Actually there are as many varieties of atheism and there are varieties of faith
At its most basic level, atheism is the absence of belief in a deity. But one can imagine a person who lacks belief in God, but who does not consider himself to be an atheist. The reason for this is most likely due to the presence of the last three letters on the word "atheism." A large number of people, perhaps the majority of us, are reluctant to identify with any organized system of thought that rises to the status of an "ism." In the same way that one can run a small business without considering oneself a capitalist , or a believer in capitalism.
There is also a distinction between "hard" and "soft" atheism. Among those who are prepared to self-identify as an "atheist," there are those who simply are not prepared to affirm a personal faith in what others refer to as "God." Such persons do not deny the existence of God necessarily, but rather are making a more modest statement about themselves: "I do not personally believe in God." Such atheists may in fact attend church, synagogue or mosque, and express a desire for faith, but find themselves lacking in the faith that others easily profess. Some of these "soft atheists" actually stand ready to affirm to reality of a "higher power," an ultimate "force," or "the Infinite," but find the word "God," problematic, often because they object to some of the specific notions of God associated with organized religion. For example, the notion that God is a male authority figure who dwells in a place called heaven strikes many people as outmoded or superstitious. This personal God seems objectionable while more abstract notions of a "higher power" do not. I suspect that within western societies, including the US, there is a very large and growing number of such "soft atheists."
By contrast, "hard" atheists assert, often quite forcefully, that God does not and cannot exist. The "hard" atheist not only denies the existence or reality of the God of the Bible, but sometimes goes so far as to deny the possibility of the existence of any god. Such persons also frequently hold a highly negative view of organized religion, often professing the idea that religion is basically a set of fables, falsehoods or superstitions that cloud the human mind and prevent believers from arriving at any meaningful grasp of reality. Among the hard atheists are those that consider any belief that cannot be supported by science to be, by definition, false. This would include the more subtle notions of "higher power" mentioned above, or, in fact, any notion that cannot be verified by science.
And What About Agnosticism?
In addition, a word or two needs to be added about agnosticism. Agnostics doubt, but do not necessarily deny, the existence of God. Here too, there are both hard and soft versions of agnosticism. The soft agnostic may well profess faith and self-identify as a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim, while at the same time wrestling with a degree of doubt about some or all of the doctrines of a particular religious tradition. Such persons often find their own hearts or minds divided, sometimes feeling quite a home with God, but at other times remaining uncertain or skeptical. In this sense, I suspect that there is some agnosticism within the minds of a majority of "believers." Elsewhere, I have made the case that doubt, rather than being an enemy of faith, is, in fact, quite often part and parcel of the path toward deeper understanding.
There are also hard agnostics who take their "doubt" more seriously than their beliefs and raise their skepticism to the level of a philosophy of life. But still, there remains an important distinction between the agnostic and the atheist. At bottom, the agnostic is one who holds that we cannot affirm the existence of God with any certainty. God, in other words, does not belong to the list of things one can count as being unquestionably real. By the same token, an agnostic may also hold that one cannot deny the existence of God with any real conviction, and, in fact, the question of God remains beyond the reasonable grasp of the human mind.
Those Atheist Terrorists
Some people have the impression, based on reading the daily news, that religion itself creates conflict and that a radical form of Islam is the major cause of terrorism in the world today. Research shows otherwise. In fact, the largest number of terrorist attacks has come from a group that has its origins in a movement that is largely atheistic.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.