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Ask An Atheist: What Are The Concrete Beliefs of Atheists?


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By Jim Downard

What is the concrete belief of atheist? Ff they say that “there is no god!” are they already considered as atheist?

Who qualifies as an atheist and what that entails depends on how the term is defined.  In the old days failure to believe in particular gods could qualify as such.  For example, a believer in Marduk who doesn’t believe in Zeus is an atheist if Zeus is actually real, and Marduk not.  Socrates was accused of being an atheist for having doubt about the Greek gods, for example, and that is how deist Thomas Jefferson was tagged with the atheist label by some Christians who didn’t think he believed in the correct version of “God.”

In that sense, unless you are someone who believes that all gods exist, then on all the ones you disbelieve in, you’re an atheist.  Full atheists have merely added one more name to the list.

Which leads us to the modern usage of the term, which has broadened to mean those who do not hold belief in any gods at all.  There too there is a range of conception.  There are atheists who will say only that they do not believe in any gods because they lack evidence for them, but do not claim (nor feel they need to) that no gods exist or that they cannot exist, just that the evidence for them is lacking.  That could be called basic atheism.  There are also atheists who would say the reason why they don’t believe in gods, and the reason why there is no good evidence for them, is that the gods simply don’t exist.  That would be your ontological atheist.  Some of either of the groups may also be anti-theist (in that they actively oppose theist positions), but that’s another issue and is not an intrinsic position of “atheism.”

The important variable here on the belief vs disbelief matter is the evidence, what constitutes evidence for supernatural entities.  Since few people claim to personally interact with gods, and the proposed gods appear undisposed to making personal personal appearances or doing miracles in public, almost all of it turns on either reliance on prior accounts of gods (as recounted in various books, which are open to the interpretive skepticism of credulity of the reader) or the personal experience of those who regard their lives as transformed by their belief in the god.  Some people attest to having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” for example, a notion which the non-believer may well find implausible (at least when compared to what goes on with personal relationships with people, where one can get responses directly and not by proxy, reading a fixed document as guide to their “relationship”).

Beyond that, there are as many modes of atheism as there are people who hold to it.  Although many atheists tend to be more politically liberal than average, there is nothing intrinsically political about non-belief.  So just as religionists come in all political stripes, so do atheists.  Nor do atheists automatically show rigorous thinking on other matters.  It’s possible to be a racist atheist or one who believes in wacky conspiracy theories.  At that point one may wonder how well they’d thought through their atheism too, though.

And although theism vs atheism may involve much discussion about morality (from abortion to euthanasia to social justice in economic terms) atheism technically takes no position at all on such matters, even though nonbelievers may well have very firm opinions on any of those topics.  It is possible to be a moral absolutist and an atheist, for example, even as others have a view that no moral absolutes exist.  Believers too, have a spectrum of views on this, but that’s another story, one knee deep in philosophy and the assumptions underlying them.

So, if you were waiting for an explicit Catechism of Atheism, don’t hold your breath, there isn’t one.  Just a non-belief in supernatural entities, with all the rest that of the individual’s philosophy.

Jim Downard
Jim Downard
Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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