Reclaiming "Atheism"

Latin is widely considered a dead language. Like a fly frozen in amber, it is today what it was before. It has ceased to evolve. English, on the other hand, is constantly changing. Through social use, its words evolve in both connotation and denotation. In our current society, "atheism" is a term which evokes many strong feelings. But what does the word actually mean?

Atheism can be simply defined as "not believing in a god or gods." Just as theism carries the basic definition of "belief in a god or gods." Yet, a common myth insists that atheism is actually just another religion, complete with its own structure and beliefs (the belief being that no god exists).

Is Atheism a Religion?

Every religion has its own basic tenets, rules and teachings. There is an organized structure and common belief system shared among its followers. In short, a religion is commonly defined as a "set of beliefs and practices."

If Sally simply identifies herself as a "theist," what does that say about her? It says she believes in a supernatural god or gods. Does it say which god she believes in? Does it clarify her position on creation or the afterlife? Does it state anything about the rules or philosophies which guide her life, or describe the practices in which she engages?

The answer to all of these questions is: no. When Sally says she is a theist, she offers no specifics about the god or gods in which she believes. She may subscribe to any of the many religions found around the world. She could be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jainist, Taoist, Wiccan or of any other faith.

Conversely, if Tom identifies himself as an "atheist," it only tells us that he does not believe in a supernatural god or gods. As with Sally's declaration of being theist, Tom has not told us much about the specific philosophies of his life. The term "atheism" on its own simply does not describe one common set of beliefs or practices. Atheism is not a religion.

Atheism and Theism: A Higher Organizational Level

The human brain is good at categorizing and organizing information. Imagine you were asked to create an organizational chart of the relationships of the following terms: Apples, Broccoli, Carrots, Fruits, Oranges, and Vegetables. Most people would agree on how the items should be categorized.

There might be some debate over whether a certain food should be classified as a fruit or vegetable--especially if the list included tomatoes or cucumbers. However, very few people would have trouble agreeing with the idea that these foods belong under the categories of either "Fruits" or "Vegetables."

Now, apply the same exercise to the following terms: Atheism, Islam, Christianity, Humanism, Objectivism, and Theism. It's easy to see a similar result.

Reclaiming Atheism

During religious discussions and debate, the term "atheism" is used in many ways. It is often used to describe particular belief systems, traits or characteristics--many of which are negative or just plain offensive.

Because of the negative ideas associated with atheism, some people who do not believe in a god or gods choose to call themselves "nonbelievers" or "non-theists." While these terms are apt, there is no reason to throw out the term "atheist."

Like theism, atheism comes in many different forms. Instead of making assumptions based on the fact that someone identifies himself as an atheist, ask questions to find out more about his actual beliefs and philosophies. You may be surprised at what you learn.


  1. I agree that atheism is the disbelief in God, not the belief that God does not exist.