George H. Smith defines the word “atheism” in the classical way as “absence of theistic belief.” (7) Unfortunately, this is hardly adequate.
1. The cup of coffee I am now drinking lacks any beliefs in gods. Is it by that fact atheistic?
2. Ok, maybe only humans can be theists or atheists. But what about a newborn baby? It seems grotesque to call him an atheist, even an “implicit” one.
3. A person who is asleep has no theistic beliefs. Does everyone become an atheist upon dozing off?
4. Jones claims to believe in God but is a miserable sinner. By his deeds he demonstrates to whom it may concern that he does not heed things of God in his personal life. What is more important for the determination of Jones’ attitude: his words or his actions?
Conversely, Jones says, “I don’t think God exists, but just in case he does, I’ll try to be a ‘good person.'” What is he?
5. How will our author classify a person who is in the process of compiling and carefully evaluating the evidence for god’s existence? At the moment he is indeed lacking a belief in god, but to call him an atheist would surely be a stretch.
6. Is a person who is betting on god in a Pascal’s wager theist or atheist?
7. Regarding Jones who “may have never encountered the concept of god before,” (8) the term “god” has no meaning for him: When he hears “god,” he might as well be hearing (A) “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Now it is inane to talk about belief in (A), since (A) is meaningless; but it is equally silly to talk about absence of belief in (A), since there is nothing to be absent in the first place. We must conclude that Jones who cannot tell god from a hole in the ground cannot reasonably be called atheist.
The next examples will specify attitudes held by Jones. Smith is invited to label Jones as theist or atheist.
“My opinion is that god exists, but I may very well be mistaken”; or “I tentatively accept the hypothesis of god’s existence pending future philosophical developments”; or “I’m going to assume that god exists for the sake of argument.”
Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him.”
Bakunin: “If God did exist, it would be necessary to destroy him.”
“Gods exist, but right now they are doing battle with the giants, and I expect them soon to kill each other.”
“I believe there is an old man with a white beard living on a cloud in the sky who watches over us.”
“I don’t know about God the Father, but the Earth Mother smiles upon us.”
“There is something beyond, the numinous, of that I’m sure, but I won’t profess anything more definite than that.”
Jones is a woman who says, “I worship my boyfriend’s cock.”
Statolatry: “There is no God but the state, and the President is its prophet.”
Self-deification: “I am the only person in the world who qualifies to be the global socialist dictator. My central plan is correct; everyone else’s plans are vicious and counterfeit. I am a god; all shall bow to me and obey me unconditionally.”
“Each human being is a god.”
“Poseidon definitely exists, but Hermes does not.”
“I worship the machine. Glory to the holy motherboard!”
“And this became a snare for the world, that people enslaved to either grief or tyranny conferred the incommunicable Name on stones and wood.” (Wis 14:21)
“My God is my stomach” (Phil 3:1); or “This dish I’m eating is divine.”
“I believe in god, but I know I do only because it’s an evolutionary heritage. So, I can’t help believing in god, but I am fully aware that god is a delusion foisted upon me by my genes.”
“I’m a gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a god or not”; or “I’m an apatheist, i.e., as though autistic toward god.”
“I do not believe in God, but I believe in the devil.”
Deism: “God exists, but he does not care or even know about human affairs at all, so for all practical purposes, both belief and disbelief in this god are equally inconsequential. Nothing whatever turns on whether god exists.”
“Gods are petty, quarrelsome, fickle, and dangerous beings. They exist, but I despise the lot of them and wish they’d all up and disappear.”
“God exists, but he is my bitch and does what I tell him”; or “God exists, but I can defy him with impunity, because I’m more powerful than he.”
“There is a god, but I’m so terrified of him that I prefer not to think about him at all and pretend that he does not exist.”
“The probability of god’s existence is 67.4%.”
“God is beyond being; so to say that he exists is to do him an injustice.”
“I’m a South Pacific cargo cultist.”
“There is a god, but he is not my god, and I do not worship him.”
“God existed but no longer does: he created the world and then died.”
“Humanity will become divine in the distant future through technology.”
These can probably be multiplied indefinitely. It seems that theism and atheism resist simple definitions.