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Is Atheism “A Lack of Belief”? Not to An Atheist


It's a mistake for atheists to define atheism as a "lack of belief in gods." Why?  Because that’s the theists' definition of the word.  Many dictionaries offer this definition, I know--but dictionaries are largely written by theists who fail to recognize their implicit bias.  The word "lack" carries the unmistakeable connotation of deficiency, the sense that what is lacking is something to be desired. So, by definition, to lack something is to be in want of whatever one lacks.  Atheists know that belief in god is nothing to be desired.  We do not lack belief in gods.  Rather, we are free of it.  

The better and more accurate definition of atheism is: "the absence of [belief in] gods."  (The term derived from the Greek; "a" meaning "not" or "without," and "theism" meaning [belief in] gods.)

In Atheism: The Case Against God (Prometheus Books, 1989), George Smith puts it very well:  "Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief. One who does not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being is properly designated as an atheist.  Atheism is sometimes defined as 'the belief that there is no God of any kind,' or the claim that a god cannot exist. While these are categories of atheism, they do not exhaust the meaning of atheism--and are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism. Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist, rather he does not believe in the existence of a god." [my boldface]

This may seem a small point, and maybe it is, but it's a point worth bearing in mind, because when you stop and think about it, the description of atheism as "a lack of belief," is actually a condescending insult. It says, in effect, "Pity the atheists.  For whatever reasons, they're missing something that more sensible people like us are grateful and fortunate to possess: theistic belief."

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Comment by Marianne on August 29, 2014 at 12:26am

this is a great blog and I do so agree that the word lack is condesnedant and the definition appears to be written by a believer !!!!!

Comment by Mark Strange on December 11, 2011 at 9:25pm

let me re-state what I meant. Atheist is a person who has no believe in god, it does not say anything else about him or her - they don't "Lack" anything, belief is simply not there.

Comment by Adriana on December 11, 2011 at 9:24pm

I also like the word "freethinker" very much, because I value science, logic and reason as the best ways to achieve knowledge or form opinions, even if they are just "working hypotheses."

I consider myself a freethinker, but I use the word "atheist" to refer to myself because I have the impression that freethought is not a term that everyone understand. I feel that of I say "I'm a freethinker", a few people will be left scratching their heads, while if I say, I'm an atheist, they all will know what that means. I also try to avoid labels (precisely for the fact that many people associate atheism with a lack of belief) and very often I simply say: "I do not believe in god" and leave it at that. I'm very fortunate in that in my field the question of belief in god or religion does not come up very often.

Comment by Marianne on December 11, 2011 at 8:39pm

I also happen to agree with the defintion of freethinker in its whole parts.

Comment by Marianne on December 11, 2011 at 8:35pm

I haven' read the other posts but I agree with you entirely on this point and even the word atheist includes the word theist in it;  I describe myself more adequately as a freethinker ( a word that I like) but I am well aware of it's other connotations regarding its views upon autorithy...).

Comment by Don on December 11, 2011 at 8:19pm

Some atheists may sincerely wish they could believe in some god, but that's not the issue here, not at all.  The issue is how "atheism" should be most accurately and fairly defined, not only by us, but by everyone.  But especially by us. 

Because when we define atheism as "a lack of belief in gods," we are witlessly accepting the theists' insulting mischaracterization of our position.   It's as if we had allowed the theists to tape a sign on our backs: "Kick me here." 

Comment by Mark Strange on December 11, 2011 at 8:05pm

There are Atheist that actually wish they could believe or at least say they do, so for them it is a perceived lack of belief, I suppose, but what you said is what I meant to say.

Comment by Don on December 11, 2011 at 7:56pm

No, not "not necessarily a lack of belief," but necessarily NOT a "lack of belief."  That's the point.

Comment by Michel on December 11, 2011 at 4:30pm

I'm with Adriana. It is not a small point.
It is precisely the believers inability to perform this small feat of mental gymnastic that clouds their worldview.
Too much load in their words perhaps... 

Comment by Mark Strange on December 11, 2011 at 4:11pm

Atheist means "Without Belief in God(s)" Not necessarily the lack of belief but the absence of belief.  If you don't believe in god your an atheist.

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