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Revision as of 17:00, 23 July 2012
An atheist, in the general sense, is a person who does not believe in the existence of any gods. Atheism is the corresponding philosophical position. Atheism may or may not be a position of faith, depending on the type of atheism, as atheism may or may not refer to a stance on the theistic question, depending on the individual in question and how the term 'atheism' is meant. Arguments over whether or not atheism constitutes a belief are often based on one side assuming that the term always does or always doesn’t constitute a positivist statement, and therefore, a belief.
Types of atheism
Main article Strong atheism
A "strong" atheist is one who asserts that "there is no god." Strong atheism is the form of atheism that most theists reference in debates, since most don't know the distinction between strong and weak atheism. However, strong atheists are rarer than most people think.
For the above reason, strong atheism is sometimes criticized for "requiring faith." This criticism often rests on the assumption that faith is a fault, which, if spoken by an arguer whose stance rests on faith, is self-defeating in a direct sense. Other times this idea is argued by theists to 'bring them down to our level'. Most often it is argued as a 'your stance is no better than mine' argument. Often, this is successful in derailing the conversation, as many atheists are uncomfortable with admitting that any element of their thoughts contain faith. Users of this wiki are advised to consider that, in the literal epistemic sense, all knowledge eventually requires some basic assumptions, and that assumption is functionally identical to faith. The difference relies not in avoiding faith/assumption, but in grounding one's knowledge in firmer and more well-reasoned thought.
Strong atheism is also called 'positivist' atheism. In this usage the term 'positivist' comes from the root 'to posit' meaning 'to take a position'. Thus a positivist atheist is one who has taken the position that there are no gods.
Main article Weak atheism
A "weak" atheist is one who doesn't claim to know that there is no god, but instead simply lacks belief in a god. This form of atheism is the most common, and is sometimes called "agnostic atheism" (see our discussion of atheist vs. agnostic). Every newborn baby is (unknowingly) a weak atheist, and remains so until the concept of god is introduced to him or her.
Weak atheists often argue that theirs is the only rational position, as both theism and strong atheism make positivist claims. Weak atheism is also called non-positivist atheism.
Apart from not believing in the existence of any gods, there is no official atheist doctrine. There is no atheist pope or church, and there are no atheist rules to live by. This does not mean that atheists do not also follow societal and legal rules, nor that they are never religious. Atheism figures in several religions and spiritual belief systems, including Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Neopagan movements such as Wicca, Unitarian Universalism and other nontheistic or non-dogmatic religions. Not to be misunderstood, atheism is not a foundational belief in all of these religions, but exists as an option or requirement within at least some part of each of these religions.
There is nothing specific about atheism, by itself, that tells you how you should live. However, there are comprehensive philosophical positions that include atheism as a part of the overall philosophy (secular humanism being the most well-known example).
Not everyone (not even all atheists) agree with the definitions above (which are based on academic sources). For instance, the authors of Evil Bible seem to define atheism as denial of the existence of any gods, or the (positive) belief that there are no gods. Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, does reserve the terms theism, agnosticism and atheism on a Spectrum of Theistic Probability from 1 (I know that a God does exist) to 7 (I know that a God does not exist). In other words, "atheist", for Dawkins, is synonymous with "strong atheist", as above.