9 Things ‘Atheist’ Does Not Mean
Okay, kids, say it with me. All together now:
Atheism is just a lack of belief in a god.
Nothing more, nothing less.
It’s like our mantra, our holy chant that we wail at the wall of ignorance. It never seems to stop; our need to explain the simplicity of atheism is neverending. I’m not certain why some believers misunderstand atheism so consistently and relentlessly and stubbornly… but if I had to venture a guess, I’d guess it was because their own religious belief systems are so complicated and life encompassing; they are prescriptive and dogmatic and come with a lot of rules and structure and ideas about the nature of the world. One can study any one of their religions and spend the rest of their lives doing so, still without having covered it all. For some, it must be hard to wrap their minds around one’s position on the god argument being a single, solitary sentence and nothing more. They can’t fathom that people actually live without a system of belief to conform to. Instead, they conflate atheism with numerous other ideas, ram them all together into a big, godless worldview and then they assume this ramshackle structure held together with Captain America Band-Aids is what we refer to when we say “atheism".
But you know that’s not atheism. This is an important point to many of us atheists, so if you pride yourself on being an open-minded believer who wants to understand other points of view, this is important for you to learn.
None of these things are what we mean when we say “atheist”:
1. Secularist – While most atheists are secularists and it’d be really hard for me to imagine an atheist who doesn’t support secularism, secularism is not atheism and atheism is not secularism. These are two different things. One is a position in response to the god claim, the other is a political perspective that values a government that is not influenced by any specific church. Further, secularism is not just a position taken by atheists. There are Christian secularists, Muslim secularists, Hindu secularists and secularists of every religion and every denomination around the world.
2. Humanist – Atheists often get asked where they get their morality from, as though we all get it from the same source, like followers of the Bible or Sharia law. The thing about atheists, though, is that we are all different in our approach to morality. Many of us, however, are humanists. The foundation of our moral framework comes from the idea that we should prioritize human beings and human thriving over other ideas such as gods or holy books or oral traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Humanism celebrates humanity and just like secularists, humanists can be religious, too. Check out the Christian Humanist for more information on that.
3. Satanist – It’s true many Satanists are atheists. I know what you’re thinking: if atheists don’t believe in god, how can they believe in Satan? The answer is simple: we don’t. There really aren’t a whole lot of Satanists who believe in Satan. Rather, modern satanism is more of an activism outfit, making use of their status as a religion to fight for secularism. These Satanists are atheists, but not all atheists are Satanists.
4. Evolutionist – This word makes me itchy because I don’t much believe there is such a thing as “evolutionism”. Rather, there are people who recognize that evolution is sound science and backed by mountains of evidence. You’re right in that most atheists accept evolution, but you’re wrong that evolution has anything to do with atheism. I’ve known a handful of atheists in my life who do not accept the theory of evolution as being true, and yet these people still don’t believe in god. So, yes, you can lack a belief in god and still not accept evolution. Besides, like secularism and humanism, accepting evolution as fact is done by many, many believers, too, including his Popiness, Franky Stanky Bo Banky.
5. Scientist – I live in awe of the discoveries science has made (though, I’d say I’m aware of maybe a half of a percent of all of them), I appreciate scientists and the work they do, and I recognize how much better the scientific method has made our lives. There’s really not much about my life, at all, that would be possible had there never been science. That said, let me tell you, I am no fucking scientist. I couldn’t conduct a scientific experiment if they promised me a ham when I was done. I am an artist, a writer, a free “spirit” globetrotting, wanderlusting space-cadet whose grasp on reason and logic could easily be threatened by something shiny in the corner. And yet, here I am, an atheist going on forty years. The kicker: I was an atheist before I knew what science even was.
6. Skeptic – A skeptic is someone who applies a healthy dose of doubt to claims and requires evidence before they accept these claims as fact. While skepticism can surely be given credit as the reason many of us atheists do not accept the god claim, it is not limited to that. Skepticism can be applied to any claim, including the claim there is no god. There are Muslims who describe themselves as skeptics; Christians who do as well, Buddhists and spiritualists, deists and pandeists. Skepticism is not something reserved for the infidel. It can lead to atheism, but it does not equate to atheism, like a good booty call can lead to pregnancy, but booty calls and being knocked up are two entirely different things.
7. Anti-theist – If anti-theism and atheism were one and the same, every atheist would also be an anti-theist. The problem is, not every atheist is an anti-theist. Anti-theism is the idea that religion harms and we should work towards eliminating it from modern society. But see, the problems arise when you meet someone like my best friend, who does not believe in god, but who doesn’t think religion is a bad thing for people. It’s not just her. There are tons of them. I have the pleasure of speaking with many of them who argue with me about whether or not religion is really a bad thing. So, if these people are not atheists because they’re not anti-theists, what are they, then?
8. Nihilist – When you conflate nihilism with atheism, you’re essentially telling atheists they don’t care about anything, that nothing matters. While some of us do claim to be nihilists, I am absolutely not one. Things matter to me. Not the least of which is my son, and the life he will go on to live well after I am gone. My impact and legacy are important to me, my parents and husband and stepdaughter are too. Progress matters to me; human beings matter to me; animals and the planet and the future of all these things are important to me. To tell me I am a nihilist just because I identify as an atheist is to wholly misunderstand what both terms mean.
9. Materialist – Meet my mom, everyone. She does not believe in god, but she’s pretty convinced that she has a soul. She doesn’t actively believe in any deities, but she’s sure her sister frequently talks to their dead dad. My mother: clearly not a materialist, but also an atheist. How can it be?
Theists critical of atheists use all of these different concepts to build what they view as a religion around the word “atheist”. They have themselves convinced that there is no possible way a person can live without a prescriptive dogma based in belief and so they erect an institution of atheism using pillars like nihilism and secularism and evolutionism. The problem, though, is that none of these things are atheism, and atheism is none of these things.
Now that you’ve heard it from the atheist’s mouth, you have two choices: 1. you can recognize that perhaps you were wrong about what atheism was, incorporate this new information into your worldview and correct what you say about atheists going forward or 2. You can deny any of this is true, insisting you know far better than all atheists what being an atheist means.
Choose carefully, though. Your decision will tell us whether you’re a reasonable, intelligent person capable of learning from others or you’re just a bigot in an echo chamber.
Do you think any of these things define atheism? Let me know in the comments!