Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What is an Atheist?

I hear Christians talk in language ranging from subtly snide to viciously violent when discussing how one group of Christians or another “are not real Christians.” Sure, there are plenty of Christians who view Christianity as inclusive, not looking down on people who practice their faith differently (though it’s still common to see polite opposition to certain fringe views and actions among them). However, I suspect the average Christian views people who practice Christianity in a different way to be “doing it wrong,” and many probably consider some other denominations to be “not real Christians.”

It’s strange to me, because I always got the impression the Bible was not very encouraging of judging others (lest ye be judged…). With most Christians, it seems like they want to make it seem as though there are less Christians in the world. I also often sense a sort of “victimhood” mentality accompanying this, because Christianity depends on the believer feeling like they are in a victimized minority in order for some aspects of the faith to make sense.

With atheism, it’s basically the opposite. Most atheists cling to statistics placing the percentage of “atheists” in America in the high teens. I use the quotation marks, because… well… no one can really nail down what constitutes an atheist.

Imagine that, trying to count how many of something there is when there is no set definition. Oh sure, everyone is confident of their definition, but there is no standardized criteria for how to determine who is an atheist.

For me, an atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any gods and does not adhere to any form of religion. Of course, this then begs the question, “What is a religion?” And I have an ambiguous answer: you and others will know if it’s a religion or not. If you have to write an article about how some ideology is a religion in order to try to convince someone it’s a religion, it’s not a religion. Darwinism, global warming, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, capitalism… none of these are religions.

Now, you may ask, “Why even bother with the religion bit?” I don’t want to include non-theistic religious people, because to me, irreligiosity is a component of atheism. I can easily see that Scientology and many forms of Buddhism are atheistic religions, but I don’t consider them atheists. There are some who do, and since there is no set definition for atheism, it’s a perfectly reasonable stance, and is strictly accurate by the letter of the definition.

My definition includes many agnostics. If you are agnostic and practice a religion, I exclude you from my definition of atheist, but if you are agnostic and do not practice religion, then for all intents and purposes, you are an atheist in my book. Why? Because atheism and agnosticism are only clearly delineated if you use a particular definition for atheism.

Some people define atheism as “the belief that there are no gods.” There is a measure of certainty here that makes it incompatible with “agnostic.” Most people I have met who are agnostic aren’t “on the fence,” they’re clearly not believers in God. They don’t pray or attend religious service. They don’t get their morality from any holy book. Sure, they may celebrate holidays, but so do I. Putting up a Christmas tree does not make you religious, unless you’re doing it for Yuletide to celebrate Thor. A Christmas tree certainly doesn’t make you Christian, and I personally question the Christianity of Christians who put one up and decorate the pagan symbol.

But there is ambiguity, as seen right there. Even within my own view, it’s hard to really nail down who is or is not an atheist. In a way, it’s almost as important to investigate why one is asking, “Who is an atheist?”

Often, the reason is to show that, quite simply, we exist. We’re here and we’re often ignored, so atheists want to be able to point to a number and say, “Look how many of us there are!” The problem is, not many people do self-identify as atheist (usually under 2% of the population, from what I can tell looking around at various sources).

The reasons vary. People have different definitions, as mentioned, but there is also a sort of view that atheists are treated with hostility. Some people are “in the atheist closet,” so to speak. People may be embarrassed or afraid to admit they are atheists in studies or surveys.

This is called “social desirability bias.” It’s quite well understood among church attendance statistics, where the number of Americans who claim to go to church every week is much higher than the number of Americans who actually go to church once a week. In other words, people are often dishonest when discussing what they claim to do or believe in polls and surveys, and their answers often reflect what they think people expect of them, rather than reality.

Oddly enough, this also accounts for some statistics regarding atheism to be skewed the other way. In places like China or North Korea, where religion is banned, the number of people claiming to be religious will inevitably be lower than the actual number of people practicing religion in secret.

Generally, my motives for pointing out how many atheists there are in America tends to be typical of why most atheists might bring it up. I don’t want to assume there are more than there are, but it’s important to point out that there are millions of people who are just not religious, for whatever reason. I tend to want to include all non-practicing, non-theistic people, not because I think I can appropriate them for the purposes of forwarding an atheist agenda, but because the irreligious often share at least this in common: we don’t want religion shoved in our faces.

So, what are your definitions and criteria for “What is an atheist?”


  1. A disbelief in gods is my standard. Though, I will agree that most self-identifying agnostics are atheists.

  2. In my youth, I looked for spiritual "answers". I read the bible, the koran, the bhagavad gita, even Carlos Casteneda (the last one may have just been an excuse to smoke a lot of pot). What I found were some interesting stories, and a number of disturbing ones, but no answers. Inconsistencies and contradictions, but no answers. Physics and cosmology come closest. Nothing is infinite. Nothing is perfect. There's a certain wisdom in that.

  3. An atheist is someone who says in their heart, I will be higher than God.

  4. It's ridiculous to pretend atheism has anything to do with elevating the self. No atheist puts themselves before something they don't even believe in. The vanity is all on the Christian end, because it's always Christians, not atheists, who speak with the confidence that an almighty power supports their view.


If your comment is too long, break it into multiple comments and post them all.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...