See, I've heard a few different definitions for (a)theist and some disagreed subtly but critically with what I had thought it to mean. I thank you all for your comments on this as I was hoping to see if I've just all along held a distorted view of the word or if the resources I had available were just off-base or some mixture of both.
There are a few points to consider in the definition of an atheist. First off, it is clearly a construction based on another word, theist. The 'a' at the front is traditionally a negation, but what part of 'theist' is it we are negating? And more fundamentally than even that, we need to come to some understanding of just what a theist is. I had previously thought this was rather simply defined but have found that there could be some discrepancy there as well.
So, my previous understanding of 'theist' was that it was someone who had a religious belief structure that included some form of god or gods. I used to lump Deists in the 'theist' category, but the friendly modern dictionaries would seem to make a clear distinction between the two (this being apparently dated to 18th-19th century christians who didn't like sharing the title 'theist' with Deists), where a 'theist' believes not only in a god or gods, but also in that the god or gods are actively taking some part in the world (Deism being a belief in god/gods that have abandoned the world after setting it in motion). So, okay, that's a minor distinction I'll have to keep in mind but it doesn't really have much bearing on what I'm trying to tease apart here.
From what I've looked up, a theist can be either mono or poly, the number of personal/interacting gods doesn't seem to matter. There are some resources I've found that would claim a theist only believes in 'God', but those are the minority and were written in monotheistic cultures so this must be taken in to account. So, given that 'theist' is one who believes in a god or gods which are still active in the world, what part of that definition is the (a) negating? Is an 'atheist' simply one who lacks belief, or is it one who has a solid belief in the non-existence of a god or gods (negation of the activeness being covered by the exclusion of Deism as a theistic belief)? Also, given all this where does the term 'agnostic' fit in?
Ah, the joys of having a word which uses "not that other thing" as it's definition. Okay, so what would a 'gnostic' be? Some quick poking around yields that s/he would be a person believing in the possibility for supreme, esoteric knowledge (specifically, with reference to the early Christian sect by that name). This would imply 'agnostic' is simply one who either doesn't believe in that or denies the possibility. Most dictionaries would seem to agree that in this case, the 'a' is negating the possibility and not the belief, giving someone who has a firm belief in the impossibility of knowing.
This would tie in nicely with the same pattern being shown in a few dictionaries for atheist. That is, they generally seem to think that atheist is someone with a firm belief in the non-existence of a god or gods. While there are certainly plenty of people who would say that an 'atheist' is anyone who doesn't believe in *their* god, I think we can safely disregard them as being heavily biased (similarly for the dictionaries that lump polytheism in with the atheists). This is different from what I personally have previously held to be the definition of 'atheist'. I used to think that simply not holding a belief in god or gods was sufficient to be considered an atheist. I admitted that this lumped agnostics in under the atheist title, but I felt it was reasonable given my definition. It is interesting to me to find that I've been using the word somewhat inappropriately. All the more so to find that I'm not the only one.
See, where this really ties in with me is in Buddhism (precautionary note: all my mentions of Buddhist teachings are from my limited understanding of the specific school I am following. There are certainly other schools which believe differently. This does not mean they are 'wrong' or that I am 'wrong', we just believe differently). There are plenty of sources I've found, online and off, which say that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. However, if 'atheist' means "one who believes in the non-existence of a god or gods" then this would not be an entirely correct term to apply to the teachings of the Buddha. In truth, he often spoke of beings which existed on other realms from humans. There are many mentions to what would be loosely translated as "divine abodes", or where the perfect ones reside. The popular religion in India at the time of his awakening held there were two over-all powers that were personified in two beings, one 'good' and one 'bad' (much like the modern Abrahamic God / Devil dichotomy). The Buddha even refers to one (Mara) often in the scriptures, and the story of his enlightenment has him confronted by Mara right before he attains enlightenment (he is quoted as saying "Mara, I see you"). Is this mentioning of Mara simply cultural shorthand for something else or is it a reference to an actual sentient being? I don't know.
So, with so many mentions of higher powers, supreme beings, and devils, how is it that Buddhism is considered an atheistic religion? It all comes back to what part of 'theist' is the 'a' negating. The Buddha never denied the existence of a god or gods (least, not from what I've read so far). Neither did he promote them. Buddhism does not call for any kind of god worship, does not recognize any god as important, and does not really concern itself with any questions that would lead to discussions of gods (the question of the origin of the universe is nicely side-stepped since it is considered to not be relevant (though I've heard that a Buddhist creation myth does exist in some school)). To say buddhism is atheistic is to use the "negate the believe" definition of 'atheist' rather than the "negate the existence" definition.
But neither is Buddhism entirely an agnostic religion. Indeed, all of Buddhism points to awareness and insight as being part of the final goal! The Buddha was quite clear that true knowledge and understanding of reality is possible and to be desired. In fact, desire for this understanding is one of the few desires we are supposed to cultivate when earlier on in our practice (to help us resist the other desires that are so common). One of the most telling stories on this topic would be where the Buddha admits that his enlightenment gave him knowledge on many different things. He claimed to be fully aware of all manner of information, but he only taught a very small bit of it on purpose so that the importance of his teachings would not be diluted by any superfluous bits. This implies that he would definitely not deny that esoteric knowledge of the world is possible. To lump Buddhism in with the Gnostics, however, could be troublesome as well. Given that the term 'Gnostic' as we understand it relates to a specific sect of early Christianity. Perhaps some earlier definition of 'gnostic', one that predates the use of it by a Christian sect, would be appropriate for Buddhism, but not the modern understanding of the term.
So then, am I an atheist? It would seem not. I don't deny the existence of a god or gods, never really have. I just deny that they are in any way important to my life. I recently found one of those little "tell us about yourself" memes which I filled out quite a number of years ago. As usual, the "do you believe in God" question was there (one of the most biased/loaded/presumptuous and useless questions I've ever been asked). My answer then was similar to what it is now. I accept the existence of any of number of gods, but I don't worship any of them. Interestingly enough, when I left Christianity I never denied the existence of the Christian God, I simply denied that It had anything to do with my life.
Thus I stand corrected. All this time I would claim that I am an atheist, since I had thought 'atheist' meant "someone who does not hold strong belief in a god or gods" when it really means "someone who holds a strong belief in the non-existence of a god or gods". My apologies to those who may have cared if the label 'atheist' applied to me or not. It would seem I'm neither an atheist nor a theist, I simply don't care about the gods.
Again, this is all based simply on my limited understanding of the terms and concepts involved. I may be using the terms wrong or I may misunderstand the concepts. Please feel free to correct me or offer suggestions. I am, as usual, open to comments.