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More on Definitions of Atheism



Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Second Edition

Here is how the OED defines "atheism":

atheism Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.

disbelieve 1. trans. Not to believe or credit; to refuse credence to: a. a statement or (alleged) fact: To reject the truth or reality of.


  1. To contradict or gainsay (anything stated or alleged); to declare to be untrue or untenable, or not what it is stated to be.
  2. Logic. The opposite of affirm; to assert the contradictory of (a proposition).
  3. To refuse to admit the truth of (a doctrine or tenet); to reject as untrue or unfounded; the opposite of assert or maintain.
  4. To refuse to recognize or acknowledge (a person or thing) as having a certain character or certain claims; to disown, disavow, repudiate, renounce.

Note that the OED definition covers the whole spectrum of atheist belief, from weak atheism (those who do not believe in or credit the existence of one or more gods) to strong atheism (those who assert the contrary position, that a god does not exist).

Here is the OED's definition of "agnostic":

agnostic A. sb. One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

It is interesting to compare this to Huxley's definition.

Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary Unabridged

Here is Webster's definition of atheism:

atheism n 1 a: disbelief in the existence of God or any other deity b: the doctrine that there is neither god nor any other deity--compare AGNOSTICISM 2: godlessness esp. in conduct

disbelief n: the act of disbelieving : mental refusal to accept (as a statement or proposition) as true

disbelieve vb vt : to hold not to be true or real : reject or withold belief in vi : to withold or reject belief

Note that again, both strong (1b) and weak (1a) atheism are included in the definition.

Atheist books

One might argue that the term "Jewish" should properly be defined by Jews, and that similarly the term "atheist" should be defined by atheists. So, here are a few quotes from popular atheist books about atheism.

It turns out that the word atheism means much less than I had thought. It is merely the lack of theism.

Basic atheism is not a belief. It is the lack of belief. There is a difference between believing there is no god and not believing there is a god--both are atheistic, though popular usage has ignored the latter.
[Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist, p. 99.
Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1992.]
The word "atheism," however, has in this contention to be construed unusally. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of "atheist" in English is "someone who asserts there is no such being as God," I want the word to be understood not positively but negatively. I want the originally Greek prefix "a" to be read in the same way in "atheist" as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as "amoral," "atypical," and "asymmetrical." In this interpretation an atheist becomes: someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels "positive atheist" for the former and "negative atheist" for the latter.
[Antony G.N. Flew and Paul Edwards, God, Freedom, and Immortality p. 14.
Prometheus, 1984.]
If you look up "atheism" in the dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek "a" means "without" or "not" and "theos" means "god." From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God.
[Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, p. 463.
Temple University Press, 1990.]

Martin goes on to cite sveral other well-known nontheists in history who used or implied this definition of "atheism," including Baron d'Holbach (1770), Richard Carlile (1826), Charles Southwell (1842), Charles Bradlaugh (1876), and Anne Besant (1877).

The average theologian (there are exceptions, of course) uses "atheist" to mean a person who denies the existence of a God. Even an atheist would agree that some atheists (a small minority) would fit this definition. However, most atheists would stongly dispute the adequacy of this definition. Rather, they would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distiniction is small but important. Denying something means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular concept. To be without a belief in God merely means that yhe term "god" has no importance, or possibly no meaning, to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief.

When we examine the components of the word "atheism," we can see this distinction more clearly. The word is made up of "a-" and "-theism." Theism, we will all agree, is a belief in a God or gods. The prefix "a-" can mean "not" (or "no") or "without." If it means "not," then we have as an atheist someone who is not a theist (i.e., someone who does not have a belief in a God or gods). If it means "without," then an atheist is someone without theism, or without a belief in God.
[Gordon Stein (Ed.), An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, p. 3.
Prometheus, 1980.]