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On Atheism

(or How To Turn Colors Into Black And White)

by Don Antropos


Atheism is the lack of belief in a god or gods. It says nothing about the existence of any god.


Literally it means 'not theism'. Theism is the belief in an immanent and transcendent selfconscious, personal, living God. For clarity sake we will understand theism as the belief in the existence of gods. Anything else religious, like belief in an afterlife or absolute morality, is not necessarily rejected by atheism, although many atheists do not accept these concepts.

Note: Deism is not the same as Theism. See below.

About denotation and connotation.

There have been lots of discussions about the meaning of 'atheism' and if it matters to be conscious about being atheistic or not. Some argued that the definition “atheism = the lack of belief in the existence of gods” is the only correct one. According to them, atheism refers to anybody who has no theistic belief, even those that never heard of gods or godbelief and are therefor unable to call themselves atheists. Others stated that atheism only has meaning when it is used for those people who are conscious of their position, who know enough about godbelief to be able to reject or disregard it. They wanted to change the definition by inserting the word 'conscious' to make more clear how 'lacking belief' should be understood.

This discussion could not be solved as long as it wasn't recognized that there are two separate notations involved in this: the denotation of the word and the connotation of it. The first is the literal meaning of a word, and everybody agreed that atheism means literally 'without theism', which means more precise 'lacking belief in the existence of gods'. This literal meaning can be understood as being void of any godbelief, which according to some includes babies as well. It is also called intrinsic, implicit or default atheism. However, atheism is by many, both theists and atheists, understood and used in the connotational sense as referring to an attitude of being a-theistic, a conscious state of mind. This is called explicit atheism,which only differs from the first in that the atheist knows about his disbelief and proclaims himself atheist.

Since the denotation of 'atheism' (the lack of belief in the existence of gods) has a broader sense than the connotation, it is the better definition of the word. But we should remember that 'atheism' is often used in it's connotational sense (the conscious lack of belief in the existence of gods). For instance, the word 'atheism' used in the name of the newsgroup alt.atheism is by most understood in it's connotational sense. Also, when someone argues that “we atheists cannot see the logic of your god-concept”, he is using the word atheists in it's connotational sense.

Now why is this difference more important than other distinctions which can be made between various types of atheism? Aren't there many different ways to understand the title 'atheist'?

(1) The world can be divided into two groups: theists and atheists, those who believe in gods and those that don't believe in gods. (2) The atheists can also be divided in at least two main groups: those who are ignorant of any godbelief and of the fact that they don't believe (intrinsic atheism), and those who are not ignorant of their a-theism (explicit). (3) This last group of explicit atheists, contains many different kinds of atheism: agnosticism, strong and weak atheism, etc….

From (1) we can get the definition of atheism in it's most simple form, namely the denotation of the word, it's literal meaning. From (2) we can see that the word 'atheism' has a connotation whichgives a slightly different impression. If we would not mention this, we could (and in fact have been doing so in the past) easily debate about atheism while having something completely different in mind. Thus it is best to define atheism in it's broadest sense, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that there's a slight change in meaning at the moment someone proclaims himself atheist.From (3) we can add notes that even the connotation of atheism doesn't say it all, that there are indeed various kinds of atheists around here in this newsgroup and various ways to understand actual atheism.

Various types of atheism.

  • Atheist: one who lacks belief in a god or gods
    1. Implicit atheist: one who hasn't heard of theism
    2. Explicit atheist: one who knows that he is an atheist
      1. Weak (or negative) atheist: one who is sceptical about the belief in gods.
      2. Strong (or positive) atheist: one who actively rejects the existence of gods.
      3. Agnostic: one who thinks we cannot prove or disprove the existence of gods.
      4. Deist: one who doesn't believe in a selfconscious, personal, living god.
      5. Freethinker: one who rejects all kinds of dogmatic belief.


On Weak Atheism

This is often understood as simply lacking the belief in the existence of gods. But it is different from implicit atheism in the respect that the weak atheist calls him- or herself an atheist. The weak atheist does have an attitude towards theism, namely a sceptical one: he or she questions the validity and possibility of theistic claims.

On Strong Atheism

This is also explained as the belief that particular gods, or all gods, do not exist. However, this is confusing and causes many people to think that atheism is a kind of belief, a sort of anti-religiousreligion. It's better to say that the strong atheist feels more certain and has a stronger attitude towards theism than the weak atheist. A strong atheist rejects the notion of gods in general or thenotion of a particular god (while remaining somewhat indifferent regarding other god-concepts).

On agnosticism

Thomas Huxley coined the term “agnosticism” to describe a method of inquiry, which simply accepts that which is established by natural reason and doubts that which is not. Weak atheists, strong atheists, and even deists have claimed to be “agnostics” in this sense, i.e., they do not claim to have a “gnosis” or hidden knowledge.

There is a common philosophical definition according to which “agnosticism” declares that God is unknowable. This may be understood metaphysically, in that we cannot understand the nature of God, or epistemologically, in that we cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Atheists could adopt this position, but it is more commonly taken up by theistic mystics.

'On agnosticism' is written by Peter Kirby

On Deism

Deism involves the belief in the rationality of the universe. According to Leibniz, the universe is divine because it is harmonious and it reflects God in everything. This God is not personal. It is understood as Cause or Logos. Everything, the universe and history as well, goes according to this divine principle. Deists can be regarded as atheists, since they don't believe in a personal God. They also don't believe in the immortality of the soul.

On Freethinking

Originally this was used for deists, but later it became the description for all those who wanted to free our thinking from church, bible, conventional moral and tradition. A freethinker is a person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief. This implies the rejection of scientism as much as the rejection of religion.

Is atheism a religion?

No. Atheism is not a belief. It is the “lack of belief” in god(s). Lack of faith requires no faith. Atheism is indeed based on a commitment to rationality, but that hardly qualifies it as a religion. Atheists apply the term religion to belief systems which include a supernatural realm, deity, faith in “holy” writings and conformity to an absolute creed. Atheists have no god, bible or savior. It is based on natural rational principles. It is flexible and relativistic – it is not a religion.

Thanks to 'The Atheist Web'

Short History

Atheism is probably as old as religion itself. In the Indian Rigveda we can already find expressions like 'is there no God'. This doubt can also be found in Roman and Greek mythology and in the Christian Bible.

The word is originally Greek: a = without, theos = god. Originally it is used to describe people who have lost their faith, who are left by their god or who are without morals. Atheism as most of us understand it only appeared in the Renaissance during the secularization of western culture. Atheism in it's present explicit form is therefor a typical western phenomenon.

As theoretical denial, atheism already existed in Greek culture. Both Democritus and Epicurus denied the possibility of an eternal being. But also Socrates was accused of being godless and put to death. In Roman times, the Christians are referred to by Nero as 'atheoi', people who didn't accept the divinity of the emperor. This proves that both phenomenon and meaning of atheism are relative.

Prosecution of atheists is just as old as the word. Plato (427-347 BC) was convinced that atheists should be prosecuted and punished, since they would be a threat to the state. Thomas of Aquino (1225-1274) was convinced that those without faith should be put to death without hesitation. John Locke, who was a pioneer with respect to freedom of religion, excluded atheists from this tolerance, since he was convinced that these people could not hold promises or treaties. This has in fact been very common through the ages. Religion was regarded a guarantee for morality and it was considered impossible to be a moral and rational human being, a good and responsible citizen, without being religious. For many ages, atheism had the connotation of immorality. When Percy Shelly (1792-1822) published “The necessity of Atheism”, not only were his books publicly burnt, but he also got expelled from university. Years later he lost guardianship of his children because it was considered likely that he would teach his horrible ideas to them as well. On the same ground it was in 1877 that Annie Besant (1847-1933) was regarded unfit to take care of her own children, although the judge admitted that she was a caring and loving mother. It was only until the late 19th century that laws were made to guarantee equal rights for atheists, which is very late, if we consider the fact that philosophy had already developed ethics on a rational basis instead of a religious ground in the late 18th century. Nowadays it is no longer commonly believed that atheism implies immorality.

atheism/onatheism.txt · Last modified: 2013/04/02 01:00 by smiler