When asked by the devout believer, "How can you imagine a beautiful sunset without the hand of God?" the atheist said,

"Is it not even more beautiful if it is an accident?"

(From the Middle French athéisme, which is from the Greek atheos (αθεóς), "godless", from a-, "without" + theos, "god")

An absence of belief in the existence of gods, or the doctrine that there are no gods. This absence of belief generally comes about either through deliberate choice, or from an inherent inability to believe religious teachings which seem literally incredible. It is not a lack of belief born out of simple ignorance of religious teachings.

Some atheists go beyond a mere absence of belief in gods: they actively believe that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. Just lacking belief in gods is often referred to as "weak atheism"; whereas believing that gods do not or cannot exist is often referred to as "strong atheism". It is important to note the difference between the strong and weak atheist positions. "Weak atheism" is simple scepticism; a lack of belief in the existence of a God. "Strong atheism" is an explicitly held belief that God does not exist. There is a qualitative difference in the "strong" and "weak" positions; it's not just a matter of degree.

Some atheists believe in the non-existence of all gods; others limit their atheism to specific gods, such as the Christian God, rather than making flat-out denials.

A popular argument against the existence of God involves the problem of evil. In 'Evil and Omnipotence', J.L. Mackie claims that the propositions "God is omnipotent", "God is wholly good", and "Evil exists" are, together, logically inconsistent and that, therefore, some important part of theistic belief is false. Other arguments resulting from this contend that the logical possibility of a wholly good God along with the horrific and extensive evil of the world is highly improbable.

Another general argument for the atheistic position argues that atheism is the proper default position: in the absence of satisfactory arguments for theism, atheism should be accepted even without satisfactory positive argument in its favor.

Compare: theism
See also: agnosticism
Implicit atheism
No belief in God but no disbelief either. Synonymous to nontheist.

Explicit atheism
Certainty that there is no God.

For simplicity and clarity I use atheist to mean Explicit atheism (there being no synonym for that) and nontheist for Implicit atheism.

There can be both (implicit) atheistic agnosticism (God is unknowable and may or may not exist) and theistic agnosticism (God does exist but we can't know the nature of 'em).

Atheism and Agnosticism are not interchangeable or even similar in any way, except when contrasting all schools theistic and all schools which could be considered--within the context that a lack of specific belief is definitive--not theistic. There are, in fact, different schools of both Agnosticism and Atheism that fall not so easily under the umbrage commonly assigned them and are hardly comparable. While examining the various schools of Agnosticism and Atheism, there are specifics in regards to an individuals personal reasoning which are not only important but nearly essential to take in to account.

From one of a theistic school of thought, it may be uttered that the only important destination is that in which the "Atheist" has proclaimed that they, in some way, lack a faith in god. The larger, and dare I say, more important differences between a simple lack of faith and an anti-faith is generally left as an obscure and unimportant distinction.

To clarify my case, I will share a somewhat unpopular opinion of my own. As an Agnostic, I feel that, in regard to aspects of faith (an important theistic distinction), Atheists have more in common with Theists than they do with Agnostics. That is to say, Atheists have faith that there is no sort of God, higher power or deity without any reasonable sort of proof. I feel that this sort of blind faith is silly no matter where you deign to place your bets and that comparing an honest, spiritual profession of ignorance to an outright baseless denial of all things unknown is rather tacky.

We can feel something about the existence of God, but we can't know it.

Believing in the existence of a transcendant being is a matter of faith. Faith being that remarkable piece of cognitive machinery which allows humans to believe in something without requiring evidence. Belief in the divine or in the supernatural is an example of faith in action.

But here's a notion that is often overlooked - atheism (here defined as the conviction that there is no god) is every bit the leap of faith that theism is. It's a leap in the opposite direction. Disbelief requires faith, just as belief does.

Faith is an important part of being human. Let's face it, we're not Vulcans. Going on "gut feeling", instinct, and faith is a significant chunk of our nature. So there is no point denying or rejecting faith. It's an integral aspect of who we are.

And in the interests of understanding and respecting human faith, we ought to call atheism what it really is - a faith. Many's the time I've seen an atheist attempt to debunk the beliefs of a religious person, assuming that the theist's point of view was less logical than their own. And I've also witnessed numerous occasions where a theist has attempted to convert an atheist, assuming that the other person had not yet "seen the light". That sort of thing is ridiculous, as both parties are applying faith to their lives, in their own way.

You can't disprove the existence of a supreme being, any more than you can prove it. Atheism and theism are two sides of the same coin.

All varieties of supernatural belief or disbelief share the property of faith. Everything from Buddhism through Islam, astrology and the Greco-Roman pantheon is an application of faith. Indeed, the only theological stance which does not make use of faith is pure agnosticism.

But I digress. Those who use faith to reach their own conclusions about the universe could do well to stop bickering amongst themselves. Whilst members of different faiths are travelling to different destinations, they are using the same equipment to get there.

Here is a set of arguments of why one might be an atheist. The first and third of these need not be applied to just atheism, if one can satisfy one's self as to the validity of a religion through them.

1: What else should I be?

The simplest way to get to atheism is to not believe any claims of existence of any god. Going into the details on this gets sticky and offensive, hence I have trimmed it. Anyway, I am pretty sure that people can come up with some pretty good reasons if they try (even believers can - the thing is that they can overcome this with simple faith. Faith can be powerful and legitimate... but it cannot come by intent. If you do not have it, continue!). If one does not accept claims of deity-existence, one is in agnosticism. What from there? Now that we have scientific bases for the workings of the world * , one can apply Occam's Razor to get the simplest working hypothesis - scientific atheism. I hardly need say 'scientific'. Atheism hardly exists without science to provide an alternative. In the distant past, science couldn't explain jack, when it existed at all. Thus, it wasn't even a candidate in Occam's Razor. Some religion or another won by default. Now, it contains at least one fewer entity and underlying principle than any conceivable religion that fits observations, so as long as the world does not seem implausible from a scientific perspective, it comes out on top.

* This is not to say that science knows how the world works. However, the method provides a viable framework other than faith which can be used to understand the world.

2: Contradiction between Religions

The contradictions between various religions are obvious. If one of them is right, this usually makes most of or all of the others wrong. If a religion relies on revelation, then its argument is weakened if it must admit that revelation can be wrong, and in fact usually is! Most religions will ignore this, discounting the revelatory origin of other religions. But it's there anyway - If a religion's explanation for other religions doesn't jibe with what the other religion's history is, we regress to the original question of who to believe.

Taking it from another angle, if you find yourself equally convinced of a wide variety of options, you don't know. Thus you are agnostic. As above, agnosticism may lead to atheism.


On the other hand, if you are in this position, Atheism may not be the right direction to be going. You may wish to check out various versions of Unitarianism. I have heard that Ba'ha'i also has a good way of dealing with this, though I haven't spoken with any members.

3: Where's the sense?

Here I take a wholly different tack. Suppose that there is exactly one omnipotent god. God's motives are not clear, given what we see about us, in terms of strife and destruction, starvation, etc. (if they are clear to you, /msg me, please!). Now, it is possible to accept the existence of a divine being whose motives cannot be understood. Many people do. Those of us who cannot bring ourselves to accept that possibility must either assume either that there is some potentially understandable reason out there that we haven't figured out yet, or there is no one reason. The latter is virtually a denial of monotheism (though not entirely...). The former is fertile ground for fantasy writers, especially humorous fantasy. However, it's not a great way to live.

This fits well with the famous verse, including: "God is not good, or God is not god" (who wrote that? I know that's not all of it). If God expects and requires us to worship it for carrying out an agenda we can't understand, even if the agenda is a good one, then god is not good. I can understand if God wishes we worshipped, but if God is good and realizes it is operating under incomprehensible motives, then we aren't required. That may not seem like atheism, and it isn't. But if you are an agnostic heading towards atheism, it's helpful to get rid of fears. On the other hand, someone who is going out of their way to be afraid will probably invent a lot more possibilities to be afraid of (I do, but I don't lose sleep at night over it).

Working one's way out of a polytheism is much more difficult since gods can work at cross purposes and are usually of limited power. You lose the third argument altogether.

These are the reasons I can think of. There are no doubt more arguments, and probably better statements of those made here.


An Etymological Approach

Since the confusion that may have sparked some of the most common misconceptions regarding atheism is most likely rooted in the frequent misuse of the terminology in daily speech, this writeup relies not on how words are used, but on what they mean.

As language evolves, the definitions of certain words change. This is inevitable, and sometimes benign. However, philosophy relies on agreement in terminology. With just a little bit of knowledge in the field of etymology, we can easily avoid this sort of confusion. Heck, you don't even have to know it by heart, just consult a dictionary with etymological notes.

In this case, the definition becomes crystal clear when looking at the origin of the words, far from popular science definitions and subdivisions into "strong" and "weak" with all the normative connotations such inventions bring about. The distinction between atheism and agnosticism becomes equally clear, and should set the most confused of minds on a straight path.


Does This Sound Like Greek to You?

If so, that's because it is. Hardly surprising, we have the wise men of Ancient Greece to thank for both of the aforementioned words. The prefix a- in both cases means not. Theos is an old Greek word meaning god (with a lower case g, as in "a god" as opposed to "the Christian God"). Hence, atheism means "not-god-ism". An atheist believes that there is not a god. In the case of agnosticism, the second part of the word comes from gnosis, knowledge, so agnosticism is the ism of "not knowledge". An agnostic believes that knowledge of the most fundamental principles of existence is unattainable. The validity of a god's existence is but one example of such knowledge, if yet a vital one.


Further Linguistic Pitfalls

The English language contributes further to the confusion in the common construction I do not believe that X is the case used to denote what should actually be stated as I believe that X is not the case. In other words, not only does an atheist not believe in the existence of a deity, but he or she believes in its nonexistence. It is not an absence of belief, but a belief in absence.


For the Record

Atheism is not the opposite of Christianity any more than Hinduism is. In fact, atheism is in no way dichotomized from religion. (The word religion stems from Latin religare, to tie down.) Buddhism is often considered an atheist religion, Buddha having a role closer to that of a saint than to that of a deity. Considering that Buddhism is all about gaining knowledge of the principles of existence, it should serve as a great example of the vast difference between atheism and agnosticism. For the sake of clarity, I state again: atheists per se do not distance themselves from religion. Most Buddhists will gladly call themselves atheists and religious.


Antinonsense

The word nontheist seems to exist only on Everything 2 (apart from some odd popular science pulp on religious belief in which the "word" was allegedly contrived) and is not recognized in any other well-known dictionary. Not surprisingly, this out-of-the-blue quasi-philosophy has been upvoted beyond belief despite a very high coefficient of BS. The definition of the prefix non- is virtually identical to that of a-, so such a word would be highly superfluous, had it existed. It does not, and on a bad day, Yours Sincerely might recommend thermonuclear therapy for the entire node. Fortunately, it is not a bad day.


This writeup is here mainly because only a minority of the writeups in this node are correct at the time of writing. A small percentage is neutral, but all too many are downright wrong, sometimes even gravely misleading. Some points covered in other writeups may be covered again here. This is mainly to clarify, to separate the information from the misinformation, and for the development of the whole argument as such.

Thanks to The Oolong Man for valued comments contributing to the well-being of Yours Truly and some minor additions to the writeup.


CentrX contributes with the following well-balanced argument:

I really don't see how anything you said means that "nontheist" is a bad word to use. While of course prevalence of usage does not equal validity, there has to be some way to make the distinction between someone who actively disbelieves in god and someone who simply lacks a belief. This is accomplished using the at least somewhat accepted terminology, like "weak atheism" or "nontheism". In your pedant conservatism in this matter, you're advocating that a new word should not be used because it obfuscated the matter, yet not having descriptive words makes it worse. Other than the etymological wrongness of the words, you provide no reason why it's "nontheism" or "weak theism" is wrong. (although in fact "nontheism" ("not god") is more active than "atheism" ("without god") etymologically, so the currently used definition of atheism should be reversed.

The Greek prefix a- means both "not" and "without", whereas the Old French/Latin non- means "not". When both words could mean "not god", the distinction is so subtle that I find this dangerous. I am not in opposition of words that can clearly show the distinction between dichotomies in belief. I simply believe that nontheist does not provide such a clear distinction, and is more likely to lead to more confusion.

Needless to say, I understand that some may disagree to this, but my personal judgment is that nontheim does not aid the language at a level required for the language to fulfil its task, namely to clearly express ideas. Therefore, until there is a clear word that is impossible to misunderstand for each branch of belief (and lack thereof), it is perhaps better to use words such as atheism, agnosticism, scepticism, and secularism in combination with any required specifications in the form of articulated reasoning rather than confusing abstractions with etymologically overlapping semantics.

I am, however, drifting off-topic. I appreciate the feedback, though.

Atheism, literally, disbelief in a God, if such an attainment is possible; or, more loosely, doubt of the existence of a God; practically, a denial that anything can be known about the supernatural, supposing it to exist.


Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

I would like to answer the charge that atheists necessarily have faith in their non-faith. Firstly, we all begin as atheists. What I mean by that is simple. No child, no matter how profound their parents' faith may be, is born believing in a god or adhering to a religion. That is a concept children are taught. One could I suppose say that children are agnostics, but that makes no sense to me, personally, simply because the entire concept of theism requires that someone teach that specific concept.

Secondly faith is not something that I lack, rather it is something you possess that I do not. I am not rejecting something essential to being a human being, I am merely choosing not to add another belief onto my personal ethical framework.

When I first realised I did not believe I did feel as if I were rejecting something- rejecting the very narrow confines of my parents' specific sect, rejecting a role in society that demanded I as a female be forever inferior. However, as I grew older I realised that it was as simple to me as choosing not to believe in Vishna, or the Morrigan, or Mithras, or Ameratseru, or Loki. The belief system that provides my parents such comfort simply does not suit me. And because I think, given all the information I have acquired that the idea of a god is so unlikely it approaches impossibility I suppose you could call me an atheist.

I would not be an atheist if people did not ask me about my religious leanings- it would be like telling people I do not see X-rays, or that I don't run at supersonic speeds. The absence of belief in something is simply that. It is, I feel, more that indifference to the question of religion that makes me an atheist. It is not that I do not know, it is that I do not care. So the question of belief honestly never occurs to me unless someone brings it up.

I think that having to choose a term that unites so many people of such widely disparate viewpoints is what causes many problems about the term 'atheist'. While it is possible to generalise very loosely about what a Christian might or might not believe it is not possible to do the same for a group of people only connected by a non-belief.

Additionally, I find the world a place of wonder without a god. Every molecule in my body was once part of a star. There are miracles everywhere that I can see and touch and taste, like apple blossoms and my own hands and the taste of chocolate. Like the sight of a plane lifting off the tarmac. I can still be moved to tears by the sight of snow, simply because it is beautiful. I do not lack wonder at the beauty and majesty of the world simply because I do not believe it was planned to be beautiful and majestic.

A common dilemma faced with many atheists forced to defend their system of belief is the burden of proof that God does not exist. However, to the benefit of the atheist, this onus can be placed solely on the shoulders of the believer. This is only logical owing to the fact that rather than being a belief that something is not so, (e. g. the existence that a deity does not exist) the atheist belief by definition is lack of belief in something.

This being the case, the only party requiring proof is the believer, seeing as the believer is the only one holding a belief. The only way one can defend a belief is if one has a belief to begin with. Thus, rather than the believer asking the non-believer why he/she does not believe in a deity, the non-believer should be asking the believer why they do believe in said deity.

Summarily...

  • You don't have to defend what you don't believe in.
  • You do have to defend what you do believe in.

Atheism is not limited to "believing there are no deities." People have been conditioned to think--with this limited definition--that atheism and theism somehow cover all aspects of belief/no belief. Atheism isn't limited to denial. Theism is belief, atheism is no belief.

Atheism means "not believing in the existence of a supreme being." While this difference seems subtle, it is very disparate. A person born on an island and raised by wolves may not even know about deities. He has no belief in what he doesn't know to believe or deny. He is an atheist. A child who has not learned about people's beliefs in a god cannot believe. The child is an atheist. There is no belief in a deity, which is atheism.

They are not two sides of the same coin. Atheism isn't even a belief! With unicorns, vampires, "unigoates" (I made this one up), or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, not believing in them doesn't mean you have a belief! If it's no belief, it can't be an idea.

Atheism isn't "knowing about people's religions, superstitions, or faith in a god and then denying it for various reasons." It is simply "no belief" in a god, supreme being, deity, supernatural force, etc. Even if you state "I am sure there is no god" this is still "no belief" in a god.

Agnosticism isn't a different category on the atheism/theism spectrum. An agnostic is a person who doubts if we can have knowledge of things we can't humanly comprehend, experience, study, see, or logically deduce (ie, the supernatural or a god). Saying "I'm agnostic, but not atheist" is like saying "I don't believe we can know something we can't humanly know, but I believe in something that exists outside of reality, that I can't possibly comprehend, logically deduce, and of which I know of no facts at all."

A"the*ism (#), n. [Cf. F. ath'eisme. See Atheist.]

1.

The disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.

Atheism is a ferocious system, that leaves nothing above us to excite awe, nor around us to awaken tenderness. R. Hall.

Atheism and pantheism are often wrongly confounded. Shipley.

2.

Godlessness.

 

© Webster 1913.

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