I think when debating people, this has and will come up so although not a new discussion here goes...


I've often heard people say, atheism means a lack of a belief in god/gods which is a disbelief in god/gods which is the same thing as the belief that god/gods do not exist. Yet atheists say atheism is not a belief at all, "we do not believe in anything".  Is this all just semantics? Is this worth talking about yet again?  Do people get confused by this? 

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That's the English way.  The OED, ostensibly the best reference on english, is based on deriving meanings from instances of use.  See Winchester's book, The meaning of everything (http://www.amazon.ca/Meaning-Everything-Oxford-English-Dictionary/d...).

This doesn't happen in every language.  EG: French is defined by a specially selected group of linguists who prescribe what French is.

Which way things are done seems to be a matter of culture rather than science, so far.

Atheism is not the belief that deities do not exist.  It is the lack of a belief that they do exist

But that's the same thing no?  belief of  -x =  non-belief of x.

Theism = X

Disbelief = -X

Atheism = 0

I think we’re our own worst enemies on this one. We want the religious community to understand what atheism really is, but depending on how we view it individually, we play the semantics game which only seems to confuse the matter even further.


I don’t know if there’s really a good solution. It’s such an individual belief that it can be perceived a little differently by each person. As long as the basic premise of godlessness is there, I don’t know that it really matters.


I’m not sure it’s worth discussing any further. I’m sure we’ll see some rather long-winded justifications for why one is more correct than the others. At this point it just becomes a game of mental masturbation.

I agree. I also think theists get off on confusing us about it "So you DO have a belief blah blah blah".

 And btw, masturbation mental or otherwise isn't a bad thing. ^-^

Ha, so it all comes down to how one gets their jollies ;) I think we may have found the commonality that will bring both sides together!  

Here in the Bible Belt, USA, most mainstream believers do not think about the semantics of the definitions.  In fact, I have had to tell several individuals what the word "atheist" means.  I simply say, "it's someone who does not believe a god exists".  Then, of course, I get the quick shocked expression, quickly covered by either a, "Hey, everyone is entitled to their beliefs," or some other attempt at acceptance of the term in association to me. 


Truth be told, I personally only encounter this issue with the definitions here....online, that is. 


"Lack of belief in gods" can imply that atheists have a mental deficiency that keeps them from the normal state---belief.  I would agree with this if the deficiency atheists have is gullibility, and "the normal state of belief" equates to "the normal state of being brainwashed" or "herded like sheep for fleecing".


"Disbelief in gods" has the same sort of ring to it; many online theists will equate "disbelief" to "denial".  Which is fine by me if I am denying the existence of a being that does not exist.


"Belief that gods do not exist" suggests that what atheists possess is a belief.  At this definition, I really must roll my eyes.  Stephen Hawking told of a god named Bumba (believed to exist by the Boshongo people of central Africa) that created the earth, sun, moon, stars, and animals by vomiting them when he had a tummyache one day.  Now that you know of this, have you developed a "belief" that Bumba isn't real?  Of course not; you simply do not believe the story.


But the real question is, is the question revelent?  Or does it take the focus off of the real topic?


Here is a point that I am not going to dance around:


To theists:  Science could have it all wrong; atheists could be baby-killing monsters; scientists could be money-grabbing and power-mad; Richard Dawkins could be the vilest man on the planet.  None of this would make your god real!!!!  So, stop with the manipulative play on words to distract your sheep, or to try to get skeptics of your faith off-topic, and show evidence for your god, or continue to look like an idiot.


That's my view, anyway. 

I like that view Kim. Yes we could be wrong, and don't claim to be absolutely right about anything, but if we are wrong, it still would not mean your god or any god exists ergo the proof is still on the believer.

I really do think non-religious people should just classify themselves under that, non-religious. After all, there are religions out there without any belief in Gods, and the people of that religion are considered atheists too. 

It can be confusing, but it's important to be consistent.

(My doctorate involved using a lot of logic, so this is something I'm rather accustomed to.)

Atheism implies either "disbelief" or "lack of belief" depending on which dictionary you read, so that's the likeliest cause of the confusion.

Etymologically, "atheism" is "without theism", or "without belief in gods."  But just because person x doesn't believe in god doesn't mean the god doesn't exist.  This kind of atheism is a little more than agnosticism - basically saying "I don't know" - by making theism irrelevant.  More like "I don't care" than "I don't know." That is, if you can have a life without theism, then theism is irrelevant.

To not believe proposition p is not the same as believing p is false (or "not p").  You can not-believe a proposition that may in fact be true and still be considered sane.  But if you believe a proposition is false when it is actually true, then you're deluded or just plain nuts.

There's also the burden of proof thing.  If you don't believe p, then you can still go ahead and prove p.  If you believe not-p (p is false), then burden of proof is off you and onto those who believe p.

The real danger is when, in a discussion, parties start mixing the different possible definitions of atheism. That's bad reasoning and nothing good will ever come of it.  I certainly don't mind that the word "atheism" has multiple senses - most words do; but that's no excuse to think one can swap senses at whim.

Obviously, knowing what a "belief" is matters too.  That's off-topic here, but I'll just suggest this: we "know" less than we think we do, and there's a range of robustness for beliefs that is much broader and more finely grained than most people think.

Just as there are different understandings of the various world religions, there are different understandings of the position we casually refer to as 'atheism.' The term 'Christianity' is not used to signify any one particular belief system, there are hundreds of ways to be a Christian. Why should we expect atheism to be any different? 

My favorite way to categorize atheistic belief is that proposed by the philosopher Michael Martin: Positive/Negative Atheism. One is a belief that one has (i.e., there is no supernatural god), and the other is the mere absence of a certain belief (i.e., that a supernatural god exists). For more, see the link below. 



John Wilkins also wrote a lot about this at EvolvingThoughts.

http://evolvingthoughts.net/2011/07/atheism-agnosticism-and-theism-... is the last of those posts, with links to the previous ones.  Worth reading.


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