My definition: atheist

I’m a linguist by training, so I’ve decided to start posting working definitions of words that bear on the topics I talk about here.

Today I will give my definition of the word “atheist“.

I take to be an atheist anyone who lacks a belief in the existence of a god.

A religious friend once asked me, “Why are you not agnostic?” The implication was that one cannot be both an atheist and an agnostic. In fact, I consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic. I am an atheist because I do not have a belief in a god; I am an agnostic because I have no way to know for certain whether a god does or does not exist.

I decided to post this definition because many religious people seem to take atheist to mean one who is certain (or at least, positively believes) that no god exists. This doesn’t coincide with how most atheists define their beliefs.

In my experience, the definition I use above is the one most atheists would use to describe themselves. This is supported by the entry at Wiktionary. However, the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary only gives the more restricted definition of an atheist as “someone who believes that God or gods do not exist”. follows the Cambridge definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which I generally take as a gold standard in lexicography, also limits its definition of atheist to one who rejects belief in gods, rather than simply one who lacks such belief. However, the OED bases its definitions on examples in a corpus of English texts, and the most recent text in which they note the use of the word atheist is from 1876. I suspect if they had a sample of 20th- and 21st-century writing by atheists, they would include the definition I (and most atheists) use.

The excellent website, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, which aims to discuss in as unbiased a way as possible all of the religious beliefs of the world, has a good article on the question of what atheism is. They back up my assertion that most atheists will use the “lack of belief in gods” definition, rather than the “belief in lack of gods” definition.

Let me end this first “definition” post with a standard linguist’s caveat. I am not trying to impose a meaning on people. I am not trying to authoritatively decree that this word means what I say it means, instead of what someone else might say it means. I am trying to describe the meaning of the word as I use it, and as most self-described atheists use it. (For further evidence, here are some atheists defining atheism: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)



8 Responses to “My definition: atheist”

  1. Timothy Mills Says:

    In a new blog entry, Greta Christina ably expresses many people's exasperation at attempts by others to redefine "atheism" away from the meaning used by atheists themselves.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    Lukeprog at Common Sense Atheism has just posted an excellent review of the different types of atheism.

  3. My definition: humanist « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] is because the term humanism isn’t as misunderstood as the other terms I’ve covered:  atheist, Christian, and fundamentalist.  It is unfamiliar to many, but at least folks don’t tend to […]

  4. Tim Daniels Says:

    Wow, you really give a guy a lot of homework to do. I feel trapped in a linguistical arm twist here.

    In the mathematics world, ‘Athiest’ may be a uniquely defined parameter in the equation (of life). Athiest = sb who lacks the belief in God(s), say.

    The Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary offers a parameter that lies on the belief spectrum, so I will use it instead. If one decides to change the definition of the parameter, an asterix may be appropriate. Athiest* = sb who believes in that God(s) doesn’t (don’t) exist.

    It seems to me that ‘Athiest’ and ‘Athiest*’ hold connotations of ‘certainty of rejection’ that can’t be erased.

    Initially, I thought of suggesting a new parameter name would be appropriate for you on either the spectrum of belief or on the spectrum of non-belief. ‘Temporal Agnostic’ seems right, but I no longer think that I’ll do that. It would be like jumping into a pit of multi-tounged snakes with all you linguistical types.

    Instead, I might suggest that you start using greek symbols to label your parameters. Your auto-definitions will become clearer, free of preconceptions and links with others who don’t share your beliefs (ie. Christopher Hitchens, who I think has an atrocious attitude regarding “believers”).

    Anyways, whatever you call yourself, I like your definitions more than I like the parameters you choose to label yourself with.

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    “I feel trapped in a linguistical arm twist here.”

    I don’t know what to think about this. I really am trying to write these definitions with a light touch. I am not prescribing (telling other people what the “right” use of the word is); I am not admonishing (encouraging people to use my definition over other definitions). I am simply explaining what definition I use, and (to some extent) why.

    Perhaps you are feeling like the caterpillar felt after he was asked how he could coordinate all of his legs at once while walking: he was unable to walk! We use words in a (necessarily) unconscious way most of the time, and it is only when we run into communication difficulties that we begin to examine what how we’re doing it.

    So I guess I’m glad that you’re feeling linguistically displaced. Maybe that means that, like the caterpillar, you have been made to think about something that you simply took for granted before. Just remember, after you’ve done some thinking, to return to confidently using the word rather than thinking about it. Maybe you’ll use it in a way that is slightly more compatible with the way I (and most other atheists) use it.

    “It seems to me that ‘Athiest’ and ‘Athiest*’ hold connotations of ‘certainty of rejection’ that can’t be erased.”

    I tend to agree – which is why I tend only to label myself as an “atheist” in contexts where I can spell out my definition (such as in a blog entry) or where that definition is already taken as standard (such as among other atheists). More generally, if I’m going to take on a label out of context, I’ll use “humanist“. Because most people haven’t heard of it, I’m not confronted by as many inaccurate preconceptions.

    “I like your definitions more than I like the parameters you choose to label yourself with.”

    That’s good to hear – ultimately, labels are only useful as pointers to more substantive definitions.

    And please, let me know if there are any other words you think I should address here.

  6. Exploring language « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] curious about the relative popularity of two words – say, “humanist” and “atheist“. Well, you enter them as search terms, and voila: Relative frequencies of […]

  7. Categories « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] speakers expresses some ideas and attitudes that I agree with, and some I disagree with. I am an atheist and a member of a Unitarian community (a state seems contradictory, or at least dissonant, to many […]

  8. What tweaks Tim today | Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] one from other atheists. They ought to know better! The words “humanist” and “atheist” have different meanings. It may be that some people avoid the label “atheist” […]

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