Atheism Is Not a Belief
There is a lot of confusion about what it means to be an atheists.
Although many people think it means to deny the existence of
any god, and many dictionaries suggest this as well, atheism
is not a belief at all. In fact, it is simply a lack of belief
in a god. Checking several dictionaries, I found a variety of
ways it is defined. In one, the definition of atheism was, "The
doctrine or belief that there is no God or gods." Nonsense!
Not all dictionaries define atheism in the same way, but many
make this mistake of equating a lack of belief with a belief
in an opposing view. Definitions I found included, "Disbelief
in or denial of the existence of God," and even "Godlessness;
immorality." That last one is half right at least.
Fortunately, I did find a dictionary which has the following
definition of atheism: "A lack of belief in the existence
of God or gods." To that I can only say, "Amen!"
How to Define Atheism - And Why It Matters
Creating definitions is a tricky business. We have no official
arbiter of the English language, and if we did, he or she or
they could make mistakes just like anyone else. With that in
mind, how do we decide what definition is best? Look at the reality
which the word represents. Then use a definition that best describes
that reality. This is how we arrive a the best definition we
can. Disagreement on the outcome doesn't invalidate the process
or suggest that having an "authority" choose for us
makes matters better.
In other words, in this case, we look at what atheism actually
is. We can see that atheism isn't a belief, but a lack of belief
in gods. Those who claim a god exists are the ones expressing
a belief. The concept of atheism just points at the reality that
some people's belief systems don't include a belief in any gods.
It is true that some atheists (a small minority) think they
can "prove" "God" doesn't exist. Their attempts
have nothing to do with atheism, however, anymore than a belief
in Vishnu by some god-believers shows that theism is a belief
in Vishnu only. The atheistic stance, if their is such a thing,
is simply that "you have not proved your case, therefore
I don't believe in your god."
In any debate, the burden of proof is properly on the person
making a claim, of course. You say something is true, so you
are the one who must demonstrate its truth. A typical atheist
makes no claim about God, and he has no obligation to prove the
non-existence of a god. Suppose I claimed Mickey Mouse is the
"supreme spirit" that rules our universe. Would you
feel obligated to start gathering evidence to prove me wrong?
How could you in any case? These claims are made in ways that
make them not subject to any standards of proof or even evidence.
The truth is that Atheism is not a belief, and a proper definition
of atheism is simply a non-belief in "God" or gods.
This is important, because atheists are more typically seen as
being "anti-god" or somehow rejecting those who believe
in gods. Actually an atheist can join the believers and acknowledge
any god as soon as the evidence is there for him or her to see.
Another way to understand this is to look at what many of
the more outspoken atheists have been saying; If you are a Christian,
Muslim or Zoroastrian you are an atheist about all the other
gods people claim are real. I am just an atheist about one more
god than you.
For more on why atheism and belief, see our page on whether
an atheist can believe in God
and the one on how to be a spiritual atheist.