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What is atheism? Who are atheists?

Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity.

Atheism motivation.jpg

Theists often assume atheism to be a "belief". And therefore they claim that atheism is a belief system that also requires "faith" (to believe there is no god). This is an erroneous characterization. A "lack of belief" is not a "world view"; it presupposes no rules, doctrine or dogma. It's merely a lack of belief in a god. Do you believe in the non-existence of Santa Claus? Would you call yourself an anti-tooth-fairyian? Is ones' identity or world-view tied to what they don't believe in?

Here is the origin of the word atheist/atheism:

"Atheism", from the Greek:

  • atheismos : noun, from
  • a- : lacking, without, or not having something; akin to the English suffix "-less"
  • theos : a god, deity, mighty magic entity
  • -ismos : a state, quality, or condition; an "-ism"

Therefore, "atheism" is "the state, quality, or condition of being without a god or deity". "Atheos" would literally mean "godless", and "atheismos" ("atheism") would literally mean "godlessness".

Notice that the prefix "a-" does not mean "not" or "against". It's a common mistake to think so. That would require the use of the Greek prefix "anti-", such as in the term antikhristos ("antichrist").

Now, let's change that suffix. "Atheist", from the Greek:

  • atheistês : noun, from atheismos +
  • -istês : one who supports, subscribes to, or performs something

An "atheist", then, would be "a person who supports or subscribes to a godless state, quality, or condition".

This does not necessarily mean that atheists positively believe that there is no god. It simply means that they advocate a lifestyle that is devoid of one. They live their lives as if there were no god.

Atheism can be further broken down into the following sub-categories:

  • Weak Atheist - lacks a belief in god or gods, and acknowledges that it is presumptuous to say for sure there is no god, although in the absence of any evidence, contends it is unlikely and not worthy of consideration

99% of most atheists are the "weak" variety, even though most theists' idea of atheism is something different:

  • Strong Atheist - believes that there is no God; some argue this position, which is uncommon among atheists, is as equally presumptuous as claiming there is a god (It is accepted that it's virtually impossible to prove a negative, that something does not exist)

A typical atheist may be strong towards a specific deity such as Jesus, claiming that they are confident the Christian god does not exist. Likewise a Christian may be a strong atheist towards the Hindu gods.


The term agnosticism itself does not specifically relate to religion or supernatural creators. It is a statement on whether 'knowledge is known, unknown, or can never be known'. Therefore, someone can be agnostic about any subject, philosophy, material or immaterial claim.

However, in the popular vernacular, the term agnostic is most often associated with theism. Technically-speaking, the lone term "agnostic" has no meaning without a subject to qualify, but when used by itself is often assumed to be making a statement on the subject of theism (or lack of the believe in knowledge thereof).

In the popular vernacular context of agnosticism by default being associated with god-claims, it can be considered a subset of atheism. Mainstream media and many people will rarely make note of this because many choose to use the term agnostic to describe their lack of belief due to the negative connotations the media associates with the term atheist, but technically agnostics are atheists: You don't typically believe in something you are not sure exists! For the sake of argument, some people will note it is possible to believe in something who's existence can or will never be known, but such a position could be clinically diagnosed as a symptom of mental retardation when the scenario doesn't involve something as politically-correct as mainstream religion.

Agnosticism can also be broken down into:

  • Strong Agnostic [atheist] - claims that one can never know whether or not there is a god, or according to Richard Dawkins, they are permanent agnostics in principle (PAP), believing that the existence of a god is unknowable.
  • Weak Agnostic [atheist] - accepts the idea that there may or may not be a god (in other words, "I don't know, and neither do you.") They believe that the existence or non-existence of god is knowable, but that we do not yet know. Richard Dawkins calls these people Temporary Agnostics in Practice (TAP).
  • There are some that claim you can be an "agnostic theist", implying someone believes in gods but recognizes that the knowledge of gods' existence may or will never be known. While this is technically true, we are unaware of any practical use of such a term, as the generic definition of [deist] seems to fit that bill. The most common use of agnostic is in an atheistic sense; any theistic use of the term is usually for the purposes of argumentation and rarely represents anyone's particular philosophical view.

Traditional published dictionary definitions of "atheist" and "atheism"

What popular dictionaries say about atheism

  • Dictionary.Com lists several definitions[1]:
    • Random House (aka Dictionary.Com itself):
  1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
  2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
    • American Heritage Dictionary:
  1. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
  2. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
    • Webster's Revised Unabridged:
  1. the disbelief or denial of the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.
    • Princeton Univ. Wordnet:
  1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God [ant: theism]
  2. a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods
  • Merriam-Webster's has[2]:
  1. archaic : ungodliness , wickedness
  2. a disbelief in the existence of deity; b: the doctrine that there is no deity
  • Encarta (formerly Funk & Wagnalls)[3] has:
  1. unbelief in God or deities: disbelief in the existence of God or deities
  • Compact Oxford English Dictionary[4] has:
  1. the belief that God does not exist.

The common definitions for "atheism" involve strong and weak versions. Strong = belief there are no god(s); Weak = disbelief/lack of belief in god(s). Some dictionaries stress the strong version over the weak version as a standard accepted meaning. Is this accurate? Not necessarily and this shows the bias of early publishers.

Weak atheism is a subset of strong atheism, but not vice versa. Therefore the most accurate definition of atheism, without further qualification is the weak variety.

Bias among dictionary publishers

Many popular dictionaries imply the strong definition of atheism as the default, even though strong atheists (people who claim there are no god(s)) are a minority among those calling themselves atheist.

One reason why a misleading definition of atheism exists in popular traditional publications can be traced back to the religious roots of those in the dictionary publishing business. For example, Noah Webster:

Webster, founder of the dictionary company, was a devout Christian. His speller was grounded in Scripture, and his first lesson began "Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink ; nor for your body, what ye shall put on ; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things."

His 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume. Webster considered education "useless without the Bible". Webster claimed to have learned 20 different languages in finding definitions for which a particular word is used. From the preface to the 1828 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language:

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed... . No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

Webster released his own edition of the Bible in 1833, called the Common Version. He used the King James Version (KJV) as a base and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries. Webster molded the KJV to correct grammar, replaced words that were no longer used, and did away with words and phrases that could be seen as offensive.

All editions of Webster's Dictionary published in 1913 and earlier, along with the Webster Bible and Dissertation on the English Language are available in the public domain.[5]

Other Atheistic Identifiers

  • Bright
  • Freethinker
  • True Atheist - A true Atheist (with a capital A) is indicated as an atheist who recognizes that supernatural claims require extraordinary evidence. If you become a true Atheist, you recognize that in the absence of definitive physical evidence of a God or supernatural entity, it is irrational and erroneous to believe in such entities. A true Atheist can not convert back to theism without definitive physical evidence of a supernatural creator.
  • atheist by default - also known as an apathetic atheist is someone who technically can be described as an atheist because he/she lacks any belief in gods, but has not "arrived" at such a realization through investigation and understanding, instead the atheist by default meets the criteria but ultimately doesn't really care much about the cause or nature of atheism. These people are often fond of calling themselves "atheist" and at the same time calling other atheists out as being annoying and unnecessarily provocative.

See Also


  1. . http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/atheism as of 13:13, 5 April 2009 (CDT)
  2. . http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/atheism as of 13:13, 5 April 2009 (CDT)
  3. . http://encarta.msn.com/dictionary_/atheism.html as of 13:13, 5 April 2009 (CDT)
  4. . http://www.askoxford.com/results/?view=dict&freesearch=atheism&branch=13842570 as of 13:13, 5 April 2009 (CDT)
  5. . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_Webster#Religious_views

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