Friday, January 11, 2013

How do you define 'atheist'?

Just listened to the recent Unbelievable podcast on the topic of defining the word 'atheist'. Is an atheist someone who actively believes that there is no God, or merely someone who lacks belief that there is a God?

It was an interesting, if ultimately pointless, discussion. Not everyone can be adequately labeled by a single word. Not everyone fits neatly into categories on a Venn diagram.

I'm not even sure where I'd fit in a Venn diagram of belief. I probably fall into some people's definition of 'Christian', while almost certainly falling into other people's definition of 'agnostic', possibly even falling into someone else's definition of 'atheist', though I certainly wouldn't use that word to describe myself.

As usual with Unbelievable, there was something in this show that I found frustrating, largely (as ever) because there was no guest on the show representing my side in the debate... In this instance, the most frustrating thing was that for the whole programme they attempted to nail down definitions of the word 'atheist' without ever once considering what was meant by the word 'God'.

The Christian guest on the show stated his God concept at one point, but nobody really got to grips with precisely what it is that atheists don't believe in.

It seemed to be assumed that theists generally believe in a supremely powerful being who created the universe, while atheists reject this notion. But what of the person (much like me!) who considers that there might be a powerful 'supernatural' being, but that this being might be part of the universe, not transcending or pre-existing it? Is creation a necessary part of the God concept as defined by atheists?

I suppose the best point made in the show was made by considering the 'screen name' of one of the guests, "NonStampCollector". You really can't define someone in terms of characteristics they don't have.


T. J. Luschen said...

Hi Ricky, great post once again. I heard the same episode of Unbelievable. It did seem to have a lot of discussion about the semantics, but they raised some interesting points too. By the way, have you read the book discussed in this link? It is only about 50 pages, $1.99 on Itunes and I thought it was fascinating. The excerpt says how interesting that the first sin was not stealing or murder, but consciousness expansion by eating the drug-like fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The book has 10 or 12 short chapters that are just as good, with interesting viewpoints about Abraham, Joseph, and Moses.

Ricky Carvel said...


Added to my (already quite extensive) Amazon wishlist...

T. J. Luschen said...

I just remembered, the part I liked about the Unbelievable episode was when they were talking about coin tosses. They said there is a huge difference between saying "I lack a belief the next roll will be heads " and "I believe the next roll will be tails". And when they compared seeing atheism as a religion to considering "non-skiing" as a sport, it seemed to make sense to me.

Mike Blyth said...

I don't suppose that there is any sure and fast definition of "atheist," but one way to look it is "not a theist" rather than not believing in anything supernatural. I think that in practical terms the issue is pretty much whether there is a benevolent, omnipotent creator, rather than whether less powerful deities exist. I guess in the West, at least, the middle ground is not considered a really viable alternative.