There seem to be almost as many definitions of atheism as there are atheists. Perhaps that’s because it is a proposition that frees the mind rather than constricts it.
Many definitions of atheism embrace science as the framework for knowledge and understanding of our universe. Many adopt humanist codes of ethics and humanitarian principles as guides for our behaviour in the world. These are all valid and worthwhile practices, but they are unnecessarily complex as definitions of the atheism that enables them.
All too often, the definition is pejorative. At the very least, it is seen as negative – simple unbelief in god that leaves the infidel with nothing to cling to. That’s why the more pompous and self-satisfied among believers (and Christians are particularly prone to this) regard atheists as people who lack something important, and somewhat stupidly extend the negative position about god to embrace a negative position about ethics and morals. It’s illogical and feeble-minded to do so, of course, but all too common.
One member of the forum at RichardDawkins.net found that the thesaurus in his word processor offered ‘nihilist’ as a synonym for ‘atheist’ and went on to define nihilism as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless”. Quite where that nonsense about moral principles came from it didn’t say. That nihilists – or atheists,by implication – must consider life as meaningless is absurd and ignorant.
Another common accusation levelled at atheists is that they are really agnostic (and the implication, then, is that they are dishonest). The reasoning, if one can call it that, goes like this: Can you prove there’s no god? Of course not, that’s the null hypothesis, you can’t prove the non-existence of anything, not even Russell’s orbiting teapot. So then you admit that there’s a tiny possibility that god exists? Well, yes. Aha! Then you’re really agnostic.
This puerile argument ignores the real point about atheism. If you can’t prove that a phenomenon does exist – god, UFOs, ghosts, leprechauns, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, spoon-bending – and if you can’t show any evidence of that phenomenon’s effect on the world, or any mechanism or principle by which that phenomenon could exist and have an effect on the world, then that phenomenon is as good as non-existent. There is absolutely no difference between that phenomenon not existing and the current situation where you believe in it. Therefore, it can be safely and justifiably ignored.
People sometimes talk about a scale of belief where ’10′ is total belief in a personal, supernatural god and ’0′ is total disbelief (“I know for certain god does not exist”). And a lot of atheists put themselves at 1 because of the above argument about the inability to prove that god does not exist. This is frankly silly. That would be like having a volume control on a hi-fi that is marked from 0-10, but where the knob can’t physically turn below 1. At the risk of invoking the spirit of Spinal Tap, we should simply forget about 0 and rename 1 ‘atheism’.
To have any use at all, the term ‘atheism’ must mean something. And why define it in in terms of belief in god? For atheists, that scale really has no relevance and it is simply playing the theists’ game of defining ourselves in their terms.
So, here – for what it’s worth – is how I’ve defined atheism thus far:
Atheism: A philosophical position in which the existence of supernatural forces is regarded as unnecessary and irrelevant.
This might be seen as ‘weak atheism’ (see this excellent article on About.com which also points out that most poor definitions of atheism are perpetrated by theists). Upon this, one might build the case for strong atheism, militant atheism and anti-theism – but that is simply embarking on a philosophical process that will take you through areas like humanism too. These are all fine and interesting philosophical standpoints, but I’m more interested in defining what is at the root of them and why it’s important.
It’s also important to note that the above definition has nothing to do with denying god (which is how most theists would like to define atheism because then its places the whole debate with the arena of belief in god). It simply brushes god aside (along with those leprechauns and, alas, the Flying Spaghetti Monster) as a starting point for engaging in more important issues.
Two sides of the coin
Let’s look at the two sides of the coin – atheism and theism. Note that the opposite of atheism is not Christianity, Islam or whatever flavour of faith you prefer. The opposite of atheism is theism, full stop. That’s why the spelling is so similar. Let’s see what they involve.
In theism, you posit the existence of a supernatural god. How far does that actually get you? The answer is: nowhere. The simple statement that “god exists” provides you with no framework for living your life, for acting morally or ethically. And basic theism alone does not provide you with the comforts of an afterlife (nor the terrors of eternal damnation), nor that sense of superiority that so many theists seem to derive from their faiths. It offers no clues as to how god behaves or what effects god has on your life or the world in general. It gives you nothing.
For theism to have any value, then, you must start encumbering it with further beliefs (none of which have any greater foundation in truth – this is faith, after all). And the effect of these additional beliefs – in miracles, fictional prophets, talking snakes or whatever – is to progressively narrow your view of the world and constrain your ability to act. Because with these beliefs come dogma and doctrine, rules for what you may or may not believe, may or may not do (for example, for many it rules out evolution, blood transfusions or bacon sandwiches). The root of theism is the acceptance of an unverifiable (and thus unfalsifiable) concept with which everything that comes after must conform and to which all other ideas are subservient. It is a process of closing the mind, of prescribing what you must feel and how you must respond, of limiting knowledge and understanding to a fixed viewpoint that you are not allowed to challenge, let alone change. And by imposing these limitations, faith is profoundly negative, in that it rejects more than it embraces.
Atheism is a process of liberation.
By rejecting god as a starting point, you open your mind to an infinite variety of possibilities. You allow the universe to define and describe itself. This is why an atheistic viewpoint so often leads to a fascination and engagement with science, because science is a process of accumulating knowledge in which nature reveals itself as fast as our intellect is capable of absorbing it. Whereas faith imposes arbitrary and artificial boundaries (often established in medieval times), atheism frees us to explore wherever our growing understanding of the universe might take us.
Atheism presupposes nothing. In that sense it is not a negative, but a negative of a negative. It’s easy to see why atheism and science, while not inevitably linked, work together so well. Science is always vulnerable to its own principles and processes. Any part of our scientific knowledge can be falsified by newly discovered facts or theories. It is self-correcting. It is not subject to the dictates of a Pope or sacred text. There is nothing sacred in science. That’s why we refer to evolution, relativity, gravity and so many other scientific ideas as theories, rather than facts. They are theories because they have been proven to work, because they represent the best of human knowledge, but they are open to amendment, even abandonment, if future knowledge renders them untrustworthy. Scientists are not obliged to limit their thinking because of some immutable, unquestionable, given proposition.
Atheism endows philosophical, moral, ethical, political and social worldviews with that same freedom of thought, that same ability to progress and improve as our knowledge and understanding grow. It does not provide these worldviews, per se. It does not demand or presuppose any particular belief or attitude. It simply removes the restraints. And so, only from an atheistic beginning can mankind achieve its full potential.