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 about.atheism.com. 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.