the definition of atheism

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JimWae's picture
Which of these expressions

Which of these expressions does NOT indicate deficiency:
lack of sleep
lack of money
lack of courage
lack of strength
lack of humility
lack of empathy
lack of vitamins
lack of nutrients
lack of space
lack of opportunity
lack of funding
lack of support
lack of character
lack of purpose
lack of willpower
lack of principles
lack of diligence
lack of evidence
lack of proof
lack of attention
When we say someone lacks things as above, the usual indication is one of deficiency

It would be incongruous/non-standard to speak of
lack of evil
lack of criminality
lack of poverty
lack of anger
lack of laziness
lack of incivility
lack of prejudice
lack of slander
lack of sloppiness
lack of malice
It is more "standard" to use "absence" in such cases - use of "lack" would only be appropriate in unusual circumstances (such as for comic effect, or when something has to be present for a court case to proceed, as in "lack of intent" [in which case, one side has been DEFICIENT in showing intent was present -- and even then "absence of malice" is the far more common term than "lack of malice"])

Additionally it would be incongruous to say of the strongest person on Earth that he LACKed the strength to lift an ocean liner

It is disheartening to see an association of atheists defining their position in a way that seems to LACK little to qualify as being mealy-mouthed, wishy-washy, and lacking in courage. The sooner this is changed the better.

The words atheists use to define their position ought to be as unambiguous & UNASSAILABLE as possible.

Zaphod's picture
This was a well laid out

This was a well laid out argument, I love that you did this.

SammyShazaam's picture
Well put. I agree that

Well put. I agree that perhaps lack is not the best word then... but absence strikes me as a bit vague still. I wish there were a more concrete definition, as Zaphod was saying, but I don't know if their is one in this case.

Regi Metcalf's picture
You make an interesting point

You make an interesting point.
while it's true that my own intellectual history involves a conscious decision to reject the religious indoctrination of my peers, family, the dominant society, etc. Is that true of everyone? aren't there people who have never seen religion/belief as part of their worldview, so they don't actually reject it anymore than you or i might "reject" the actual existence of fictional characters? we don't actually "reject" the existence of Snow White, do we? we just KNOW that she is fictional, as we know whenever we're told a story or see a movie.
do such people exist? honestly, i'm really not sure.
but if they do, i wouldn't call them "agnostics" really.
further, wouldn't it be a kind of "shortchanging" them to call them "unbelievers"? they never believed in the first place. they don't "reject" belief, they just don't have it.
IF they exist, aren't they "free" of it?

JimWae's picture
1. It is not "puerile" to

1. It is not "puerile" to bring up rocks & dogs & ants & carrots. We already describe pre-human & animal societies (& their leaders & members) as being patriarchies, matriachies, socialistic, dictatorial, communal, nepotistic, possessive. But one can leave that aside if one likes -- the assertion that the "absence" definition is preserved by the assertion that only humans can be atheists fails for the reasons 2 & 3 to follow.

2. It is not "puerile" to bring up infants, foetuses, embryos, blastocysts, zygotes, etc. There is nothing magical about being born that makes a human either an atheist or a theist. Babies develop many beliefs by the time they are 3 months old (consult any infant cognition lab), yet even calling 3-month-olds atheists is presumptive. There is no magical dividing line. If day-minus-one infants are not atheists (nor theists) AND newborn infants are not atheists, then atheism is not simply the absence of belief in any deities -- AND something ELSE is needed to FULLY define atheism.

3. It is not "puerile" to bring up mathematics, Darwinism, biology, stamp-collecting, & Marxism. Areas of intellectual pursuit can be properly categorized as atheistic or not. The mere absence of belief in deities from mathematics does not make mathematics atheistic. Defining "atheism" & thus "atheistic" as involving just the absence of belief is inadequate (besides LACKing in courage).

JimWae's picture
"On our definition, an

"On our definition, an 'atheist' is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not his reason for the rejection is the claim that 'God exists' expresses a false proposition. People frequently adopt an attitude of rejection toward a position for reasons other than that it is a false proposition. It is common among contemporary philosophers, and indeed it was not uncommon in earlier centuries, to reject positions on the ground that they are meaningless. Sometimes, too, a theory is rejected on such grounds as that it is sterile or redundant or capricious, and there are many other considerations which in certain contexts are generally agreed to constitute good grounds for rejecting an assertion."
--- Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Atheism, 1967, 2005, Paul Edwards, MacMillan Reference USA (Gale)


"Atheism, in general, the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings. As such, it is usually distinguished from theism, which affirms the reality of the divine and often seeks to demonstrate its existence."
"Instead of saying that an atheist is someone who believes that it is false or probably false that there is a God, a more adequate characterization of atheism consists in the more complex claim that to be an atheist is to be someone who rejects belief in God for the following reasons ... : for an anthropomorphic God, the atheist rejects belief in God because it is false or probably false that there is a God; for a nonanthropomorphic God ... because the concept of such a God is either meaningless, unintelligible, contradictory, incomprehensible, or incoherent; for the God portrayed by some modern or contemporary theologians or philosophers ... because the concept of God in question is such that it merely masks an atheistic substance—e.g., "God" is just another name for love, or ... a symbolic term for moral ideals."
--- Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013, Atheism, Kai Nielsen,

JimWae's picture
A non-diabetic diner who

A non-diabetic diner who says his soup "lacks" salt does not mean it simply has none -- nor is he being noncommittal about his desires -- he means his soup NEEDS some/more salt.

Consult the various dictionaries at and one will quickly see that the majority of definitions in dictionaries for "lack" indicate a deficiency, and many do not define "lack" in any way that does not indicate a deficiency. I have not found even one yet that does NOT define "lack" as somehow missing something that is needed.

JimWae's picture
The lack/absence definition

The lack/absence definition of atheism was invented/stipulated to try to win an argument; it was not invented to show how the word is actually used. As a result, all non-theistic agnostics & all pre-theist children became peremptorily included as atheists (I am not saying that no agnostics are atheists, but leave open that some may be & some may not be).

The stipulated "absence" definition has been dogmatically defended by committing the etymological fallacy [ ], that the present-day meaning of a word or phrase should necessarily be similar to its supposed historical meaning (the prefix-root tactic regarding "a-theism"). That same fallacy is committed by theists arguing that a-theism means believing there are no gods.

The absence/lack definition was stipulated in an attempt to show atheism is the default position -- in order to overcome any claim that atheism is itself a "belief" & that thus a burden of proof falls on atheists. Defining atheism as "rejection of belief in any deities" does NOT place a burden of proof on atheists, for all it takes to reject a belief is to judge that it just seems too incredible.

So, are there any atheists here who do not in some way personally reject belief that there are any deities?

Zaphod's picture
I am agnostic and tend to

I am agnostic and tend to side with atheism. Defined the way I define atheism I am also an atheist.

I personally don't believe in any deity because I feel there is is insufficient proof either for or against their existence. To me their existence as defined by most deity makes little sense.

Regi Metcalf's picture
agreed, then: to call

agreed, then: to call yourself an "atheist" is, indeed, to reject belief in dieties, gods, etc.

BUT, contrarian that i am, i STILL want an "affirmative" word. a word that isn't about "not" being something else, or even "rejecting" it. i suppose that's why "humanist" holds so much attraction for me: it's both accurate and even "humble" in a way. it captures what i'm FOR, at least generally speaking.

Regi Metcalf's picture
BTW, apropos THIS website,

BTW, apropos THIS website, the FIRST sentence of the March 12th email newsletter reads:

"We often have people tell us that we shouldn't label ourselves as "atheists" because atheism is LACK of belief in god and we should be focusing on things we believe rather than things we don't."



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