At a dinner party, hosted by Baron d’Holback for a group of freethinking French philosophes, in Paris, so the story is told, David Hume gave his remark that “He did not believe in atheists, that he had never seen any,” to which d’Holback responded that minus the three who have yet to make up their minds, the other fifteen guests invited were atheists. (Mossner 1980, 483)
What is atheism? In this article I explored some definitions of atheism offered in atheistic literature.
It is painfully difficult to find a fixed definition of atheism in literature that are in favor of it. Beginning with a popular definition of an atheist, which in turn would help us understand what atheism is, an atheist is a person who is without a belief in God or Idea of God.
Charles Bradlaugh, for example, contended:
Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God, but he says ‘I know not what you mean by God. I am without the idea of God. The word God to me is a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny what of which I have no conception,(Bradlaugh 1876)
Since atheism in Bradlaugh’s view elucidates a psychological state of mind of a subject, infants (Steele 2008, 3) and temporal comatose theist patients, are per this definition atheists, since they lack belief in God or Idea of God at that given period of time.
Identifying the above view as negative atheism, Michael Martin provided a similar but richer explanation and distinguishes it from another view of atheism, viz., positive atheism. He explained:
Negative atheism in the broad sense is then the absence of belief in any god or Gods, not just the absence of belief in a personal theistic God, and negative atheism in the narrow sense is the absence of belief in a theistic God. Positive atheism in the broad sense is, in turn, disbelief in all gods, with positive atheism in the narrow sense being the disbelief in a theistic God. For positive atheism in the narrow sense to be successfully defended, two tasks must be accomplished. First, the reasons for believing in a theistic God must be refuted; in other words, negative atheism in the narrow sense must be established. Second, reasons for disbelieving in the theistic God must be given. (Martin et 2007, 2)
Though Martin’s definition of positive atheism is closer to understand what atheism in general is, William L. Rowe offered a superior definition. Rowe contended that, ”in a broader sense of term, an atheist is someone who rejects belief in every form of deity, not just the God of the traditional theologians”(Rowe 2007, 16) Following Rowe, atheism, in a broader sense of term, is a rejection of all form of theism.
Rowe’s definition is closer to understanding who an atheist is because it does not only exclude infants and temporary comatose Christian patients from being considered atheists, but also limited theists, such as Epicurus and his followers, Epicureans “who denied, not that the Gods exist, but that they intervene in human affairs”(Andre 1998,142) and Hume, who believed in an intelligent author of the universe (Hume 1964) and qua Philo held an “adorably mysterious and incomprehensible nature of the Supreme Being.” (Hume 1907,30)
Kai Nielsen, concurs with Rowe’s definition of atheism, when he contended that “[t]o be atheists we need to deny the existence of God”(Nielsen 2005, 50)
I favor Martin’s and Nielsen’s understanding of atheism because if a belief T is not a proper basic belief, then an individual A who is without evidence for T and without evidence against T, is in no position to accept or reject T. A having absence of T, only demonstrate A’s subjective physiological state of mind to which infants and temporary comatose theists do absurdly also share.
Question To Atheists: How do you define atheism?
Andre, Shane (1993) Was Hume An Atheist?Humes Studies. Vol. XIX, No.1: 141-166 April 1993
Bradlaugh, Charles(1876) The Freethinkers Text Book. London cit. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief(1985) NY: Prometheus Books.
Hume, David (1907). Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Edinburgh; London: William Blackwood and Sons.
__________________ (1964) Natural History of Religion, in The Philosophical Works ,ed. T. H. Green & T. H. Grose, 4 vols. Dannstadt, 4:309
Martin, Michael (2007) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge University Press.
Mossner, Ernest C.(1980) The Life of David Hume 2nd ed. Oxford
Nielsen, Kai (2005) Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books
Rowe, William L.(2007) Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction. 4th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Steele, David R.(2008) Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy. Carus Publishing Company