Pronunciation: /ˈeɪθɪɪz(ə)m/

[mass noun]

  1. disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. [Oxford English Dictionary]

In the broadest sense, atheism is the absence or rejection of belief in the existence of deities and is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief in the existence of at least one deity. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities.

The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god(s)", and was applied pejoratively to those thought to reject the deities worshipped by the larger society.

Types of atheism

Many disagree how best to define and classify atheism, contesting what supernatural entities it applies to, whether it is an assertion in its own right or merely the absence of one, and whether it requires a conscious, explicit rejection. Atheism has been regarded as both compatible with and contrasted with agnosticism. Thus, a variety of categories have been used to distinguish the different forms of atheism.

Implicit vs. explicit

Definitions of atheism also vary in the degree of consideration a person must put to the idea of gods to be considered an atheist. Atheism has sometimes been defined to include the simple absence of belief that any deities exist. This broad definition would include newborns and other people who have not been exposed to theistic ideas. As far back as 1772, Baron d'Holbach said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God."Similarly, George H. Smith (1979) suggested that: "The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist."Smith coined the term implicit atheism to refer to "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it" and explicit atheism to refer to the more common definition of conscious disbelief. Ernest Nagel contradicts Smith's definition of atheism as merely "absence of theism", acknowledging only explicit atheism as true "atheism".

Positive/strong vs. negative/weak

Philosophers such as Antony Flewand Michael Martinhave contrasted positive (strong/hard) atheism with negative (weak/soft) atheism. Positive atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist. Negative atheism includes all other forms of non-theism. According to this categorization, anyone who is not a theist is either a negative or a positive atheist. The terms weak and strong are relatively recent, while the terms negative and positive atheism are of older origin, having been used (in slightly different ways) in the philosophical literatureand in Catholic apologetics.Under this demarcation of atheism, most agnostics qualify as negative atheists.

A "strong" atheist is one who asserts that "there is no god." Strong atheism is the form of atheism that most theists reference in debates, since most don't know the distinction between strong and weak atheism. However, strong atheists are rarer than most people think.

For the above reason, strong atheism is sometimes criticized for "requiring faith." This criticism often rests on the assumption that faith is a fault, which, if spoken by an arguer whose stance rests on faith, is self-defeating in a direct sense. Other times this idea is argued by theists to 'bring them down to our level'. Most often it is argued as a 'your stance is no better than mine' argument. Often, this is successful in derailing the conversation, as many atheists are uncomfortable with admitting that any element of their thoughts contain faith. Users of this wiki are advised to consider that, in the literal epistemic sense, all knowledge eventually requires some basic assumptions, and that assumption is functionally identical to faith. The difference relies not in avoiding faith/assumption, but in grounding one's knowledge in firmer and more well-reasoned thought.

Strong atheism is also called 'positivist' atheism. In this usage the term 'positivist' comes from the root 'to posit' meaning 'to take a position'. Thus a positivist atheist is one who has taken the position that there are no gods.

While Martin, for example, asserts that agnosticism entails negative atheism,most agnostics see their view as distinct from atheism, which they may consider no more justified than theism or requiring an equal conviction.The assertion of unattainability of knowledge for or against the existence of gods is sometimes seen as indication that atheism requires a leap of faith.Common atheist responses to this argument include that unproven religious propositions deserve as much disbelief as all other unproven propositions, and that the unprovability of a god's existence does not imply equal probability of either possibility.Scottish philosopher J. J. C. Smart even argues that "sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical skepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever, except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic."  Consequently, some atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins prefer distinguishing theist, agnostic and atheist positions along a spectrum of theistic probability—the likelihood that each assigns to the statement "God exists".

A "weak" atheist is one who doesn't claim to know that there is no god, but instead simply lacks belief in a god. This form of atheism is the most common, and is sometimes called "agnostic atheism". Every newborn baby is (unknowingly) a weak atheist, and remains so until the concept of god is introduced to him or her.

Weak atheists often argue that theirs is the only rational position, as both theism and strong atheism make positivist claims. Weak atheism is also called non-positivist atheism.

Posted in: About atheism