At Milton Keynes Humanists’ monthly meetings, we are always pleased to welcome new people, and many come with questions about atheism — “What exactly is an atheist?” “How does atheism differ from agnosticism?” and “How do you define humanism?” So we thought it might be useful to prepare a note to explain these and a host of other terms that one can come across in the media or rationalist, freethinker, skeptic or secular literature.1 We do this with some trepidation because there is as yet no consensus about many of the terms in use and no agreed definitions, indeed many terms incorporate or encompass others.
Basically, an atheist is someone who does not believe in a supreme being or other immaterial things.2 The term appears to have been first used in the 18th Century. A humanist is someone who has a positive approach to life and a strong concern for human welfare, values and dignity (ie “an atheist who cares”).3 Agnosticism is different: it is a statement about knowledge rather than belief — the view that the truth of metaphysical claims regarding theology, an afterlife, or the existence of god is unknown or inherently unknowable. When asked “Do you believe in god?” an agnostic or ‘ignostic’ (see below) would say “I don’t understand the question. How do you define god?”
But there are many different kinds of atheists, and this can be confusing: we find frequent reference in the media to ‘militant atheists’, ‘fundamentalist atheists’ and ‘anti-theists’ — terms sometimes lumped together as ‘new atheists’.4 These labels are invariably scornful and uncomplimentary and are regularly attached to people like Richard Dawkins who actively campaign against religion or religious influence in public life.5 But this is only the tip of the lexicological iceberg: in this paper we’ve explored a number of other (less pejorative) terms.
We start with ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ atheism, terms coined in the late 1970s by George Smith. Smith defined ‘implicit atheism’ as “the absence of theistic beliefwithout a conscious rejection of it”, and ‘explicit atheism’ as “the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it” — it should be said that many non-believers would not recognize ‘implicit atheism’ as atheism at all, preferring to use terms such as ‘skeptic’ or ‘agnostic’.
Then we have the idea of a ‘passionate atheist’ — “someone who considers God to be their personal enemy”, as distinct from ‘ordinary atheists’ “who do not believe in God” (the distinction was floated by Freeman Dyson in 2006); and Christopher Silver and Thomas Coleman have proposed a different classification after carrying out a survey of non-believers:
- ‘intellectualatheists/agnostics’ — people who “seek information and intellectual stimulation about atheism” who “like debating and arguing, particularly on popular Internet sites” and are “well-versed in books and articles about religion and atheism, and prone to citing those works frequently”;
- ‘activists’ — not content with just disbelieving in God, this kind of atheist / agnostic wants to “tell others why they reject religion and why society would be better off if we all did likewise”; they also “tend to be vocal about political causes like gay rights, feminism, the environment and the care of animals”;
- ‘seeker-agnostics’ — “people who are unsure about the existence of a God but keep an open mind and recognize the limits of human knowledge and experience”;
- ‘non-theists’ — “people who do not involve themselves with either religion or anti-religion”; and
- ‘ritual atheists’ — people who don’t believe in God, do not associate with religion, and do not believe in an afterlife, but still “find useful the teachings of some religious traditions.”
Silver and Coleman’s full list also contains ‘anti-theists’, which we have already encountered — people who “regularly speak out against religion and religious beliefs” who “view religion as ignorance and see any individual or institution associated with it as backward and socially detrimental.” The late Christopher Hitchens described himself as ‘anti-theist’ rather than atheist.
Yet another classification was proposed by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in his essay ‘Reflections’:6
- ‘ontological’ atheism — “a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe” (ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being);
- ‘ethical atheism’ — “a firm conviction that, even if there is a creator/manager of the world, he does not run things in accordance with the human moral agenda, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked”;7
- ‘existential atheism’ — “a nervy assertion that even if there is a God, he has no authority to be the boss of my life”;
- ‘agnostic atheism’ — “a cautious denial which claims that God’s existence can be neither proven nor disproven, but which ends up with behaviour no different from that of the ontological atheist”;
- ‘ignostic atheism’ — “another cautious denial, which claims that the word ‘God’ is so confusing that it is meaningless and which translates into the same behaviour as the ontological atheist”;
- ‘pragmatic atheism’ — “which regards God as irrelevant to ethical and successful living, and which views all discussions about God as a waste of time.” (Pragmatic atheism is also known as ‘practical atheism’ of ‘apatheism’).
And we conclude with ‘positive atheism’, which to some will sound like an oxymoron. Positive atheism — also called ‘strong atheism’ or ‘hard atheism’ — asserts that no deities exist. It contrasts with ‘negative atheism’ (‘weak atheism’ / ‘soft atheism’) which covers all other types of atheism wherein persons “do not believe in the existence of a creator but do not explicitly assert there to be none”.
Some may consider ‘brights’ in the United States as ‘positive atheists’, although technically they represent a rather broader church — the Brights Movement was founded in 2003 to promote “civic understanding and acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview, which is free of supernatural and mystical elements”.8 But the term has not been widely adopted, not least because many think it suggests that people who profess a ‘naturalistic worldview’ are more intelligent (ie ‘brighter’) than non-naturalists, and this does little to promote tolerance and religious multiculturalism…
Positive atheism appeals to many Humanists because it helps dispel the cold, negative or false image of atheism that is often promulgated by senior clerics or fundamentalist Christians / Muslims. Perhaps the greatest proponent was Goparaju Rao, affectionately known as ‘Gora’. “Atheism is positive”, said Gora, “because the moment faith in god is banished, man’s gaze turns from god to man and he becomes socially conscious.”
Gora propounded the positive atheist position at the inauguration of the First World Atheist Conference which he co-founded in December 1972.9 “The essence of atheism,” he said, “is the freedom of the individual (and) freedom releases the immense potentialities of human imagination, initiative and effort that lay suppressed under theistic faith. The mood of supplication and complaint, inherent in prayers to god and petitions to government, has no place in the atheistic way of life … Atheism liberates humans from all kinds of bondage and restores the lost dignity to the individual to stand on his feet as a free and responsible person.”
Inevitably many (most?) non-believers are uncomfortable with the label ‘atheist’ and would like to do away with the term altogether — as Sam Harris puts it: “We don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers’. All we need are words like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ and ‘bullshit’ to put astrologers in their place”. “And so,” he concludes, “it could be with religion”