Labels used to describe what we believe are useful, but they never tell the whole story for a few reasons. First our beliefs are always so much more complex than being able to be described by a word or two. Further, the definition of words change over time, are dependent on region and culture, can have different colloquial versus formal meaning, and also mean different things to different people. The word faith is a perfect example of this. I have a very hard time defining the word faith because it means very different things to so many people (yes, future blog post!)
At any rate I’m going to attempt definitions of some labels here given the things I have read, and in the process I’ll explain a little more of my beliefs. Hopefully it will help you get a better idea of how to describe yourself as well. For the first 2 words I am taking the descriptions used in “Atheism: The Case Against God“, by George H. Smith.
atheism: This is an example of a word that has very different meanings depending on who you talk to. The word atheism can be broken into 2 pieces: “a-theism” and in that sense simply means without theism. So the word just means “not having a belief in any deities”. Now most spiritual/religious people seem to have the definition of “belief that deities do not exist”. Not sure if the distinction is clear yet but this has been the source of many unicorn and Santa discussions all over the internet (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve read about unicorns in these kind of exchanges! 😉 ) Let me try a different example. Many people in our world (not all by the way) do not believe in the Norse God of Thor. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that those people have a way of proving for sure that Thor does not exist, but it does mean that they do not claim belief in Thor. It also doesn’t mean that they are not open to the possibility of Thor existing. So in this way they would be a-thorists. Now the level of certainty in not believing can span a range of course. Hopefully not beating a dead horse here, but George Smith divides atheism into 2 categories: (1) an implicit atheist would be one who does not have or claim a belief in gods, but does not necessarily reject the belief as false. (2) an explicit atheist would be one who believes that the statement “there is a god or gods” is a false statement. The vast majority of atheists are implicit, and I am definitely an implicit atheist. I am not at all opposed to the possibility of deities existing, but do not claim belief in any right now. Note also that a lot of people use the terms “weak/strong” or “negative/positive” in place of “implicit/explicit”. I personally prefer implicit/explicit simply because it sounds better.
One last thing on atheism – I rarely call myself an atheist because there is so much confusion on this word. If I know that the people I am talking to understand then I’ll use it. If that’s not the case I might still use the label, but only after describing exactly what it means (which usually bores people – anyone still reading! 😉 )
I didn’t anticipate this getting so long. I’ll continue on in the next post.