We’re All Atheists!

That title was meant to be provocative, of course.

But I do have a point. There’s tremendous variation in what people mean by God, god, gods, etc., so much that the term atheist becomes slippery.

God crops up in unexpected places. The Buddha is a god to the hundreds of millions that worship and exalt him. One’s ancestors are gods in many cultures and they are revered as such. According to pantheists, from process theologians to New Age practitioners, we are all god.

And there are senses of God so vacuous that almost any self-ascribed atheist would endorse them: God is just natural law, God is just love. If God is nothing beyond these generalities, atheists aren’t atheists at all.

Conversely, God is sometimes narrowly defined, as the God of the Bible, the God of the Qur’an, as Krishna as portrayed in the Bhagavad Gita, etc. When framed narrowly, religious outsiders are all either atheists or agnostics. Only the in-crowd are theists.

You can see where I’m going with this: we’re all theists, atheists, and agnostics. It just depends upon what you mean by God.

This isn’t to say there is no concept behind this word God that we latch on to when we say “God.” Indeed, it’s only because we share a concept of God that I can call the Buddha a god.

But this concept is fuzzy, and we’re receptive to this fuzziness. When someone uses “God” in a way we find strange, we don’t think they are misusing the word, as we do when dilettantes try to use technical jargon. We try to figure out what they mean. This is because our concept God is partially shared within the fabric of our language, and partially re-imagined over and over by individuals or communities.

So let us treat the word atheist with the same nuance, and recognize the same fuzziness in it. Consider it a purely negative category, one that makes sense only in relation to how we define God. Because as it is, the word has baggage. We hear that atheists are immoral, are un-American, anti-religious, that they are liberals, that they hate God. And some of this is true–but only some of the time.

Why burden someone with all those messy labels when their worldview may be only very slightly different from yours?