There are reasons why some people would rather call themselves skeptics or freethinkers instead of atheists, and one is to avoid the not uncommon misconception that atheism automatically means the positive claim that there is no god. While I thought this issue had already been resolved a long time ago considering the multitude of articles and videos posted online explaining that it isn’t necessarily the case, it seems that it hasn’t been explained often enough. People continue not only to assert that that is the only definition of atheism but even to imply that the New Atheists are deliberately trying to redefine the word to suit their purposes when their true position is just play-safe agnosticism.
To settle the issue, let’s look at the definition of atheist in the 1979 edition of The Grolier International Dictionary, of which I happen to have a copy:
atheist – one who denies the existence of God.
The operative word here is denies. Using the same dictionary, let’s see what that word really means:
1. to declare untrue; assert the contrary of; contradict.
2. to refuse to believe; reject.
3. to refuse to recognize or acknowledge; disavow; disown.
If we add “the existence of God” to each of the above definitions, the first one seems to be the most presumed by theists while the atheists usually mean the second and third – that they do not take this particular claim as truth, that they simply do not believe.
And what does it mean to not believe? If a friend told me that last night he dated and slept with a famous actress, say, Angel Locsin or Christine Reyes – or both – but he didn’t even have a scandal video on his phone, I would simply say that I don’t believe him. However, I wouldn’t accuse him of lying because I wasn’t with him or either girl last night and I didn’t have 24-hour surveillance on any of them. No, I could not be certain that he’s not telling the truth. But I just wouldn’t believe him because his story is too incredible that I would provisionally conclude that he did not sleep with either actress – until I see some evidence that he really did. Then and only then would I reassess and perhaps even reformulate my conclusion. Heck, I might even worship him for banging those goddesses.
Wow. They demand proof against something that has not been proven in the first place. “Universality of belief” does not necessarily mean that such belief had undergone and passed through skeptical scrutiny.
But sometimes the problem lies with some atheists who, in their passion to express their new-found freedom from religion, go a bit too far not only by saying something inflammatory but by indirectly making assertions that they would have to defend, like this one:
The poster is indirectly saying that Jesus, Allah and Yahweh are imaginary, hence, they do not exist. That is a positive statement that supposedly carries the burden of proof. However, when asked to prove such statement, some atheists would simply say that it is the theist’s job to prove that his particular god exists. That is wrong. A comment posted in Friendly Atheist says it best:
The first one clearly refers to the strong atheist, but the second refers to atheists in general and includes agnostics and skeptics. Unfortunately, to many people the word atheist is associated more closely with the “there is no god” position than with healthy skepticism, no thanks to the overeagerness of some atheists (and no thanks as well to those who say that agnostics are atheists without balls).
Atheists, agnostics, skeptics. The first two are defined by their positions on a certain truth claim; the third focuses more on the method of arriving at either position. All three are the same in one sense: They do not believe.