Where Did We Get
Our Definition For 'Atheist'?
Jennifer Caseldine-Bracht

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Jennifer Caseldine"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 6:28 PM

Thanks for writing.

The definitions of atheist and atheism are the most important issues we tackle on our website and in our magazine at this point in time, though our focus changes frequently.

I don't see this exact quote anywhere in our house writings (though and didn't check any writings by others), but this is very close to the definition for atheism and atheist that we advocate. Others disagree with us on this, but part of our mission is to advocate what is popularly called the "weak" definition for atheism as opposed to the "strong" definition which says that to be called an atheist one must flat-out assert that no gods exist.

(The view we espouse is sometimes called "negative atheism" as opposed to "positive atheism" -- but this gets confusing because our magazine is called "Positive Atheism" even though we mean something completely different by the term Positive Atheism than it means in the positive-negative atheism discussion. Positive Atheism Magazine advocates "negative atheism" in this respect! Thus, we always use the terminology "weak" definition and "strong" definition when discussing this matter.)

The "weak" definition, according to a very thorough study by George H. Smith in his article "Defining Atheism," is the position that has been held by the majority of atheistic philosophers and writers since the Age of Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment, the writings of atheists were often used as fuel to start the fires which burned the atheists themselves, so very few atheists bothered to publish their views, and few of those that were published have survived. Also, before Darwin, atheism was not an intellectually tenable position because the Argument From Design was so compelling. Thus, most who would have been atheists before Darwin called themselves Deists.

Smith also makes an strong case that the meaning of atheism should be "a-theism," "the lack of theism" or "without theism" rather than "athe-ism," which I like to call "no-god-ism."

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Our main reason for advocating the "weak" definition is that it is more practical.

Thus, the "weak" definition has the greatest historical precedence, it has (in my opinion, and that of Smith) the best etymology, and is the most practical.

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Several arguments are floating around atheistic circles which challenge the position that Smith and Positive Atheism Magazine and others hold. Many self-proclaimed agnostics (like most theists) see only too clearly that our position eliminates agnosticism as a "middle ground" between dogmatic theism and "strong" atheism. Some of the most vicious attacks we've endured in our Letters section have been either from agnostics or from theists who insist that atheism is properly defined only with the "strong" definition.

We see their point and admit that if that's what atheism is, then atheism is empirically indefensible. However, we go along with Smith's findings and continue to call ourselves atheists in that we lack a god belief.

Michael Shermer is another who wishes to relegate the term atheist to the strong position, introducing the term nontheist to describe one who simply lacks a god belief, but who does not actively "know" that there are no gods. We wish him luck in his endeavor, and will start calling ourselves "nontheists" should his idea catch on, but for now, it has no historical precedence, and we will continue to go with tradition on this one until a better idea not only comes up but also catches on with the general public.

Finally, the term atheist has been widely used as a slur or an epithet to indicate an evil person. Most recently, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo used the word atheists to show his disdain toward the agents who seized Elian Gonzalez on April 22, 2000. Even Merriam-Webster's Tenth Collegiate Dictionary has, as a synonym for atheism, the word wickedness. To be fair, they list this definition as archaic; however, its very existence speaks volumes about the public's attitude toward atheists. Many people throughout history have used the word atheist to insult and degrade those people they do not like.

And a lot of people just flat-out don't like atheists for some reason: Author Wendy Kaminer reported that as late as the 1980s, "intolerance for atheism was stronger even than intolerance of homosexuality."

The intolerance toward atheists, like that of Jews, African Americans, and homosexuals, is fortified when we allow people to use words like atheist as a slur or an epithet. Our culture has pretty much eliminated the "N"-word, and has stopped using "Jew" as a verb describing certain business practices, but insults like "faggot" and "atheist" are still way too common. And although a mayor could never get away with calling anybody a "faggot," Mayor Carollo called the "wicked" Immigration agents "atheists" and nobody but Positive Atheism Magazine said a word.

We have a long way to go, and Positive Atheism Magazine thinks one of the first steps should be to hammer out a definition for the term atheism and to agree to use it. True, atheism's opponents will continue to abuse and misuse the term atheism in their efforts to refute our position, telling us that an atheist is something other than what we are (usually making us out to be people who hold the "strong" position), and then demanding that we defend this other position. However, the least we atheists can hope for is that we can agree to use the term consistently and then be able to point to that consistent use when defending our position against our opponents.

This is why we hold the "weak" position and this is why we so patiently and consistently advocate for that position.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.