Every once in a while, the topic of religion (or lack there-of) comes up in discussion among me and my friends. I often try to explain what atheism is, or actually what it isn’t, and almost like clockwork it comes up: sounds a lot like religion. It’s an innocent statement, but it also means my explanation failed yet again. It’s a rousing topic full of nuance and passion, no matter the religion, agnosticism or atheism of the participant in the discussion. And it fascinates me so because it’s supposed to be simple! After all, it’s just semantics:
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.
Clearly just by looking at the dictionary, one seems incompatible with the other. All the delicious nuance stems from the fact that the term “god” is part of both definitions.
Quick intermezzo before we get into the weeds: I have many friends with a multitude of different religions, people whom I love and respect deeply. I’m not here to take anyones faith away. This is not about whether religion is a force for good or not, there are far more intelligent debates to be had elsewhere. I just like discussing semantic nuances.
What makes it so difficult to pin down is the fact that atheism is really just a word in the dictionary. We’re not even very protective about such words, so we change its meaning from time to time. New information comes to light! The term evolves and mutates and comes to include more meaning still. Looking broadly, though, the definition of atheism forks in two general directions. One direction has it defined mainly as a disbelief in a god or gods, while the other considers it a lack of belief in a god or gods. Did you catch the difference between the two? It’s quite subtle, yet substantial.
Disbelief means you believe there are no gods. You’ve put your two and two together, and decided hey — it just doesn’t make sense to me. This is unlike religion in a couple of obvious ways, first of all the fact that there’s no holy text that describes what you must or must not believe. There’s no promise of an afterlife or lack thereof if you don’t, err, not believe in god. There’s no codex of laws you have to follow to be a “true” atheist. And there are no places you can go to to meet other atheist to, uh, not pray with. (Actually you can still say a prayer if you want to, it’s not like The Atheist Police comes knocking on your door if you do).
The absence of belief, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to pin down. If for whatever reason you never learned about god, well, then you are without belief in god. How could you believe in something you never heard of? Take my daughter for instance. She’s 3, and she’s only talked for the past year or so. I don’t think anyone has told her about religion, not that I know of at least. So she is, by definition, without belief in god. Literally atheos — greek for “without god(s)”. It wasn’t her choice, how could she even make one? I’m not even sure she’d understand what I was talking about if I tried — she’d probably ask for her juicebox and crayons. From this perspective, being an atheist is, in many ways, a default position. It’s what you’re born as. Even if you later in life find solace and happiness in religion, until you found that religion you were for all intents and purposes, an atheist. There’s no shame in that, it’s just a word.
I half expect some readers (thanks for reading 737 words discussing semantics by the way) to ask me: why so defensive, are you sure you’re not describing a religion? Sure, once in a while you’ll encounter someone who takes their atheism so seriously it borders on being a religious experience for them. But that’s fine, they can call themselves atheists too. It’s not like you get a badge at the door. Atheism isn’t organized behind a hashtag, and it’s not about ethics in games journalism.
You are an atheist until you choose not to be, and there’s room for all of us.