What's an Atheist?

This is not a thread where the merits of theism/atheism ought to be discussed. That is a banned subect.

I’m suggesting that those who describe themselves as atheists are either disingenious or need to give their heads a shake and start describing themselves with some positive category. In English we use ‘atheist’ to describe someone who does not accept the existence of what might be loosely called the God of Abraham. Strictly speaking it could also be taken to mean someone who also rejects polytheism or pantheism although in common usage it is not taken that way.

If someone says they are an atheist they could be a confucian, a philosophic materialist, a nihilist, perhaps a Buddhist or Hindu, an idealist, and so on. They could accept the existence of an immortal soul or not and have various positions on a whole range of moral and philosophic issues.

So with people I know who describe themselves this way I insist that they describe what they actually believe before starting a conversation where I defend my Faith. I find this is a good strategy. And an honest one. So the point is: You reject the great intellectual and spritual traditions of my Faith but can’t give me a coherent explanation of what you believe. Hmm…

Usually i must reply atheist because i am asked what my religion is. When I state none that is the answer. If i were further prodded I agree Humanist would be fairly correct.

I can understand what you mean by requesting that we respond with a grouping that you are requesting but it’s inaccurate as they are not religions just philosophies.

If asked for a religion say none. If asked for what your fundamental beliefs are you should be able to state it. Humanist won’t do. Erasmus and St. Thomas More are referred to as Humanists. I have a vague idea what contemporary Humanists are.

I’m protesting agianst people [not you as far as I know] who hide behind some vague title to take various potshots against my Faith. In order to have some sort of meaningful conversation I should know what specific philosophic position the other person holds. How do I know that we have enough in common to even hold a converstion?

Really though atheist and none are equal. I write none because it is simpler. There is no way to tell if there is enough in common with out trying. I am fairly adept at making conversation without adding religion or politics into it. I mean to say i can always talk about football or how cool a jet engine is.

There needs to be a “none” option because not everyone who isn’t religious is an atheist. Many people believe in a higher power (e.g. some sort of Deism, where there is a god but he doesn’t interact with people very often or at all) but simply do not call themselves Christian and do not attend a religious service of any kind.

What you just described is deism. That is a faith. None is just that none the lack of belief in a god. Unless you are saying and i could see what you mean if none for faith but still having belief. or vice versa however you’d like to look at it.


I understand your frustration but “atheist” simply means what it says. There is no God.

If you ask what an atheist believes, I think you know very well what he believes without having to ask.

No Absolute Moral Values.
No Hope for Life after Death.
No Requirement to Strive for Moral Perfection.
No Mandate for Charity.
No Etc. Etc.

Everything negative. Where is the positive? Good question.

I don’t know if this will help. I was born and raised Catholic, but back then the mass was said in Latin, and since I attended public school, I only received religious instructions to allow me to make Communion and Confirmation. And back then you didn’t ask questions. My saving grace was my Mother. She was born in Italy in 1921. When her parents wanted to come to America, my Mother and her 2 sisters weren’t allowed in. My Grandparents had to get established here, before the 3 small girls could come. So for 3 years my Mother and her sisters lived in a convent with the nuns. That gave my Mother an unshakable faith in God. She shared it with me from as far back as I can recall.

Nevertheless, when I was 18, I had my heart broken, and I decided (as a dumb kid) that God didn’t exist. For the next 9 years I called myself an atheist. What it meant was I didn’t believe any kind of God existed, nor did Satan exist. I was into mythology as a kid, and I decided the God of the Bible was another myth. That’s all, with no reality to it at all. But I was challenged by many people. But no one could change my mind. I was like, don’t even waste your time talking to me.

But at approximately, 27 or 28, something started calling me. Things were happening I couldn’t explain. I tried reading my Mother’s large Catholic Bible, printed in 1950, and I just couldn’t understand that old form of English. One night, a strange man appeared as if out of now where and he handed me a small book. It was The Gospel of John in a brand new translation, the NIV. I could understand it. Wow. I ran to thank the funny looking man and I couldn’t find him any where. That night my life changed. But I still refused to believe God was real. I told Him I wanted proof, and He gave me proof. He would read my thoughts and tell me what would happen in the next few minutes. That’s a short version of how I came back to God. That was 33 years ago.

I would say don’t waste much time on atheists unless it’s a person special to you, or if the atheist questions you. Because the only one who can change an atheist is God Himself. IMHO

I would quibble with those four No’s. As far as I can tell…

There is nothing necessarily contradictory about an atheist who believes in absolute moral values. (See Louise Antony’s article)
Or an atheist who has hope for life after death. (Nor even an atheist who believes in life after death. See rebirth in Buddhism)
Or an atheist who is required to strive for moral perfection. (See objectivism)
Or an atheist who has a mandate for charity. (see dāna in Buddhism.)

There is something necessarily contradictory about an atheist who believes in at least one god, but that’s it, as far as I can tell.

I don’t agree with this. It may be a description of our contemporary atheists. Stoics, for example, had a very high regard for absolute moral values. I think you could call a Hindu or a Buddhist an atheist in the sense that there is no personal diety. But such people do not believe in what you have posted. I’m not trying to open a debate about whether atheism implies the consequences you describe.

I am suggesting that people should come on this board, or in real life in converastion, with a description of what they believe. The term ‘atheist’ is meaningless really. It excludes some commonly held beliefs but that’s about it. Answering ‘none’ on the religion profile is honest enough. But surely someone could add a signature saying, in a positive way, what they believe.

There is a method to my madness. My personal experience is that the people I’m describing havn’t thought through any belief system. Hostility towards the beliefs of others should not be good enough for reasonable person.

I appreciate your story. It is similar in some ways to mine. Thank God for Catholic mothers! And yes it is true that our Faith is a gift.

Nevertheless, did not St. Augustine start with a burning desire for truth? He went through various beliefs and found them inadequate from a rational point of view. He did not spend his time sending philosophic puzzles to St. Monica ‘refuting’ her faith but having no position of his own.

Remember tho’ this is a cultural thing. Not just for people in our lives. Bill Maher describes himself as an atheist and gets a round of applause. Wouldn’t you like to interview Bill? What’s an atheist, Bill? What is it you believe? Just to settle the record not to argue the point.

I agree. At least the points are arguable. Which is one of the reasons I object to the term ‘atheist’.

Considering a thread like this will go for dozens of pages at a forum like James Randi’s with no conclusive answer, I really doubt you’ll get much consenus from non-atheists.

If there’s one thing I dislike is long-winded threads. Most of the time.:slight_smile: So I’ll make an end to it. I suggest in conversation, and in popular culture, the term ‘atheist’ ought to be red-flag of some sort. Insist that people who describe themselves with this or any other meaningless term explain themselves. What is it you believe? Just for the record.


I would quibble with those four No’s. As far as I can tell…

There is nothing necessarily contradictory about an atheist who believes in absolute moral values. (See Louise Antony’s article)
Or an atheist who has hope for life after death. (Nor even an atheist who believes in life after death. See rebirth in Buddhism)
Or an atheist who is required to strive for moral perfection. (See objectivism)
Or an atheist who has a mandate for charity. (see dāna in Buddhism.)**

Yes, I understand there are exceptions. My remarks concerned more so all the atheists I have known in America. Most of them were not Buddhists and most of them were moral relativists. No?

Certainly the stereotype of atheists in Western Culture was Jean Paul Sartre, who repudiated his own nay-sayings at the end of his life.

My understanding is there are 2 definitions (maybe more, who knows). One says an atheist is one who lacks a belief in God, another is that an atheist is one who doesn’t believe in God. The distinction is very subtle and hard for me to grasp on too.

I’m Catholic or at least doing the best I can (if you were asking me). I did atheism already, didn’t stick haha.

ETA: For the record, my post was poking fun at atheists and not this thread. I hope there wasn’t a misunderstanding.

One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.

usually it is by lack of evidence but not necessarily.

I’m just saying that “you know very well what he believes without having to ask” is false. You need to ask first. ‘Atheist’ defines a super narrow viewpoint, and anything else you ascribe to a person who considers themselves such, without asking them first, has more to do with your experiences than theirs, if that makes any sense. Like you said, Sartre was a stereotype.

Okay I’m back. There is no “super narrow viewpoint”. If there is please point it out. More to the point of this thread why don’t atheists have a name to describe this viewpoint and use it?

That’s the dictionary talking. We know that. It doesn’t address what I’m saying.

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