What is the proper definition of atheism?

I have heard people talking about atheism being a lack of beliefs or an absence of faith. That does not strike me as a very good definition though as every inanimate object in the universe has a "absence of faith" That would lead us to believe anything without a brain has a absence of faith and is therefore also a atheist.

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    Wouldn't a definition of "orphan" as "not having any living parents" suffer the same criticism (rocks don't have living parents)? But that's not a meaningful criticism, because we understand that orphans and atheists both are subsets of a domain of discourse which exclude inanimate objects. It may be interesting to consider what that domain is (could an artificial intelligence be an orphan?) but this does not necessarily undermine the description of orphans or atheists within it. Jul 3, 2013 at 10:19

6 Answers 6


I could make this a discussion about semantics or I could refer to a dictionary, but I think none of that would be very helpful.

A wide array of people

The group of people that identify themselves as atheists is not homogeneous at all, just like the group of theists (there are non-theistic religions, so I did not say 'religious people' here) is not homogeneous, and if you ask a number of them about why they identify themselves as atheists, you find that they might all have very different answers.

Some people just don't care. They haven't really thought about it, but they just don't see much reason to believe in one or multiple gods. These people would be called apatheists (etymology: apathy and theism). In this case, it could probably be defined as lack of belief in one or multiple gods (this is a passive position). This view is often equated to pragmatic atheism, although I have found that pragmatic atheists often care about the question, but for pragmatic reasons (rather than epistemological ones); they might simply think that they're better off without religion (for whatever reason). What unites these two kinds of atheists, is that they are not overly concerned with truth claims. They may and probably will think that it is unlikely that there is a god, but it's not their main concern. These people are often called weak atheists.

Positive or strong atheism is the explicit view that no deities exist. It is the rejection of belief in one or multiple gods and thus an active position. This does not mean that the positive atheist is 100% certain that no God exist (see Bertrand Russell's quote below), but that he thinks it's at least highly unlikely, sees no evidence to the contrary and therefore explicitly thinks that there is no god. These people are, in contrast to weak atheist, very concerned with the question: "does God exist?". They may have other reasons for their explicit non-belief, but the truth about the existence of god is definitely of primary importance for them. So not every non-theist (=someone who is not a theist; i.e. someone who does not believe in at least one god) is a positive atheist. What some atheists find problematic about positive atheism, is that it grants the special consideration to one claim (God exists) over a whole range of other, according to them, nonsensical claims (see Sam Harris' quote).

Even stronger is the view of the New Atheists. They not only reject a belief in God, they reject religion in society and think it should be actively countered. They are antitheist: they think theism is harmful to society. Note that atheism is not a necessary condition for antitheism: you might believe in God, but still think that this belief or at least organised religion is detrimental to society.

Defining atheism

There are very few atheists who are absolutely certain that God (or multiple gods) does not exist, but many of them think it's is highly unlikely. As Bertrand Russell said:

“As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God. On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think that I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because, when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.” (Bertrand Russell, Am I an Atheist or an Agnostic, 1947)

I think many atheists, ranging from the New Atheists to weak or non-explicit atheism and apatheism, would agree with Bertrand Russell's quote to a large extent. However, I think it would be too narrow and many people who identify as atheists would not fit this definition. What I think is the least we can say, is that everyone who identifies as an atheists must lack a belief in one or more gods; it is thus a necessary condition. Whether it is also a sufficient condition, is a topic for debate, as we've seen.

That does not strike me as a very good definition though as every inanimate object in the universe has a[n] "absence of faith"

This is actually something many atheists would acknowledge; they see no reason to call have a specific word for their religious position, because to them, it is the "natural position". Baron d'Holbach said: " "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God." Sam Harris wrote:

"In fact, "atheism" is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a "non-astrologer" or a "non-alchemist." We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs." (Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation, 2006, p.56)

  • It is also worthy to note that "agnostic" was coined by Thomas Huxley (Darwin's so-called "bulldog") in an attempt to soften the potential religious blowback from the publication of the Origin of Species. From Attic Greece onward, "atheist" carried with it the negative meaning of "godless" as opposed to, say, disbeliever in god(s). This may be conjecture but I would surmise that, with the coinage of agnostic, atheism began to be used in the way in which it now is--that is, as a word to describe an active disbelief in divinity(ies).
    – Jon
    Jul 16, 2013 at 0:29

There is a variety of disbelief positions with respect to different concepts of gods, but essentially atheism can be "disbelief-atheism", that consider the arguments for and against a god's existence, or can be "absence-of-belief-atheism", disbelief without any arguments at all. But if atheism is the claim that, in the absence of evidence for a god we should presume that a god does not exist, then on this definition atheism ceases to be a view, and you should find it appropriate to call a two years old child of atheist. The burden of proof lies upon a person making scientifically untestable claims, but even famous atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris feel the need to argue and defend atheism, atheism in this case would not be the same as that of children, disbelief without any arguments at all. I think "disbelief-atheism" require justification, and to consider the arguments for and against a god's existence. Disbelief in fairies and magical thinking doesn't deserve a special name. Gods are a kind of fairy tale and magical thinking, but as they are very old and insistent, disbelief deserves a special name and arguments: atheism.

We are all a kind of atheist in a way. Atheists just believe in fewer gods than the believers. When believers understand why they refuse all the other possible gods, they will understand why atheists reject the myth of them too. A religion rejects other religions precisely because they are faith-based, there is no evidence for them.


Oxford Dictionaries defines atheism as such:

disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

  • What's the etymological evidence for the second interpretation? (It looks just made up.)
    – DBK
    Jul 2, 2013 at 17:55
  • From the Greek atheos as detailed here Jul 2, 2013 at 17:57
  • Yes, and the source linked states only one etymological interpretation: "from a- "without" + theos "a god"" - which is your first interpretation. What's the etymological evidence for the second interpretation?
    – DBK
    Jul 2, 2013 at 18:05
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    @DBK. Although I agree with your premise that the meanings of words change (with time as their uses change), etymology can be instructive. The Liddle-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon lists the following under ἄθεος (A), ον: A.without God, denying the gods, esp. those recognized by the state, Pl.Ap.26c, etc.: applied to Diagoras, Cic.ND1.23.63; παράδειγμα ἄ., opp. θεῖον, Pl.Tht.176e. 2. generally, godless, ungodly, Pi.P.4.162, A.Eu.151, S.Tr.1036: Comp. “-ώτερος” Lys. 6.32: Sup. “-ώτατος” X.An.2.5.39.
    – Jon
    Jul 16, 2013 at 0:36
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    3. abandoned of the gods, S.OT661; “μανίαι” B.10.109. 4. not derived from the name of a god, “ὀνόματα” Clearch.63. II. Adv. -ως by the anger of heaven (cf. 1.3), “ἀ. ἐφθαρμένη” S.OT254, cf.El.1181: Sup. -ώτατα in most unholy wise, ib.124 (lyr.).
    – Jon
    Jul 16, 2013 at 0:36

To give an entirely pedantic description of what Atheism is, we must first describe what constitutes a religion, as opposed to any other belief.

For instance: How exactly is fanatic liberalism separate from fanatic Judaism? What about Star Wars fanatics? What about those who are fanatics about "science," holding Richard Dawkins to a gold standard?

The cleanest answer I seem to be able to give is: Religions suppose the existence of things that are inherently, undivisibly minds.

Spirits, souls, gods, all these things have it in their base nature to be agents and minds and actors, distinct from rocks, plants, animals and machines: Humans form a grey area.

Modern science tells us that the human mind is a phenomena that arises from the complex interactions of billions of neurons in the brain. Nothing less, and more significantly, nothing more. Brain damage from injuries resulting in changes of personality is perhaps the clearest indicator that the mind in a deep sense is the brain.

The human mind is a fact of nature, it is a process that takes place in human brains, it is made of neural impulses and neurons and cells and proteins, etc.

The human mind is not fundamental, it is made of parts.

Most of science is founded on the belief that the only fundamental things in the universe is fundamental particles.

Religious beliefs distinguish themselves from the beliefs of Libertarians, "Science-ists," Star Wars fans, Communists, Football team fans and others, bu explicitly including fundamental minds, minds that cannot be divided into parts, be they spirits, gods or souls.

So an Atheist is a person who do not believe in the existence of fundamental minds and agents.


My definition for an atheist: An atheist is an agnostic who uses a worldmodel more simple than a theistic world model. In addition, his model is consistent, i.e. free from internal contradictions.

Let me make somme comments:

An agnostic is a person who is unable to either prove or disprove the existence of gods. Being in a situation like that, an atheist explains his experiences by a model which avoids the problematic concept of gods. Searching for explanation, e.g., an atheist takes a naturalistic point of view.

There are many questions, which an atheist cannot answer. But being not convinced by theistic answers, an atheist leaves these questions open.


Atheism, although meaning a lack of belief in God or gods, and thus appearing to be a universal category, it is actually in fact tied to a reaction against Christianity in the modern era.

One suspects then it will have charactersitics that distinguish it from other athiesms developed elsewhere or at other times.

For example, it appears to be strongly correlated to belief in science and/or philosophy. One could perhaps see Buddhism as a reaction into atheism from Hinduism.

There are many kinds of athiesms as there are many kinds of Christianity - but because of its lack of distinguishing marks of rituals, books & gatherings - that is its decentralised nature as a social movement, it is difficult to make positive identifications - it rather calls for an anthropologist to make a study of it and discover a possible typology.

John Gray, for example calls both neo-liberalism & Marxism political religions - most likely pejoratively - but still usefully. Marxism is very much definitely tied to atheism doctrinally.

(The economist & philosopher, Amartya Sen makes a useful distinction of peoples participating in several identities to subvert the idea of one identity being the dominant marker. Since he implicitly doesn't allow for clashing or overlapping identities - that is one cannot be a Christian & an animist - or perhaps a Christian & an atheist at the same time - perhaps the idea of hybridity by the literary theorist Homi Bhabha may be more useful - except that is tied to the discourse of postcolonialism).

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    -1 According to Wikipedia, Although the term atheism originated in 16th-century France, ideas that would be recognized today as atheistic are documented from the Vedic period and the classical antiquity. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism#History). Also, Muslim and Jewish atheist movements, for example, are not unheard of to say the least.
    – CesarGon
    Jul 5, 2013 at 22:41
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    "it is actually in fact tied to a reaction against Christianity". Maybe true of some individuals, (just as true of stating that some people convert to, or stay within, Christianity or Islam, etc. as a reaction) but you haven't shown grounds for making this generalization. In contrast, "... could perhaps see Buddhism as a reaction...", seems less controversial because the statement is an opinion, and is written in that manner. If there is a "lack of distinguishing... [traits/features]" to distinguish between anti-C and anti-H, isn't the invention of these categories a bit too contrived?
    – prash
    Jul 6, 2013 at 0:50
  • @CesarGon: Sure, there are other examples of athiesm - there is the Lokyata, and Nyaya-Carvaka schools of materialism; thats why I offered the example of Buddhism. My main point is that the form of athiesm should be considered in its own particularity, rather than going for a wide generalisation. One discusses Buddhism or Islam as religions, but to lump them together as religons is to remove their particularity. The second point is that the form of athiesm that is very well known now, or is influential was born as a reaction against Christian Europe. Jul 6, 2013 at 8:32
  • @prash: I'm talking historically & not at the level of the individual. If one is born into an athiestic family (and doesn't stray) then its very unlikely that this individual will think of themselves as reacting against Christianity. What is anti-H? The invention of which categories is contrived? Jul 6, 2013 at 8:36
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    @MoziburUllah: anti-H is anti-Hinduism, which you explained as the raison d'être for Buddhism. I abbreviated for lack of space. The categories (kinds) of atheism that you mentioned are anti-C, anti-H, and marxist-like. Sorry about my brevity, but I ran out of space. Incidentally, most atheists that I know became that as children, growing out of gods, just like most people grow out of Santa Claus or Superman. If the reasons behind stopping to believe in Santa Claus and gods is the same, would you still call one of them a "reaction", and the other, not?
    – prash
    Jul 6, 2013 at 14:43

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