What is an Atheist?

sam_harris“‘Atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one ever
needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or ‘non-
alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt
that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed
the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.
Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable
people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”
~Sam Harris

An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God.

Unfortunately, there are etymological and historical problems with a definition this simple, so it must be expanded upon some.

The atheist position is that there is no evidence for God (or gods).

The difference between the two definitions is actually quite important. For the most part, an atheist is open to new evidence – to something that might support that there is a theistic god. But as there is no evidence for one, he or she simply does not believe in one. There is no evidence for Russell’s teapot floating in space, there is no evidence that I am the King of Siam, there is no evidence for Carl Sagan’s Dragon… The number of claims one can make for which there is no evidence is, of course, infinite. You couldn’t function as a human being if you simply believed everything you were told by everyone.

To make a claim, any claim, one needs evidence, and to make an extraordinary claim, one needs extraordinary evidence.

Religion has had such a stranglehold on public discourse, indeed on our way of thinking, that we see it as the default position. We think that the atheist needs to prove that God does not exist. But it is never incumbent (indeed it is impossible) on the unbeliever to disprove a thing. The burden is on the one making the claim – namely that there is a God. There is no word for people who don’t believe in Poseidon or Zeus–it would be silly–only people who worship have a name. And yet reaching the conclusion that you are unswaid by arguments for a thiestic god requires it’s own denomination–atheist.

Now there are clashes over nomenclature here. Theoreticaly an athiest simply doesn’t believe in a theistic god, and could therefore be a deiest–


Indeed, agnostics are actualy atheists–which is to say that while they may believe in a higher power, they don’t subscribe to the theistic beliefs of any one religion. This is important because, when arguing against theistic belief, agnostics and atheists have the same position–there is no God. Between the atheist and the agnostic is only the dissagreement of whether or not there is a higher power. Were I to be able to coin these terms myself, I would call agnostics “atheists”, for not believing in theistic religion, and atheists “adeist”, for going a step further and believing in no higher power whatsoever. These would be more accurate terms.

But athiest or agnostic is actualy the same to the Theist as far as belief–it’s someone who does not believe in a formal god or gods (including the Theists god of choice).

The final term in the mix is the “New Atheist”, which apeares to be growing faster than the old fassioned kind. The new atheist not only believes that there is no evidence for theistic gods, but that such beliefs are counter-productive, if not immoral. For the purpouses of simplicity, and as the New Atheist is the kind most likely to rely on this codex, all refferences to Atheist in this codex refers to new atheisim unless otherwise noted.


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