What is an Atheist?
Right now I have finished reading Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation and am almost finished with a book titled The Delusion of Disbelief: How The New Atheism is a Threat to your Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness. One thing that Harris raises is the idea of what an atheist is. I find this idea powerful because it demands that we be more precise with our language.
What is an Atheist?
An atheist is someone who does not believe in the Divine (whether that be a God, multiple Gods or some kind of spiritual force) and also does not belong to an organized religion. Or as Dictionary.com would have it: a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.
It is not a belief system. I want to be very very clear about this: It is not a belief system. It is not a philosophy, it is a lack of belief in something. It is only because of the prominence of religious thought in our cultural heritage (and present day life) that a word like "Atheist" is necessary.
There are many groups that, were we to draw a venn diagram, many atheists would fall into. One would be secularists: people who advocate for the building of secular institutions and who try to separate political institutions from religious ones. There are many religious people who are also secularists (including the guy who runs Citizens United for a Separation of Church and State, members of many minority religions and several founding fathers). Another group would be what I call anti-religionists which is to say atheists who actively seek the destruction of organized religion and have a vested interest in convincing religious people to become atheists. I am not one of these people. I will full vocally articulate my skepticism about faith and my opinions on the actions of various organized religions and why I am an atheist if it is relevant to a conversation, but I have many friends and family members who are deeply religious and members of various faiths. I have really serious problems with organized religion, but I also recognize that being part of a religious faith has done considerable good for many people I know. So I guess I would say I'm too deeply conflicted about organized religion to actively seek to destroy it. I would say that, for the most part, the men called "The Four Horsemen" (Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris) are anti-religionists.
This being said, it aids extremists on both sides of the religion/atheism debate to try to elide these categories as much as possible. For the Four Horsemen, it is useful to conflate secularism, atheism and anti-religionism into one category, because that way it is easier to convince members of one group that they are in fact members of all of the others. For outspoken anti-atheist religious people. it is necessary because it helps indict one group with the other. So you can say to your fellow religious people "all atheists seek to destroy organized religion" or even "secularism is a mask for destroying organized religion".
Once this is done, pro-religion writers can then claim that atheism is a philosophy or belief system, which allows them to blame atheism for Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler and Stalin. I'll address that issue in a later post.
(cross posted to Atheist Viagra)