Atheist definitions, according to atheism 101

In an earlier post, I discussed the need for better “atheism 101” resources.  One of my complaints about current resources is anything regarding definitions of atheism.  Part of this has to do with me being an opinionated contrarian, but you can judge that for yourself.

Here I will discuss, “What is Atheism? Overview of How Atheism is Defined in Dictionaries, By Atheists” by Austin Cline on  I don’t have anything against Cline, on the contrary he seems a decent writer, which is perfect to start this discussion.

Long-time readers may know that I already object to the title of Cline’s article.  Definitions are overrated.  Words have meanings, which cannot always be encapsulated by definitions.  As I recently observed, identity terms especially communicate a lot through subtext and connotation.  One alternative to definition theory is prototype theory (from linguistics and philosophy).  Under prototype theory, we have an idea of what an atheist looks like (i.e. a prototype), and we classify someone as an atheist if they look sufficiently close to the prototype.

But let’s just note the inadequacy of definitions and move on to the content of Cline’s article…

What Is Atheism? Why Atheists Define Atheism Broadly?:

[…] broadly defined, atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. Most disagreement over this comes from Christians who insist that atheism must be the denial of gods, or at least of their god.

Introductory atheist resources often hammer endlessly about the distinction between “absence of belief in the existence of any gods” and “denial of gods”.  And it makes sense–there are certainly people out there who lack any belief in gods, and yet they do not deny the existence of gods.  For instance, newborn babies have no coherent beliefs whatsoever.  But babies are besides the point.

The point is, if someone just has no idea what to believe about gods, they can describe themselves as an atheist if they want to.  “If they want to” is the key phrase, and the one that Cline seems to be missing.  If someone has no idea about gods, they’re sufficiently far away from the atheist prototype that nobody can really say whether they’re atheist, and we might as well let the person decide for themselves.  As for babies, we let them decide when they get older.

What I like: Cline establishes that people in the middle can identify as atheists, and invites them to do so.
What I dislike: The implication is that people in the middle are atheists whether they like it or not.

Strong Atheism vs. Weak Atheism:

The more common understanding of atheism among atheists is “not believing in any gods.” No claims or denials are made — an atheist is a person who is not a theist. Sometimes this broader understanding is called “weak” or “implicit” atheism. There is also a narrower sort of atheism, sometimes called “strong” or “explicit” atheism. Here, the atheist explicitly denies the existence of any gods — making a strong claim which will deserve support at some point.

I hate this.  When I first became an atheist, introductory resources gave me the impression that “strong” and “weak” were common terms of discussion.  They are not.  In practice, nobody talks about strong vs weak atheism, except in the context of atheism 101.  It turns out that strong and weak atheists just have no particular motivation to separate themselves into distinct groups.

Another thing I hate about this (and similar distinctions) is the strong whiff of judgment.  “Weak atheists are good, because they’re modest about their claims and hold only to the default position.  Strong atheists are extremists.  Christians would really love to paint all atheists as strong atheists, but we won’t let them, oh no!”  And here I am, a strong atheist by Cline’s definition.

What I like: Cline identifies a distinction.
What I dislike: At best the distinction is unimportant.  At worst, the distinction is used to divide atheists into the good ones and the bad ones (and I’m one of the bad ones).

Why are there Misunderstandings About Atheism?:

Misunderstandings arise because many theists imagine that all atheists fit a narrow, limited concept of atheism. Reliance on dishonest apologists and cheap dictionaries only exacerbates the problem.


A common theme in good dictionary definitions is the primary use of “disbelieve” when defining atheism. When we take a closer look at the word “disbelieve,” however, we find two senses: an active and a passive. In the passive sense, “disbelieve” simply means “not believe” […]

Cline places the blame on theists, but in my experience many atheists do the same thing.  We’re talking about identity terms, which by nature are rich in connotation.  Dictionaries are never going to cut it, it doesn’t matter if the dictionary is cheap or not.

What I like: Cline rejects cheap dictionaries.
What I dislike: Cline fails to reject all dictionaries.

How did Early Freethinkers Define Atheism?:

Some apologists argue that the broader definition of atheism is a recent creation, but they are wrong. Atheists and freethinkers have defined atheism relatively consistently over the past couple of centuries. Although a few have focused solely on the sense of ‘strong’ atheism, many more have differentiated between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ atheism. As early as 1772, freethinkers treated atheism as broadly encompassing the absence of belief in gods. [this is followed by a broken link to another one of Cline’s articles]

This is the token nod to history that makes it clear that Cline isn’t actually interested in history, but needs to say something to satisfy people who are.  I’d like to fact-check this section, but it’s so filled with weasel words that there’s just no way.  In any case, historical details are irrelevant to the word’s meaning today.

What I like: Cline says something (?) about history.
What I dislike: People who think etymology is destiny.

Let’s skip to “What Is Atheism? Narrow vs. Broad Definitions of Atheism“, another article by Cline.

Agnostic Theism: belief in a god without claiming to know for sure that the god exists.
Gnostic Theism: belief in a god while being certain that this god exists.
Agnostic Atheism: disbelief in gods without claiming to know for sure that none exist.
Gnostic Atheism: disbelief in gods while being certain that none (can or do) exist.

This is another common model, and I have some nice things to say about it. It helps people deal with the anxiety of being uncertain.  Even if you’re uncertain, you can still believe in god, not believe in god, believe in not god, and so forth. Possibilities abound.

On the other hand, it has the same problem as the strong vs weak distinction, in that it seems slightly judgmental.  “Certainty” just sounds bad–isn’t that a bit like “dogma”?  It also tries to fit everyone into four categories, when clearly there are a lot of people who self-describe simply as agnostics.

What I like: This model helps people be comfortable with uncertainty.
What I dislike: The model tries to fit everyone into four boxes, and has negative things to say about three of those boxes.

Final complaint: In practice, many people use “atheism” to refer specifically to the atheist movement.  For example, when I talk about atheist bloggers, I am not merely referring to bloggers who are atheists, I am referring to the loose community of people who blog about atheism.  When I say atheism is about fighting the harms of religion, I’m referring to the atheist movement.  In general, when people talk about atheists, they do not seem to be referring to a group that primarily lives in China.

Cline offers no mention of this second meaning of “atheism”.  Even if Cline doesn’t like the second meaning, any introductory atheist resource should at least describe it.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    At times here you seem to conflate “atheism” as a social grouping with “atheism” as an epistemology.

    That way confusion lies…

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 2 – Wow, an open door to pontificate!!!

    Let me start with some snips from your OP: … identity terms … strong and weak atheists just have no particular motivation to separate themselves into distinct groups. … We’re talking about identity terms… In practice, many people use “atheism” to refer specifically to the atheist movement.

    In these cases, you allude to atheism as a set of people. Even if we overlook the inherent fuzziness of this approach (somewhere, I think on the Patheos Atheist channel, I recently read of a survey in which 2% of those who called themselves atheists claimed to believe in a god), that gets into some muddy waters. Consider, e.g., a “fan” of a given musical group who strongly criticizes both the members of that group as individuals and the music that group makes – but still follows the news about them closely. Or, remember Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist, while promoting efforts in direct opposition to what the majority of feminists want. Or the current schism within (Anglophone, at least) atheism, marked by sharp divides over the basic implications of god-disbelief.

    Which brings me to the other side of your post, about atheist (dis)beliefs. Hard/soft, agnostic/atheist – all matters of opinions and perceptions. With relatively little cognitive dissonance or logical conflict, any given person might hold any of those positions, and participate in actively, identify with passively, or exist in total isolation from any of the social groups previously outlined. For example, I disagree strongly with Sam Harris about many things important to both of us, and if you put us in the same room there would probably be a lot of yelling rather quickly. Yet I would also leap to his defense if dealing with somebody who cited Harris in an ad hominem fallacy to “prove that God exists”. Many people would find it confusing to see me opposing a major atheist leader one minute and defending him the next: in the most extreme case (with all atheists lumped into the they-agree-with-Harris set), I’d be anti-atheist and pro-atheist simultaneously. But I’d still claim consistency – because I’d be arguing on the basis of my worldview, not on my social grouping.

    … historical details are irrelevant to the word’s meaning today.

    [citation needed] – or – Sez who? Leaving definitions and semantics up to usages, by groups or (inevitably) by individuals, invites a Genesis 11:7-9 (the Babel myth) scenario, with each claiming their own meanings for the same word and communication grinding to a halt: postmodernism run amok. (What do “feminism” and “environmentalism” mean if Palin & Exxon lay claim to them?) Even the most strongly descriptivist lexicographers use and depend on etymology – particularly in cases of contradictory meanings.

    Back to atheism (and to Patheos/Atheist) – read Love Joy Feminism”, or Roll to Disbelieve or Godless in Dixie for eyewitness reports on how countless believers interpret this as not-participating-in-church or denying-what-you-really-know-so-you-can-sin or semi-Christian-but-not-truly-born-again, or various other rationales that implicitly deny all the definitions and categories you list above. Let’s concede that persons holding such attitudes probably do exist – does spreading the term that wide, without explicit qualifiers, give us anything but more muddle?

    But back again to my point here. I think you’ve tangled up atheism as an identity, a social subset, a population of existing (and deceased, and maybe future) individuals, with atheism as an abstract concept, a framework of understanding in which “god(s)” refers to a category of imaginary entities. In certain contexts, the same word can serve functionally for both (“Pat Robertson dislikes atheism.” “Atheism is now in deep conflict about political issues.”). In others, the distinction is crucial (“Atheism should/should not reach out to Republicans.” “Does atheism necessitate existentialism?”).

    Christians and Muslims often identify so deeply with their respective beliefs that no one can challenge the latter without having it taken as a personal attack. I suggest we should keep the distinction(s) clear – for both better social interaction and clearer thinking.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 4 – Ye gawds, such a relief to express a disagreement and get to straighten it out without acrimony.

    Thank you!

  4. says

    “At best the distinction is unimportant.”

    To add just a bit to what Pierce was saying, the strong/weak distinction does not exist for the sake of carving up “atheism as an identity, a social subset, a population of existing…individuals” but rather to signal to our theistic interlocutors whether we are willing to take up the burden of proof in any given dispute between theism and atheism. Strong atheists generally affirm that we can safely conclude that all gods are fictions, while weak atheists need only say that they are unconvinced by the current state of the evidence.

  5. says

    @Damion Reinhardt,
    Have you tested that idea by actually asking people? I’m pretty clearly a strong atheist, but do not intend to signal anything about burden of proof.

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