The #Atheism Glossary

Last updated 7 January 1999


ob.note: This page has been reformatted by ShaiHulud to stylistically match the official #atheism page, since he has links to it. Hence the color, different background, etc.

Since this is an #atheism community project, I would very much appreciate it if you contacted me if you have any ideas for revisions or if you wish to submit full definitions. This glossary is not very complete right now, as you can see, and it will never be truly fully complete, so you may want to check back here from time to time.


*Agnosticism, n. -

Agnosticism is the epistemological position that one cannot ever know positively whether or not supernatural phenomena, especially gods, exist. This was the original definition when the term was coined by Thomas Huxley in 1876, and is the most "correct" definition. Note that since this says nothing as to whether or not gods actually exist, it is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist, or an agnostic and a fideist theist. Most people who identify themselves as "agnostics" are "weak" atheists. Although Huxley himself mistakenly claimed that agnosticism was a third, distinct option between the alleged certainty of theism and the alleged certainty of atheism, Huxleyian agnosticism should not be confused with being undecided as to whether or not gods actually exist (which would be a form of "weak" atheism); one can easily be undecided and still believe that he can know.

Another common definition given for agnosticism is undecidedness as to whether or not god exists. At the extreme of this view, agnosticism is sometimes considered sort of a wishy-washy non-committment on whether or not god actually exists. This is most often used by theists trying to argue that agnostics are really just a sort of weak crypto-theists. The less insulting form of this definition is among the most common uses of the term in everyday speech, but should be discouraged. It is not true to Huxley's original definition, and also its use tends to lead to long and pointless semantic arguments between "agnostics" who think that they are agnostics because they are waiting for evidence of God(s), and "atheists," whom they assume are all strong atheists. For the purposes of debate and discussion on #atheism, please use only the formal, Huxleyian definition.

*Atheism, n. -

The lack of theism, or in other words, the lack of the belief that one or more gods exist. Atheism comes in several forms:

Weak atheism, also known as soft or skeptical atheism, is a skeptical disbelief in deities. This is based on the principle of onus probandi, or burden of proof. Weak atheists put gods in the same class as Unicorns, Leprechauns, and the Great Beige Hroogledrorf from the planet Ixnay in the galaxy Drizzlefump: although not impossible, unsubstantiated and thus not believed in. A weak atheist would respond to "GOD exists!@#!@#" with, "Prove it."

Strong atheism, also known as hard or positive atheism, is a postive belief that no gods exist. This is usually based on a perceived logical disproof, absurdity, or meaninglessness of god concepts. It should be noted that, although atheism in and of itself is often confused with strong atheism, strong atheists are generally in the minority of the atheist community. A strong atheist would respond to "GOD exists!@#!@#" with, "No he doesn't," or, "That's impossible."

Noncoherentism is the position that one cannot make meaningful statements about gods, including whether they exist, because so far there have been no sufficiently coherent definitions of "god" advanced. A noncoherentist atheist would respond to "GOD exists!@#!@#" with "What do you mean by 'God'?"

Apathetic atheism, or apatheism, is essentially not caring whether or not gods exist, and effectively acting as though they don't. An apathetic atheist would respond to "GOD exists!@#!@#" with "If he did, so what?"

The majority of atheists in the world are weak atheists, although a significant portion of those are weak towards gods in general and strong towards specific gods. Finally, to avoid faux pas, keep in mind that atheism is spelled a-t-h-e-i-s-m, not "athiesm," and that atheism is not a proper noun, and should only be capitalized when at the beginning of a sentence.

*Christian, n. -

Here is a prickly one. Since Christians themselves are somewhat disunified over what exactly "Christian" means, it is even harder for an "outsider" to come up with a universally acceptable defintion.

The most simplistic and obvious one is someone who believes that Jesus Christ died for their sins and that through Him they can reach Heaven. However, this is often unacceptable to Christians because it includes theologically incorrect groups such as the Mormons and the Jehova's Witnesses. On the other hand, it easily includes all major sects of Christianity, from Protestants to Orthodox to Catholics.

A common standard when determining who is Christian and who is not is the Nicene Creed, an output of the ecumenical Council of Nicea. However, the usual reason that people say that the Nicene Creed is a universal definition of "Christian" is essentially that all those that it rules Christian agree that it is the definition of Christian, creating something of circulus in demonstrando: "The Nicene Creed defines who is a real Christian. We know that the Nicene Creed is valid because all real Christians agree on it."

For the purposes of discussion on #atheism, the former definition will be used the majority of the time. There are, however, a number of doctrinal issues that one normally associates with Christians, such as belief in Hell, divine inspiration of the Bible, trinitarianism, et cetera. It should be borne in mind at all times that while these beliefs are held to vigorously by many Christians, not all Christians have the same theology, and that about all one can rely on if a person declares that they are an Christian is that they adhere roughly to the former definition.

*Deism, n. -

The belief that an omnipotent god exists and created the Universe, set up the natural laws that it operates by, and then left the Universe to operate under those laws, without miraculous intervention.

Deism began as an attempt to demystify Christianity during the early Enlightenment. It grew into an outright questioning and rejection of Christianity and other mainstream religion. It came into wide favor as a theological stance among the Reason-oriented, skeptical intellectual atmosphere of the Age of Reason. Important Deist thinkers of the Age of Reason include Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

Deism virtually always also implies disbelief in a personal god, a position best summarised by Benjamin Franklin's statement,

"I cannot conceive otherwise than that He, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that He is even infinitely above it."

For further reading:

*Evolution, n. -

Biological evolution is, strictly, change in allele frequency in a population of organisms over time. For the layman, that means any change in the average distribution of traits in a breeding group of organisms of the same species over time. It is important to be careful when one speaks about "evolution:" oftentimes, many people try to argue against the theory of common descent, a given paleontological model, speciation, abiogenesis, or any number of other topics, and mistakenly believe they are arguing against the process of evolution. However, given the definition supplied above, evolution is, simply, a demonstrable, repeatable scientific fact, and is not particularly contestable. The topics mentioned above are all fairly well supported scientifically, but that is not particularly salient, as the fact of evolution depends upon none of them for its validity.

One of the common misconceptions about evolution is that it is a random process. While individual cases are unpredictable, the overall patterns are not. In this way, evolution can be seen as a version of the "chaos game," a mathematical exercize which demonstrates a basic principle: if you feed random inputs through a system with regular rules, then predicatable large-scale patterns can arise despite the unpredictability of the inputs. In the chaos game, random inputs determine where to plot a point relative to three vertices. The system, when repeated infinitely, forms the fractal pattern known as Sierpinski's Triangle, with a probability of 1.0. Similarly, evolution could be seen as a version of the same principle, in which unpredictable mutations and other genotype changes are the inputs, the rules include principles such as natural selection and the founder effect, and the resulting genotypes are the output. Not suprisingly, the system does produce roughly predictable results: ecosystems geared toward continued survival, structures that are constantly in a process of gradual refinement, structures modified from existing structures for new purposes, the gradual elimination of vestigal organs, et cetera.

For further reading:

*Faith, n. [Submitted by AltKey] -

Faith is best conceived as belief and trust in a being or object. It is often associated with religion. Religious faith in a Judaeo-Christian context means belief and trust in an invisible God and the essential truth of the bible as God's revelation to humankind.

There are some assumptions implicit in the Christian concept of faith, though often unspoken and sometimes not realised by its advocates. Christian faith implies a god that is not observable through any of the senses in ordinary circumstances, and furthermore this god is undetectable through any of the instrumentation thus far made by humankind. This type of god of course cannot be 'proved' to exist using any scientific method of proof and must be accepted on faith. While it is true that Christians testify to an experience of god, and feel god's presence (at least this is what many Christians often claim while visiting #atheism) it is clear that the 'evidence' that christians can adduce to support their belief in god is either ambiguous (as in the case of the Argument from Design etc), fallacious, or subjective and not reproducible without having faith, all of which makes many atheists doubt that such a being exists at all.

*Fideism, n. -

Fideism is the epistemological and theological position that belief in God1 should only be based on a "leap of faith." Sometimes this position is adopted in a simple confession that one cannot justify theism with logic, but that it is justified anyway by pragmatist concerns (the belief makes me happy/makes me a better person/etc. so I am justified in believing it). Some fideists (especially Christian existentialists such as Kierkegaard) go so far as to say that attempts at rationalist justification dull and defeat the emotional faith experience, which they see as the essence of Christianity.

One of the most interesting aspects of fideism is that, since it denies the need for positive knowledge of God's existence, it is actually compatible with agnosticism in the general sense (although Huxley himself considered it immoral to believe in things for which there is no proof). Indeed, most fideists (including Kierkegaard once again) adopt what is essentially an agnostic theistic stance.

1 Although, strictly speaking, fideism could be applied to the justification of any god (or for that matter, any entity), it has most commonly been associated with Christianity and its God within academia.

*Fundamentalism, n. [submitted by AltKey, edited by Heathen] -

Fundamentalism is an attitude more than a particular belief system. It seems to be characterised by unquestioning submission to an absolute authority and intolerance of alternative view points, belief systems, and even in some cases of people who do not follow the teaching of the group. Often a god is said to be the authority that is followed, but in reality it is nothing more than a tradition. As a theology, fundamentalism is often poorly developed and frequently not able to address in a comprehensive way the scriptures of the religion that it purports to represent.

Fundamentalists often show a rather distressing [or amusing, depending on your viewpoint] tendency to dishonestly twist scriptures in order to make them align to their own inherited dogma, despite the fact that the principle of the movement is to do the reverse. Common targets of this dishonesty today include: the Bible's stance on homosexuality, the cosmology of the Bible, and Messianic prophecy in the Old Testament. While bitterly complaining that their opponents take Biblical passages out of context [not always a false accusation] in order to discredit the Bible, fundamentalists simultaneously perpetrate that crime and condemn all those who do not prooftext as they do. Part of this twisting is perhaps due to simple ignorance, as many fundamentalists have a rather poor and limited understanding of their scriptures, such as the many English-speaking Christians whose only knowledge of the Bible comes from the King James Authorized Version of 1611. Indeed, one wonders how these people, people, whose only understanding of the Bible comes through an often inaccurate and hard-to-understand translation of the Bible can simultaneously claim to be Biblical literalists without possessing a profound ignorance of the history and nature of the Bible. In the end, however, it often stretches credulity to conceive that some of these twistings, such as the twisting of certain scriptures into categorical condemnations of homosexuality, can be the result of anything less than outright intellectual dishonesty.

*Fundie, n. -

An abbreviation for Fundamentalist. It is used to describe fundamentalists, zealots, and generally obnoxious rabid adherents to a particular religion, especially Christians.

* Logic, n. -

Logic is the philosophical discipline of evaluating propositions for truth. This involves three primary disciplines:

  1. Syntax: the expression of a statement. Syntax provides a method for expressing references to objects and the relationships between them.
  2. Semantics: the meaning of a statement. Semantics provides a method for determining what referrants are referred to by the syntactical expression and what the relationships between them mean.
  3. Argument: the method of verifying or falsifying the proposed relationships between objects.

Because an agreement on syntax and semantics are necessary for argument to progress, argument is typically the longest stage of processing a proposition, although in informal logic there is some room for semantic debate because the semantics and syntax are usually based on an existing language, replete with fuzzy terms, obsolete terms, and common misunderstandings. During the argument stage, a series of propositions attempt to link the conclusion with a set of agreed premises. There are two main approaches in argumentation, each with its own strengths and weaknesses:

For further reading:

*Philosophy, n. -

Literally, "the love of wisdom." Philosophy is the study of the way things are, why they are that way, and how they should be. It can be broken down into several broad categories:

Some of the major philosophers to know for discussion on #atheism include: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Blaise Pascal, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kirkegaard, Betrand Russel, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ayn Rand.

*Xian, n. -

An abbreviation for Christian. This comes from the Greek name for Christ, Xristos, and is the same notation as in Xmas. Another variation on this is Xtian. It should be noted that this is not inherently any more insulting or denigrating than the word Christian itself.

*Zarathustrianism, n. -

Also known as Zoroastrianism (from Zoroaster, a Hellenization of Zarathustra). A Persian religion which was founded by the prophet Zarathustra, who may have been an agrarian living ca. 628 - 551 BCE. Zarathustra rejected the polytheism of contemporary Persian religion in favor of a strict dualism between the principle of absolute good, Ahura Mazdah (whose name was later contracted to Ormazd or Ormuzd) and the principle of absolute evil, Ahriman. The two opposing principles conducted a cosmic battle for souls, personified by their aspects Spenta Mainya and Angra Mainya, the Holy Spirit and the Destructive Spirit. Although Zarathustrianism was strictly monotheistic in worship, it incorporated a host of angelic attendents, most or all of whom were originally pagan deities in the Persian pantheon, each serving one or the other Principle.

When the Persians under Cyrus the Great conquered Chaldean Babylon ("Babylon the Great") in 539 BCE, they incorporated the Fertile Crescent into the Persian Empire, including the lands of the old Hebrew kingdoms (Judah and Israel) as well as the Jews held captive in Babylon. Cyrus the Great practiced a policy of religious toleration towards his subjects which was not present in Chaldean rule, and so he returned the Jews living in exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine. The Persian Empire even offered to help the Jews in rebuilding Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Chaldeans. Eventually the Jews accepted, and the rebuilt Temple remained until Herod the Great directed that a new, grander Temple be constructed. Under the Persian Empire, Zarathustrian religion came to pervade much of the Near East, and both its strict monotheism and its prophetic tradition, as well as Persia's role as the liberator of Israel from the Babylonian Captivity, appealed greatly to many Jews. It is not suprising, then, that Zarathustrianism exerts more and more influence upon Judaic thought in religious literature dating from 539 BCE and later. When Alexander the Great conquered Persian possessions and beyond from 334 to 323 BCE, an unprecedented degree of cultural diffusion occurred in the sphere of influence of the new Hellenistic world, and Zarathustrian ideas began to make more and more of an impact on the beliefs of the Mediterranean world. Because Palestine was in the sphere of influence (and the sphere of political control until the Maccabean revolt, ca. 167 BCE), a number of Zarathustrian ideas also entered Judaism indirectly through Hellenistic culture.

Due to the influx of Persian ideas, three major religious traditions developed in Judaism, depending upon how they coped with the new ideas. The Sadducee tradition was composed primarily of aristocratic Jews, who took a conservative approach to religion. They rejected many of the Zarathustrian encrustations upon Judaism and sought to return to Judaism as it had been before the Captivity. The Sadducees were centered at the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem, and because of their aristocratic background, were quite powerful in Jewish politics and official religion. The Pharisee tradition incorporated many Zarathustrian elements, including belief in punishment for the wicked and reward for the righteous in the afterlife. Pharisaic religion was primarily centered in local synagogues, and had a strong power base throughout Israel. These two mainstream traditions were both given seats in the Sanhedrin, the supreme priestly council in Israel. However, after the Roman army under Vespasian destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem during the First Jewish Revolt (70 CE), the Sadducene tradition collapsed, and the following Rabbinic tradition--and thus, all of modern Judaism--was based primarily on Pharisaic Judaism. The third tradition which should be noted was the development of many apocalyptic, Messianic cults, which incorporated a very large amount of Zarathustrianism, including its intense dualism and its apocalyptic cosmic war. This trend was exhibited mildly by many religious reformers and revivalists, such those who cropped up in the Galilee around the beginning of the Common Era, and more extremely by apocalyptic desert cultists such as the Essenes and John the Baptist.

This, then, is religious milieu into which Jesus, a Galilean religious reformer, appeared during his projected lifespan of ca. 4 BCE to ca. 30 CE. His religion incorporated many Zarathustrian elements from both contemporary Judaism and from Hellenistic thought. He incorporated the Zarathustrian-inspired doctrine of the coming "Dominion of God" as the core of his teachings. He may have also received significant influence from the desert-based apocalyptic reformer, John the Baptist. His second generation of followers extended this trend, as the Gentile Christian Church developed under Paul (nee Saul of Tarsus) and incorporated Hellenistic thought as it appealed to goyim membership. Further, Christianity, as has been observed with many other religions competing for membership (such as religious Taoism and Buddhism in China), incorporated many elements of competing mystery cults in the Roman world, especially the popular Zarathustrian-based mystery cults of Mithraism and Manichaeism. It is no suprise, therefore, that when compared to one another Christianity and Zarathustrianism share an uncanny number of parallels.

The establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire--and the consequent suppression of competing mystery cults--as well as the Muslim conquest of the early Middle Ages combined to form the death-knell of Zarathustrianism and its direct descendents. Zarathustrianism asserted itself for the last time in the Near East under the Sassanian Persians (226-652 CE). After the conquest of Persia by the Arabs, Zarathustrians began converting en masse to the rising religion of Islam (which also happened to be the state religion of the now-dominant Caliphate). Today, it survives in written form in its religious scriptures, known as the Avestas, and is practiced almost entirely by a handful of followers in India, centered around Bombay and known as Parsis, who are the descendents of religious exiles fleeing from the theocratic Caliphate. However, its legacy lives on in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, and therefore lives on as one of the single most dominant legacies in the European world.


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