Atheism is defined as the BELIEF that Gods do not exist. This is the case not only because Steve McRae says so, but also because Callzter agrees with him... and Callzter is a pretty hardcore Atheist AND the creator of this website (but please don't take this definition as gospel).
Just like with any word that fuels so much controversy, a heated discussion between two or more people, who use the word "atheism" or "atheist" differently, can quickly devolve into a meaningless and endless discussion on "what-words-mean". In order to conserve a meaningful discussion, it should be agreed upon that the label of a position is rather unimportant compared to the position itself, because labeling a position by a different word wouldn't change the position.
Different Usages Edit
Wikipedia gives three definitions of the word "atheism", beginning with the broadest definition and ending with the narrowest. These series of most inclusive to least inclusive definitions is analogous to the different definitions used for the word "plants" in modern classification.
- Atheism - "sensu lato" (in a broad sense)
"The absence of belief in the existence of deities"; Synonymous to "non-theism" - just like "a-symmetric" and "non-symmetric" are synonymous.
By this usage, an "atheist" is "a person who doesn't believe in the existence of deities". This usage is common amongst atheists themselves. Looking up any website run by self-identified atheists, this definition (often paraphrased) comes up most frequently, but that is not to say that there are no atheists who don't agree with this usage. People who don't agree with this usage often give it the pejorative label called "lack-theism" and would rather use the term "non-theism" to describe the absence of the belief in the existence of deities.
- Atheism - "sensu stricto" (in a narrow sense)
"The rejection of belief in the existence of deities."
The difference between this definition and the former is that it includes stricter criteria for being an atheist. By the former definition, babies would be included in the "atheist" category, since they don't believe that a deity exists, but babies are excluded by this definition since they haven't rejected the belief either. In order to be an atheist in this sense, you have to be consciously aware of the proposition for the existence of deities and reject that proposition as being unjustified, however claiming that the proposition is false isn't a necessary requirement (clarified later on). This definition would also exclude adults who aren't consciously aware of the concept of deities, though these are quite rare.
Sometimes this usage is given the label "explicit atheism" to clarify that it is a subset of the former definition, meaning "explicit atheists" are "atheists (in the broad sense)" who also reject the belief in the existence of deities. The atheists who don't reject the belief are sometimes labeled as "implicit atheists".
It can be argued that this definition is more useful than the former one, because when people talk about someone who is an "atheist", most often they don't refer to a baby, nor someone who has never heard about a god before.
- Atheism - "sensu strictissimo" (in the narrowest sense)
"The position that there are no deities."
This usage adds another criteria for being an "atheist" on the former one. According to this definition, an "atheist" does not only reject the proposition that a deity exists, but also believes that the proposition is false, i.e. the atheist believes that no deity exists.
This usage is often not used by self-identified atheists who rather use one of the former definitions. Sometimes this position is labeled as "strong/positive/hard atheism" to clarify the difference between believing that no gods exists and just not believing that any god exists. By treating "strong atheism" as a subset of atheism in the broad sense, we could say that a "strong atheist" is an "atheist (in the broad sense)" who not only does not hold any belief that god(s) exist(s), but also holds the belief that gods do not exist. A subset of atheists who do not hold this "strong atheistic" belief are sometimes called "weak/negative/soft atheists". "Strong atheism" would also be a subset of "explicit atheism" since holding the belief that no gods exists necessarily requires a conscious rejection of the proposition that gods do exists.
This definition for "atheism" is favored among theists, especially when they are in a discussion on the existence of god, so they can assert that the atheists has the burden to prove that their particular god they believe in doesn't exists (while often omitting that, by the same logic, they also have the burden to prove that every other god that they don't believe in doesn't exists). This definition is also favored among agnostics who (are atheists according to the former definitions but don't use these because they) don't want to be associated with the proposition that "no gods exists" nor with atheists in general, and who can really blame them for that ?
Why People Get so Upset About This Edit
Deciding on favoring one particular definition over the other is a double-edged sword: No matter what you pick, it will cut something on one side or the other. If you use the narrow definition while confronting atheists (who don't identify themselves with that usage), it can really piss them off - especially when you say to them: "Oh, you are not an atheist, you're an agnostic." - because it creates a straw-man against them. Self-identified atheists don't necessarily believe that no gods exist, and it is better to just let them use the label however they want to use instead of arguing over the definition and telling them what label they should identify with, in order to keep the conversation productive. However, many still do want to argue over semantics.
Conversely, if you use a broader definition, you are essentially saying that all agnostics are atheists (since they don't believe in the existence of any god(s). This can piss off the self-identified agnostics for reasons previously mentioned, and because the label has many negative stigmas attached to it. Atheists who keep asserting that self-identified agnostics such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Steve McRae are atheists (by their preferred definition of what an atheist is) don't do themselves any favor by acting like pricks who are assigning their label onto others just to pull them into their club. It only validates the stereotype that atheists are mere assholes on the internet.
Why it Really Doesn't Matter Edit
If you (whether atheist or agnostic) want to argue the definition of "atheism", you should at least realize this: Since the majority of self-identified atheists don't hold the belief that there are no gods, they just don't believe there is one (they use the first or second definition) and since the majority of self-identified agnostics (are also atheists by the same standards, and thus) hold more or less the same position, there really isn't a significant difference between these two demographics, in terms of what they do and don't believe regarding the existence of deities. The only difference is the label that is used, but sometimes even THAT isn't a difference either, since many self-identified atheists are happy to identify themselves as agnostic too. They will say that they are atheists, because they don't accept the claim that there is a god - and that they are also agnostic, because they don't claim to know whether there is a god or not. Of course, some agnostics would argue that atheism (by the "strong" definition) and agnosticism are mutually exlcusive things, but that is beside the point, and that is where the difference lies...the mere difference in how these words are used, which is rather a silly point of contention. It's a shame that atheists and agnostics are divided in this way by mere labels, which gives the illusion that they are somehow very different things. It also makes achieving mutual goals, such as maintaining separation between church and state, much more difficult then it needs to be. And above all, it makes many discussions on the existence of deities a real pain as they tend to de-evolve in an argument over the definition of a label, rather than the positions themselves.
The moral of the story: let people identify by whatever label they want, however they want. As long as we are clear on how we use our terms, we can still have productive conversations, even if we don't agree on the usage of these terms. In these conversations, what matters are peoples' positions, not the labels that those positions have.
Summary of Positions Edit
Hard atheism is the expressed or explicit belief that God or gods do not exist; The belief that the Universe is devoid of Gods. The assertion, claim, belief or position that God(s) do not exist... or that the proposition that God(s) exist is false... that theism is false, also known as philosophical, propositional, strong (not Dawkins' bizarre version) or explicit atheism.
Soft atheism (colloquial atheism) is lacking a belief that God(s) exist (sometimes known as weak or implicit atheism).
Gnostic atheism (soft) is nonsensical as you can not assert a knowledge claim with out holding a belief about it first.
Gnostic atheism (hard) is the same as above including that it is not just just a belief position, but one of knowledge.
Agnostic atheism (soft) is nonsensical, as you can not add an epistemic modifier to a non-doxastic claim. (You can not say something about being not a knowledge claim if it isn't a belief claim in the first place).
Agnostic atheism (hard) is redundant and superfluous as it is no different than just theism. (Hard atheism is strictly a belief claim, so it is redundant to reiterate it is only a belief (doxastic) position). (Can be taken to also mean a person who asserts God does not exist, but also has minimal positive epistemic claim...but not enough to turn that belief into a knowledge position or claim, however this is atypical and would have been how it would have been understood during Huxley's time, but not so much in modernity.)
• Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011): “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” [Atheism and Agnosticism, Online]
• Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007), p. 88: “In its broadest sense atheism, from the Greek a (‘without’) and theos (‘deity’), standardly refers to the denial of the existence of any god or gods.”
• Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2nd ed. (2006), p.358 [in vol. 1 of 10]: “According to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence ‘God exists’ expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God”
• Oxford Companion to Philosophy, New Ed. (2005), p. 65: “Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, ... Agnosticism may be strictly personal and confessional—‘I have no firm belief about God’—or it may be the more ambitious claim that no one ought to have a positive belief for or against the divine existence.”
• Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (2004), p. 530: “The belief that God – especially a personal, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God – does not exist.”
• Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), entry by William Rowe: “As commonly understood, atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. So an atheist is someone who disbelieves in God, whereas a theist is someone who believes in God. … the common use of ‘atheism’ to mean disbelief in God is so thoroughly entrenched, we will follow it. We may use the term ‘non-theist’ to characterize the position of the negative atheist.”
Rowe 1998: "As commonly understood, atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. " - Wiki