The term atheist first appears in ancient Greek as “one who denies the gods,” and there wasn’t an issue then of whether the gods were real or not. Rather, some people simply got along without them. However, as Greek society progressed being considered an atheist started to carry a negative connotation, and was one of he accusations brought against Socrates. In ancient Rome the term had further developed to mean “against the gods” and was therefore considered disruptive to a society in which gods played such a large and vital role. Curiously (by modern standards), the biggest atheist threat to Rome was the Christian cult because they were attempting to replace the Roman gods with their own God, which was an attack on the fabric of Roman society. It was from here that the current, negative connotation of atheists being a force against society came from.
Today an atheist is often referred to as someone who doesn’t believe in God, which is a incorrect definition that really irks most atheists. The word ‘belief’ is not appropriate at all in this context, and what being an atheist actually means is simply someone who says that there are no gods.
Types of Atheists
Atheists are certainly not a homogeneous group, and many of those who could be called atheists probably do not like the term and would prefer it if there were something else they could use when referring to themselves. While there are potentially numerous sub-categories of atheist, I see three major ones.
Militant Atheists are probably the only sub-category that would actually embrace the ‘atheist’ term. This is a group that tends to be actively anti-god and present as the sparring partners of the evangelical, militant theists.
The largest sub-category are the Agnostics. Perhaps the best example of what an agnostic is was presented by Bertrand Russell with his teapot analogy:
The key thing with taking an agnostic approach is in recognizing that the burden of proof of a thing falls to the person making the claim, it is not up to the listener to disprove it.
The third sub-category is made up of the Absolute Atheists who simply state that god does not exist, but are not critical of those who believe in the supernatural.
Most of the agnostics and the absolute atheists would likely prefer a different label than atheist being applied to them, and for them the term existential humanist may provide a better description of their perspective.
Are you an Atheist
How do you deal with the world? What do you say when someone, often accusingly, asks if you are an atheist? An non-antagonistic response is, “I am an existential humanist.” Depending on who you are taking to this will produce one of two responses.
If you are dealing with a militant theist, they might counter with, “Well, do you believe in God?” To which you can reply with some version of, “I consider the idea of God to be something rather fanciful, a childhood story like the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas, and so I put them all in the same category. As far as ‘belief,’ I much prefer to question and learn, rather than just blindly accepting something. In that way I can uncover my own truths.” You might then follow up with, “But I don’t have anything against those who do believe in God, or gods, or any other supernatural entities.”
The other type of response, the thinking person’s response, to when you say you are an existential humanist would be, “What’s that?” This moves into a discussion where you can explain that you are free to define your own life without the burdens of superstition impacting on your life. You can tell that you question things, learning as you go, which makes you a perpetual student of life, and hopefully will be able to make a contribution to the ongoing progression of humanity. This approach could result in a pleasant conversation following, rather than an antagonistic encounter.