Strictly speaking “atheism” is a simple lack of theism, but those of us who assert the nonexistence of god generally have a lot more to say about it.
I think atheism in and of itself isn’t an end, only a means to an end. Atheism in this regard can be summed up in one sentence, “I don’t believe in god, gods or the supernatural.” That’s pretty much it. It certainly seems like there’d be no reason to hold a meeting or a press conference over that. Not much to discuss after that point, right?
Those who would hold all atheists to that rather quick and tidy definition are denying the converging tide of atheists who are finding that we indeed have quite a bit more to say to each other and to the world at large about where that very simple statement leads to and what implications it has for individual lives, the lives of our families, and for society as a whole. It’s clear that the definition of atheism needs another entry in the dictionary.
The basis for allowing us to expand our meaning of atheism is that those who claim to be atheists also typically share a few other common traits. Generally we are adverse to religion. We typically believe that man is solely responsible for his own existence and the betterment of his life. We believe in a naturalistic view of life and existence. We typically have a humanistic morality. Most of us object to the abuse of power–political, economic, religious or otherwise–against those who have been duped or bred into a position of powerlessness, and we reject simple authority as a justification for the acceptance of facts or ideas. Most of us have an appreciation for science and see how its progressive effects have solved mankind’s problems in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Those traits are common to most atheists and yet they have nothing to do with the strict definition of an absence of theism. Nevertheless, we use the word “Atheism” to identify these traits, these tendencies, to each other and to the world. This is what I mean when I say “self-identifying atheist.” Those who identify themselves in this way are connecting with the larger community of people who typically hold the same basic principles even though they are not expressed comprehensively by the one word we choose to label ourselves.
Ultimately I say, “so what?” Words are just our tools, not our masters; just because the word “atheist” in its strict etymology doesn’t spell out everything it has come to signify doesn’t mean that our understanding of what an atheist is should be limited, or that what we are trying to accomplish here should be limited. That the rest of the world doesn’t have a word to exhaustively express our position or comprehend our values doesn’t mean they don’t exist or aren’t valid.
This understanding of the definition also allows us to evaluate people who don’t self-identify as atheists, and nevertheless determine if, in fact, they are “Atheists” in this sense of the word. If you look at Albert Einstein or Thomas Jefferson–or any other historical figure who nominally acknowledged God and yet in every other word and deed manifested those principles as we believe them today–we must give them the benefit of the doubt that perhaps we are the victim of our own semantic limitations or that we don’t appreciate the circumstances that required that historical figure to use that word out of custom or strategy. We have to interpret their actions, not simply their words, to really understand if they might still be our champions.
Surely there are millions of “Atheists” who, in deed, live out those principles that most atheists hold dear, and who only nominally invoke god out of habit, or to appease their family, or to maintain business and political relationships. Perhaps they’ve just never really thought about it before or lack the proper language to express their core beliefs in a way that can be shown to be reducible to atheism.
The question in defining atheism and in calling for some kind of hardline definition, circling of the wagons, and excluding people for not calling themselves “atheists” is that, politically speaking, we may be shutting ourselves off to the support of potentially millions of rational, just, scientifically minded, humanistic people who might be allies if only the paradigm shifted a few degrees
In my conversations with what I call hard-line atheists I suggest, “Wouldn’t our position be much more palatable to those millions of de facto atheists if only the public perception of atheists wasn’t so craggy–Christmas haters who want to rob humanity of its worth? If by appealing to the masses on the terms of our sensibility, our call for rationality, justice and science, and our desire for real solutions for humanity’s problems, wouldn’t we win a few more allies than by jumping out of the gates by invalidating everything that those people have held dear since they were children?”
“There is no god” is not the logical first step that any atheist ever likely took. We had to be rational first. Atheism comes after that. There is no such thing as “converting” to atheism. We are simply asked to become rational and given tools to do so by the way of logical thinking, the scientific method, and the sound acquisition information. Atheism is a natural progression from that.
Given that, how does it make sense that any believer, even those who nominally believe, might be “converted” from their native beliefs if they aren’t given the tools to be rational? Do we really want a nation of irrational people who have just lost the only thing that kept them in check, their beliefs?
There is no end in simply proving them wrong. We can’t simply attack what they believe and offer no tools for why we assert what we assert; this gets us into much worse places than simple disagreements. Atheists must check why they insist on arguing with believers and what rifts they are causing by doing so. I see far too many atheists angling to belittle believers to feed their own self-aggrandizing needs and then wondering why believers have come to resent atheists so much. I don’t see any good end in that scenario.
To advance this cause our efforts must be in the areas of education and information. We must seek to demonstrate how our principles are not simply atheistic principles but how they are good principles, period, and how what we value is still valuable without god, how those things we feel and experience are inherent to being a human.
There will come a time in the future when we must abandon the “atheist” definition altogether and simply appeal to being human, for any lines we seek to draw will needless limit the number of people our cause appeals to. In the true spirit of science we seek objective truth and anything that is really true, is true for everyone.