What is an Atheist?
If all the definitions of atheist I’ve heard over the years were true, it would be a considerable challenge for me to write this in between sacrifices to the dark lord, all the sex parties, my unending need to commit every sin imagined by religious folks and all those hours spent slow-roasting babies and baking the cornbread to serve alongside them. Alas, my life is not quite that exciting. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of sinning going on, but it’s less about general debauchery and more about cheese worship and premarital sex. With my common-law husband. Who I’ve been with for 15 years. I know. Any more vanilla, and we’d be Tahitian orchids.
Despite the fact that I have been one since the day I was born, I didn’t know what atheist meant myself until I was well into my twenties. It’s not so much that I wasn’t educated or that I was sheltered, and more about the fact that religion didn’t play any role in my life whatsoever. I never thought about it either way. When I encountered a religious person, I often shrugged it off or told them I wasn’t religious, and nine times out of ten, they respected that. It was a blip, a nanosecond amongst years of my life. It was a non-thing, something I never had to think about long enough to understand that I was an atheist.
When the internet came along, however, I was suddenly exposed to many new people. My comfortable Canadian secular bubble was being breached by people carrying all kinds of scripture, trying to shove it down my throat, no less. I could no longer get away with a gentle, “I’m not religious,” and have them respect it. No, these fuckers were persistent. They were on a mission to win my soul for the Big Guy. But it was okay because I’d discovered Reddit, and back then, the Atheism subreddit was a default subreddit which means it would show up in everyone’s feed unless they specifically unsubscribed. I’d scroll endlessly through Reddit and see quotes and memes from Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins and find myself nodding in agreement. I soon stopped saying I was not religious and began describing myself as an atheist because, as I understood it, an atheist was simply someone who didn’t believe in god and that was precisely me.
In the time since then, however, I’ve been told by so many people that I am entirely wrong about what atheist means and that their unique definition not matched by any dictionary known to man is the one true definition of atheist.
Do you want to know how many different definitions of atheist I’ve heard in my time writing this blog? Well, too bad, I can’t tell you.
Because that number is astronomical.
It’s fucking colossal.
I could give one definition of atheist to each of you and still have enough left over to fill a book longer than the Bible. I have heard so many definitions of atheist, at times it feels like I’m having an identity crisis. Am I just a bad person who denies god so I can do crimes? Could I really be longing for so much debauchery that god is just cramping my style? Is it possible that, despite not knowing what the fuck church meant until I was ten, I was somehow traumatized by it? But, then sense grabs ahold of me again, and I am reminded that being an atheist is far less complicated than any of that.
So, what in God’s name is an atheist, then?
I’ll tell you.
And half of you won’t like it.
What is an Atheist? The Definition
So, what is an atheist? Are you sure you’re ready to find out? I promise you that it’s going to be so anti-climactic it’ll make The Sopranos jealous. It’s so simple it makes the recipe for toast look like it was written for the French Laundry tasting menu. It’s so uncomplicated it makes breathing look like rocket surgery. The definition of atheist is so short, and to the point it makes Penn’s buddy Teller look long-winded.
An atheist is…
An atheist is someone who does not believe in a god.
That is it. That’s the whole shebang. The full monty. The whole nine yards. That is the alpha and the omega of atheism. There is nothing more to it, nothing less to it. It’s one tenet, one statement, and one simple answer to an absurd question. When someone asks, “Do you believe in god?” it is simply the answer, “no.”
Don’t take my word for it, though. I’m just a lifer atheist. Here are some people far smarter than me giving their definition of atheist:
David G. McAfee says, in his book (must-read), Hi, I'm an Atheist!: What That Means and How to Talk About It with Others,
“Misunderstandings about atheism also contribute to the “controversial” aspects of coming out. It is not uncommon that a religious person sees your disbelief in their particular Creator as an affront to said Creator. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been accused of “hating God” for simply not believing in any deities — a rather contradictory concept if you think about it. But that does not stop some people from taking another person’s atheism as a personal attack on their ideas and their God. This type of cultural stigma is common and can generally be counteracted by education on the basics, starting with the definition of atheist…: a lack of a belief in a god or gods.”
Matt Dillahunty says,
“Their immediate presumption is an atheist is someone who believes there are no Gods, which isn’t actually true. An atheist is just someone who does not believe that there are Gods.’
In my nine years of experience as an outspoken atheist on the internet, I’ve not encountered many self-identified atheists who disagreed with this definition.
Alternate Definitions of Atheist
Now, you’re going to come across people in your time on this earth who swear that an atheist is someone who claims there is no god. You’ll also find folks who truly believe that an atheist is someone who worships Satan. You might hear that an atheist is someone who denies god or hates god, or is angry at god, and some might even claim that atheists are Christians or Muslims, or Jews in denial because acceptance of God’s existence means they can’t do all the debauched things they want to.
These, of course, are all wrong. There is only one thing that every single last atheist on this planet shares with one another, and that is a complete lack of any belief in a deity or deities, whether they be the protagonist or antagonist in the various myths people have chosen to live by.
Correct Alternative Definitions of Atheist
Atheism is a lack of belief in gods
An atheist is someone who is not a theist
Incorrect Alternative Definitions of Atheist
Atheism is the assertion that zero gods exist
Atheism is the denial of god
An atheist is someone who is angry at god
An atheist is someone who hates god
An atheist is someone who worships Satan
An atheist is someone who worships themself
Interestingly, atheists also do not eat babies. At least not as a part of their atheism. While I’m sure that if you search really hard, you can find an atheist out there somewhere with cannibalistic desires but that would be more to do with mental illness or trauma than it would be related to their atheism. I have yet to meet one, though. Not gonna lie; rather glad about that.
How I Came To Define Atheist
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been an atheist all my life, but I didn’t really know it until I was in my twenties. Before that, I had just described myself as “not religious.” What helped me accept the definition of atheist I use today is truly groundbreaking. It’s a long-forgotten method of intellectual charitability, and in this polarized world we live in today, it will sound like extremism to you, but here goes. I learned what it meant to be an atheist by listening to people who identified as atheists.
I know. Flipping shock and awe.
I just figured that if anyone knew what an atheist is, it’d be the vast majority of atheists, right?
Before you cry about me dismissing the Oxford English dictionary or silencing Miriam Webster’s freeze peach, you must understand that language changes and ancient institutions don’t always keep up with the speed at which that happens. It’s okay if we leave older understandings of what atheism meant in the past. We will all come out of it just as fine as we did when we had to start using “friend” as a verb, thanks to Facebook.
The bottom line is that atheists define atheism as the lack of belief in gods, and when we describe ourselves as atheists, that’s what the vast majority of us mean.
Misconceptions About What Atheist Means
If I had a piece of Gruyere for every time someone tried to tell me that atheist means something absurd, I’d think I was in cheese Heaven, and that would be alright with me, but I digress. The point is that a lof of people, mostly people who carry around the burden of a God, like to make atheism out to be something it’s not. They say:
Atheism is a belief system
Atheism is a religion
Atheism is a worldview
All atheists believe the same things
So, let's tackle these misconceptions.
Atheism is not a belief system
Atheism is not a belief system. You see, simple logic will lay it out for you here. A lack of belief cannot be a belief any more than nudity is black-tie formal. You’re not building the Millennium Falcon Lego set without any Legos. You cannot have a sibling rivalry if you are an only child. Similarly, you can’t build a belief system without beliefs.
Atheism is not a religion
Let’s look at the definition of religion,
“the belief in and worship of a superhuman power or powers, especially a God or gods.”
Atheism’s only requirement is a lack of belief in gods, so it doesn’t fit that definition of religion. How about,
“particular system of faith and worship”
As atheism is merely the lack of belief in gods, there is no worship or faith required. That’s not to say that some atheists don’t worship something or have faith in something, but if they do, it has nothing to do with their atheism. So, it doesn’t fit that definition of religion, either.
I’m sure you can find more definitions of religion, but if you’re using my definition of atheist, it will be challenging to find a way to twist it to fit the meaning of religion.
Atheism is only part of a worldview
While atheism may help provide the basis for a worldview, it’s not a worldview in and of itself. A worldview is far more complex than just a lack of belief in gods. An atheist’s worldview can be shaped by anything, and you’ll find that no two atheists have the same worldview. Again, the only thing that every single one of us shares is a lack of belief in gods.
All atheists are different
While religion exhausts itself arguing about which beliefs are the correct beliefs, atheists are free to incorporate anything into their worldview. An atheist can believe in ghosts. An atheist can be spiritual. We can believe in psychics, superstition and deep-state reptilian overlords. An atheist can be a nihilist, a stoic, a humanist or even a Satanist (the type that doesn’t believe in a literal Satan). You can find science-denying atheists, homophobic atheists and atheists who dream of traveling the astral plane. None of us share a complete belief system. Say it with me this time: the only thing we all have in common is a lack of belief in a god or gods.
Is Atheist The Same As Having No Religion?
No. Some atheists are Pastafarians. Some atheists are Satanists. Alternatively, some people who believe in a god don’t follow a particular religion. So, no, atheism is not the same as not being religious, but most atheists are not religious.
Why Are So Many People Confused About What Atheist Means?
Here’s the thing: I don’t think they are. I think there are probably some people out there who are genuinely confused about what atheist means, but once you provide them with the answer, they’ll accept it and go about life with this new knowledge.
However, we are all aware of the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who appear to be confused about atheism have been given this definition repeatedly and reject it. Why would someone reject a definition of a label that came directly from the group that uses that label? Because they don’t like atheists. We scare them. We are the personification of their own deeply buried doubts that a god exists, and that is terrifying. Arguing with us is how they try to convince themselves that their own doubts are unfounded. But it’s not easy to argue with the definition of atheist we have laid out here today. It’s far less challenging to go up against a strawman. Some people cling to older definitions of atheism because they find them easier to confront and tear down. They don’t like our definition because there is no way to fight it, and that’s really it. It’s not that they’re confused. They assert incorrect definitions of atheist knowingly. Some even refuse to accept the definition of atheist we go by because they’re afraid it might make them an atheist, and they don’t want to be one of us.
I don’t really know why they wouldn't want to be like us, what with all the orgies, cheese and baby feasts, but to each their own, right?
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