The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Dave’s Mailbag: Atheism, defined

Yesterday, the Atheist Alliance tweeted:

What do you consider to be the exact definition of atheism?

There are many incorrect definitions of atheism floating around. It’s important for religious extremists, in their deliberate attempts to misinform (see my previous post about lying for Jesus), that atheism be depicted as nonsensical, demonic, or irrational. For example, this display:


It says: “Atheism: This is the belief that there is no god. This is a very common belief of those who do not wish to be responsible for their actions, as if there is no god there is no judgment. This belief was started by Charles Darwin, but has very recently (within the last 30 years) become a popular religion.”


I do a talk called “Atheism 101” that covers the definition of atheism, among other things. In it, I discuss the difference between agnostic/gnostic and atheistic/theistic. The question should not be worded, “Are you an atheist or an agnostic?” but rather “Are you an atheist or a theist?” and independently, “Are you 100% certain that God does or does not exist (gnostic) or do you acknowledge a possibility that you are wrong (agnostic)?”

I tweeted back to the Atheist Alliance:

@atheistalliance Atheism can be defined precisely as “the lack of faith in the existence of a god or gods.”

I think this is the most precise and accurate definition I have come across. In my talk, I use this. For a thorough breakdown of the definition of atheism, with sources, I recommend this webpage.

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheism

This has been on my mind because I received the following message today:

Your professed “belief” in the religion of athiesm has everything to do with your selfish desire to continue in your favorite sins. You have a strong motive to hope that there isn’t a Holy God who will punish you for your sins. Those making a profession of faith in the religion of atheism hope that if they scream loud, long, and shrill enough, they will be able to convince themselves that God doesn’t exist. I don’t believe that your even an atheist Dave.

First off:

  1. Atheism is not a religion. The definition of a religion is arguable, but the one I use and agree with comes from anthropologists Drs. Craig Palmer and Lyle Steadman in their excellent book, “Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion.” They define religion as “a communicated acceptance by individuals of another individual’s ‘supernatural’ claim, a claim whose accuracy is not verifiable by the senses.” They continue: “The distinctive property of such acceptance is that it communicates a willingness to accept the influence of the speaker nonskeptically. While supernatural claims are not demonstrably true, they are asserted to be true” (pg ix). Since atheism makes no supernatural claims—in fact many atheists are metaphysical naturalists—it definitively is not a religion.
  2. My belief that atheism and science are the most likely contenders for an accurate description of the universe’s workings have nothing at all to do with sin. I don’t believe sin exists. I believe that some acts and behaviors are anti-social and, on ethical grounds, should not be committed. I believe that other acts and behaviors are pro-social and, on ethical grounds, should be encouraged. But I find the whole concept of sin—transgressions against divine law—to be ridiculous. I don’t believe there is any such thing as divine law, because I am an atheist.
  3. This entire statement is just a bare assertion. In no way does the sender attempt to provide reasons for the claims he is making, or explain on what basis exactly he is claiming to know these things about me and other atheists.

I think the sender is unable to see atheism for what it really is because doing so would make him insecure in his faith. It’s necessary for him to misunderstand atheism because atheism, understood, is the more rational position. So he builds a straw-man and uses it as a human shield. It’s really quite pathetic, pitiable even.


What’s really wrong with his message, though, is where he says “[atheists make] a profession of faith.” Atheists lack faith by definition. Faith comes from the Latin “fidere,” which means “to trust.” In the theological sense, this means trusting that God exists, or that God will provide, etc, even though the logical arguments and evidence are insufficient for belief in themselves.

I am proud to say that I do not have faith. I am a skeptic: I have an attitude of doubt, an inclination toward incredulity. I think faith is dangerous, irrational, archaic, and puerile. If you are a logical person, a good critical thinker, and you come across an argument that lacks evidentiary backing, contains fallacies, or is nonsensical, you do not [continue to] believe that argument. Faith is the admission that you are not being logical, that you are not a good critical thinker, continuing to believe something when the reasons you have to believe it aren’t good enough on their own. Saying you have faith is saying, “Here are the reasons I believe this. Here is the evidence supporting why I believe this. Oh, the reasons have logical problems? Oh, the evidence is not very strong? Well, I choose to believe it regardless.” Or even worse, sometimes people say, “I don’t need evidence. I don’t need logical arguments. I have faith.” Faith is the very model of a circular argument. As Mark Twain is credited with saying, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

I have never met a Christian who claims not to have faith. If you call yourself a Christian and do not have faith, I would really like to hear from you. Hebrews 11:6 says that “without faith, it is impossible to please God. Hebrews 11:1 says: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This is directly at odds with skepticism. It is my position that if you are a skeptic, and you also claim faith in a god or gods, you are doing one or the other incorrectly.

I think my favorite part of this, though, is where he says, “I don’t believe your [sic] even an atheist, Dave.”

This is my license plate:


(Atheos is Greek for atheist). If I’m not an atheist, I don’t know who is.

Thanks for reading. Until next time,


Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is

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and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!


About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at

12 comments on “Dave’s Mailbag: Atheism, defined

  1. Jack
    February 2, 2013

    As an atheist agnostic, I typically agree with most the things posted here, but I don’t feel as harshly towards faith as this article seems to. I acknowledge that I lack the capacity for faith in a higher power, I simply do, but I do not find it a fault that others can. I find it a beautiful thing that in this world where people are forced to think empirically and logically, that there are people willing to look beyond those things and have faith in something else. I’m kind of an unusual atheist in that I actually typically like my religious friends/peers, and don’t let the hostility/preachiness of some religious folks dampen my attitude towards others. To say that someone with faith “lacks critical thinking” skills to me is just false, and assumes that people who say they have faith don’t struggle with doubt. I know many Christians who frequently doubt their faith because of logic/science, and who very adamantly grapple with the issues facing their belief system, but are wiling to return to their faith in a way that can be impossible for afides (faithless) people to understand.

    • Jay
      February 3, 2013

      See, I don’t view that as a virtue or a good thing. When I was a conservative Christian, I struggled mightily to explain why abortions were evil, why homosexuals were evil, why sincere Muslim believers were wrong and I was was right, why women couldn’t be deacons in the church, in a way that was consistent with the scientific method and logical thinking that I’d been taught in school. Of course the only thing I had to fall on was my faith, and I spent years “returning to faith” (as you put it) and just taking it as a given that these loathsome tenets were the right thing. Because God said so.

      That is really, really, really not a virtue. I don’t know what religious folks you know, bit spend some time around more fundamentalist, hate-steeped types and you might view your words differently. There are plenty of intelligent folks populating the southern Baptist or conservative Prysbyterian populations (I was one of them) and you know what that intelligence is used for? Building elaborate card castles of justification for their beliefs based on nothing but air/faith. That’s a waste of intellect.

  2. Dave Muscato
    February 2, 2013

    Thanks for reading, and for your comment. I too have many Christian (and other religious) friends who frequently doubt their faith, and even who are knowledge enough about the terminology to call themselves agnostic theists. I would argue that someone doubting their faith because of logical arguments against it, or because of counter-evidence, is inching closer to a correct, consistent, and accurate application of logic to questions of god(s), i.e. becoming more rational.

  3. Southern Humanist
    February 3, 2013

    I seem to be having this argument more and more lately, especially with professional theologians and theology students. They use the phrase “belief system” which I reject. Any system we might have is based on non-belief – which they just can’t seem to wrap their head around (maybe I just suck at explaining it:-) haha! I might accept the term “world-view” insomuch as atheism is one of multiple conclusions reached in a world-view underpinned by a desire for reality-based truth. My favorite tongue in cheek analogy is to say “atheism is a belief in the same that healthy is a disease.”

    • Yvonne
      February 3, 2013

      My favorite tongue in cheek analogy is to say “atheism is a belief in the same that healthy is a disease.”

      Great analogy.

  4. John B. Egan
    February 3, 2013

    The quote” Atheism can be defined precisely as ‘the lack of faith in the existence of a god or gods.’” sums it up. As an atheist, I’m amused by other people’s belief in invisible people that supposedly guide our world, but clearly have no real effect good or bad, but I don’t fault them for that, they were raised that way. Factually, we all have weird biases. I know for a fact that after I flip a coin and get heads 3 times, I will get a tails this time. I knew a very intelligent man who at 50 had never had a cavity and was facing his first dental work. He was convinced that if he did, his teeth would suffer as now ‘the germs were released’. My biggest gripe, and this is why we even discuss atheism, is that we seem to be under constant broadsides from religion regarding our failing to recognize Mr Invisible, the ‘fact’ that atheism is a true religion in its own right (Yeah? Where’s my religious tax shelter then?) and of course the ‘fact’ that without religion you are flawed, immoral and incapable of behaving like a human being.

  5. Pingback: All Children are Born Atheists « The Age of Blasphemy

  6. Pingback: Don’t Replace Religion; End It « The Age of Blasphemy

  7. Pingback: Atheism, Defined « The Age of Blasphemy

  8. rocketkirchner
    February 15, 2013

    Faith and being a skeptic go hand in hand . it is always a matter of what one is a skeptic about . For example : the Christian practioner has faith as a response to an ephiphany . But that same practioner doubts in a skeptical trajectory of thought those that contradict his or her faith . Without critical thinking, faith in its truest form is not posssible . For the faith response to the revealed Paradox of the God-man understands in the Kantian sense the limits of pure reason . This is not to say that reason has its role , but at the top of the epistomoligical pyramid .

  9. rocketkirchner
    February 15, 2013

    ….error –”reason has its roll, but NOT at the top of the epistomoligical pyramid”. sorry for the mistake there.

  10. Tongue Sandwich
    March 5, 2013


    With your permission, here’s something that might be considered a contribution/continuation to your post:

    “Idiosyncratic belief systems which are shared by only a few adherents are likely to be regarded as delusional. Belief systems which may be just as irrational but which are shared by millions are called world religions.” Anthony Storr

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2013 by in Author: Dave Muscato, philosophy, Skepticism and tagged , , , , , , , .
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