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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.

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Atheism Not a Belief