Review. Ambiguity among religious terms.
Origin of "Atheist." Resolving the ambiguity.
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Most of the North American public define an "Atheist" is
a person who believes that no deity exists: neither a God, nor a Goddess, nor a
pantheon of Gods and Goddesses. This definition is reflected in American
dictionaries -- not just because most publishers are Christian, but because it
is the purpose of dictionaries to follow the public's word usage. Some
individuals who consider themselves Atheists mesh well with that definition. But
they may be in the minority. Many, perhaps most, Atheists simply have no belief about
deity. For them, Atheism is not disbelief in a deity or deities; it is simply a
lack of belief in any of them.
Ambiguity of religious terms:
In the fields of medicine and engineering, precise definitions of terms
are of paramount importance. Otherwise, misunderstandings can cause
disasters. Bridges may fall down and patients can die from excessive or
insufficient medication. However, the field of religion is very different. There are probably more
religious terms with multiple, conflicting meanings than in any other area of human
activity. We have detected at least
17 meanings to the term "Witch"
-- mostly negative, and some mutually exclusive. There are at least
eight meanings for the word "cult," and six
There are also many different and mutually
exclusive meanings to the term "Christian," among
the over 1,000 religious groups in North America which consider themselves
All of these groups are correct, within their own definition of terms.
But the meaning that they assign to "Christian" and "Christianity"
radically contradict each other.
This type of confusion extends to Atheism as well. There are many disagreements
about the precise definition of the term "Atheist."
Some background information about "Atheist"
|Etymology: Atheist originated in two Greek roots:|
|"A" which means "without" or "not"|
|"Theos" which means "deity"|
This would seem to imply that an Atheist is either:
||A person who is without a belief in any deity. This
definition would mainly include those who are simply unaware of the
existence of any deity. It would also include a person who is either
too young or who lacks the mental ability to conceive of a deity.
In contrast to this, most Muslims believe that all babies are Muslim at birth,
and only later in life may accept the teachings of another religion or become Atheists, Agnostics, etc.|
|A person who totally rejects the existence of any deity. Some may
keep this belief to themselves; others may assert this belief to others.|
|Capitalization: The terms "Atheism" and "Atheist" are normally not capitalized --
except when they begin a sentence -- because they are not proper nouns. On
this web site, they are capitalized. This
is not ignorance or carelessness on our part. We have intentionally
decided to deviate from the usual practice.|
There are countless definitions of
the term "religion." The one that we use is unusually inclusive:
is any specific system of belief about deity, often involving rituals, a code of ethics, a
philosophy of life, and a worldview."
(A worldview is a set of basic, foundational beliefs concerning deity,
humanity and the rest of the universe.) We include
Humanism, Ethical Culture etc. as belief systems
similar to religions, because:
|They all contain a
"belief about deity." Their belief is that they do not
know whether a deity exists, or they have no knowledge of a deity, or they
sincerely believe that no deity exists.|
|Many Atheists celebrate rituals at the solstices.|
|Atheists, like everyone else, have derived a personal moral code, a
philosophy of life and a worldview. These are based on secular
considerations, not on belief in revelation from a deity. |
We recognize that many Atheists reject the concepts that Atheism is a
religion, or is similar to religion, or functions in some ways as a
religion. However, we feel that it is appropriate to capitalize these terms
as we have capitalized the names of organized religions.
Resolving the ambiguity:
Most adults in North America are Theists: they have a definite belief
in one or more deities. Jews and Muslims generally believe in a male God
who is viewed as a unity. Most Christians believe in a Trinity which is composed of
God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit -- three personalities who are
simultaneously viewed as a single entity. Others believe in a Goddess, a
pantheon of male Gods, a group of female Goddesses or a pantheon of Gods and
But there are other possible beliefs concerning deities:
|A definite belief that no deity exists. The individual is solidly convinced
that no supreme being exists in any form.|
||No belief in a range of deities. Faced with a wide variety of
conflicting beliefs about deities, the individual has not accepted any
of them as true.|
|A belief that the existence of a deity is unlikely, but not
impossible. No certainty exists. However, if the person had to make a
decision based on the existence or non-existence of a deity, they would
probably assume that no deity existed.|
|The inability to reach a conclusion about deity. The person may have
investigated proofs about the existence and non-existence of a deity and
has not accepted any of them. They remain undecided, at least for the
present, because of insufficient data.|
|A belief that we cannot know anything about a deity, including whether
one exists or not. The person may have concluded that there is no
possibility that we can ever know whether a deity exists.|
|A person may never have ever considered whether one or more supreme
intelligences exist. |
There is a general consensus that:
|A person who believes in a specific God, Goddess or combination of
deities is a Theist.|
||A person who actively denies the existence of any and all deities is
one type of Atheist.|
|A person who feels that we have no method by which we can conclude
whether a deity exists is an Agnostic.|
But there is no consensus on how to classify the other possible belief
systems about deity/deities listed above. Some have suggested the use of modifiers, like:
Atheist," or "Positive Atheist," or "Hard
Atheist" to refer to a person who
asserts that no deity exists.|
||"Weak Atheist," "Negative Atheist," "Soft
Atheist," "Skeptical Atheist" to refer to a
person who simply has no belief in a deity because there are currently no rational
grounds that support his/her/their existence.|
|Peter Berger suggested that the term "methodological atheism"
be used to describe theologians and historians who study religion as a
human creation without declaring whether individual religious beliefs
are actually true.|
||The terms "Noncoherent Atheist" or "Noncoherentism"
have been suggested to cover the belief that there is no way to have a
meaningful discussions about deities, because there exist no coherent
definition of "god."|
|"Apathetic Atheism," or "Apatheism" have been
suggested to cover the individual who doesn't really care whether Gods
or Goddesses exist. They probably live with the assumption that no deity
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Webster's New World Dictionary; 3rd college edition,"
- "One Look® dictionaries: Search
dictionary web sites for words and phrases," at:
- The Barnes & Noble Encyclopedia," (1993), Page 81.
- The World Almanac and Book of Facts (2001), Page 692.
- "More on definitions on atheism," at:
- Dan Barker, "Losing Faith in Faith: From preacher to
Atheist," Freedom From Religion Foundation, (1992), Page 99.
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- Antony G.N. Flew, "God, Freedom and Immortality: A Critical Analysis," Prometheus Books, (1984), Page 14
Read reviews or order this book
- Michael Martin, "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification,"
Temple University Press, (1992), Page 463.
Read reviews or order this book
- Gordon Stein, Ed, "An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism,"
Prometheus Books, (1980), Page 3. Read reviews or order this book
- Al Case. "What is atheism?," 2think.org at:
- George Smith, "Atheism: The case against God," Prometheus
Books (1989), Page 7. Read reviews or order this book
- Dean W. Austin, "My Reasons for Being an Atheist," at:
Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-AUG-20
Author: B.A. Robinson