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Thursday, November 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Faith and Values: Are you an atheist? If so, what kind?

UPDATED: Sun., June 2, 2019

By Jim Downard For the Spokesman-Review

What is the concrete belief of an atheist? If people say “there is no God,” are they atheist?

Who qualifies as an atheist depends on how the term is defined. In the old days, failure to believe in particular gods could peg you as an atheist.

For example, those who believed in Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, but didn’t believe in Zeus, would have been atheists if Zeus were actually real, but Marduk was not.

Socrates was forced to drink poison hemlock for supposedly harboring doubts about the Greek gods, and our American deist Thomas Jefferson was tagged “atheist” by some Christians who didn’t think he believed in the correct version of God.

Now unless you believe all gods exist, then, regarding the ones you disbelieve in, you’re technically an atheist. Full atheists have merely added one more name to the list.

Which leads us to the modern sense of the term atheist. Atheism has been broadened to mean people who hold no belief in gods at all. There, too, is a range.

There are atheists who do not believe in gods because they lack evidence for gods. They do not claim (nor feel they need to claim) that no gods exist or that they cannot exist. They just say that the evidence for gods is lacking. That could be called basic atheism.

Then there are atheists who would say the reason why they don’t believe in gods, and why there is no good evidence for them, is that the gods simply don’t exist. That would be your ontological atheist.

Some of either group may also be anti-theist (in that they actively oppose theist activities, especially regarding government), but that’s another issue and not intrinsic to “atheism” per se.

The important variable here is evidence for or against supernatural entities.

Few people claim to personally interact with gods, and the proposed ones rarely make guest appearances or do miracles in public. Almost all of the belief turns on either reliance on prior accounts of gods (as recounted in various books, which are open to the interpretive skepticism or credulity of the reader) or the personal experience of those who regard their lives as transformed by their religious belief.

Some people attest to having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” for example, a notion which the nonbeliever may well find implausible (at least when compared to what goes on with personal relationships with people).

Beyond that, there are as many modes of atheism as there are people who hold to it. Although many atheists tend to be more politically liberal than average, there is nothing intrinsically political about nonbelief.

Just as theists come in all political stripes, so do atheists. Nor do atheists automatically show rigorous thinking on other matters. It’s possible to be a racist atheist or one who believes in wacky conspiracy theories. At that point, one may wonder, though, how well they’d thought through their atheism.

Theism vs. atheism may involve much discussion about morality (from abortion to euthanasia to social justice in economic terms) but atheism technically takes no position on such matters, even though nonbelievers may express very firm opinions on those topics. It is possible to be a moral absolutist and an atheist, for example, even as others have a view that no moral absolutes exist.

Believers too, have a spectrum of views, but that’s another story, one knee-deep in philosophy and the assumptions underlying them.

So, if you were waiting for an explicit Catechism of Atheism, don’t hold your breath, because there isn’t one. Just a nonbelief in supernatural entities, with all the rest being that of the individual’s philosophy.

Jim Downard, a Spokane native, writes about atheism for He is the author of the books“Evolution Slam Dunk” and “The Paralogs of Phileas Fogg.”

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