Atheism and Definitions

An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being. Atheist is one who asserts the existence of such a creator. Any discussionof atheism, then, is necessarily a discussion of theism. –

Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Routledge, 2003, xvii
When I was a coffee shop worker and a seminary student and found myself hanging around drinking the black brew I often found myself talking with intellectual types (we were all faux intellectuals). When atheism would come up it was often defined thus, “An atheist is not somebody who believes there is no God, an atheist is somebody who lacks a belief about God.” This to me was intolerably stupid for two reasons:
  1. One would be an afideist (a person not having belief), but etymology and dictionaries are often ignored in such discussions.
  2. The rhetoric behind this definitional change was clearly a ruse. Whenever these discussions came up, it was usually when I was memorizing vocabulary for some dead language or reading a giant tome about rhetoric in Romans or ancient patronage practices and minding my own business. Then somebody would ask what I was studying, and suddenly imply that I mustn’t understand science. Because you know, random coffee shop folks do so much science. If I did get science, I would know there was not a God. But as soon as I started pointing out various arguments for God’s existence….BOOM: “Whoa man, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe there isn’t a God. I simply lack belief in a God, don’t try to convince me. [mike drop]”

Anyway, Le Poidevin’s book about atheism and why one should be one and what one is might clear things up.

Note: I am not an atheist, I’m just saying that if anybody wishes to be one, let it be done accurately.

Update: An old friend (not his age, I see him as a young guy like Data from the Goonies), noted that “lack of belief” has become an accepted definition of the term. While I accept that, I still hypothesize that this usage, which was in circulation amongst certain academic atheists even prior to 2003, was not typical until it became rhetorically useful. For instance, Richard Dawkins, in the mid 2000s wrote the God delusion which included his infamous Boeing gambit argument for God’s non-existence, not an argument for lack of belief one way or another. But I’ll accept the facts if the usage has been so transformed. Also, I don’t hang out in coffee shops any more, so the point is practically moot.


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