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What “exactly” is an atheist?


Question & Answer

Q: By Marlon

What “exactly” is an atheist?

A: By Rev. Gretta Vosper

Dear Marlon,

Just as the term “believer” means very different things to those who use it, so do to does the word “atheist” include a wide set of definitions. I’m digging into it in a fairly technical way here, but I hope it helps.

There are different groups who use the term “atheist” and each uses it in a different way.

Theologians might use the word “atheist” to describe a belief system that excludes the idea that the god called God is a being and is supernatural. They may acknowledge an idea of god, but not one that intervenes in human affairs (directly or by changing people minds so that they act differently).

In my first book, I identified as a nontheist. In my second, having realized that many nontheists still held onto the idea of intervention, I identified as a theological non-realistwhich meant that I do not believe there is a god out there doing anything.[i]  A decade into my ministry, however (and long before I wrote my first book on the subject or identified as an atheist), I realized that the idea of god that I held was invisible to others if I used the word “god” to talk about it. Everyone listening to me had a different concept of god, many of which got in the way of what I was trying to convey. My conception of god is one of relationship, represented in the United Church’s most recent statement of faith by the term “Bond of Love”: I do not believe in a being but I do believe in the enormous power of human community and the “god” created within meaning-making community. The “power of god” is the power created in human relationship, not something outside of it. I no longer use the term, however, for the simple reason that I want to be understood.

There are those who use the term “atheist” to make it clear they do not believe in religious doctrine but hold a scientific view of the universe. “Humanist” is a term very closely aligned with “secularist,” but the two often differ. A secularist may hold religious beliefs but still argue that religion and state should remain separate – one of the fundamental definitions of secular. Additionally, the term humanist was often (if not originally) used to argue that humans are the most advanced of all life on the planet. Most humanists I know are humble folk who see humanity as part of the web of life, not as its crowning glory. Humanists may or may not use the term “atheist” to describe their beliefs.

Atheists themselves, are divided on the meaning of term and use the words “strong” or “weak” to describe themselves. Many, even including Richard Dawkins, refuse the term “strong” atheist because it conveys that you “know” for a fact that there is no god. Dawkins even calls believers “weak atheists” because he argues that even very strong believers cannot possibly know if God exists. I’m pretty sure believers would argue he was wrong, but Dawkins would probably win since the burden of proof would be on the shoulders of the believers, and they wouldn’t be able to provide it. I’m a weak atheist; I do not see any proof for a god in our world[ii]. But, like Dawkins, I cannot identify as a strong atheist because I couldn’t possibly know, as a matter of fact, that there is no god. The evidence against one, however, is pretty damning, I must say.

Emotional Definitions
All of the above are rational definitions of the term. The more common use of it is, I believe, emotional. For whatever reasons – fear, anger, arrogance – the term “atheist” is often used as a pejorative. Although my choice to identify as an atheist came long after I made it clear in my books that I did not believe in a supernatural god, or a being that could intervene in human affairs, people have reacted dramatically to the word. Even colleagues trained in theology have assumed what I mean and chosen to laden that assumption with negative stereotypes, primarily believing I am a religion-hater. They miss the more important facet of the work we do at West Hill, which is to take the core message of liberal Christianity – love one another – and deliver it without religious language for those who would embrace the work of loving one another but not the virgin birth, the Bible as God’s word, Jesus as Saviour, etc. By not using religious language, we welcome both believers who do not require it and everyone else, even those of other faiths. The emotional reaction to the word “atheist” has made many blind to the importance of our work.

I chose to describe myself as an atheist as an act of solidarity with those around the world who are dying for the right to freedom of expression. People continue to be assassinated by religious zealots in Bangladesh and imprisoned elsewhere simply for being humanist or identifying as atheist. The bigotry that was revealed in my own denomination by my use of the term reminds me that we must all be advocates for those who identify as atheists, and consistently work to bring the emotional response down to a more considered and rational one.

~ Rev. Gretta Vosper

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
The Rev. Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister who is an atheist. Her best-selling books include With or Without God: Why The Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe, and Amen: What Prayer Can Mean in a World Beyond Belief. She has also published three books of poetry and prayers.

[i] Philosophical non-realists argue that nothing exists; for example: I cannot prove my keyboard is beneath my hands; everything exists only in our minds. I am only a non-realist as far as gods go, so I call myself a theological non-theist: I do believe the keyboard is beneath my hands … though I must admit, I have still not been able to answer the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?”
[ii] If you come across a youtube video in which I say I am a strong atheist, that’s simply because I mixed up the terms!

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