I have a question about atheism and semantics, although I'm not sure I can phrase it properly, as it also includes the concept of "belief" separate from "doctrine." Here goes: atheists claim that they do not believe in "God" while they do believe in ethics, morality, a concept of right and wrong. It seems to me that anyone who says they believe in right and wrong also implicitly believes that there is something more important than one's own personal ego gratification (in other words, everyone "should" curtail their own gratification to the extent that such gratification harms other people). To me, that seems semantically equivalent to a belief in God, except that the concept of "God" also includes an association in most people's minds with a particular doctrine. It sounds to me that atheists are merely rejecting all the doctrinal beliefs that accompany organized religion, while at the very root or core of the situation, do accept that they need to defer their own gratification to something greater or more important than themselves. How can a person say on one hand that they believe that something is more important than the self and also say at the same time that nothing exists that is more important than the self? [my assumption being that "something more important than the self" = "god" and the rest of the debate is only about terminology and doctrine). Thanks for any clarifying insights you can provide.

You asked, "How can a person say on one hand that they believe that something is more important than the self and also say at the same time that nothing exists that is more important than the self?" I agree that a person who said such a thing would be expressing a self-contradictory belief, a belief that therefore couldn't possibly be correct. However, I think it's simply a misuse of language to use the term "god" or "God" to refer to anything that someone regards as more important than gratifying his or her ego at that moment. If I resist the temptation to insult someone because I think it would be wrongfully hurtful, even if insulting him would gratify my ego, I don't thereby count as believing in God or gods. You dismissed "terminology and doctrine," as if they're irrelevant. But the meanings of words, such as "god" or "God," are of course entirely a matter of terminology, and in the case of religious terminology the meanings are often connected to one doctrine or another. By the same token, the word "atheist" simply doesn't mean "someone who regards his or her own ego gratification as always more important than anything else." English has other words for such a person.

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