a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
Oxford English Dictionary:
Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god.
The doctrine or belief that there is no God
1. The rejection of belief that any deities exist.
2. the absence of belief in the existence of any deities.
3. The stance that deities do not exist (gnostic atheism).
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.
If you were paying close attention, you would notice that there are some very different definitions given to a single -ism. Classic authoritative sources (the OED, and M-W, for example) define atheism as an active position, a worldview, a doctrine. Meanwhile, more democratic dictionaries loosen it up a bit, allowing a more passive interpretation where atheism is simply the absence of believe, a state of being. I suppose the difference between the two types of definitions is the same difference in how the common public perceives atheism versus how the rationalist community does.
From the disagreement arises a few questions, one of which is: Who gets to define atheism; the believers or the people that it actually describes? It may not have occurred to you just yet that this is a rather big deal, but imagine having a word that you identify with being defined by someone who despises its very meaning. Would we allow the term “Asian” to be redefined to insinuate that, in addition to being from the continent of Asia, an Asian is also Buddhist? No. But you can imagine an ignorant authority might do that if their only exposure to Asians were with those who were also Buddhist.
From its Greek roots, atheism simply means “without god,” so how did the notion of a doctrine sneak in? As an atheist, I’m not aware of any doctrine or teaching that comes with such a status. In fact, a simple Google search for “atheist doctrine” reveals sarcastic levity and downright antagonism toward atheism. This is not evidence of a word given a fair chance to define itself. I would argue that the authorities in charge of defining the word for the purpose of modern dictionary publication had a negative view of it, regardless of the neutral definition it originally had.
The definition that most rationalists (whose majority happens to be atheist) use to define atheism is this: the absence of belief in a god or gods.
Not only is this definition a passive, inclusive label, it means exactly what its etymology implies. It has no negative connotation and can be applied to many groups. If we mean to be more accurate, we must either use modifiers or other words with more specific meanings. Atheism was never meant to be defined as a belief; it is simply a state that we find ourselves in when the concept of god means little or nothing to us.
A believer sees “atheism” as pertaining to a specific group of people who keep trying to kill Christmas and take the mention of “God” off of their currency, but atheism is really just an all-inclusive term for many different groups of people. Yes, those who actively claim that there is no god are atheists. But that label is not what signifies their disbelief. There are gnostic atheists and agnostic atheists. There are militant atheists and hard atheists. There are anti-theists and nihilists. If you were to claim that there is an atheist doctrine, you would first have to decide if you are referring to Humanism, Buddhism, “Atheism 3.0,” or some other set of beliefs that just happens to preclude the existence of god. There are too many to list.
To give an example of why who decides on the definition of this word is important, I would like to call attention to my previous blog post where I asserted in the first line that we are all born atheists. From the rationalist perspective, this is a perfectly acceptable and neutral statement as a tabula rasa fits nicely into the rational atheism spectrum. No knowledge, thus no knowledge of god, thus no belief in god. However, if you subscribe to the authoritative dictionary definition of atheism, then the statement becomes quite menacing and presumptuous. This caused a bit of a misunderstanding that you can read in the comments section that later carried into email and is the motivation for this post.
If people are intimidated by others throwing around big words that mean nothing to their ears, imagine what is going through their heads when we use words they think they already know the definition for, but are misinformed about. It reminds me of a similar problem we have with “theory.” Just because the dim public recognizes a theory as more of a hunch than a fact doesn’t mean that when a scientist uses the word it still means what the public think it does. While words themselves lack the ability to change the reality they describe, they certainly cause a lot of PR problems.