What is Atheism?

Atheism is a contested concept. What does this mean? It means that when people use the term “Atheism” they often disagree over what it means or what they are talking about. However there is also widespread agreement over what the concept means. Atheism is at the very least a description of someone’s psychology such that the person has a

 a lack of belief in god or gods.

This view is so widespread it may now be the dominant view in popular culture. As a contributor for The Guardian Peter Thompson writes that atheism:

[A]s atheists are keen to point out, says nothing about the atheist’s beliefs. It is simply the absence of a belief in something and does not constitute a belief in its own right.

In more academic contexts atheism denotes a fuller view in which in addition to the person having a lack of belief in god or gods the person has

the belief that god or gods do not exist.

This view is captures by the entry on atheism in the Rutledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy begins:

Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief.

Many people who would identify themselves as being atheists are hesitant to say that god or gods do not exist because they are worried that they may be mistaken and that they lack knowledge that god or gods do not exist.

Importantly atheists who believe that atheism is a position of non-belief and do not like to say that they believe god or gods do not exist do not (in my experience) hold that the existence of god or god’s are equiprobable as their non-existence. If we hold some entities existence as equiprobable we would be treating as having an equal chance of existing or not existing like the toss of a coin has an equal chance of landing on heads or tails. Instead they hold that such posits as gods, like that of demons and things that go bump in the night, are improbable.

So for many people who claim to be atheists they are not simply lacking a belief in god or gods but also believe that god or gods are improbable. This looks tantamount to holding the belief that such things do not exist – which is the very belief that people are apt to deny holding!



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One Response to Atheism

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