“...the exact meaning of 'atheist' varies between thinkers and caution must always be shown to make sure that discussions of atheism are not working at cross purposes. ”
Atheism is a complex term to define, and many definitions fail to capture the range of positions an atheist can hold. Perhaps the most obvious meaning to many people now is the absence or rejection of a belief in a God, or gods. However, it has been used through much of history to denote certain beliefs seen as heretical, particularly the belief that God does not intervene in the world. More recently, atheists have argued that atheism only denotes a lack of theistic belief, rather than the active denial or claims of certainty it is often associated with. This is held to follow from its etymology: it stems from the Greek adjective atheos, deriving from the alpha privative a -,'without, not', and 'theos', 'God'. It is not clear, however, that this could not equally mean 'godless' in the earlier sense as meaning a heretical or immoral person.
The exact meaning of 'atheist' varies between thinkers, and caution must always be shown to make sure that discussions of atheism are not working at cross purposes. Michael Martin, a leading atheist philosopher, defines atheism entirely in terms of belief. For him, negative atheism is simply the lack of theistic belief, positive atheism is the asserted disbelief in God, and agnosticism is the lack of either belief or disbelief in God. This suggests that negative atheism, the minimal position that all atheists share, divides neatly into agnosticism and positive atheism. It is worth noting that the 'positive atheist' need not have certainty that God doesn't exist: it is a matter of belief, not knowledge.
The Statue of Atheism being destroyed and replaced with the Statue of Wisdom at the Festival of the Supreme Being, 'Jardin National des Decorations', Paris, 8th July 1794
Musee de la Ville de Paris, Musee Carnavalet, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library',
This understanding of atheism is fairly commonly accepted by other atheists, although some theists complain that 'negative atheism' is trivial or evasive. William Lane Craig argues that Martin is 'redefining' the term to argue for the presumption of atheism, and it is certainly clear that atheists involved in these debates tend to be positive atheists. As well as the claim that it represents the etymology of the term, atheists tend to favour this definition because it treats atheism as the 'null hypothesis', and seems to clearly put the burden of proof on the believer. Martin is clear that defence of negative atheism merely requires refutations of theistic argument, while defence of positive atheism requires reasons for disbelief to be given. One criticism of Martin's definition is that it is not what is commonly understood by 'atheism', and may therefore be confusing and unhelpful. As well as Martin's acknowledgement that dictionaries tend to define atheism positively, many surveys have shown that far fewer people identify as atheists than lack belief in God. For example, Greeley's 2003 survey found that 31% of Britons did not believe in God, but only 10% considered themselves 'atheist'. Martin's appeal to etymology does not necessarily make his definition more helpful if it is not how the word is understood: and his use of agnosticism to be a question of belief rather than knowledge sits uneasily with this etymological approach. Putting to one side the question of what atheism 'should' or 'really' means, the positive-negative distinction is certainly useful in philosophical discussions as a shorthand for different sorts of atheism.
Richard Dawkins does not provide such a strict definition of atheism, and the fact he opposes describing a child as 'Atheist' or 'Christian' suggests that he views atheism as a conscious position and thus leans towards the dictionary definition of atheism as necessarily an active disbelief: Martin's 'positive atheism'. Dawkins' central argument against religion is probabilistic, and his scale of belief reflects this, ranging from 1: 'Strong theist. 100% probability of God' to the equivalent 7: 'Strong atheist'. He doesn't see 7 as a well-populated category, placing himself as 6: 'Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist'. Again, this terminology suggests that he sees atheism as strictly requiring certainty. It should not be taken for a lack of certainty in a practical sense, however: Dawkins states 'I am agnostic only to the extent that I am agnostic about fairies at the bottom of the garden'.
Dawkins divides agnosticism into TAP (temporary agnosticism in practice) and PAP (permanent agnosticism in principle), identifying the first as Sagan's stance on alien life. All but 1 and 7 on his scale can be identified as TAP. The second, PAP, he rightly argues would not be on the scale at all, even in the middle, though it is not clear if this is not sometimes true for TAP as well: Sagan does not give a probabilistic response to the question of alien life. Dawkins reserves PAP for questions that can never be answered by science: and it is central to his thought that God can be shown to be incredibly improbable scientifically. As such, committed agnostics tend to be portrayed as obscurantist, and Dawkins attempts to claim that Huxley overlooked the question of probability, perhaps in an attempt to accommodate the religious to make his central points more effective. Whether this can be squared with Huxley's references to Kant and his 'pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble' is another question. In any case, Dawkins' reading of agnosticism makes a useful distinction and seems fairer to the etymology and common use of the term 'agnostic', and most agnostics can be helpfully placed in the TAP or PAP categories.
Another useful distinction can be made between a broad sense of atheism (positive or negative), according to which an atheist lacks a belief or positively disbelieves in any God or gods, and a narrow sense of atheism (positive or negative) according to which an atheist lacks a belief or positively disbelieves in the personal God believed in by members of the Abrahamic religions, or some other subset of gods. Certain thinkers are positive atheists about Abrahamic religion, but best described as agnostic (whether TAP or PAP) about a deist God, or some other possible sort of God.
In the current atheist debates the New Atheists generally deny that there are good reasons to believe in the sort of personal God believed in by members of the Abrahamic religions. This is because they perceive the great Abrahamic religions - Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - as the greatest threat to the integrity of science and the rule of secular law. However, they also reject deism - the belief in a God that is not based on revelation but on evidence from nature and does not intervene in the world - polytheism (belief in many gods), and pantheism (belief that God is identical with nature). The last is described by Dawkins as 'sexed-up atheism', as he sees it as seeing the natural world in a spiritual way: probably very true for modern pantheists, though by no means universal amongst earlier pantheists, many of whom were more accurately panentheists, seeing the world as within God, rather than exhausting a description of him.
If we apply this distinction to the contemporary debates, the three chief public atheists, (Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) should probably be categorised as positive atheists in the broad sense. Dawkins, for example, denies not only of the personal God of the Abrahamic religions but also the more minimal deist God; he also dismisses the gods of the polytheistic religions, as well as the alleged pantheism of scientists such as Einstein, which he interprets as mere religious metaphor. The Abrahamic God is their primary target, but they broadly dismiss all other forms of belief in God as well.
Moreover, although this is not entailed by atheism in any of the abovementioned senses, avowed atheists tend also to disbelieve in supernatural entities of any kind (e.g., spirits, disembodied souls) and also in supernatural interventions of any kind in the course of nature or events inexplicable in terms of the best contemporary (orthodox) scientific understanding of the universe (for example, parapsychological occurrences).
It is noteworthy, however, that the strident atheist Sam Harris has signalled an openness towards the possibility of parapsychological events in nature. This, of course, does not affect his status as an atheist, since the existence of phenomena such as telepathy and precognition is compatible with there being no God or gods. However, this puts him at odds with Dawkins and Dennett, for whom belief in such things is inextricably associated with the religious mentality.
The attitude to the term 'atheist' also varies, with some thinkers wishing to escape its negative connotations, or purely reactive definition. Sam Harris did not use the term in his first book, 'The End of Faith', and argued at a recent conference that 'our use of this label is a mistake-and a mistake of some consequence', objecting on both 'philosophical and strategic' grounds. Alternatives proposed or used include 'free- thinker', 'rationalist' and the controversial 'Bright'.