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 is not a position of faith. Atheism may or may not refer to a stance on the theistic question, depending on the individual in question. 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 positive statement, and therefore, a belief.
Types of atheism
Main article Strong atheism
A "strong" atheist is one who positively 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. 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.
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 positive claims.
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 not religious (as atheism is a component of some religions). It does mean that there is nothing specific about atheism 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. 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.
Lack of Belief in Gods
So how is atheism properly defined? Picture this: a group of people watches footage of a court room trial, the accused is brought in and some of the group immediately form beliefs about her guilt or innocence based purely on her appearance. As the trial continues, people form beliefs based on other factors. When all the evidence has been presented and the closing statements have been made, several people in the group despite paying close attention to the proceeding still have not formed a belief on whether the accused is guilty or not. It is often demanded of us that after given the statement X we must immediately arrive at a belief that this is either true or false. But this idea needs to be challenged. The truth or falsity of a statement may be indeterminate for example and we may have no reason or motivation to form a belief either way. Just because a statement can be true or false doesn't mean its not inevitable or even necessarily desirable that we form a belief one way or the other. As Yale professor William Graham Sumner observed in 1906, "Men educated in [the critical habit of thought]...are slow to believe. They hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain."
Merely having a belief is no indicator on how carefully you thought about something, people form superficial beliefs all the time. Having beliefs grant no one privileged status, nor is there any special reason for the acquisition of beliefs to be a particular goal. When scientists construct theories, for example, the aim isn't for people forming beliefs about them being true, it is to account for available data with the model that has the greatest explanatory and predictive power. There is more than one way to lack in someone's guilt. You may believe they are not guilty or you may not believe one way or the other. Likewise, there is more than one way to lack belief in the existence of a supreme god. You may form a belief that no such being exists or you might form no belief either way. Demanding that people have only two options (god or no god) is a symptom of flawed black and white thinking. Non-belief either way is often confused with agnosticism, but agnosticism is not about belief it concerns knowledge. An agnostic is someone who holds the view that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of a proposed phenomenon (in this case a god). It is completely possible to hold this view while holding a belief that there is a god, believing there is none, or having no belief either way. Agnosticism is not some middle ground in believing X or not believing X, it is an independent category compatible with belief and non-belief (agnostic theism or agnostic atheism).
Some people, even respectable dictionaries, define atheism as the "belief that there is no God" (with a capital G) but this definition cannot be adequate because it would include polytheists who believe there is no supreme God. The dominance of monotheistic religions has left people with the tendency to forget that one God or no God is not the only two options, but even with the monotheistic approach there are complications because the word "God" can mean billions of different things. This is why some people do not label themselves as atheists because atheism does not reflect a persons attitude towards every given version of God presented to them. If a person made the claim "God exists" and by God they mean 'a single supernatural being that created our universe' an atheist would reject said claim as "irresolvable" because no procedure available to us could reliably establish the existence or non-existence of such an unscientific entity. If on the other hand the person meant the Biblical God, an atheist could respond by saying that the statement was not only irresolvable but also demonstrably false. Given certain properties of God, like claiming God is perfect and requires our worship is contradictory. A perfect being would by definition have no deficiency and need nothing and would certainly have no use for worship. These two qualities are incompatible, if there is a God it is not the multi-self-refuting biblical god.
Because an atheist's responses differ according to each theistic claims, which cannot be known how they differentiate until they are presented, the term that fits most atheists is the general definition for atheism as the "lack of belief in gods" and all that means is that "gods don't feature among the things that I do believe that exist."
There is some extraordinary resistance by some people to ignore this definition of atheism. Many rather insist that atheism should rather be defined as "the (positive) belief that no God exists" because they want to make it seem like a position of faith. Clearly if you feel you are at a disadvantage because your beliefs are faith-based and insupportable by logical evidence, then pretending that those who lack your belief also have a faith-based position demands much less intellectual discipline than facing up to the burden of proof you give yourself when you insist that other believes as you do.
But one does not have to believe no gods exist to recognize and expose theistic claims as indefensible. Say we have two people, but who debunk every theistic claim presented to them. One of them believes there are no gods (strong atheist) while the other is simple unconvinced (no positive belief that no gods exist). Either way, the theistic claims are debunked, even if atheism was redefined as "belief that no gods exist" there would still be non-belief outside that category dismantling theistic claims. Defenders of theism who fixate on strong atheists are either misidentifying or trying to distract attention from their REAL problem: that their claims have no valid foundation and consistently collapse under critical scrutiny.
Some have complained that atheism cannot be a lack of belief in gods or we would have to classify rocks and dogs as atheists (seriously, they make such poor arguments). It is the immense loss of perspective that happens around the subject of atheism that statements as puerile are made. If you had a big family celebration and someone came up to you and asked "which ones aren't married?" would you need them to specify that that they are talking about people and not items like furniture and family pets? Those who can't approach discussion with a basic level of intelligence or maturity shouldn't expect to be taken seriously. Besides, the suffix "-ist" in "atheist" is used and understood to denote a personal noun. That said, while there is no point in applying the term atheist to things that lack the cognitive capacity to grasp the ideas involved, it can be useful to remember that none of us start life with belief in any gods. A lack of belief in god IS the default position. That is not to say that the default position is always preferable, after all the default position is the complete lack of coherent understanding of our universe, but it is a reminder that in the marketplace of ideas when you want to move people away from their default lack of belief towards your belief, it is you (not they) who has to provide justification. If you want anyone to believe that any gods exist, the burden of proof is on you, not on those who are simply skeptical of your claims.
Some have tried to claim that one cannot lack a belief in god because one needs to believe something about gods in order to reject them. This is among the most deeply confused arguments against atheism about atheism. Replacing the term god with other terms like "English-speaking planets" show the absurdity of the claim. If this form of argument were valid, then we would have to believe in everything whose existence we reject. An atheist rejects theistic claims. Without evidence from gods themselves its only claims of human beings that insist atheists take the existence of gods seriously, and an atheist can reject those on the basis of defective reasoning, defective definitions or lack of evidence (without believing anything about gods).
Some have complained that defining atheism as a lack of belief says next to nothing about atheists' attitudes. However, when one says they are a theist, this also says next to nothing about them. Given the potentially infinite variety of things that people might mean about gods, a statement of lack of belief OR belief in gods will be fairly basic in the first instance. People have an enormously diverse reasons for not believing in gods, it is unrealistic to expect those reasons to be distilled in the definition of a single word. If hearing that someone is an atheist doesn't tell you all you want to know about someone, the why not ask more questions? Of course, not every atheist will find another conversation about gods that are worthwhile use of their time, especially if they are not the first to bring up the subject.
Some theists who are determined for atheism to mean more than a lack of belief note how fervent atheists are in discussions and point out that fervency does not just come from a lack of belief. No, it doesn't. A great deal of fervency is a response to the hostility directed towards atheists for simply not believing in gods. To be condemned, marginalized, criticized and dehumanized by people who are unwilling to allow atheists to live their lives, who impute our morality (atheists have no morals!) and who tell us that we do not belong in the same country we were born in (this is a Christian country so get out!), who dispute our education (inserting creationism and myths into our schools), attempt to monopolize government (forbidding atheist candidates) and ostracize atheists for not participating in their rituals (no pray, no stay!). Treat any group of people with such profound disrespect and it would be surprising NOT to see fervency from some of them. Fervency is not the result of simply being an atheist, but nor is it solely a response to the disgusting manner in which atheists are treated. It also comes from a wide sense of injustice of the way human beings are being mistreated around the world. How church leaders are invoking baseless religious privileges to keep the details of child sexual abuse cases secret. How children are dying from torture and neglect after being branded as witches or demon-possessed. How adulterers are being stoned to death and homosexuals being criminally hanged, and all sorts of acts that are being committed all in the name of an entity whose basic existence can't be demonstrated. If we were all to witness a mass execution of people being sacrificed to appease some sun god, which of us would not see the dangerous ignorance in that bloody reasoning?