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May,1998

Reflections On The 'A' Word
by Cliff Walker

Occasionally I talk with a gentleman who hangs at the grill where I sometimes eat. He tells some fascinating tales ranging from aviation to jazz music. He also says he is an atheist.

The other day, I was shocked to hear him tell me of a downtown hotel that he says was haunted. Talk of ghosts from a self-proclaimed atheist was a new one for me. I reflexively peppered him with the usual questions: How do you know? Were you there? Can you eliminate all other explanations, such as hallucination? Have you been drinking again?

I know a woman who does not believe the claims made for deities. She rejects all notions of supernatural and afterlife. However, when I referred to her as an atheist, she became offended.

In our brief discussion, I could not get her to tell me what she wanted to call herself in this regard: just don't call her an atheist. While I can imagine some of the popular but erroneous definitions for "atheist" that may be part of her understanding, I will honor her request.

So again I wonder, what is an atheist? Literally, an atheist is someone who lacks a god-belief for whatever reason. This includes infants who haven't developed the maturity to understand claims about gods. It also includes those agnostics who don't know if there is a god (but not the agnostics who say that people cannot know about the gods these agnostics believe exist). Of course, we, too, are atheists who, on philosophical grounds, reject theism. We have examined the claims and the arguments of the theists and have found them wanting.

If an atheist is someone who lacks a god belief, then what about this fellow who thinks he saw a ghost? It is not a god that he thinks exists, it is the "departed spirit" of a murder victim. Can a real atheist believe in spooks or magic or the afterlife and still be an atheist?

And what about the woman who fits anyone's definition of "atheist" but rejects the term? Is there still too much stigma attached to the word "atheist" for it to be useful? Should we work with such people to find a suitable word we can all live with?

I have trouble with people who call themselves atheists but who believe in miracles, spirits, or the afterlife. But then, the accepted and disputed definitions of "atheist" speak only of deities and gods, and say nothing of supernatural claims. I simply assume that an atheist rejects what I see as myth and fantasy.

Graphic Rule
Copyright ©1998 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon
[Altered slightly from the published version.]