The term “atheism” is a charged one, defined in a variety of ways and used loosely in ordinary conversation. By this term, a person can mean:
- belief that there are no divine beings, including the Creator;
- belief that there is no anthropomorphic deity, but that some divine essence exists;
- belief that there are (currently) no reasonable grounds for believing the existence of God; and
- belief that God exists accompanied by a refusal to worship and/or publicly acknowledge Him.
In classical Athens, atheism appears to have meant simply a refusal to worship the gods recognised by the state, rather than a belief that there are no divine beings. Indeed, it is conceivable that in Roman times, the Greek-speaking parts of the Empire might have referred to Christians as atheists over their refusal to worship the emperors.
The terms “divine” and “god” are themselves confusingly used in English, which has led to many English speakers misinterpreting the terms “el”, “eloah”, and “elohim” in Hebrew, and their cognates in Aramaic. These terms indicate the world in which the beings they refer to live, and not the contingency or necessity of those beings’ existence.
“Belief” is also a confusing term. Epistemologists have debated whether belief is a component of knowledge. One can use the term belief to mean assent to the proposition that X exists. In addition, it is often used to refer to trust in X, which of necessity presupposes that X exists.
Consider the following example. A Catholic once asked me, “Do you believe in our Lady?” How was I to respond to this? Did he mean that I prayed to her in a manner that presupposed she could hear me and that she was in a position to do something about my requests? Did he mean that I believed she was a virgin when she gave birth to Christ? Did he mean that I believed she remained a virgin perpetually thereafter? All of the above (and more)? I gave a qualified answer: “I believe that she was a virgin when she gave birth to our Lord.”
Belief is a funny thing. Sometimes we just “know” things without being able to consciously give good reasons for that knowledge. Not only do we hold such-and-such a proposition to be true, but often we rely on it; we let it influence our thinking. How many readers of this post “know” that something in the world changed recently, something shifted, and yet are unable to adequately explain it?