There is none. An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a God or gods, period! Somehow, that simple definition just never seems to register in the minds of large cohorts of atheists and believers alike. Take, for example, Theo Hobson, who supplies us with his own, idiosyncratic definition in a piece entitled “Atheism is an Offshoot of Deism” that recently turned up in the Guardian:
Atheism is less distinct from deism than it thinks. It inherits the semi-Christian assumptions of this creed.
Atheism derives from religion? Surely it just says that no gods exist, that rationalism, or ‘scientific naturalism’, is to be preferred to any form of supernaturalism. Actually, no: in reality what we call atheism is a form of secular humanism; it presupposes a moral vision, of progressive humanitarianism, of trust that universal moral values will triumph. (Of course there is also the atheism of Nietzsche, which rejects humanism, but this is not what is normally meant by ‘atheism’).
So what we know as atheism should really be understood as an offshoot of deism. For it sees rationalism as a benign force that can liberate our natural goodness. It has a vision of rationalism saving us, uniting us.
Sorry, but I beg to differ with you Theo. There certainly are many delusional atheists who embrace such a “moral vision,” but the notion that all of them do is nonsense. For example, I reject any such “moral vision,” which Michael Rosen accurately described as “Religion Lite.” If you’ll trouble yourself to read the comments after your article, you’ll see I’m not alone. For example, from commenter Whiterthanwhite,
So is my Afairyism an offshoot of my five-year-old’s belief in fairies? Is my Afatherchristmasism an offshoot of her belief in Father Christmas?
Topher chimes in,
Indeed. Certain (rather more arrogant) religious people insist on seeing atheism as a reflection of theism rather than a rejection of it. It makes them feel better I guess, but of course is absolutely misguided.
Yes what a bag of bollocks this is. Atheism is an ‘offshoot’ of deism the way that absence is an offshoot of presence. It seems that what theists can’t stand about atheism is the sheer absence of belief. Get over it.
Can you, and others like you, please stop talking about atheism as if it were a belief system? I don’t believe in God. Doesn’t mean a subscribe to whatever incoherent, ill-thought-out Humanism you’re passing off as philosophy.
There are many similar comments, but as noted above, it never seems to register, even among some atheists. Follow an atheist website long enough, and you’re sure to run across commenters who insist on associating atheism with veganism, progressivism, schemes for gladdening us with assorted visions of “human flourishing,” and miscellaneous secular Puritans of all stripes. No. I don’t think so! Atheism doesn’t even come pre-packaged with “scientific rationalism.” It is merely the absence of a belief in a God or gods – Period! Aus! Schluss! Basta!
If any word is long overdue for a re-definition, it’s “religion,” not “atheism.” Instead of being rigidly associated with theism, it should embrace all forms of belief in imaginary, supernatural entities, or at least those with normative powers. In particular, in addition to a God or gods, it should include belief in such things as Rights, Good, and Evil as things-in-themselves, independent of the subjective impressions of them that exist in the minds of individuals.
Among other things, such a re-definition would add a certain coherence to theories according to which the predisposition to embrace “religion” is an evolved behavior. I rather doubt that we’ll eventually find something quite so specific as “You shall believe in supernatural beings!” hard-wired in our brains. On the other hand, there may be predispositions that make it substantially more likely that belief in such beings will follow once a certain level of intelligence is reached. I suspect that the origins of secular religions such as Communism will eventually be found by rummaging about in the very same behavioral baggage. I’m not the only one who’s seen the affinity. Many others have spoken of the “popes,” “bishops,” and “priesthood” of Communism and its antecedents, for almost as long as they’ve been around.
In any case, not all atheists are secular Puritans who embrace these various versions of “religion lite.” I personally hope our species will eventually grow up enough to jettison them along with the older editions. Darwin immediately grasped the truth, as did many others since him. It follows immediately from his theory. Evolved behavioral traits are the ultimate cause for the existence of morality and the perception of such subjective entities as Good and Evil that go with it. That is the simple truth, and it follows that belief in the existence of Good and Evil as objective things with some kind of a legitimate, independent normative power, whether ones tastes run to the versions preferred by the “heavy” or “lite” versions of religion, is a chimera.
Does that mean it’s time to jettison morality? No, sorry, our species doesn’t have that option. We will continue to act morally in spite of the vociferous objections of legions of philosophers, because it is our nature to act morally. It’s a “good” thing, too, because even if morality isn’t “real,” we would have a very hard time getting along without it. On the other hand, we do have the option of recognizing the pathologically self-righteous among us for the charlatans they are.