Atheism is a bit of an unclean word in modernity. It has unfortunate connotations, especially in the English-speaking world. For the better-part of the 20th century, America saw atheism as part-and-parcel of the Communist mindset. Communism was evil and anti-American, therefore atheism must also be evil and anti-American. The Cold War made sure that this meme was a well-entrenched and long-lasting one.
When I was growing up, my exposure to older dictionaries gave a rather intriguing definition of the word. Atheism, apparently, was the denial of the existence of God. Such wording gave a misplaced emphasis on the accepted existence of God as an understood certainty. It was also a clear assignation of the belief system accepted by the author of the entry. Amoral wasn’t described as the denial of morality, but the absence of morality. Apolitical, likewise, was the absence of politics and not the denial of politics.
In order to come up with a clear and distinct definition of what atheism is, it is better to ask those who hold that view. This, then, is a clear definition of atheism:-
Atheism: the absence of theism. The absence of a personal deity.
And that’s all there is to it.
Some might argue that atheism is the belief that there are no gods. And that simple (but flawed) definition is widely held, even amongst those that define themselves as atheists. It is, nonetheless, a flawed definition; partly (but not solely) because it doesn’t include all who consider themselves as atheists.
There are two distinct types of atheism: strong and weak. Strong atheists believe that there are no such thing as personal gods. Weak atheists simply lack a belief in personal gods. Some (ardent theists in particular) might struggle to see that such a difference exists – but it certainly does.
Each and every one of us was born as a weak atheist. At our earliest beginnings, we had no concept of what a god was, let alone whether or not we believed it to exist. Such thoughts are delivered unto us as we’re growing up – whether by our parents, or the wider society in which we are raised.
Some people continue the weak atheistic belief pattern (or, more accurately, the lack of a belief pattern) into adulthood. The existence of personal gods doesn’t impede upon their thought processes and they most certainly haven’t come to the conclusion that such things don’t exist. At times, such people can loosely be described as agnostics (when looking for an easy definition that doesn’t confuse others) but their lack of theism is simply that – atheism.
Strong atheists are the more-familiar beasts, much maligned by ardent theists. They have considered the evidence and concluded that there are, after all, no personal gods.
That doesn’t make them a close-minded group. Some might be – some might not. Atheism is a very free definition and any personality trait above and beyond that simple belief cannot (and must not) be assumed. Atheists can be found across every part of the political spectrum, from left-wing, from centralists, to the right-wing. It might annoy the Cold War diehards, but not all atheists are Communists.
This atheist in particular isn’t close-minded when it comes to his strong atheism. If evidence presents itself which suggests that I might be wrong, I will explore such evidence until such a time as I am convinced in either direction. I hold the same view when it comes to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. Of course it is possible that such entities might, after all, exist. But in the absence of any evidence, I shall remain a strong atheist, a strong asantaist and a strong atoothfairyist.
In all of the above, I have made a very careful point about referring to the existence of personal gods, rather than gods in general. And there is a very good reason for that… a reason that many atheists overlook. I don’t believe that no gods exist.
In some cultures, existing (and very real) entities are worshipped as gods. If I were to claim that the sun did not exist or a volcano did not exist… I would be making a very strong (and wrong) assertion. If a remote islander worships the volcano that looms above them (as evidenced in so many Hollywood productions) as a god, then that god must clearly exist. The difference would be whether or not that “god” had a consciousness that could recognise that it had worshippers who saw it as their personal god. On that, I would say that it most certainly does not.
An atheist, then, is someone who has no personal god (weak and strong atheism) or believes that personal gods do not exist (strong atheism).
Which is the clearest (and most accurate) definition you will ever see, inside or outside of any dictionary.