There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about the word “atheism” among theists. In order for theists and atheists to conduct meaningful conversation, we must both agree on definitions of words; or we get nowhere. So here’s a quick FAQ on the word “atheism” which I find to be mostly accepted by atheists. Keep in mind that atheists are those who chose the word carefully before assigning it to themselves:
1) What is an atheist?
An atheist is a person who is absent a belief in a god or gods. The word atheist is derived from the word “theist” which is the root word. The “a” in the word atheist is a prefix and more specifically is a privative alpha or privative a. It is a Greek concept which is used to denote the equivalent of the word “not” or “absent.” The word atypical, for example, means “not typical.” The word atheist means “not theist” or absent theism. When words come to us from Greek, we should respect the Greek word origins and definitions.
Atheism is defined as the following:
“Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.”
Theism is defined as the following:
“Theism, in the broadest sense, is the belief that at least one deity exists. In a more specific sense, theism refers to a doctrine concerning the nature of a monotheistic God and God’s relationship to the universe.”
– The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Second Edition and The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997).
2) Do atheists reject God?
No. Atheists don’t acknowledge God. You cannot reject something for which you don’t acknowledge. You can however, reject the God proposition (theism) and atheists do.
3) Do atheists hate God?
No. Atheists don’t hate God. You cannot hate something for which you don’t acknowledge.
4) If atheism simply means “not theist” then why can’t a cat or a rock be an atheist?
Because the word atheist is a derivative of the word theist, only that which can be a theist can be atheist. Can a cat or a rock be a theist?
5) Don’t atheists believe there is no God?
Belief is defined as the following:
“Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true.”
– Schwitzgebel, Eric (2006), “Belief”, in Zalta, Edward, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford, CA
By this definition atheists don’t believe in God. A belief is based upon an idea held to be TRUE. Any idea held to be false is not a belief. There is a big difference between believing there is no God and not believing there is a God. The latter being the only logical position of an atheist.
6) Doesn’t it require just as much faith if not more to NOT believe in God?
Faith is defined as follows:
1. confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability.
2. belief that is not based on proof: He had faith that the hypothesis would be substantiated by fact.
3. belief in god or in the doctrines or teachings of religion: the firm faith of the Pilgrims.
None of the definitions above apply to atheism. One does not hold faith in what they consider to be untrue. One holds faith in what they consider to be true. Atheism posits the opposite of faith which is disbelief.
7) If atheism is a disbelief in God, then how can newborns be atheist? They would have to know of God to have disbelief.
Anyone who is not a theist or is absent theism is an atheist by definition. See FAQ 1) above.
Neonates (infants) are not able to make the choice of whether or not they will accept the proposition of theism and possess no theistic knowledge. Even though neonates are not theists and by definition can be considered atheists, some prefer to consider them “non-theists” because they are unable to reject theism (the broad definition in FAQ 1) above).