If you’ve ever wondered the answer to this question, you aren’t the first. Theists and atheists alike seem to get this one wrong all the time; although to be fair, it’s not entirely their fault.
If you look up the term ‘Atheism’ in older dictionaries, you’ll find the majority of them state that atheism is the belief that a God doesn’t exist – which blatantly misrepresents the concept as a whole. Atheism, depite what many people might think, is not a belief system akin to a religion. Instead, atheism is exactly what the name suggests – it comes from the greek word “atheos” meaning “without” and “theos” meaning “a God”, combined to describe “atheism” – the lack of a belief in a God.
The destinction may seem slight, but in the end it makes all the difference. That’s because atheists by definition don’t necessarily make claims about the existence of a God; they are simply not convinced by the many claims that do exist on the subject.
“Atheism is to theism as not collecting stamps is to stamp collecting”Anthony Grayling, Author of “The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism“
When you try and introduce people to the actual definition of atheism, they often react puzzled, surely because they have always equated atheism with anti-theism, the belief that there is no God. “You’re describing agnosticism!” they’ll say, although relativley oblivious to what it means. In truth, agnosticism adresses the question of what you know; or in this case, what you don’t know. Atheism on the other hand is all about what you believe. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, if I claim I don’t know that a God exists, but still believe that one exists, I’m an agnostic theist. People’s misunderstanding of this particular term has lead to many shying away from using the term ‘atheist’ to describe themselves, even when it’s accurate.
I believe many if not most people who identify as agnostic and refrain from referrring to themselves as atheists share the same perspective; they neither believe that a God is real, nor are they willing to say they believe that a God has never existed. If only they could see that not only are their assumptions about atheism false, but also dangerously effective at discrediting rationally thinking atheists.
If you make atheists out to be intolerant, closed-minded, stubborn people and push those who are not yet convinced towards identifying as agnostic, you get a society rich with critical thinkers who believe that atheism is as destructive and hateful an idea as the core principles of most religions, and equally deserving of doubt.
When really, atheists come in all shapes and sizes, from all sorts of backgrounds. Some religious people such as Buddhists are atheists too, and just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean you apply the same amount of skepticism to the other questions you’re faced with in life. That’s really the crux of it – atheism is a non-position. A non-belief. Frankly, all it tells you about a person is whether or not they believe in a God.
It’s really not that complicated.