion is the unrelenting need to propagate the belief, and thus many or most religions encourage parents to indoctrinate their children with the system. However, not all parents do a very good job at this.

Thus we arrive at the second method: grow up. Children who are not raised in religious households or are raised in homes where religion is a tertiary, minor piece of their lives are most likely going to avoid becoming religious by manner of priorities. Why spend time on something that is not important to you? As everyone who’s been a teenager knows, this view essentially dominates all others for a number of years. Therefore, children who have no particular reason to gravitate toward religion probably won’t, and remain atheists (whether aware of it or not). But what about those kids whose parents are religious, or who meet a fanatical classmate and are whisked away to an evening service or a weekend retreat?

This third level requires special action, because now the person holds a religious belief in God or gods–and as we know, atheism’s only requirement is the lack of such a belief. People at this stage come to atheism in various ways. Perhaps something traumatic happens to them within the context of religion, causing them to disavow their belief in God. Perhaps they meet an atheist and are swayed by the arguments. Perhaps they study philosophy, science, or some other field and begin to question whether their beliefs are true, thus utilizing reason to call their faith into question. Perhaps they simply lose their fervor and drift away, until one day realizing that they no longer believe in what they used to. The means and methods are varied, but the outcome is the same: atheism.

To sum up, people become atheists in one of two ways: either they’re never really introduced to the corrupting influence of religious belief, or they wring themselves free of its grasp. For those in the former category, atheism isn’t exactly a choice; rather, its the default position. For those in the latter category (such as myself), atheism is definitely a choice, one that is made after careful consideration.

Your Homework

This concludes our discussion of the basics of atheism. Any questions? Oh, looks like we’re out of time. Well, if you do have questions, write them down and leave them in the comment box. I’ll be sure to read them and get back to you.

Now, your homework for tonight is to consider the following questions: What is your understanding of the words atheism, atheist, and agnostic? If you are an atheist, how did you become one? What else would you like to know about atheism?

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18 comments

  1. Most of this is fair enough. Language is fluid and so common usage is more important than etymology. However I do have one objection:

    “All babies are born atheist. They are born without any concept of God, awareness of a soul/spirit, or knowledge of any divine presence whatsoever.”

    I disagree with this statement. There are many possible explanations for why so many religions have sprung up around the world, but the explanation that many theists subscribe to that many of us would come to the conclusion that there is a God independently of religious influence. The religious influence is what decides whether they are Christian, Muslim, Pagan etc. but the sense comes from the same source: the actual existence and presence of God.

    This, of course, may not be true, especially given that some people are more inclined towards that conclusion than others, but your statement presents as fact something that isn’t a fact. Babies are not born religious, but that’s not the same as saying they have no awareness, knowledge or concept of a God, and it would be extremely difficult to prove such a thing, especially when you include the Christian idea that the sin of the world corrupts and distances you from God. Of course the existence of such a feeling doesn’t prove the existence of God, because there could be evolutionary reasons and whatnot, but the statement still struck me when I read it.

    1. Hey David, thanks for the comment.

      I concede to your point: my statement was unsubstantiated. As I said to Justine, it seems to me (now that I’ve considered it more) that babies are probably neutral; unable to choose belief or nonbelief, they remain blank on the issue until reaching a certain age.

      I think it would be very difficult to prove either way whether babies can detect the presence of God. Naturally the assumption by believers is, as you said, that God’s influence is part of their lives from the beginning (perhaps even in the womb, if one’s beliefs extend personhood that far).

      In my opinion, children tend to remain unaware of an alleged God or gods if not introduced to the concept by their families or communities. Many atheists grew up without religion at home, and had no divine compulsion to find their heavenly Father. In fact, I suspect it a rare occurrence for someone brought up in a nonreligious home to independently find faith–generally they are brought to it by friends or colleagues.

      One question for you: if God–and by God I mean your God, the Christian God–is real and is really the only force out there, then why are there so many religions? Wouldn’t the holy presence that the uninitiated feel draw them to the One True God? Why do so many people remain in the religion of their home culture, if they’re actually being called home by the Lord?

      1. Most likely because we try to make sense of the feelings we have. Some of those religions are quite flawed. Some of them have part of the truth. I believe Christianity is the closest, but the details are debated even amongst Christians. So in essence I would say that we *are* drawn to the One True God, it’s just that we make errors as to the details. We’re all different; have different experiences, traits and levels of distance from God for a variety of reasons. If we’re brought up in a certain religion, it’s easier to stick with it than it is to question everything, even if the details of the religion don’t truly reflect the nature of the God we know.

        My reasons for being specifically a Christian are complex, but the existence of different religions doesn’t surprise me at all.

      2. Wouldn’t a God who desires that all people experience His love and be subject to His message give out clearer signals? In other words, why would an omnipotent God be limited by culture? Surely He could bypass all such earthly complications and speak clearly and directly to every human?

      3. You’re projecting yourself on God again. But even within the limits of our own existence, there are multiple possible answers to those questions.

        We’ve actually already discussed this: see one of my previous posts. But I’ll summarize very quickly. My preferred answer is that this would bypass free will, and that sin gets in the way of our communication with and understanding of God. Bypassing free will is a problem for two reasons: 1. It potentially contradicts statements in the bible (implicit and explicit). 2. Anything that makes us less like free individuals while on Earth and more like robots without a choice impinges on creation itself. Free will is necessary for meaningful creation.

        Remember that just because a person has no access to the bible does not mean they are doomed. Their future is not as guaranteed, but that is all.

        Other possibilities:
        > The Earth is a test, and we therefore should have faith because we have been given plenty of evidence as far as God is concerned. To ask for more evidence is presumptuous and an attempt to test God, which is forbidden in the bible.
        > God sees all ends, and therefore acts in whatever ways bring the most people to salvation (aside from breaking promises). If he did communicate directly, we cannot know the impact of that action; people could feel resentment about the evil in the world, some people might doubt the righteousness of God etc. God would not do something that does not produce the “best results”.

        I don’t like either of these two personally (especially the second one), but they’re certainly possible. No doubt there are other possibilities that didn’t come to mind immediately.

      4. Ah! Apparently my previous post on this topic was the bit you cut off due to the word limit. However, it was a better-expressed explanation. In case you want to read it now, I’ll post it here. Feel free to delete this post if you don’t.

        Here it is:

        The hiddenness of God is a common argument, but one which can be explained in a multitude of ways. This is the more meaty bit, because it questions all of the above and more: Why does God do things the way he does?

        The obvious answer is that we don’t know, and the bible makes it abundantly clear that fully understanding God is impossible for our human minds. However we can make certain guesses; we can use our brains to think of some possible answers, even if the true answer might be completely unexpected. There are several of these answers, but I’ll go through the three I find to be most promising.

        i) The free will argument is probably the hardest for people to grasp, but it is my personal favourite because I think it explains the most things in one coherent structure. (For example, it also explains why God allows sin in the world very neatly.)

        My version of this argument says that one possible purpose for the universe is to create individuals. Through our experiences of freedom on Earth, from having the option to sin, we become who we are in preparation for eternal life. You could argue that to be constantly in the presence of God would make it impossible to sin (such as in heaven), and therefore we would all react identically.

        God’s behaviour in connection with us on Earth would then have to follow certain rules. God could not interfere unless specifically asked through prayer, or specifically promised/prophesied. Furthermore, if God has in any way guaranteed us free will (which some think is implied in the bible), then he could not go against his own word. Being all powerful is irrelevant if you’re perfectly moral and make a promise — this goes back to the idea that God can’t do anything he wants.

        There are a lot of finer points and debatable points about the above, but that’s the basic idea.

        (Jesus for example was always intended and prophesied; prophecies and biblical writings being created through a deep relationship with God and a matter of individuals on Earth using their will to do God’s work.)

        (Issues like the existence of Satan are non-issues for a couple of reasons. One, not everyone believes Satan is a literal figure. Two, we have no idea of the context of the angels’ existence: how they differ from us, whether they remain in heaven, how they relate to God etc.)

        You might argue that whispering things in the ear of a believer when there is good reason to would not break free will. But I would say God already kinda does. The expectation that God’s mode of communication would be a literal, audible, whisper is that issue of humanizing God. It’s also an issue of challenging God to do things, which the God of the bible is clearly going to ignore as sinfulness.

        ii) The best results argument says that we know two things: that God can see all ends, and that God desires that eternal life be provided to as many people as possible. The idea is that we have no way of knowing what the result of God doing things differently would be. For example, if God explained to us why bad things happened in the world directly, far from bringing more people to God, the result could actually be that people simply resent God or think that God isn’t perfectly moral or worthy of their praise, because they can’t see the results of everything. All they know is that they are suffering. Studies have shown that people turn to God most in the darkest times, either as a call for help or by finding joy in the little things and realizing that life is still precious even in the darkness. If eternal life is truly infinite, then since anything on Earth pales to insignificance compared to eternal joy, the number of people achieving this could be by far God’s priority.

        My main dislike of this argument is simply that it isn’t as complete — you still have to ask yourself what the purpose of the universe is… ie. why aren’t we just in heaven? So you either need free will or “this is all a test” or something else in addition to it. But it is a possible explanation of the point you raised.

        Note that an adaptation on this argument is simply to say that God has other aims in mind by communicating the way he does. I won’t talk about this because the other David covered it quite nicely.

        iii) The “faith is the whole point” argument suggests either that the universe is a test, and/or that many of us have been given plenty of evidence for God’s presence and it’s presumptuous to expect more from our creator. This is based around the idea that judgment has more to do with how you react to what you have been shown than some general criteria. This is also the argument that many people who think we have prophetic, biblical evidence for God and Jesus often support. (I’ve never liked that view because I find that most arguments in favour of both theism and atheism are flawed. There’s a reason philosophers have been debating this for centuries.)

        I don’t like argument three in general, because I’d rather think that the reason some do not gain eternal life is because of either a free will issue or because of damage to the soul caused by sin. That reflects the God I know and love far better. Of course if you’re Catholic and believe in purgatory, this isn’t really an issue either.

        So in summary, there really are a lot of answers to your concerns, and Christians debate this constantly. All I know is that my experiences of God have left me in no doubt of his existence whatsoever. As to why your experiences have been lukewarm, I honestly don’t know because I don’t know you, but hopefully I’ve made it clear that the possibilities are numerous. I’m always reluctant to play this card, but I have huge criticisms of the Catholic Church in general. I honestly think if I had been brought up in the Catholic Church, I might be an atheist right now. I could go into why, but I’ll just say that it’s not for everyone.

      5. All of this is well and good, and I don’t want to dismiss it outright. There are a number of good points here that warrant further discussion. But I’m not really interested in getting back into a talk about this particular topic (God’s reasons for silence).

        That being said, I do want to say one thing: I feel that my strongest initial reply is one that I’ve attempted to make a few times already, with varying degrees of success. So let me just put it as straight as I can, and leave it at that.

        If God is by definition unknowable, how can you claim to know Him, know anything about Him, or know what He wants?

      6. The problem is with your definition of “unknowable”. God is very much knowable. But knowing is not a distinct condition. We gain knowledge constantly. I know many things, but I don’t know every thing. I know God, but I don’t know God completely. And the bible makes it sound as though my head would explode if I did. Considering how much God knows, this seems quite reasonable to me. I want to know everything; I’m a scientist and so I can’t help myself, but that is my lack of wisdom showing. It is most embarrassing when that happens.

      7. I see. So we can know some things about God, but not everything, just as we can’t know everything about… well, anything. The inevitable next question: what can we know about God? What’s the threshold of our knowledge? And if the line is arbitrary, how can we say with any certainty that we know anything about God? I suppose this argument gets made about the Bible as well: if it’s not all literally true, how can we claim any of it is true? The rebuttal there is that we must use our reason and logic to determine which parts are meant as literal truth and which are metaphor. But if God’s properties are so far beyond our understanding, can we even use reason to determine them?

      8. Again I feel like I’ve already talked about this, but I know everything I know from my experiences and my interpretation of those experiences. That is a general truth, and God is no exception. My case for the bible I think I’ve talked about elsewhere, but it is an assumption I make based on my experiences and my knowledge of history. Though my primary faith is in God rather than the bible. The way this differs from science, is of course that there is a specific rationale for why an experience should be personal and not reproducible, where as in science everything is testable or reproducible. This makes religious views particularly subjective, but it doesn’t invalidate them since there is an internal consistency. I would say that my views have a higher probability of being correct than the average believer, simply because I have examined them in more detail, but that is all I can say. This would bother me if it wasn’t for the fact that the core beliefs of Christianity, the ones that really matter, are common to almost all people who call themselves Christians. The things we debate, discuss, at times agonize over, are the periphery.

        In the end, everything goes through the lens of our psyche. I can question my own psyche, but there comes a point where it is defeatist and unhelpful. Most of your questions above you could apply to many things. For example, some philosophers argue that it is impossible to understand the universe as a whole — that the universe could be an infinite regress of questions to be answered. If this were true, then you could post the question: Can we even use reason to determine the properties of the universe? The answer would of course be yes. Your reasoning doesn’t have to be complete for it to be useful.

        In the case of the bible, almost all Christians would agree that everything in the bible is there for a reason. Beyond that there are multiple interpretations, but I would always judge those interpretations on consistency and connection to the original languages. If an interpretation causes a contradiction when considering the original languages, or if an interpretation as a whole does not have a consistent approach, it is much more unlikely to be true. When I considered those things, I actually found it pretty easy to come to a conclusion about how to interpret the bible, aside from a few hotly debated parts. The problem is that most denominations have not noticed their inconsistencies. (And the Catholic Church likes to invoke tradition over consistency.)

        The other philosophical position that you could consider is the idea that perhaps God likes it this way. Perhaps there is something holy in the very pursuit of truth. The search for understanding seems to be to be such an important part of what it is to be human, after all. Just some food for thought.

  2. Since atheism is a choice, babies can’t be born atheist because they don’t have the ability to make a conscious choice. They don’t do anything with intention; they only act on instinct (i.e. reflexes and crying). I should know, considering I take care of them 36 hours a week : ) I suppose you could argue that older babies (+2 months or so) start to make choices like rolling over or smiling, but they certainly aren’t born making choices in the neonate period.

    1. Hey Justine, thanks for your comment.

      You have me there. Babies don’t make too many choices, if any. So under my definition, yes, babies can’t be atheists.

      That being said, it seems obvious that they can’t be believers either, since believing in God is also a choice. They are simply nothing. True neutral. Unable to make a choice either way.

      Thanks for calling me out on this :)

  3. Great piece! It’s nice to see an educated and thought out response on a topic difficult to explain. Atheist and Agnostic view points are so commonly misunderstood and often thought to be the same where I am from. They are misunderstood to the point that if you can’t say, “I’m a Christian/Catholic/Mormon etc,” when asked “What are you?” then it’s bad. Your answer is irrelevant, because it isn’t mainstream (to them) and it isn’t understood so it’s bad.

    1. Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment!

      I’m glad you found my writing insightful! I assume from what you’ve said that you perhaps fall outside the category of “Christian/Catholic/Mormon”? If so, I’m sure you know first-hand how difficult it can be to explain these concepts to someone, especially if they’re already hostile to the very notion that nonbelievers exist.

      After all, there’s an inherent dissonance between believers and nonbelievers: we can’t both be right. Thus explaining the atheist stance to a theist is made more difficult by virtue of the implication that the theist is incorrect. Tricky stuff.

      I took a look at your blog, and it’s very cute! Thanks again for stopping by.

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