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Atheism:

Definitions of "Atheism" in dictionaries
and according to most Atheists; they differ.

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"Atheist" according to most modern dictionaries:

Most dictionaries define an "Atheist" as a person who either passively believes that no God exists, and/or who actively asserts this belief. For example:

bullet Webster's New World Dictionary®, Third College Edition defines an Atheist as "a person who believes that there is no God." 1 This definition implies that Atheists have investigated proofs and for the existence and non-existence of God, and have decided that no God exists or that the probability of one existing is phenomenally small. It seems to include a "closet" Atheist: one who believes that there is no God but does not assert this belief to others. This definition would seem to imply that a person who believes in the existence of a Goddess, but not a God, is also an Atheist. This definition will probably not satisfy many Goddess worshipers. Webster Dictionary, 1913 had a more inclusive definition that includes non-male deities: "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being." 2 So did Webster's 1828 Dictionary:  "One who disbelieves the existence of a God, or Supreme intelligent Being." 2

bullet Websters Collegiate® Dictionary defines an Atheist as "one who denies the existence of God." This is a particularly vague definition, because it does not define which God is being referred to. If Websters means the Christian God, then it would seem to imply that anyone who does not believe in the Trinity is an Atheist -- including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, Sikhs, and Atheists. The word "denies" would seem to imply that the individual actively promotes their belief.

bullet Other definitions: 2
bullet The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition: "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods."

bullet The Cambridge International dictionary of English: "someone who believes that god or gods do not exist."

bullet The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition: "Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god."

bullet The Masonic Dictionary: "One who does not believe in God."

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More inclusive definitions of "Atheist" from some sources:

bullet The Barnes & Noble Encyclopedia defines Atheism as "The denial of the existence of God or gods." The Encyclopedia goes further and includes within Atheism both:

bullet "The rejection of any specific belief in God or gods."

bullet "skepticism" towards "claims about divine existence..." 3

The term "God" and "god" usually imply male deities. Whether a Goddess worshiper is also an Atheist is not clear.

This definition covers a lot of ground:

bullet The primary definition includes a person who actively denies the existence of all Gods.

bullet Some might find the secondary definition confusing. One "specific belief in God" is promoted by Christians who believe that God is a Trinity. That is rejected by Muslims who believe that God/Allah is a unity. If one is to literally interpret the secondary definition, this would seem to imply that Muslims can be considered Atheists -- a charge that Muslims would strongly reject. Similarly, Christians reject the pure monotheistic concept of God as taught in Islam; so Christians could be considered Atheists by this definition. This would anger them as well. One wonders if the writers of this definition intended to use the word "all" in place of "any." If so, then this definition would include only persons who reject all Gods.

bullet The third definition would include those who have reached no conclusion about the existence of a deity, and remain skeptical -- i.e. undecided -- about whether a God exists.

bullet The World Almanac and Book of Facts lists "adherents of all religions" in six continental areas of the world. The list includes adherents of 15 specific religions, New-Religionists, Other Religionists, Nonreligions and Atheists. They define Atheists as a catchall group, including: "Persons professing atheism, skepticism, disbelief or irreligion, including antireligious (opposed to all religions)." 4

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Definitions according to some Atheists:

It is important to realize that most dictionaries attempt to reflect the general public usage of the terms that they define. Since the vast majority of adults in North America are theists -- that is they actively believe in at least one God and/or Goddess -- the dictionary definitions follow their beliefs. Dictionaries do not necessarily reflect the meaning by those who consider themselves to be Atheists.

The Atheism Web has collected some definitions of "Atheism" from authors who consider themselves to be Atheists: 5

bullet Dan Barker: "There is a difference between believing there is no god and not believing there is a god -- both are atheistic, though popular usage has ignored the latter..." 6

bullet Antony Flew: "I want the originally Greek prefix 'a' to be read in the same way in 'atheist' as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as 'amoral,' 'atypical,' and 'asymmetrical'. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: someone who is simply not a theist." 7

bullet Michael Martin: "...an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist." 8

bullet Gordon Stein, Ed., "To be without a belief in God merely means that the term 'god' has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief." 9

Other definitions include:

bullet Al Case," webmaster at www.2think.org/: "If you answer the question, 'Do you believe in god?' with an affirmative, then you are a theist. If your answer is 'no' or 'I don't know' then you are an atheist due to your lack of an affirmative belief." 10

bullet George Smith: "Atheism ... is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist. Atheism is sometimes defined as 'the belief that there is no God of any kind,' or the claim that a god cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism--and are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief. An atheist is primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist, rather he does not believe in the existence of a god."  11

bullet Dean W. Austin: "[Atheism is to possess]...no belief in God. This definition is logically tenable. It is in full accordance with Occam's Razor in that it discards the more complex hypothesis (A supernatural consciousness exists and is responsible for all other existence, we just have no evidence.) for the simpler one (Existence is most likely explained by natural processes which we know exist and have evidence of such workings.)." 12

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Webster's New World Dictionary; 3rd college edition," Page 86
  2. "One Look® dictionaries: Search dictionary web sites for words and phrases," at: http://www.wordwizard.com/indexresources.htm
  3. The Barnes & Noble Encyclopedia," (1993), Page 81.
  4. The World Almanac and Book of Facts (2001), Page 692.
  5. "More on definitions on atheism," at: http://www.infidels.org/news/
  6. Dan Barker, "Losing Faith in Faith: From preacher to Atheist," Freedom From Religion Foundation, (1992), Page 99. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  7. Antony G.N. Flew, "God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis," Prometheus Books, (1984), Page 14 Read reviews or order this book
  8. Michael Martin, "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification," Temple University Press, (1992), Page 463. Read reviews or order this book
  9. Gordon Stein, Ed, "An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism," Prometheus Books, (1980), Page 3. Read reviews or order this book
  10. Al Case. "What is atheism?," 2think.org at: http://www.2think.org/hii/atheism.shtml
  11. George Smith, "Atheism: The case against God," Prometheus Books (1989), Page 7. Read reviews or order this book
  12. Dean W. Austin, "My Reasons for Being an Atheist," at: http://www.galah.org/myreasons.html

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Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-AUG-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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