What is the Definition of Atheism?

The purpose of this blog is to delve into the subjects of life, the universe and everything.

Hopefully it will explore various theories about how the universe works, what reality is, how we perceive it, and what we think of it all.
(Thinks: Maybe I’m setting my sights too high.)
It’ll explore the possible reasons why some people have religious beliefs, and why some people don’t.

I’ll start with a look at people such as myself who don’t hold religious beliefs: atheists.

Atheists, of course, are people who don’t believe in the existence of God.

That sounds like a pretty straightforward definition, but it’s complicated by the fact that there are several different ways of not believing in God. This is because of the fact that not believing that God exists is not necessarily the same thing as disbelieving that God exists. Non-belief and disbelief are different creatures.

Perhaps this complication is best understood if, rather than considering the rather abstract subject of not believing in God, we consider something that’s more down to earth.

Take this example.

I have a claim to make: hanging on the wall in one of the rooms of my house there is an original sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, executed as part of his preparatory studies for the Mona Lisa.

I can safely say that before you read that last sentence you lacked belief in the existence of such a sketch on my wall, purely because any thought about the subject would not have entered your head. However, I’ve now raised the possibility of the existence of such a sketch on my wall. As soon as the possibility of the existence of the sketch was raised, the nature of your lack of belief had to change. Your lack of belief now (assuming that you don’t believe my claim) is based on the consideration and rejection of the possibility of the existence of the sketch. Before you read this, your position regarding the sketch was one of non-belief, as there was no belief to be had; however, now that you’d read it your position has probably shifted to disbelief, a deliberate dismissal of the possibility of the sketch existing.

The nature of your disbelief in the existence of the sketch may take one of several forms.

You may well think that I just made up the idea of the sketch for the purposes of this example, and decide that it’s so unlikely that I would own such a sketch that the whole concept can be dismissed out of hand. End of story.

Alternatively, you may actually take my claim as being worthy of further consideration. In this case you may only come to disbelieve it after you’ve conducted detailed and painstaking research into Leonardo’s life and work, resulting in the knowledge that it’s almost certain that all of Leonardo’s preparatory drawings for the Mona Lisa are accounted for elsewhere. As part of your research you may also have come round to my house to look at my walls.

A final position to take concerning the existence or not of the sketch is that you couldn’t care less about the whole subject, and it just hasn’t occurred to you to have an opinion about it one way or the other.

So there you are: there are (at least) four ways of not believing in something.

Two of these are forms of non-belief in that the object of belief is either unknown (so that a stance is impossible) or unconsidered (so that no stance is taken). The other two are forms of active disbelief, where the subject is considered and found wanting.

When it comes to the subject of God, which of these categories of non-belief or disbelief do atheists fit into?

It depends on your definition of atheism. Does atheism apply to anyone who lacks belief in God (either through lack of knowledge of the possible existence of God or because of total lack of interest in the subject), or is it only confined to those who hold an active disbelief, a refutation of belief, in God?

By any definition, people who actively refute belief in God are atheists.

Many atheists feel that when it comes to God they are in the category of disbelief in which the subject is so obviously lacking in the possibility of being correct that it is only worthy of instant dismissal, with no further action needing to be taken.

Many atheists would like to be in this category, but feel that the prevalence of belief in God and the consequences of that belief are so significant in society that these beliefs can’t be ignored and have to be challenged. They may get quite aggravated over the fact that they have to expend a large amount of intellectual energy arguing against something that they see as having been thought up out of nowhere and that only caught on because it was appealing or useful.

Other atheists take the possibility of the existence of God seriously, have studied the subject, and have decided that the evidence is against it. But what of the people who don’t believe in God because they aren’t aware of the concept of God to begin with? Are they atheists?

And let’s not forget the category of people who have no belief in God simply because they have no interest in the subject and thus have no opinion. Are they atheists?
More later.

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Filed under Philosophy, Religion/atheism

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