Over the past two weeks, I have been in the unfortunate position of once again debating the definition of atheism twice. In this blog post, I will be beating a dead horse to death. I will beat it to a bloody indescribable pulp. It is important simply because I want people to understand what I mean when I talk about atheism, and there are many others who share my definition. You can define these terms in any way you like. You can define atheism as the act of jumping on a trampoline for all I care. I just want people to understand what I mean when I use the terminology.
Definitions offer a special problem to us. We communicate using common definitions of terms so that when we discuss things we know what the other person is saying. Sometimes we incorrectly assume that another person shares the same definition of something, and we have useless lengthy arguments that go nowhere.
When you want to find out what something means, there are several sources you can appeal to in order to make your case for what a word truly means. Some people appeal to a particular scholar, some people appeal to Wikipedia, some people appeal to various dictionaries (they don't all agree), some people try etymology, and yet others try to analyze the word by its components. All these different and incommensurable definitions, and more particularly the people who make use of the terms end up being misrepresented by other people, simply because people often don't try to understand the concepts behind definitions, instead focusing on the definitions themselves. "An atheist is someone who jumps on trampolines. Therefore you must jump on trampolines." - I hope this fallacy is obvious enough to anyone who can see it illustrated here. Definitions are not helpful when they don't convey the intended meaning of the person who is using a term.
I like to use the clearest definition of the term that stays true to the following two definitions:
a - the prefix a means without.
theism - denotes belief in god or gods.
This definition describes only one aspect of someone's position. It only describes belief. It ignores the variation of positions that lead to said belief and also ignores the epistemic position of the belief itself. Therefore anyone who agrees with the following statement can be said to be an atheist by my definition:
"I do not believe that any gods exist."
This term applies to weak atheism, strong atheism, negative atheism, positive atheism, gnostic atheism, agnostic atheism, igtheism, apatheism and agnosticism (in all it's own various definitions). All these terms and their uses may have their own problems, but I am only interested in this one. It may be called doxastic atheism if you like to distinguish it from other uses of the word, because it only pertains to belief and nothing else. If we are discussing reasons for atheism, we may then start to hone in more specific positions. The only requirement to meet this definition is agreement with the statement above. This kind of atheism comprises the views of many modern atheists, regardless of their different confidence levels and reasoning used to arrive at the conclusion that they could agree with the statement above.
The statement above is also devoid of making absolute claims about reality. It does not define what is actually the case. It does not say whether gods exist or not.
But how do I define gods? I would say that gods are causal agents that are required for the existence and fate of reality. This definition is important, because it includes everything from harvest gods, to the Abrahamic god and right down to a deistic god. This definition applies to a collection of gods as well as singular gods. The important thing is that we are somehow dependent on such a god. If we were not dependent on a god or collective of gods for anything, they would have no causal influence on us and therefore could not be called gods. I'm sure this definition is incomplete, or even erroneous, but I hope that it conveys the meaning I intended it to.
The old definitions roughly classed a person as such:
a) asserts that there is no god: atheist
b) asserts that there is a god: theist
c) does not know whether a god exists or not: agnostic
a And b are the same class of statements, but c is different in a very important way. c is a statement pertaining to epistemology. In order for c to be properly understood the epistemology of the person who holds c must be understood. Maybe this person is agnostic about absolutely everything except the existence of their own mind. Does that mean that they don't believe that their parents exist? Of course not. They just have a rigid definition of knowledge, so their agnosticism is disconnected from their beliefs. They accept that some beliefs fall outside of their epistemology. You can believe something without knowing it. Let me illustrate with a simple example:
Joanne believes that there is a ghost haunting her house.
If knowledge is taken to be justified, true belief maybe Joanne can justify why she thinks there is a ghost, and believe it. If it isn't actually the case however she would not know it by that definition. So a and b are assertions and c is a statement about knowledge. Not one statement between a, b and c deals with beliefs. So not one describes a person's position only relative to their belief status.
Agnosticism suffers from another serious flaw. It is fairly accurate as a representation of my own definition of atheism but it doesn't acknowledge the fact that many atheists, though not strong atheists, possess knowledge that make the existence of god seem very improbable. This is an important distinction between an agnostic who just finds religious claims as being unbelievable versus a person who has done a fair amount of research into the matter. Therefore the term fails as a single descriptor of someone's position on religious belief.
So by my definition, someone might say that rocks and cats can be atheists, but that is a misunderstanding. Because it is a description of belief, and entities incapable of forming beliefs by considering a topic need not apply.
So why all the fuss about definitions? Why is it that the biggest attackers of the so called "new atheism" are people who object to the use of the term itself by their new imaginary enemy? Could this be a resistance to a different way of doing things? Philosophy of religion has gotten to define these terms, and the field has been dominated by religious thinkers since its inception. It is no wonder that the old definitions are problematic.