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.
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.
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?