With the continued development of secularism, the term “atheist” is becoming more common. More and more people are talking about “atheism,” but what is it, exactly? A tension exists between the method this kind of question brings to bear in its search for an answer, and the reality—that there are people who are atheists—it attempts to explore.
The method assumes atheism is something like a religion. It is interesting the extent to which this method pervades even the secular community, yielding a conclusion uncontested by nearly anyone: atheism is lack of belief in God or gods. We are told atheism is about belief, just like a religion.
Atheism, empirically speaking, signifies the status that a certain belief holds in the lives of certain people. This, so far, is rather banal. Although many confusions follow this method, such as when theists ask atheists for reasons for their atheism, it is perhaps conceivable that atheism is an option, like a commodity, in the marketplace of ideas. This assumption has yet to be supported, yet it is seemingly believed by all. Atheists argue for atheism like Christians argue for Christianity. Is this a case of mistaken identity? Is atheism something like Christianity?
Let us explore this question, not from the assumption that atheism is a belief that atheists have, but that atheism exists because there are atheists. Let us not assume an equivocation of function between atheism and religion and simply pose the question: why are there atheists?
It is no doubt true that there are some atheists who were once theists. Disenchanted of belief in God or gods by experiences of tragedy, power struggles in religious institutions, perceptions of disparities between scientific and religious claims, and the like, some atheists are reactions to religious institutions and beliefs. This seems where the concept of atheism originated: as the status of a person who refused the beliefs of larger society. Atheism, in this sense, is disbelief. This is a refusal to believe either based on reason, intuition, or emotion. There are many in the ranks of the atheists who would identify with this kind of atheism. This is atheism as anti-theism. These atheists would give reasons for unbelief, and atheism, here, might be accounted as something like a one-eyed religion, in that it develops a totalizing system of beliefs about God or gods, nature, and humankind, without the rituals and community associated with these ideas in religion.
Another kind of atheism has emerged in the modern world. One where religion wasn’t received as a candidate for belief in the first place. In this sense, atheists aren’t those who refuse religious beliefs and institutions, but those who never considered them as meaningful options. It’s not that atheists have acquired disbelief, it’s more accurate to say that the concept of God or gods holds no meaning for atheists. It bears no weight on their day-to-day lives. The world is thought about and lived in without God or gods. This kind of atheism resembles religion in no conceivable way. Atheism, here, isn’t a status of belief, because it doesn’t occur to the secular atheist to refuse God or gods: what would it mean to refuse? There are no questions, here, of the existence of God or gods for it is unclear what such “existence” would entail. A product of a world handed down by science and secularism, atheism in this sense indicates the meaninglessness of religious belief.
As briefly outlined above, there are generally two reasons why there are atheists. There are atheists because of disenchantment, and there are atheists because of secularism. The common definition and understanding of atheism presupposes the first kind of atheist, the anti-theist, as the torchbearer for atheism. This is an oversight. A new kind of atheism has emerged as a result of secularism, one where religious traditions do not make sense in the first place. The secular atheist lives to promote science, humanism, secularism, among others; that is to say, lives to promote and develop positive options for living in a world where religion doesn’t make sense. Anti-theists, on the other hand, while they may promote positive options, also focus on diminishing the status of religious beliefs: actively promote refusal of religion.
As a result of secular atheist influence, atheism may in the future be understood not for its nonreligious point of view but for its secular humanist viewpoint. Whether one population of atheists will give way to the other eventually, it appears that secular atheists are here to stay, and with them, the nature of atheism itself has changed: no longer a mere refusal of what came before, but an openness to what is to come.