March 4, 2009 | 95 Comments
“What is atheism?” say the folks over at American Atheists, “is usually the one question never asked of most atheists.” Small wonder, I’d say, given the conflicting answers given by AA in addressing that very issue. First, on their About Athesim page, they chide believers for asserting that atheism is a “doctrine” or a “belief system”:
What is Atheism?
Theists usually define atheism incorrectly as a belief system. Atheism is not a belief system. Atheism is not a religion.
Atheism is a lack of belief in gods, from the original Greek meaning of “without gods.” That is it. There is nothing more to it. If someone wrote a book titled “Atheism Defined,” it would only be one sentence long.
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Older dictionaries define atheism as “a belief that there is no God” and/or “denial of God” . . . . Some dictionaries even say that atheism is the “doctrine that there is no God.” At least The American Heritage ® Dictionary says “God and gods” after the word “doctrine,” but that does not detract from the fact that use of the word doctrine is incorrect.
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[U]sing words like “doctrine” and “denial” betray the negativity seen of atheists by theistic writers. Atheism does not have a doctrine at all and atheists certainly do not “deny” that gods exist. Denial is the “refusal to believe.” Atheism does not “know there is a god but refuse to believe in him” (or her). That would be like saying that you know Big Foot exists but you refuse to believe in him. If the evidence of gods was insurmountable and provable, and atheists still refused to believe, then that would be an act of denial.
On the other hand, on another page they declare that atheism is both a doctrine and belief with very specific scientific and moral implications:
What is Atheism
Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.
The following definition of Atheism was given to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d (MD, 1963), to remove reverential Bible reading and oral unison recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the public schools.
“Your petitioners are Atheists and they define their beliefs as follows. An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy.
“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Emerson. I don’t know what AA’s official stance is on the existence of hobgoblins, but in this case I think a little consistency might not be so foolish.