The philosophical concept of atheism is among the most profoundly misunderstood ideas of our time, and, indeed, of all time. Let's take an easily verifiable example as supporting evidence: go look up some synonyms of "atheism" in a dictionary or thesaurus. According to mine (Merriam-Webster's), one of the trailing definitions of atheism is "wickedness". To Merriam-Webster's credit, the synonym is denoted as archaic, meaning that the corresponding relation hasn't been necessarily applicable since circa 1700. Still, this mere connection tears open a window into the past and reveals much about the believer mentality and myths enshrouding irreligion.
My thesis here is quite simple: to posit what atheism is, and what it is not. Far too long have various ideologies effused ridiculous notions and propagated foolish fables about those who do not share the same worldly ideas â€“ particularly in the United States today.
What Atheism Is
Etymologically: Atheism, by etymological definition, means the lack of belief in a deity. This is deduced quite simply:
a- - very common prefix meaning "not" or negating the following suffix
-thei- - from the Greek word theos, which means god
-ism - a very common and ambiguous suffix, but in this case means "doctrine" or "theory"
So this essentially deconstructs to "not" + "god(s)" + "theory". That's correct, a no-gods theory or doctrine.
Usage: The term "atheist" can be applied in regards to any combination of god or gods â€“ for example, one may be an atheist in terms of not believing in Odin (a Norse god), but still be a theist in terms of believing in the Christian god. However, in today's colloquialism, the term "atheist" usually means a person who doesn't believe in any gods. I suspect the reason for this is twofold: first, monotheistic religion is dominant throughout most of the world today and unbelieving would naturally be in respect to the one and only "God"; second, no-gods-at-all atheism is far more popular today than ever before.
Positive vs. negative atheism: Without going into unnecessarily minute detail, the distinction must be made between two slightly different types of atheism:
Positive atheists believe there is/are no god or gods.
Negative atheists don't believe in god or gods.
Now, unless you're quite the nimble thinker (or know this already), these may appear to be the exact same thing. However, they are very different concepts. Positive atheism deliberately rejects the concepts of any deities or gods. Negative atheism, by contrast, is simply the absence of belief in deities or gods. (And yes, this logically includes children too young to understand the idea of religion, as well as those whom have never come into contact with religious concepts of god. This is often called agnosticism; more on this below.) The basic distinction here ultimately breaks down to differential magnitudes of assertion; the positive assertion that no gods exist as opposed to the lack of explicit denial of gods.
These two types of atheism are sometimes also respectively denoted:
explicit atheism and implicit atheism
strong atheism and weak atheism
Agnosticism: The term agnostic is somewhat ambiguous, and the definition of agnosticism will very well depend on how one defines atheism itself. A "weak" atheist is usually called an agnostic; most people who do not hold religious beliefs tend to regard themselves as agnostics due to the negative ideas and social stigma associated with atheists.
However, by the logical and etymological definition of atheism, an agnostic would technically be an atheist, since he does not hold beliefs about god (see word usage above). Still, many people do not define the two concepts in this manner, and in order to truly comprehend a person's precise meaning of agnosticism, you will need to ensure they define it coherently.
Occasionally there are people who define agnosticism as the position which one would take if they considered god or gods to be unknowable or impossible to understand. This is also (perhaps more precisely) called theological noncognitivism; again, in order to fully comprehend another's idea, one must ensure that they explain it fully since people can often have different, arbitrary ideas of the same concept.
Most philosophers believe the theory of noncognitivism self-destructs eventually since "unknowability" would need to be a property of god and since god is unknowable, you cannot know what his properties are â€“ including incomprehensibility. Hence, the argument is sustained only by circular logic.
What Atheism Isn't
Immorality: This is the largest and perhaps most destructive myth mainstream theists have associated with atheism. According to the three major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), morality and ethics derive from god (and therefore scripture, his message to mankind) â€“ two things that are obviously absent from the unbeliever's inventory of accepted ideas. It is often asserted, unfortunately even by those with high political authority, that atheism and a lack of belief in god will inevitably lead to moral bankruptcy.
This conclusion is a corollary from the central premise that ethics cannot be separated from religion. Therefore atheists have no moral compass since this requires belief in god. This is complete nonsense; it simply is not true in any sense. There is no such thing as an atheist that is unable to live a moral life.
One must understand that ethics is basically best defined, objectively, as the branch of knowledge that concerns one's actions affecting the happiness and suffering of conscience beings. There is no religious requirement to be moral because morality is not grounded in religion. It is grounded in reason â€“ and that is because it is through reason that we may ascertain what is conducive or detrimental to the happiness and suffering of other beings. This is what morality consists of, and it is something that anyone can live by, religious or not.
Furthermore, human morality (and even the less sophisticated occasional "morality" amongst animals) has a natural basis in evolutionary history. There is even a branch of evolutionary biology dedicated to the study of how ethics have changed over millennia and why â€“ but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Lack of Life Meaning: This is another problem that arises from within the prison of religious thought: namely, that a life without god has no meaning. However, there is absolutely no reason to presuppose life has any meaning in the first place. If you'd prefer to be technical, the reason for biological life â€“ that is to say, the reason carbon-based life forms exist on earth â€“ is to propagate and raise their offspring to reproduce, thereby disseminating their genetic code, ad infinitum.
But most people don't intend to speak of biological life, but rather, personal life; one's search for fulfillment and happiness in this world. And again, there is absolutely no need to posit the existence of a god in order to live a fulfilling life. Anybody can find life meaning, or something to devote one's life to. This is known by philosophers as existentialism; existence precedes essence. To put it another way, this "meaning" is entirely a human invention that we attach to concepts or objects in accordance with our own desires, and not by any external objective standards.
As a Worldview: One common misconception, even among atheists themselves, is that atheism is a worldview or a way to live one's life. This isn't true by the strict definition of the concept; atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in god or gods; it entails nothing else. Atheism does not tell you whether spirits or ghosts exist, to be good or bad, to accept evolution, or what to eat for breakfast. It is simply the lack of acceptance of deistic entities.
It should be noted that atheism is usually conjoined with similar "stereotypical" topics, ideas, and beliefs such as a denial of supernatural activity and endorsement of separation of church and state, etc. These ideas tend to naturally be espoused along with atheism for obvious reasons of worldview coherence. This is partially the reason that most scientists are atheists, and even more philosophers are nonreligious.
Unhappiness: Somewhat overlapping with the "lack of meaning" myth, many theists view atheists as unhappy people and leading a bleak life devoid of purpose. But the reasoning remains the same here: namely, that personal happiness is attainable entirely without a religious underpinning.
Your meaning is your meaning alone. It is up to you to decide your ambitions and goals. If you honestly believe that your purpose in life is to spread the word of Christianity by acting as a missionary to foreign countries, and you perform and enjoy it, then you will be happy. Likewise, if your personal pretensions are to spend your life reforming governments and donating to foreign relief causes, and you perform and enjoy it as an atheist, then you will also be happy. The concept of happiness is an inherently subjective notion that can easily be separated from the sphere of religious convictions.
Please remember that this entire article was written in a mild-mannered tone of language, and I tried to exclude all personal bias from encroaching these rather non-arbitrary points of exposition. This is by no means a definitive, resolute understanding of atheism; but rather, a cursory synopsis of some of the most common myths surrounding atheism. My intent is to educate, not to proselytize or preach.
And finally, always remember to think for yourself.