Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What is an atheist?

Q: What is an atheist?

A: The basic definition of an atheist is "Someone who has no god-belief."

That's it.

This is a descriptive definition, specifically a description of an absence. It makes no positive claims of any sort, it simply describes someone in whom divine belief is absent. It's a "least common denominator" sort of definition which applies to anyone who can fairly be labeled an atheist.

For other, alternate usages of the term "atheist" see this excellent article at ReligiousTolerance.org.

It is worth noting that in common Western usage, "atheist" has a much more active, negative connotation, meaning "someone who denies that any God or gods exist." On this and most other atheist sites, however, the more general (and in my opinion correct) usage is what is intended.


Dirk Gently said...

i personally am more of the active, negative type of atheist you describe. but i wonder, where do you draw the line between atheist and agnostic?

Jeff Hebert said...

I should probably make a separate post about agnosticism. Basically an agnostic is someone who asserts that the existence or non-existence of a god is unknowable. Those agnostics who acknowledge that essential uncertainty but personally believe gods do exist -- even though they can't know -- are theists. Those who acknowledge that essential uncertainty but personally do not have a belief in the existence of gods -- even though they can't know -- are atheists.

Agnosticism (whether or not it's possible to know for sure if there's a god) is a different axis from the presence or absence of the belief itself. You can be an agnostic who believes in a god and thus is a theist, or you can be an agnostic who does not have a belief in any god and thus are an atheist.

You can also be a theist or atheist who believes agnosticism to be false -- that is, you believe that it is possible to know whether or not god exists (at least beyond a reasonable doubt).

Hope that makes at least some kind of sense.