It wasn't that long ago that, in the midst of a dust-up involving what it meant to be "progressive," the first commenter for that article of Mr. Vincent's wrote (in a stunning display of incoherence):
I've never read cynic's blog before but in any case the fact that he said "Dude, if you're 'non-religious' you are by definition an atheist" is proof in and of itself that he probably isn't worth listening to.
Which inspired me to try to explain what it means to be an "atheist." I can't imagine Mr. Vincent (being the world-class philosopher that he is) or his commenter will get much out of this, but those of you with functioning brain stems might find this moderately enlightening. I try.
Quite simply, there are 10 types of people in the world: those that understand binary notation, and those that don't. No, wait ... wrong joke.
Quite simply, there are two types of people in the world: those that believe in a supernatural deity of some kind, and those that don't. That's it -- there are no other categories. Every single person on the planet is in one of those two categories and (you knew this was coming) those two categories have names -- they're called "theists" and "atheists." How about that? If you want the full-blown explanation, you can check out Wikipedia, but I'll try to demonstrate a bit more brevity.
If you believe in a supernatural deity (and, for the sake of argument, let's just call this "God" to save on keystrokes), then by definition you are a "theist." That generally isn't a controversial statement, and most people are happy to go with that.
What's more controversial is when you define the set of everyone else as "atheists," which normally causes the devout to get their little panties in a wad. "No way," they'll sputter and fume, "that's not the right definition. An atheist is someone who says that God doesn't exist! That's not fair!"
It most certainly is fair, in so far as different people like to define the word "atheist" differently but, if you read the Wikipedia entry, you'll notice that it's perfectly reasonable to define atheism as simply a lack of religious belief, and nothing more.
"Hold on," you interrupt, "what about those people who haven't made up their minds yet? Who are still sitting on the fence? Aren't those people 'agnostics'?" No, they're not. Once again, let me pound this home -- unless you hold a specific, deliberate, explicit religious belief in some sort of deity, you are an atheist. (Figuring what all this "agnostic" nonsense is all about is left as an exercise for the reader.)
There is more than enough precedence for this kind of definition. Consider the complementary definitions of, say, "typical" and "atypical," or "symmetrical" and "asymmetrical." The same applies here, regardless of how much you want to plug your ears and hum loudly to not hear it.
So what does all this imply? Well, if you're a theist, that means that, by definition, you believe in a deity. Put another way, you hold an active belief in a deity and, based on simple logic, if you want to convince others to hold that belief, the burden of proof is on you to support that belief.
See how that works? You hold belief, you want others to share belief -- ergo, you must logically provide the supporting evidence. This position can be summarized briefly by saying, "I believe in God." So far, so good? (And note how the opener "I believe ..." makes it clear that you are expressing the holding of a belief of some kind. This will be important shortly.)
And what about the atheist? The atheist's position can be summed up thusly, "I don't believe in God," at which point badly-educated fundamentalists (or pompous philosophers) have an unfortunate habit of lashing back with, "Oh, yeah? So you say God doesn't exist? Well, prove it. Go on, prove that God doesn't exist!"
I say this is "unfortunate" since, if you give it about three seconds of thought, that's not what the atheist just said, is it? All the atheist said was that he did not believe in God. Put another way, he does not hold a belief that God exists. In other words, what the atheist is presenting is a lack of belief, for which he has no obligation whatsoever to provide supporting evidence. And since trying to explain this with respect to some folks' favourite deity generally causes their brains to cramp up, I'll use another example.
Consider, say, the Loch Ness monster. Some people believe it exists. Personally, I don't -- all I'm saying with that statement is that I haven't seen sufficient evidence to support that belief, which means all I'm expressing is my lack of belief in the creature. Got that?
However, that's considerably different from saying that I believe the beast doesn't exist. I'm certainly not making that claim, since that would involve me now expressing a belief, wouldn't it -- the belief in the non-existence of the creature, and that would be a tough belief to substantiate.
How could I prove non-existence? How can I know that the Loch Ness monster just isn't really good at hiding? It's possible, of course, and I'm always going to leave the door open to the possibility of existence. But thus far, there's been no evidence for its existence so I'm perfectly within my rights to say, "I don't believe the Loch Ness monster exists," stating only my current lack of belief, with the proviso that I'm willing to look at any new evidence that comes in.
Now you see how this applies to theism and atheism? Atheism represents nothing more than a current lack of belief in a given position, with the understanding that new evidence might change that position but it hasn't yet.
What it also means is that, when it comes to having to provide evidence, atheists have absolutely no obligation since their position equates to a lack of belief, putting the burden for evidence squarely on the shoulders of the theists who should either be prepared to present such evidence calmly, dispassionately and objectively or, barring that, they should just shut the fuck up for a change.
COMING SOON: Why theists and atheists aren't really that different.
AFTERTHOUGHTS: Two more points based on the above that are worth emphasizing. First, based on the above definition of "atheism," it should be obvious to most sentient beings that atheism is the initial default position, in that one has to choose to be a theist.
Quite simply, we are (every one of us) born atheists, and become theists only through making an explicit decision to do so. And until that happens, you're an atheist.
And second, I'm hoping that you now understand the critical difference between the following two positions:
"I don't believe God exists."
"I believe God does not exist."
If you still don't appreciate the difference between those two statements, then there's little I or anyone else can do to help you out, and you should consider finding a less intellectually taxing blog to read.