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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Atheism might not mean what you think

Many people think of atheists as those who believe that there is no God. True, but atheism also includes a much broader range of beliefs and non-beliefs. Atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of gods or deities. It is merely the lack of theism.

The word atheism is made up of "a-" + "theism." The prefix "a-" means "without." Theism is a belief in a God or gods. An atheist is simply someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist.

Agnosticism: "a-" (without) + "gnōsis" (knowledge) is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims—particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of deities, ghosts, or even ultimate reality—is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently impossible to prove or disprove. In other words, an agnostic claims he can't know for sure if a God (or gods) exist.

So atheism answers the question, "what do you believe?" And agnosticism answers the question, "what do you know?" If you admit that you don't know for sure if there is a god, then you're probably an agnostic. But do you sit on the fence and ignore the question that asks about your belief? The question, "do you have a belief that god exists?" still should be answered. Theist or atheist. With the belief in god or without the belief.

There are four broad categories (and many subcategories/variations):
  1. Explicit Theist: Knows for sure that God exists. Not agnostic and not atheist.
  2. Implicit Theist: Has a belief in God. (May or may not admit to being agnostic.)
  3. Implicit Atheist: Does not have the belief in God. Likely to be agnostic as well.
  4. Explicit Atheist: Knows for sure that God does not exist. Not agnostic and not theist.

NOTE: Similar (but slightly different) terms include "strong" instead of "explicit" and "weak" instead of "implicit."

Agnostic atheism encompasses both atheism and agnosticism. An agnostic atheist is atheistic because he does not believe in the existence of any deity and is also agnostic because he does not claim to have definitive knowledge that a deity does or does not exist. The agnostic atheist may be contrasted with the agnostic theist, who does believe that one or more deities exist but does not claim to have definitive knowledge of this.

George H. Smith suggested that: "The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god." Smith coined the term implicit atheism to refer to "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it" and explicit atheism to refer to the more commonly used definition of conscious disbelief.

About 2.3 percent of the world's population describes itself as atheist, while a further 11.9 percent is described as "nontheist."

Wikipedia has an entry on "Non-theism." Non-theism, which is similar to agnostic atheism, has various types. "Strong atheism" is the positive belief that a god does not exist. "Weak atheism" (or implicit atheism) could describe someone who does not think about the existence of a deity.

In Western culture, atheists are frequently assumed to be irreligious or unspiritual. However, religious and spiritual belief systems such as forms of Buddhism that do not advocate belief in gods, have been described as atheistic. Although some atheists tend toward secular philosophies such as humanism, rationalism, and naturalism, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere.

For more details see Wikipedia:
Implicit and explicit atheism