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Terminology Of Secularism

A lot of people are confused by all the buzzwords that brainier atheists use. Especially when these atheist's define them differently than others expect. The thing is that common usage doesn't always equal proper usage. (Ask your English teacher if you don't believe me about that) You also have to bear in mind that many of these terms come from various philosophical schools of thought, so you may not have heard them used in the same context that many atheist's use them. And if that's not confusing enough, some dictionaries actually get these words wrong!

No one can blame a person for not knowing these terms unless they claim to be an expert from the get-go. Truth is, I think words like "atheist" and "fundamentalist" carry so many meanings that they are almost uselss in every day speech. But what the heck do I know?

Note: feel free not to get back to me on that question.

So here's the list, useful to atheists who haven't read a dozen books on the subject, or religious believers who just don't understand what we're saying half the time.


An atheist is anyone who doesn't believe in any gods, and that's it. Atheists don't necessarily feel that God has been irrefutably disproven, only that the evidence isn't convincing enough to compel belief. Even a person who has other supernatural or religious beliefs is still technically an atheist if they don't believe in any gods. It's not unusual to hear atheists refer to themselves as "secular atheists" rather than simply as "atheists" to distinguish themselves from atheists who have other supernatural beliefs. Some forms of Buddhism are actually atheistic.


An agnostic is someone who doubts that the existence of any gods can ever be proven or disproven with absolute certainty. Contrary to popular belief, agnosticism is not a midway point between belief and nonbelief. Why? Because one can still believe in God while also believing that he can never be irrefutably proven to exist. (Such a person would be an agnostic theist) This person would still be a believer, just one who doesn't feel the evidence for God is absolute. On the other hand, most people who call themselves atheists are actually agnostic atheists because (like myself) they admit that there is no way to disprove or prove God's existence beyond all doubt. (See the definition for "Atheists" for more) Even famous atheists who are accused of being extremists often consider themselves to be agnostic atheists.


Theists are people who believe in one or more gods. Theists usually believe in a diety who is actively watching, judging, or even participating in their lives on some level.


Like theists, deists also believe in one or more gods. But while theists tend to believe in a god that actively watches, or even participates, in their lives, deists tend to believe in a god who left his creation on its own. In other words, deists believe in a creator who has left us on our own and who doesn't intervene in our lives. Note that I find this sort of deity more likely than the one theists usually believe in.


Most people who see themselves as atheists tend to be skeptics, but not all atheists are. Skeptics generally believe in the principles of logic and reason, especially the belief that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Note that while many people accuse skeptics (and atheists) of being closed minded regarding supernatural or extraordinary events, many skeptics feel the opposite is true. Namely, that "true believers" in alien abduction, Big Foot, ghosts, or other strange phenomena are actually closed minded regarded the principles of logic and reason. As always, the debate continues.


This is a fuzzier word than some of the others. But generally, when atheists refer to fundamentalists, we are usually talking about people who see the Bible (or another holy book) as perfect and irrefutable. A fundamentalist's belief system is usually presumed to be just as correct. It's worth nothing that--by our definition, at least--atheists cannot be fundamentalists about atheism because we have no sacred texts or belief systems. This is why you see famous atheists objecting to this use of the word regarding themselves.


Many people (including quite a few atheists) tend to think of fundamentalists and evangelicals as being one and the same. But evangelicals tend to evangelize by definition, whereas fundamentalists are still fundamentalists whether they try to convert others to their beliefs or not. It might be easier to put it this way: evangelicals are probably fundamentalists, but not all fundamentalists are necessarily evangelical.

So now that you've seen some basic terminology, what do people who commonly call themselves atheists typically believe? What do I believe for that matter? I'll address more of that in another article.

--the Atheist Geek--

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