Define the word atheist

Twitter user @PiltdownSupermn asked for a definition of the word atheist. I would have posted the below reply to his blog, but I am making it available here instead because there is a post length limit on comments.

An atheist is someone who does not accept the truth claims of any religion, on the grounds that many of them are self-refuting.  This is not, repeat NOT, a claim to know for a fact that there are no gods, merely it is the factual assertion that the truth claims made by the religious, which assert there is a God, are without any basis in fact.

Many apologists use the dictionary definition of the word ‘atheist’, as it is commonly understood to mean, as someone who does not believe in the God of the bible. But the word in fact refers to an active disbelief in all theology from all religions, not merely a disbelief in that which might be described independently of any particular religious truth claim.  This confusion is understandable and has plagued the debate between the religious and non-religious for many decades—hence the accusation on all sides of “playing semantics”.  

To be clear: An atheist is anyone who does not believe there is any evidence of a particular God or gods. By way of example, consider that no Christian believes in the existence of Allah, or Zeus.  They refute the theology of Islam and Greek mythology for the same reason they refute the truth claims of Scientology and Mormonism.  Not believing in the existence of a particular god, by definition, makes you an atheist—that is to say you reject the theology of religion X, hence you are a-theist towards X.

Anyone who argues in favour of a particular religious truth claim, automatically argues against the contradictory truth claims of another religion to which he does not belong.

An individual may base his or her rejection of a particular religious truth claim on the understanding that it is proven by scientific logic to be a false declaration.  But there is nothing inherently “atheistic” about science, per-se.

However, it is repeatedly asserted, by those on the right of this debate, that the atheist has merely swapped a belief in a particular god, for a belief in a particular scientific theory and is therefore as religiously motivated to disprove God as theists and deists are to prove a God exists.  But this is precisely the opposite of how a free thinking individual arrives at knowledge about a particular area of interest—and explaining this fundamental difference in how we know what we know, to certain kinds of religious, is by far and away the least explored aspect to this on-going conversation.

It has its roots in understanding how the religious see the world; which, broadly speaking, says that the profundity of nature is something to be revealed to us, in stages, by an understanding of previously accepted wisdom.  They automatically assume the worldview of the non-religious is also informed in this way; that they seed to the authority of science, in the same way the religious seed to the authority of the church—as if one is interchangeable with the other.

But the major difference between the authority of science and the authority of the church, is that the former is constantly adjusting and shifting its view based upon new evidence, whereas the latter assumes a given set of beliefs are beyond question, whilst simultaneously asserting that anything which challenges that assumption must be presumed incorrect—no matter how compelling the contrary evidence may be. 

Presuppositional Christian apologetics claims that this is a valid position, because human experiences of the numinous, such as love and compassion, cannot be explained by observing the laws of the universe; that physics, biology and chemistry are merely an outline of the mechanics God used to shape the universe, in the beginning, but are insufficient in understanding why or how God chose to do so.

But the fundamental flaw with this idea, is that it relies upon it’s own argument to prove it’s own argument; an infinite loop, known in philosophy as ‘the vicious problem of infinite regress’—referred to in common parlance as ‘circular logic’, e.g., “the bible is true because it says so in the bible” or “creationism is a science, because creationists say it is” and “God exists because you cannot prove he doesn’t”.ünchhausen_Trilemma

This stands in contrast to the falsifiability principal, which states that something can only be accepted as true if a method can be identified which might prove it is false. In other words, for something to be shown to have a basis in fact, it must demonstrate a mechanism by which it could be proven false. If you cannot layout a set of principals by which something could be proven false, you cannot assume it is therefore true—because you have not defined the boundaries by which something is described.

Simply appealing to “that which is without a beginning or end” as a description of God, by definition, places God beyond empirical observation and therefore makes an unfalsifiable statement about His existence. This is acknowledge by every Christian apologist worth reading, many of whom, in an attempt to adjust their own demonstrably false position, go on to make the argument that He must therefore be the arbiter of absolute morality—the inner voice which knows the difference between right and wrong—which, ironically, makes the perfect argument in favour of humanism and against their previously stated position.


11 comments on “Define the word atheist

  1. “Many apologists use the dictionary definition of the word ‘atheist’, as it is commonly understood to mean, as someone who does not believe in the God of the bible.”

    What dictionaries define “atheist” that way? I’ve never encountered one which restricts atheism to non-belief or disbelief in only one deity.

  2. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that theists often can only describe their gods in terms of what it ISN’T…they’re very short on positive attributes.

  3.      I always use the simple definition. An atheist is someone who believes that no gods exist. Strictly speaking, that’s the same as the dictionary definition. If I make a general statement about atheists, that is probably the group of people that those to whom I speak will think of.

  4. Well argued case, but fairly narrow. You are obviously an American. Although I agree with much of what you say, it comes across as almost apologetic. As if the only alternative to atheism is christianity – all your arguments are directed to an antagonistic christian audience. OK, you live in a society with more than its fair share of bible bashing fruitcakes who seem hell bent on inflicting their brand of lunacy on the rest of america, but there’s a big world out there, and there are many other religions. Please don’t confuse the terms god and religion -they are WAY different things, and have little or nothing in common. As an Australian who has spent some time in India and south-east asia, I feel sure that were you to ask a Thai fisherman “what is an atheist”, he would probably scratch his head, shrug and walk away. See, when you say you don’t believe in god, you are talking about a christian/jewish/muslim Big Daddy type god. One who makes rules, and punishes you if you don’t obey them. He knows that you make your own rules and suffer the consequences of your own actions. And whether or not god exists is a moot point. If you believe, then he does. And if not, then he doesn’t. After all, god doesn’t need you. Now lets hope that if we behave in an honourable fashion, then the fishing will be good today. And we will honour the fish we catch because they give us nourishment. God can catch his own fish. Ah fucking men!

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