Defining Atheism

It seems to me that a great many people have a somewhat inaccurate understanding of the term ‘atheist’, even many who themselves identify as atheists. In the discussions I’ve had with people, the popular definition of ‘atheist’ seems to be a person who adamantly refuses to acknowledge the existence of god. There is, of course, the gentler alternative to ‘atheist’, and that is ‘agnostic’. An agnostic, as it is commonly understood, is someone who does not accept the existence of god but is open to the possibility. These definitions are partially true, and I would like to take this opportunity to clear up the matter if I may.

The dictionary definition of ‘atheist’ is ‘one who denies the existence of God‘. Specifically, that’s from Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. ‘Agnostic’ is defined as ‘a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (as God) is unknown and prob. unknowable; broadly : one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or nonexistence of God or a god‘, in case you were wondering. These are a little bit closer, but I still think we could do better. First, let’s look at atheism. If you dissect the word, it is very simply the prefix ‘a’ meaning ‘not’ followed by ‘theist’. Therefore, I will argue that the term ‘atheist’ simply means someone who does not subscribe to any particular religious doctrine. It just means ‘non-theist’, nothing more and nothing less. When most people hear the word ‘atheist’, they typically do not think of the term as it actually is, but rather they conjure thoughts of an ‘anti-theist’. An anti-theist is a person who actively opposes religions and the notion of the existence of god or gods. This is a common mistake. People also misuse the term ‘antisocial’ in the same way. In this case, people really mean to say ‘asocial’, as an asocial person is simply one who is detached from society in the way that the speaker means, while an antisocial person is someone who is actively trying to disrupt society, an extreme example being a sociopath.

‘Agnostic’, in the same way, simply means ‘not knowing’. As it is traditionally applied to the question of the existence of deities or the supernatural, an agnostic is simply a person who recognizes that the human mind, magnificent as it may be, is still limited. I once heard a Christian apologist ask the question, ‘Have you ever tried to explain physics to a dog?’ This is the same idea. He was trying to justify God by saying that since the human brain is limited, and so that which exists beyond our understanding must be God. This is, of course, a logical fallacy, but the principle of agnosticism is still the same. There may very well be concepts which are beyond human comprehension. Would we be foolish to ignore this? I think so.

Atheism is a blanket term that encompasses agnosticism, anti-theism, and every other word used to describe people who do not identify with religions. Agnosticism is a form of atheism. So is anti-theism. Freethinkers, secular humanists, they all fall under the parent category of atheists. This may be an unfamiliar or uncomfortable concept to people, but I will argue that it is truth.

That said, I will declare that I consider myself to be all of the adjectives listed above. I am atheist in that I am not religious in any way (atheism, by the way, is not a religion and requires no faith as some people might have you believe, but that is another topic for another day). I am agnostic in that I recognize our species’ intellectual limitations, even among the most brilliant of us, but that this does not justify resorting to the notion of god simply by default. I am anti-theist in that I believe religious belief to be harmful and dangerous, as well as the single greatest hindrance to human progress. I am a freethinker in that I am not afraid to ask questions and approach any topic with a sense of honest criticism. I am a secular humanist in that I strive to better humanity’s prosperity and well being, as well as to help us better understand who we are in this world and what role we play in nature. I am generally not one to carry such personal labels, as I feel that this type of thing typically only serves to hinder one’s personal potential, but these are exceptions. These I wear with great pride.


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