Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 20 03:17:23 UTC 2009

There is so much debate on this point--and AFAIK has been over the
years--that making a clear-cut definition may be difficult. There is, of
course, the question of the usage among different groups including 1)
those who self-identify as atheists, 2) those who identify atheists as a
rival class, 3) general undifferentiated usage.

If you ask an average American on the street, whether in the heathen
haven like NYC or in the Bible Belt, what s/he thinks makes an atheist,
the response, most likely, will be that it is one who does not believe
in God. This is a deeply unsatisfying and vague "definition". In
particular, it presents a problem with polytheists and animists--and,
basically, anyone who does not share the faith of the three major
monotheist traditions that occasionally are (paradoxically, in my view)
referred to as "Abrahamic". Of course, even this kind of description has
different meanings--to an average secularist it will mean virtually the
same thing as "secularist" and to a Southern Bible thumper it is the
equivalent of the expression that is usually reserved for the sentiment
Muslims have toward practitioners of other faiths--"infidel"--only more
so. To the best of my knowledge, in the minds of many uber-Christians
(in the US), it subsumes the category of agnostics (those who profess to
not know) and non-practicing non-Christians whose basic traditions are
often associated with other faiths (e.g., Jews, South and East Asians).
Then, of course, you do have the militant and radical atheists who do
aggressively deny the existence of God or any other supernatural
being/presence (e.g., the members of various atheist and skeptic
societies, and people like PZ Myers of Pharyngula). In addition, you
have the practitioners and followers of what Soviet dogma used to
describe as "scientific atheism", which includes not only the denial of
superstitions and deities, but also an active demolition of all religions.

I agree that the Webster definition leaves a lot to be desired. But I am
not convinced that narrowing of the dictionary interpretation of the
concept is something that is really desirable. Why not have two--or
more--parallel entries? Why not say, for example, that "atheist (1)" is
the same (roughly) as secularist and "atheist (2)" is a subscriber of a
radical ideology that denies legitimacy of all religions? This is not
the same as the "A or B" cop out, but it still includes both A and B.


On 12/19/2009 9:08 PM, Herb Stahlke wrote:
> There's been an ongoing discussion on another list as to the meaning
> of "atheist," whether it denotes one who denies the existence of
> deities or simply one who doesn't believe in such supernatural beings.
>   I posted the OED entry for "atheist" and got the response
>> Atheist \A"the*ist\, n. [Gr. ? without god; 'a priv. + ? god:
>>      cf. F. ath['e]iste.]
>>      1. One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God, or
>>         supreme intelligent Being.
>>         [1913 Webster]
> I believe this definition makes my point. The definition is sloppy and
> careless because it conflates and equates two very different
> intellectual positions: one who disbelieves in God is not the same thing
> as one who denies the existence of God. I and every other atheist I know
> of disbelieve in God but none of us denies the existence of God.
> Among atheists, according to some on that lsit, there is the sense
> that the term should be restriced to those who simply don't believe in
> any deity and should not include those who deny the existence of such
> a deity.  This is, of course, a definition preferred by many
> secularists and does not reflect general usage, which is what they are
> objecting to.
> Has the entry for "atheist" been revised to note such a more
> specialized usage?  I've gone through the revisions I could find on
> the OED Online site and could find no reference to "atheist."
> Herb

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