17 Kinds of Atheism

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 3, 2010 in General Atheism,How-To

atheism earth

‘Atheism’ is a much simpler concept than ‘Christianity’ or ‘Hinduism’, but the word atheism is still used in a wide variety of ways.

This can cause confusion. Someone may announce that she is an atheist, and her listeners may assume she is one type of atheist, when really she is a different type of atheist.

So to clear things up, here are 17 kinds of atheism, organized into 7 sets. Some kinds of atheism can be combined in a person, and some cannot. For example, it is perfectly consistent to be an agnostic, narrow, friendly atheist. But one cannot simultaneously be both a passive atheist and a militant atheist.

This list is not definitive. There are many ways to organize and label different kinds of atheism.

For brevity’s sake, I have substituted “gods” for the usual phrase “God or gods.”

1. Difference in Knowledge

A gnostic atheist not only believes there are no gods, he also claims to know there are no gods.

An agnostic atheist doesn’t believe in gods, but doesn’t claim to know there are no gods.

2. Difference in Affirmation

A negative atheist merely lacks a belief in gods. He is also called a weak atheist or an implicit atheist.

A positive atheist not only lacks a belief in gods, but also affirms that no gods exist. He is also called a strong atheist or an explicit atheist.

3. Difference in Scope

A broad atheist denies the existence of all gods: Zeus, Thor, Yahweh, Shiva, and so on.

A narrow atheist denies the existence of the traditional Western omni-God who is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.

4. Difference in the Assessed Rationality of Theism

An unfriendly atheist believes no one is justified in believing that gods exist.

An indifferent atheist doesn’t have a belief on whether or not others are justified in believing that gods exist.

A friendly atheist believes that some theists are justified in believing that gods exist.

5. Difference in Openness

A closet atheist has not yet revealed his disbelief to most people.

An open atheist has revealed his disbelief to most people.

6. Difference in Action

A passive atheist doesn’t believe in god but doesn’t try to influence the world in favor of atheism.

An evangelical atheist tries to persuade others to give up theistic belief.

An active atheist labors on behalf of causes that specifically benefit atheists (but not necessarily just atheists). For example, he strives against discrimination toward atheists, or he strives in favor of separation of church and state.

A militant atheist uses violence to promote atheism or destroy religion. (Often, the term “militant atheist” is misapplied to non-violent evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins. But to preserve the parallel with the “militant Christian” who bombs abortion clinics or the “militant Muslim” suicide bomber, I prefer the definition of “militant atheist” that assumes acts of violence.)

7. Difference in Religiosity

A religious atheist practices religion but does not believe in gods.

A non-religious atheist does not practice religion.

Of course, there are many more “kinds” of atheism than this, for one may be a Republican atheist or a Democratic atheist, a short atheist or a tall atheist, a Caucasian atheist or an Hispanic atheist, a foundationalist atheist or a coherentist atheist, an enchanted atheist or a disenchanted atheist.

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Cafeeine February 3, 2010 at 6:35 am

Good analysis. One point though, the definition for ‘narrow’ atheism seems centered to the western world. Wouldn’t the term also apply to someone who denies, say the Hindu pantheon, alone?

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Daniel Holter February 3, 2010 at 7:08 am

Hey, I’m an AIBIOANRA!

I still don’t like that last ‘A’… too many negative connotations for so many people.

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Derrida February 3, 2010 at 7:32 am

Nice catalogue, but a couple of ambiguities jump out.

Firstly, by knowledge do you mean certitude, or warranted true belief? I would say that I know there are no gods in the sense that my belief in positive broad atheism is both true and warranted. But I’m not certain. I know there are no gods as I know that the Earth is round.

Secondly, while I do think that some theists are or were justified in believing in gods, for example if a child is told by trusted authorities that there is a god and knows of no reason to doubt them, I don’t think that any scientifically and philosophically literate, clear thinking people are rational to believe in gods. So am I friendly or unfriendly?

Otherwise, I’m a positive, broad, open, active, non-religious atheist!

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lukeprog February 3, 2010 at 8:35 am

Derrida,

Certainly, in such a short post, there are a multitude of ambiguities! By knowledge I mean warranted true belief.

I think you are ‘friendly’ by William Rowe’s definition.

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Sabio Lantz February 3, 2010 at 9:48 am

Fantastic taxonomy !
Where did you get that symbol? Did you make it? Very nice!

Suggestions / Thoughts:

4. Assessed Rationality of Theism
why would an atheist feel a belief in God is “justified”, shouldn’t they then become a theist? Maybe this is a technical use of the word “justified” in philosophy.
Maybe you are hinting at a category #8 I have pushed for #8 (and which you have written).

8. Difference in attitude of function of Religion
Sympathetic Atheist: sees religion as having possible useful and benefitial contributions to individuals and/or society without large harm if done well.

Unsympoathetic Atheist : Sees religion as always harmful in the long run.

Apathetic Atheist : Cares not if people have or do not have religion. Not worried about the issue.

Closet Atheist
–> add “partially closeted” — open with many theists but may be careful in some situations like at place of employment (“Don’t ask, Don’t tell”)

9. Natural vs. Reformed Atheist

Has never believed and even when if ever in a Church, never did believe.

NICE JOB !

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Robert Gressis February 3, 2010 at 10:16 am

“A negative atheist merely lacks a belief in gods. He is also called a weak atheist or an implicit atheist.”

Do babies count as negative atheists? Animals? Rocks? What about people who think the evidence for God’s existence is just as good as the evidence against God’s existence, but who live their their lives as though God existed…would they count as negative atheists?

Note that I raise these questions because your (self-admittedly, short and programmatic) definition of narrow atheist seems to affirm “yes” as the answer to all these questions. I think, therefore, that your category of negative atheist is too broad–mainly because babies and religious agnostics seem to count as negative atheists. But maybe you use “atheist” in “negative atheist” in a fairly non-standard sense.

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Patrick Julius February 3, 2010 at 10:28 am

Actually, you have listed not 17 kinds of atheist, but variants on 7 dimensions of atheism. Assuming independence, this leads to 2*2*2*3*2*4*2=384 kinds of atheism!

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Sabio Lantz February 3, 2010 at 10:59 am

Another possible useful taxonomy catagory to add to increase the permutations to well over 1000 with a few more “dimensions” would be:

Enchanted vs. Disenchanted Atheists
– as Luke has written of before but in terms of Naturalists
The enchanted includes those that still get mystical intuitions inspite of being an atheist.

Gee, there are all sorts of us, though you’d never guess by the way some Atheists write.

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Cafeeine February 3, 2010 at 11:06 am

@Sabio Lantz
“why would an atheist feel a belief in God is “justified”, shouldn’t they then become a theist?”

Α theist may have a subjective religious experience that makes his personal belief ‘justified’. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean an atheist feels justified to adopt it for his own.

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paarsurrey February 3, 2010 at 11:11 am

Hi friends

I thought that Atheism is just like any other faith; and now I see they have even many denominations.

Atheism is the most un-natural faith in my opinion; I respect the Atheists though.

I love Jesus and Mary as mentioned in Quran.

Thanks

I am an Ahmadi peaceful Muslim

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Sabio Lantz February 3, 2010 at 11:43 am

@ Cafeeine
I absolutely get what you mean, thanx.
But just wondering what sort of subjective experience counts, since an atheist (I think all) would not jump to theist explanations when natural explanations could be possibly offered for a variety of mystical subjective experiences. For example, I have had many “supernatural experiences” but do not jump to the theist explanation.
But I see what you mean.

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Lorkas February 3, 2010 at 12:12 pm

paarsurrey: Atheism is the most un-natural faith in my opinion; I respect the Atheists though.

Could you expand on what you mean by this?

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shawn b Judd February 3, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I am a big supporter of defining what Atheism is, and what Atheist are ; but we should just “Keep it simple stupid” as the saying go’s. We cannot afford to be sliced and diced into sub catagories as mentioned in this artical.

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Kilre February 3, 2010 at 12:22 pm

paarsurrey:
I thought that Atheism is just like any other faith; and now I see they have even many denominations.

You’re both right and so very wrong. Atheism is a position on belief (in gods), in which sense it is like “any other faith”, but the similarities stop there.

You might have had a valid point if there were more to atheism than denial of gods. The rest is entirely dependent upon humans being humans and disagreeing with each other.

Which with atheism is fine, it’s hard to have an “infidel” on this side.

Atheism is the most un-natural faith in my opinion;

I would have to agree. It’s natural for the human mind to seek patterns, often where they aren’t, and form faulty causal relations, leading to supernatural reasons for the most mundane things. It takes more than just believing to see that lightning, or erupting volcanoes or even illnesses, is not supernatural.

I respect the Atheists though.

That’s nice.

I love Jesus and Mary as mentioned in Quran.  

That’s…great…really. Shouldn’t you be plying Christians with that line?

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Sabio Lantz February 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm

@ shawn

Christians often don’t like being labelled by their denominations or doctrine. But these taxonomies are useful in faciliating dialogue. We are all a complex mix of perceptions, judgements and understandings, these categories help illustrate this for Atheists and may help us not only talk to believers, but to each other.

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Revyloution February 3, 2010 at 1:02 pm

For the definition of militant atheist, we can add the examples of Pol Pot and Stalin. They used physical violence against religion, and replaced it with worship of the secular state.

Just as most moderate theists distance themselves from the militant branches of their faith, so to do atheists distance our own philosophies from men like Pot and Stalin. The disadvantage to atheism is that we cannot use the ‘not a true’ line. Stalin was an atheist, just a deluded one.

Those men were clearly militant atheists, but what about Christopher Hitchens? He is an ardent supporter of military action against militant Islam. Does his support of war cause him to fall under the same category as Pol Pot?

_____

Kilre, excellent parsing of Paarsurrey. I would like to add that these different labels of atheism do not denote schisms within atheism. They just show different approaches to the single assertion that atheism makes. For the benefit of Paarsurrey or any other theists, the only assertion of atheism is “I believe in no gods”. Compared to the serious differences between the myriad religions of the world and their different sects, the minor differences between those who profess atheism should not belie the fact that we are singularly unified on the underlying principal of our philosophy. There are no gods that work to affect our lives.

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lukeprog February 3, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Robert,

Yeah, on that definition, babies and rocks would be negative atheists. It’s not MY definition, and I don’t make much use of it.

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Jeff H February 3, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Luke,

Is that A that you have as the image for this post a logo that someone has made to refer to atheism? Kind of like the “scarlet A” that someone else (I think maybe it was Dawkins?) came up with? Just curious. Good list! The only thing I am not fond of is the “unfriendly/friendly atheist” – but that’s more a matter of connotations. I think most people would tend to shy away from calling themselves an “unfriendly atheist”…

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Hermes February 3, 2010 at 7:53 pm

paarsurrey: I thought that Atheism is just like any other faith; and now I see they have even many denominations.

First off, ‘atheism’ isn’t capitalized for the same reason that ‘theism’ isn’t capitalized. (If you actually think that theism is capitalized, go look up the term theism (not atheism) and understand it first.)

Additionally, there are plenty of theists that don’t have beliefs that include ‘faith’ — so why should a non-theist?

There aren’t denominations either. The individual distinctions Luke makes can and do apply to atheists/non-theists in part or in whole.

What do I mean by that last comment? How about an example;

Roughly following Luke’s list, there are people who are agnostic atheists that narrowly do not believe specific deities exist, are closed mouthed about it but indifferent, are passive, yet are also by all intents Muslims. I was basically like that but a ‘Catholic’ for quite a few years; an atheist Catholic.

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hermes February 3, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Sabio Lantz: But just wondering what sort of subjective experience counts, since an atheist (I think all) would not jump to theist explanations when natural explanations could be possibly offered for a variety of mystical subjective experiences.

Theistic explanations, I agree by definition.

Naturalistic explanations, not necessarily.

I’ve known a few atheists who like mystical explanations. One of my friends, for example, said he knew he was going to win the grand prize in the lottery and kept buying tickets each week. I decided to make him a bet — if he won in the next year (a time frame he was certain of) — I would dedicate my life to him (free of charge) and make sure that the various leaches that would attempt to get his money would not get it. In turn, if he did not win the grand prize in that year, he would stop buying lottery tickets. Guess who won? :-)

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Hermes February 3, 2010 at 8:17 pm

shawn b Judd: I am a big supporter of defining what Atheism is, andwhat Atheist are ; but we should just “Keep it simple stupid” as the saying go’s. We cannot afford to be sliced and diced into sub catagories as mentioned in this artical.  

In general, I agree. The name game can cause quite a few problems (see: http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=6570#comment-30828 ).

Atheism is very simple; atheists aren’t theists.

That said, I don’t see any problem with Luke’s categories. What I think is lacking is the same type of thing for theism, though, as most theists tend to consider their narrow sect only and not theism in general that can be a topic without an audience.

The discussion tends to be focused around “Christian sects, Muslim sects, Hindu sects, …. and atheists” when it should be “theists and atheists” if we’re going to do a proper comparison.

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Silver Bullet February 3, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Does the term ‘agnostic atheist’ not also imply that one believes that knowledge about god is impossible to attain?

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lukeprog February 3, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Somebody else made the A symbol thing for a contest on atheism logos, I think. I added the earth at the center.

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lukeprog February 3, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Silver Bullet,

That’s one type of agnosticism, called ‘strong agnosticism. See here.

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Hermes February 4, 2010 at 4:38 am

Silver Bullet: Does the term ‘agnostic atheist’ not also imply that one believes that knowledge about god is impossible to attain?  

That’s basically Huxley’s version of agnosticism. He wrote passionately on the subject, and as such people think that is the only meaning of the word. At it’s base, though, agnosticism is simply ‘not gnosticism’. No other meanings are by necessity attached to the word.

Needless to say, this has caused quite a bit of confusion and the occasional argument. There are other types of agnostic knowledge claims as Luke has noted, as well as other types of knowledge claims that are not a form of agnosticism.

Keep in mind that many theists also that agnostic about their theisms, though many assert that they do know for a fact that their theistic beliefs are backed by knowledge. These are gnostic theists. For example;

gnostic monotheist – I know for certain that only one specific god exists.

Take a look at what people are actually saying about their religious positions here.

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shawn b judd February 4, 2010 at 8:03 am

We the people in order to form a more perfect world, estabilish justice, and eaqality to all. Promote the general welfare, and secure the rights of liberty to ourselves ,and posterity ;hear by do establish this as our creed for all of the people of the world. ( Thomas Jefferson) if he were alive today. Pre amble Atheist consitution

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Markus February 4, 2010 at 10:02 am

I am a(an):
1/ Agnostic Atheist: I do not believe in God, but I also know that my knowledge of the universe is very limited.
2/ Positive Atheist: To my current knowledge, I do affirm that God do not exist.
3/ Broad Atheist: I deny the existence of all God.
4/ Friendly Atheist: I know many people who believe in God or gods. Although I cannot comprehend their belief, I still think that they are justified to keep their belief, as long as it does no harm (or more good than harm).
5/ Open Atheist: I have declared that I am an atheist.
6/ Passive Atheist: I do not wish to shove my belief down anyone’s throat, since what I expect from others. Live and let live.
7/ Non-Religious Atheist: I do not involve in any religious practice.

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Rich February 4, 2010 at 1:51 pm

“A gnostic atheist not only believes there are no gods, he also claims to know there are no gods.”

He’d be lying though.

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Hermes February 4, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Rich: “A gnostic atheist not only believes there are no gods, he also claims to know there are no gods.”He’d be lying though.  

Often, sure. But not necessarily. Most gnostics — atheist or otherwise — can claim how they know, but the assertion of knowledge itself is all that is required at a basic level to be a gnostic monotheist/polytheist/atheist/… .

That said, when I refer to myself as a gnostic, I’m not doing so for ‘all deities’ but for specific defined or claimed deities or types of deities.

In the case of gnostic monotheists, they often claim specific knowledge of a known deity. While I think that there is more than adequate evidence to say that many of those claimed monotheistic deities are impossible for various reasons, I don’t claim that the gnostic atheism I have towards any deity claims (monotheistic or not) is adequate to rule out all deities.

In fact, there are some deities that I have to admit do exist, yet they don’t fit what is generally claimed about deities and thus I do not categorize them as deities. For example, someone who has a totem deity can have me come and see the totem. They can point at it and say that I have to admit their deity is real since I’ve seen it and can touch it. All that is true. Yet, totems are not said to be mere handmade statues that are labeled gods or spirits or deities but to be more than that in some specific ways that are unusual and more in line with gods or spirits or deities. Yet, seeing the totem. Putting my hands on it. These are not demonstrations of those god-like abilities. As such, for practical purposes. And that’s the point. Practicality.

In strict philosophical terms, I’m a gnostic about specific claimed deities, an agnostic about the general category of deities, and often an ignostic or apnostic towards other claimed deities.

In practical, day to day terms, the deity claims I’ve investigated have no more credibility than other creatures that are commonly dismissed as fantastic; yetis/bigfeet, giants, cockatrices, witches, wizards, unicorns, fairies, dragons, 4 footed insects, or whales that can be used as comfy submarines for a few days.

As such, I see no reason in practical terms to shirk the gnostic atheist title. Could I be mistaken? Philosophically or demonstratively mistaken? Sure. Till that happens, why on a practical level should I give those ideas or the idea of a deity more consideration? If they aren’t credible, that’s an important conclusion. Those who disagree can get back with me when they have something.

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Briang February 5, 2010 at 9:03 am

Sabio Lantz:
why would an atheist feel a belief in God is “justified”,shouldn’t they then become a theist?Maybe this is a technical use of the word “justified” in philosophy.

I think it’s helpful to think of “justified” in the context of belief as analogous to “justified” in the context of morality. A person is justified when killing in self-defense because he hasn’t done anything “wrong.” In the context of belief, the term “justified” is referring to the idea that a person hasn’t done anything “wrong” in believing something.
For example, trusting a clock to tell you the correct time is justified, even if it turns out that the clock is broken. As long as you don’t know that it’s broken, your justified in accepting the time.

So an atheist might think that theists have made an honest mistake in believing in God. Alternatively, they could think that theists ought to know better. Finally, they could think that some theists have made an honest mistake, and some ought to know better.

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jhh February 6, 2010 at 6:37 pm

The original claimant has the burden of proof and since the term “god” is invented with the presentation of their claim – that burden is on the theist.

Also since it is claimed that “god” has a referent and yet no referent is actually presented – the term is undefined.

And that is as far as one can rationally go. It is neither possible nor necessary to argue meaningfully over an undefined term. I’m never really certain what atheism is actually against except bad reasoning and delusions of grandeur.

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Hermes February 6, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Jhh, well said.

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aspentroll.myid.net February 7, 2010 at 10:04 am

I think an atheist a person who doesn’t believe in gods, religions, and the supernatural. The rest seem to be just
another way to say the same thing. IMHO>

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Hermes February 7, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Aspentroll, while I commonly find that most atheists are also skeptics or simply reject supernatual claims out of hand, that’s not required. There are some spiritualist and even supernaturalist atheists out there, just as there are quite a few non-theist/atheists who are religious as most notably is the case with about 1/2 of the Buddhists.

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Sabio Lantz February 9, 2010 at 12:44 am

Luke,
I used your list, with some modifications, to help me build a chart for others to declare their type of atheism.
Stop by and tell me what you think if you have time.
Thanks for this post.

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Iasov June 1, 2011 at 6:10 pm

“A negative atheist merely lacks a belief in gods. He is also called a weak atheist or an implicit atheist.”

Do babies count as negative atheists? Animals? Rocks? What about people who think the evidence for God’s existence is just as good as the evidence against God’s existence, but who live their their lives as though God existed…would they count as negative atheists?

Note that I raise these questions because your (self-admittedly, short and programmatic) definition of narrow atheist seems to affirm “yes” as the answer to all these questions. I think, therefore, that your category of negative atheist is too broad–mainly because babies and religious agnostics seem to count as negative atheists. But maybe you use “atheist” in “negative atheist” in a fairly non-standard sense.

I always considered myself to be a “default atheist” or an “atheist by default” since at the time of my birth, I had no concept of gods or of anything really.

I never really liked the classification of weak atheism. I always thought it too broad as well.

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Vermillion August 1, 2011 at 3:50 am

Is there a scientific athiest?

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Dark Star August 3, 2011 at 2:01 pm

There are Rationalists and Materialists and Empiricists. I like ‘Scientist’ but that’s already taken (boo).

The ‘best’ definition for atheist I’ve found is in the OED: atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God

Both ‘denial’ or ‘disbelief’ would require a minimally informed position so it would not include rocks and babies. And the clause ‘a God’ is understood as inclusive (so not someone who denies Zeus but accepts Yahweh).

I don’t like definitions that include rocks or babies or Christians (the Romans called the Christians ‘atheist’ as a slur because they denied the True(tm) pagan gods).

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Aspentroll August 4, 2011 at 10:01 am

My version of an atheist is that I really don’t believe any gods exist or that supernatural entities do not exist. I take offense when people suggest all atheists are the same as Stalin and Pol Pot were. They even go as far as to say that Hitler was an atheist which history and his book Mein Kamph have proven otherwise.
I think it is necessary to disavow religions of any sort, especially Christianity and Islam
because they will be a major problem as time goes on. People who believe that a better life is available to them after they die could be a real danger to the rest of us in many different ways. It would be a real shame if we were all involved in a manufactured holocaust because of their unrealistic views about life.

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Aaron August 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm

The original claimant has the burden of proof and since the term “god” is invented with the presentation of their claim – that burden is on the theist.

Also since it is claimed that “god” has a referent and yet no referent is actually presented – the term is undefined.

And that is as far as one can rationally go. It is neither possible nor necessary to argue meaningfully over an undefined term. I’m never really certain what atheism is actually against except bad reasoning and delusions of grandeur.

I don’t know that atheism is “against” anything….atheism as a defined word and concept and in its most basic manifestation of that definition / concept is simply a lack of theism, or a lack of belief in a specific deity or deities in general. Because “basic” atheism is simply an absence of belief, atheism not “against” anything since it would require a belief in opposition of something to be “against” something.

There are certainly forms of atheistic thought / philosophy that certain people may subscribe to, which might mean that the atheist him/herself is “against” something, but atheism as defined, as a concept, and as manifested in its simplest form by people who identify as atheist, is not “against” anything.

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Owain January 20, 2012 at 1:24 am

I’m a gnostic, strong, broad, unfriendly, open, active, non-religious atheist. HURRAY

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Jo January 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I don’t see how atheism can be called a ‘faith’. Faith means believing in something for which there is no proof. Atheism simply means not believing in gods! I also don’t believe in fairies or little green men – that is not a faith either, but a lack of faith in those things existing.

Hi friends

I thought that Atheism is just like any other faith; and now I see they have even many denominations.

Atheism is the most un-natural faith in my opinion; I respect the Atheists though.

I love Jesus and Mary as mentioned in Quran.

Thanks

I am an Ahmadi peaceful Muslim

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