Normally I hate semantic arguments, so I try to avoid this when it comes up, but it occurs to me that the following definition tracks fairly well who labels themselves, and is labelled by others, as atheists, without directly referring to the label itself:
An atheist is someone whose best estimate of the number of gods is zero.
This seems to have a number of salutary qualities, enumerated as so. (Perhaps it may clarify to state that I consider myself a very weak prescriptivist - usage defines meaning, but common usage can be critiqued from the vantage point of improving communication. Words are tools.)
1) It includes hard atheists and soft atheists. Some people, a minority of those who employ the atheist label, claim to be absolutely sure that God does not exist. In this case the label is understates, a bit like saying four is your best guess as to the sum of two and two, but an understatement is still a statement.
2) It includes positive and negative atheists. Some self-labelled atheists say there is positive evidence against God, others that there's not enough evidence to justify belief, because theism is a complex hypothesis and has a low prior probability. This definition encompasses both.
3) It excludes rocks, infants, and chimpanzees
. Rocks, infants, and apes all lack belief in God. (This might be arguable in the case of infants
, but let's pass that over for now.) But this is because they presumably have no opinions on the matter at all. We do not normally label such entities atheist; some people are willing to count them as such, but they do not point to
them as evidence for the superiority of the "lack of belief in God" classification, but rather accept it on account of thinking that classification superior on other grounds.
4) It is agnostic on the burden of proof and straighforwardly reversible. Some people believe that atheism should carry the burden of proof. Other people believe that the burden of proof is against it. It would be good, I think, if that discussion could be carried out directly, rather than covertly. Further, I do not think it would be inappropriate to describe monotheists as those whose best estimate of the number of gods is one.
5) It includes some e.g. Buddhists but not others. Some self-described Buddhists are strict naturalists who believe in the Four Noble Truths and employ techniques from the Buddhist tradition to escape from suffering. Most self-described Buddhists' Buddhism is about praying to various gods for this-worldly goals and securing a better place in the afterlife. It seems intuitive, and I would strongly imagine would accord with self-description, to describe the first but not the second group as atheists. (Although see counterpoint 2.)
6) It accords with ordinary semantics of belief. Normally when we say that someone believes p we mean that they think that most likely p - not that they merely lack the belief that ~p, nor that they must be absolutely sure that ~p. So if atheism is the hypothesis that there are no gods, it seems reasonable to say that an atheist is one who thinks atheism is probably true. (Although see counterpoint 3.)
7) It is orthogonal to religion
. This probably works for most other common definitions as well, but it is still important, as it helps separate out issues worth separating, and accords with common usage. A nontheist Friend
is religious; a typical deist is not.
There are a few problems with this definition that may lead to a better way to word it, although I do not think any of them harm the basic idea. (I have not thought extensively on the matter, however, and there are surely pros and cons I have not considered.)
1) Depending on how "best estimate" is used it may either include a great number of agnostics who do not accept the atheist label or a great many negative atheists. If you suspend judgment on some question, do you have a best estimate of the answer? Is there a better phrase here that would more properly separate the one from the other? Or is the confusion here at, so to speak, the level of reality (or at least common language use) - that one could collect a great number of self-described agnostics (who do not call themselves atheists) and great number of self-described atheists whose actual beliefs, aside from the labels they assign them, do not differ? In that case a revisionist semantics is, as is often the case in philosophy, perhaps necessary.
2) It is agnostic on the meaning of "god." This is arguably a good thing, as being able to say "well I'm an atheist about this definition but not this one" is often helpful, and here the common-use definitions are known to be inconsistent (while a revisionist project about it would be utterly infeasible.)
3) Counting. If you're pretty damn sure that there are gods, and millions and millions of them, it seems pretty silly to call you anything but a polytheist. But you'd still might admit that there are more probably 0 than any particular positive number of gods, like 3,462,194 of them. Perhaps it might be better to say that the atheist's best guess about whether there are any gods or not is that there aren't.
4) Conceptual analysis is everything that's wrong with analytic philosophy and nothing good ever comes of it.