An Atheist Dictionary: Clearing Up Definitions

So I decided to go to the Oxford English Dictionary to find a handful of words that are often misused when talking about atheists. I think that clearing them up would help with a lot of confusion, however, let’s not forget that this actually doesn’t matter. You don’t win a debate by saying that according to such-and-such dictionary, you’d be classified as this a this instead of that. You can’t say that since you fall into this category, you must believe that. It’s a good thing as a general rule to separate people as a way of distinguishing them, to get a feel of them, but it is always, always, better to just ask them what they believe. So here we go.

Atheism: “Disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods”. The common misconception here, the very, very common misconception, is that people tend to think that atheists believe that deities do not exist. However, to have a disbelief in something does not correlate to a belief in the negative of. For instance, the majority of us have a disbelief in Bigfoot/Yeti/Sasquatch, meaning that in our daily life, we do not consider this man-monster hybrid to be an explanation for phenomenon, instead, seeking better explanations. However, this does not mean that we believe that they do not exist, in any form, at any time, in any place. There could be some gorilla-human chimera, but we just don’t have evidence for it.

Agnosticism: “A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God”. This is the position that is neither theist nor atheist: it’s a claim about what we can know. To say that they have a disbelief in god is to say that they do not accept a certain notion or definition of “god”, which they don’t, because they don’t know what that notion is. They don’t believe we can know that notion.

Materialism: “The doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications”. To be honest, this is utilized commonly as a misnomer. There is more than matter: for instance, energy. At best bet, materialism would say that everything can boil down to at least a force carrying particle.

Physicalism: “The doctrine that the real world consists simply of the physical world”. This is distinct from materialism. The physical world would include fields and energy, etc. The vast majority of people apply this to almost all situations in their life as an explanation to phenomenon, and this is the realm that science is subject to- or, science is subject to only this field.

Naturalism: “A philosophical viewpoint according to which everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted”. I can find no distinction from this to physicalism and I would like to know if there is a subtle difference that I don’t get. At this point, yes, physicalism and naturalism are synonymous.

Moral Nihilism: “The rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless”. This is often used as to designate the idea that there are no objective morals, but that is false. Moral nihilism says that morals just don’t exist. If I say that I think my god thinks something is bad or that I say I think something is bad, a moral nihilist would respond by saying that both of those would be false.

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4 Responses to An Atheist Dictionary: Clearing Up Definitions

  1. Reblogged this on rationalhumanist87 and commented:
    Finally – a reliable definition.

    If I may, I would like to add to a common misconception of the term atheist.
    It’s a mistake the think that being an atheist, or the atheistic world view is an alternative to belief in a deity. Atheism cannot be characterised as ‘true’ in the same sense as religious apologists would claim their theistic world view is. Atheism is simply a standard, evidential approach to life, concluding that there’s no evidence to support any truth claims of any religion. This would not determine anything else about the individual, their politics or any values that they hold.
    Thanks for putting this together.

  2. I think that nihilism gets a bad rap:

    : the belief that traditional morals, ideas, beliefs, etc., have no _intrinsic_ worth or value

    : the belief that a society’s political and social institutions are so bad that they should be destroyed … so that we can build political and social institutions which are not based on values and ideas that have no intrinsic value.

    The world we know is drowning is useless beliefs and ideas. We have tried to build useful institutions on top of them or despite them but they get in the way. Time to get rid of them and try living without them.

    • Thank you for commenting,

      On just a personal opinion, to say that it would be any better by restarting… I’m not sure. And even if it would be better, would it do so in the long time span needed after rebuilding, or in the same time, couldn’t our society now do the very same in a smaller time span.

      • Forcing the change on society has been shown to be ‘ineffective’ but I think that if the idea became common it would not take long. The key is voluntary contribution to the change – which is not likely to happen globally or very quickly.

        With the Internet Ideas spread quickly but there would be fits and starts. Such things tend to spread by generation as new things catch on fastest among the younger members of society. Maybe it could be effective over 5 generations?

        That is a difficult question to answer.

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