Atheism is a…what?

Question from Kristen:
What is Atheism?

Answer by SmartLX:
Years ago, site founder Jake did a great job answering the question, “What is an atheist?” He defined the word very simply, and dispelled some myths about atheism which even now are depressingly prevalent. In an effort to be complementary instead of redundant, I will instead discuss what atheism actually is, in other words, how it can be categorised.

Is atheism a religion? No. The basic definitions of the word “religion” have in common the existence of a set of beliefs, usually in something unknown and supernatural, and atheism as defined by most atheists is a lack of belief in any such thing. (Since I’ve just referenced, I should address the definitions of “atheism” there: the first one, an actual belief that there is no god, is known as strong atheism, and is not a very common position. The second definition is better.)

Some theists nevertheless accuse atheists of being religious, for example about evolution or an as-yet-undetermined natural cause for the universe. Evolution is easy to accept with confidence, rather than belief, because it supplies plentiful evidence. A natural universe-starter cannot inspire positive belief unless you take a guess at what it actually was, and stick to that guess to the exclusion of all other possibilities. Few people do this for anything but a god.

Is atheism a worldview? Hardly, because it only takes a position on one thing. If there are no gods in the world, that doesn’t tell us much at all about the world, especially given that theology regularly defends gods by explaining why the world usually looks as if there are none.

Is atheism a philosophy? No, for much the same reason it isn’t a worldview. The absence of gods is not very informative with respect to logic, morals and so on. Atheists look to other sources for these, not to some god-shaped hole in the world.

If it’s none of these, then what is atheism, finally? It’s a position one can take, at least. I had a go at nailing down the specific position here. More directly, though, it’s a rejection of a position, namely the theist position that there is good reason to believe in a Creator or other deity. Atheists think there’s no good reason.

So if that’s all atheism is, why is it so important to proclaim and to encourage? Because the alternative position locks people into rigid religions, worldviews and philosophies with little or no evidential support behind them, which may or may not even apply to modern people’s lives. Once one is free of theism, one may draw upon the sum recorded total of human wisdom (the only kind we know there is) to formulate one’s own approach to life, and accept the world more as it really is. I am confident that we’d all be happier this way. True persuasion, not coercion, is the only way to get people there.

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