The Two Definitions of Atheism


When looking up the term “atheism” in multiple dictionaries, one finds a rather interesting discontinuity. Atheism is defined in two subtly but essentially different ways. The Oxford English Dictionary defines atheism as, “Lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” Whereas defines atheism as, “The doctrine or belief that there is no God.” The wording is very subtle, yet it entirely changes the meaning.

A core tenant of religion is belief and faith in the existence of God. However, the definition of “God” is widely variable. To monotheistic religions, God is defined as the creator of the universe. Some may believe this creator is a man sitting on a cloud in the sky, looking benevolently down on humanity’s every move. Others may believe it is a higher level of consciousness, a larger body that we are all a part of, like we are to God as the cells in our body are to us. In addition to believing in God, religions set forth a set of morals and practices.

A religion and Not

When considering the two definitions of atheism, one of them sounds a lot like a religion and the other does not. In the definition, “The doctrine or belief that there is no God,” atheism sounds very much like a religion. It requires faith in a belief that cannot be proven and it sets forth a doctrine. In the case of New Atheism, it even provides a set of specific moral stances.

Lack of belief in the existence of God or gods

However, if one uses the Oxford English Dictionary definition that atheism is, “Lack of belief in the existence of God or gods,” then it does not require faith, sets forth no doctrine, and bears little resemblance to religion.

No God SignThe difference between believing in the lack of a god and lacking belief in a god, is subtle but essential. It boils down to one question: is “atheist” simply a word to describe those who are not religious, or is it reserved for a group of people who believe in the doctrine and a set of moral principles?

Imagine a person walking down a road and overhearing a large group of people debating whether or not there is a god. They have no interest in participating, so they do not enter the discussion or form an opinion. They simply continue on their way. Are they an atheist? Or must an atheist actively believe in the nonexistence of God?

Considering that the discrepancy goes all the way to the dictionaries, a clear answer may not exist. Yet that intriguing question still lingers. Does one need to believe in atheism to be an atheist?

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