What Does Atheism Mean?

Greta Christina

I’ll start with my conclusion: The definition of atheism has changed, in a way most atheists accept. It used to mean “100 percent certainty that there are no gods.” Now, for many self-defined atheists, it means “a reasonable certainty that there are no gods.” If you don’t object to that shift in meaning, it makes no sense to oppose other shifts purely because you think the word should mean what it always meant.

So what does atheism mean? And who gets to decide?

For me, and for many other atheists, atheism has more than one meaning, depending on context. It can have the apparently simple meaning of “lack of belief in any gods.” It can also mean—well, let me quote myself, from the introduction to my newest book, The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life:

For some of us, atheism doesn’t just mean, “I don’t believe in God.” It also means the values and ways of life implied by that conclusion, or inspired by it. (Some people use “humanism” to mean this: by all means, use that word if you prefer.)

For some of us, atheism means the ways of thinking that made us nonbelievers in the first place: a set of tools for critical thinking, an understanding of cognitive biases and how the mind works, a respect for truth over wishful thinking. (Some people use “skepticism” to mean this: by all means, use that word if you prefer.)

And for some of us, atheism means the communities, organizations, and movements springing up among people who don’t believe in gods to give each other support and advocate for our rights. (Some people use “organized atheism” to mean this: by all means, use that term if you prefer.)

But many people insist that atheism can mean only one thing: not believing in gods. They insist that lack of religious belief doesn’t have any implications—or that if it does, they shouldn’t be included in atheism’s definition.

The obvious problem with this argument is that it’s circular. It says, “The word means X because that’s what it means. It meant X when I first learned it; therefore, it can’t mean anything else.” This circularity shows a poor understanding of how language works. Language changes: if it didn’t, we’d all be speaking proto–Indo-African or whatever the ur-language was.

It is tricky to decide how much latitude a word’s meaning should have. If a word could mean anything at all, it would be meaningless; if a word could only have one narrow meaning that never changed, language would stop working. There’s a wide gray area between rigid precision and broad ambiguity, and it plays out differently for different words: proton has a more specific meaning than love. But if you think a given word should have a particular narrow meaning, your argument needs to be based on something other than the notion that words should always be defined precisely and that subsequent definitions should stay the same forever. The only response to that is, “Nope. Wrong. Learn some linguistics.”

And of course, this dictionary argument begs the question: Who gets to decide? The number of atheists is rising, and our demographics are changing. Why shouldn’t newcomers have a say in the language? When you say the definition of atheism should be what it’s always been, you’re saying the old guard gets to define the language forever.

I care about this because self-definition is important, especially for marginalized people. Nonbelievers choose their language for reasons that are varied and personal. We call ourselves “atheists,” “agnostics,” “humanists,” “skeptics,” and a panoply of other words, based on how we understand the definitions, how we feel about their emotional resonance (does the word read as more blunt and confrontational or more gentle and diplomatic?), which word goes over better with our families, which term is used by our local nonbeliever community, which one we heard first. So we should err on the side of broadness and multiple definitions. It’s disempowering to be told, “You’re not the thing you say you are”—whether it’s by believers or other atheists.

And I care because of diversity. Many atheists use this dictionary argument to oppose any efforts to make organized atheism more welcoming to a wider variety of people. They argue that, since atheism only means non­belief in gods, atheist groups and organizations can only organize around that issue, and any other focus is mission drift. It’s another circular argument: “Organized atheism can only be about what it’s already about. Church-state separation is what it’s already about: making atheist communities welcoming to more people isn’t; therefore, it’s mission drift.”

Self-definition isn’t just important to individuals; it’s important as a community. We all get to define the terms, and as our atheist communities change, the language changes. When you oppose the broadening of the language, you’re effectively opposing the broadening of the community.

Which brings me back to history and my original point: The definition of atheism has already changed.

When I was growing up, my nonbelieving parents called themselves “agnostics.” For nonbelievers of their time, agnostic meant having even the tiniest scrap of doubt about the existence of gods. Atheism meant absolute certainty that gods don’t exist. Today, for many of us, atheism simply means being certain enough. And we defend that definition, getting irritated when believers insist that atheism means total certainty. If you’re fine with this redefinition, it makes no sense to tell other atheists that they don’t get to define the word in a way that’s meaningful for them.

The LGBT community learned this the hard way. When we tried to decide for each other what exactly it meant to be gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender, we disempowered each other, and we made our movement weaker. When we accepted that we all get to define the language we share, we became stronger. The imprecision is sometimes confusing—but the payoff is worth it.

Greta Christina

Greta Christina is an author, blogger at The Orbit, and speaker. Her latest book is The Way of the Heathen: Practicing Atheism in Everyday Life (Pitchstone Publishing, 2016).

“When you say the definition of atheism should be what it’s always been, you’re saying the old guard gets to define the language forever.”

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