What makes an atheist? Is he or she one who says “God absolutely does not exist”? Certainly most atheists I know wouldn’t say that. Unfortunately, like most religious people, most dictionaries misrepresent atheism, with definitions like “Denial of the existence of God.”
What Atheists Believe
1. Evidence and experience are the proper basis for any beliefs.
2. Those who make an assertion have the responsibility to prove it.
If a person has no experience to convince him, and you can’t prove the existence of God, he has no reason to believe God exists. He also has no reason to say God doesn’t exist, if he cannot prove this belief. Why would he waste time trying to “prove” the non-existence in reality of a concept as nebulous as God? If someone said a blue snake in the sky ruled the universe, you wouldn’t believe it, and you would be an “aserpentist,” but you wouldn’t start gathering evidence to “prove” that no invisible blue snake was up there, would you?
You might wonder, since atheism is simply non-belief due to unconvincing evidence, rather than an opposite belief, where does this leave agnostics? The most honest classification would be as a type of atheist. They hold open the the possibility of a god (as does any rational atheist if presented with good evidence), but since they don’t actually believe in God, they are atheistic, aren’t they? Perhaps those who call themselves agnostics are just afraid of the other “A” word.
Of course, words refer to something, even if it is only to ideas. In that sense, we can say God exists as an idea, and a powerful one at that. Some atheists even like various versions of this idea. God, the idea, may be the cause of wars and horrible crimes, but he (it) can also be an uplifting or at least useful concept.
We might refer to these types of ideas as “useful lies,” because regardless of their truth or falsity, they can be beneficial as “operating principles.” The idea that everything happens for a reason, for example, doesn’t have to be true for it to be a useful belief or operating principle. It can certainly get you looking for the lessons and other values to be found in bad situations, rather than getting depressed.
We can say then that God exists, at least as a common belief, or “useful lie.” This idea may even do some good in the world. What about His existence in reality? Actually, even an atheist can believe in that – the moment God comes down and shakes his hand.