Thursday, January 7, 2010

Word evolution and the problem with "atheist"

The meaning of some words change over time. It's a common trait of the English language, but can have some potentially negative effects when the words are associated with controversial topics. Most people nowadays consider "idiot" to mean "stupid" or "foolish" and have completely forgotten it once referred to people with actual mental disabilities. The real trouble is when you're stuck in the middle of a word's evolution, and you see generational differences. Hearing "that's so gay" makes me cringe, but many young people don't bat an eye because they sincerely don't intend it to be derogatory - it's just the meaning of the word to them and has nothing to do with ill will towards homosexuals.

I'm sure people write whole dissertations on this topic, but I'm going to focus on one word with particular interest to me and my readers: atheist.

I think we're seeing the meaning of "atheist" slowly change because of the new vocal atheist movement. Some of you may be thinking, "How can the meaning of "atheist" change? It's simple!" Hang in there for a minute and let me try to explain, first looking at the typical dictionary definition you'll get for "atheist."

From Merriam Webster's Dictionary:
atheist (n): one who believes that there is no deity
Look okay? It seems to get the key point correct - no deity - but the wording is different than what the majority of modern atheists would use. Here's how I would define atheist:
atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities
I think there are two key differences between the definition atheists give for themselves, and the definition others give for us:
  1. Some of you may think this is just semantics, but I think there really is a difference between "active belief that something does not exist" and "an absence of belief in the existence of something." The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative. The latter, however, is a completely reasonable view and in line with scientific thinking - it is the null hypothesis, that we will assume the simplest thing (nothing existing) until given evidence that falsifies that. (Nearly) everyone uses this sort of thinking when it comes to unicorns, fairies, and the boogieman under the bed.
  2. The original definition only includes "deity," which is very monotheism-centric. Atheists do not believe in any deities, not just the one (probably the Judeo-Christian God) that the dictionary assumes we're talking about (I mean, obviously all those other silly ones don't exist, right?)
Maybe these things aren't really a change in meaning, but rather an illustration of the past biases of dictionary creators (and the populous they're drawing their definitions from). The majority of American-English speakers are theists, so it makes sense that we'd see these artifacts in official definitions.

Being able to define ourselves is great, but the problem comes when we keep changing how we use the word atheist. Often times I see it expanded to be:
atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities and the supernatural
This is different from the original meaning, but most atheists don't have too big of a problem with it because they also don't believe in the supernatural. However, there are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, astrology, Qi, and other woo-filled superstitions that aren't supreme beings. Does that mean they're not atheists? No. It just means the the majority of atheists, or at least the vocal ones leading the "New Atheist" movement, tightly associate skepticism and atheism.

If we stopped right there at "not believing in any supernatural BS," we'd probably be okay. But atheists have recently developed a very bad habit - they use "atheist" interchangeably with "secular humanist." These are the tenets of secular humanism, stolen from Wikipedia:
  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
Atheists are constantly promoting these tenets under the guise of atheism rather than secular humanism - probably because most atheists are also secular humanists, and the term "secular humanist" would likely generate even more confusion than "atheist" to a layperson. When have you heard an atheist activist simply say "I don't believe in God" and then leave it at that? They wouldn't be an activist then. We talk about how religious and supernatural thinking effects politics, we promote science, we debate ethics, and we contemplate the existence of God in a search for truth. Dawkins does it, Hitchens does it, Myers does it, piddly random bloggers like me do's more common than not.

So what's the problem?

The problem is our answer to the "Atheism is a religion!" trope. No, I do not think atheism (or secular humanism for that matter) is a religion. There is no dogma, no churches, no rituals, no scripture, no official leaders. Even though we have books and public figures, we often disagree and still think for ourselves. We're a diverse group, and our most common answer to the "Atheism is a religion!" assertion is usually something like "Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god(s). That is the only commonality we have."

But is it? I think the meaning of atheism is starting to change to encompass the tenets of secular humanism. There's nothing inherently wrong with this other than the fact that we're going to confuse the hell out of many theists and maybe come off as disingenuous. They can easily shoot back with "Nothing in common? But you just went on about how atheists have these certain ethics!"

I think the best thing we can do is be careful in our wording. When you're talking about a trait other than a lack of belief, qualify it by saying that "most" or "many" atheists feel that way, but that there is no dogma about it. Mention that "many" atheists are also secular humanists before diving into the tenets. Or at the very least, admit that the word "atheist" is slowly changing into something more complex and human - that we're finally defining ourselves by our positive qualities rather than what we don't believe in.

Maybe this really isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know I'm excited that the atheist movement is something more than a lack of belief, and I'd really like to be able to properly define it to an outsider.


  1. I think you have a great point here, and I know I make this sort of error all the time. It's especially irksome when I find myself committing No True Scotsman fallacies because I associate more with the term 'atheism' than it strictly means.

    I don't know what the solution is, though. 'Atheism' is the word by which we're most well-known, and to try to substitute something else (like, for instance, Brights) does not seem feasible. I've tried calling myself a 'skeptic' and I've found that people usually don't know what that means and hear 'denialist' instead.

    This might all come back to Sam Harris' excellent speech at AAI 2007 where he suggested that our choosing to identify ourselves by the word atheist was a mistake, and that we shouldn't call ourselves anything at all.

  2. I think that part of the reason that atheism is being used as an umbrella term for secularism/rationalism/scepticism is because most atheists are secular sceptics, and atheism is a more well-recognised term. When someone tells me they're an atheist, I assume (until I learn differently) that they're also a sceptic and rationalist and secularist.

    Yet there are many secular humanists and sceptics who aren't atheists, but who are agnostics or deists, or even (quite misguidedly) theists. It's a complicated mess to be sure.

  3. Exactly! Atheists do NOT believe in anything at all! We *rationally accept conclusions based on the scientific evidence* instead of believing in them.

    For example, I do NOT believe there is no God. I accept that after having applied the scientific method to the hypothesis, FROM A SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVE THERE IS NO GOD. Or, in otherwords, based on the evidence we have right now, one must rationally conclude there is no God.

  4. Pedantic point of information: "idiotes" is Ancient Greek for "private citizen", that is, someone who evaded his political obligations. Its English meaning of lackwit derives from Greek disapproval of such non-participation.

    You know that other term for lackwit, "cretin"? Old French for "Christian"! Yes, honest, but not for the reason we might wish; it was an exhortation to charity towards the mentally retarded.

    Dwasifar, Urban and I were arguing terminology recently, by e-mail. I suggested that since Deist means someone (like your Founding Fathers, natch) who believes that there exists a Creator, who does not take a close personal interest in our doings, while Theist means some who believes in the "personal" God, then we ought to separate out the A-word into "atheist", who believes that there is no personal god (but might be an Intelligence that doesn't care whom we sleep with), and an "adeist" who goes further and doesn't believe in any such Intelligence at all.

    What's wrong with "materialist" for someone who doesn't believe in woo? Maybe Americans won't use it because the Communists did?

    The way I deal with the "how can you be sure?" brigade is this: I ask whether they have ever received a 419 Nigerian scam mail. When they say yes, I ask them whether they can be quite, quite sure that the widow of a dead kleptocrat doesn't want to cut you in on his ill-gotten gains to the tune of 30 million dollars.

  5. The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative.

    Do you actively believe that unicorns don't exist? Is it wrong to actively believe that leprechauns don't keep pots of gold at the end of rainbows?

    Just because you cannot prove a negative doesn't mean it is not reasonable to say that you do not believe a deity exists. I am open to the idea of a deity existing if evidence can be found, but provisionally until then I believe there is no deity. That does not mean I need to prove a negative, that just means I have not seen evidence to shift belief from that null hypothesis.

    For the most part, you really are just mincing words. If you lack belief in deity, it is likely accurate that you do not believe a deity exists. Just because your belief in the lack of a deity is provisional instead of the absolute belief of a religious type doesn't mean you should be required to retreat to a position of claiming not to believe anything.

    I believe there is no invisible dragon in my garage. I do not have to prove that negative for it to be a reasonable belief, and think that changing the wording to "I lack belief in the invisible dragon in my garage" doesn't change what I believe and is at worst would be trying to make myself immune to criticism by not taking a position on a truth claim.

  6. there is some great dictionary definitions out there that are much less friendly to the definition of atheism, which have often been tossed at me as a real argument. Some dictionaries actually put it as "one who denies god", and even have notes like "see 'paganism' and 'satan worshipers' " silly as that is.

    Not to mention, early christians were called "atheists" by the romans.

    I, too, avoid using teh atheists when trying to describe the more enlightened movement, because I don't think the word SHOULD be left alone in its simplistic and more vague meaning. Some have tried on teh word "brights" but I can't embrace that one.

    I usually stick with "free thinker". It is also a slight reshaping of the word, but not much. It has some positive history, reflecting on the enlightenment that advanced our societies in such dramatic fashion.

    But as a general rule, I just use the term "atheist" when descibing myself, and only throw in different labels when debating the topic on a more detailed level. I'm all for respinning the word "atheism" into a more positive position, even though I prefer to keep the term fairly non-discriptive to my worldview.....mainly because most other words that I might use to better describe my position will cause people to be confused on what my actual position is on the outset.

    If they are curious to discover my deeper opinions, they will ask. If they are turned off by the word 'atheism' at first blush....thats fine with me too.

  7. "we often disagree and still think for ourselves."

    We don't agree even on what the damn word means, lol.

    To me, lack of belief = agnosticism. I actually believe there's no God, because religious belief (aka faith) isn't the only kind of belief. I also believe my gilfriend loves me, and I believe Patti Smith is great. OMFG YOU HAS FAITH IN PATTI SMITH!!!! No.

    I think it's mostly word playing. Maybe it's different in English-- Being spanish, I say it both ways in my mind ("creo que dios no existe" and "no creo que dios exista") and they sound the same.

    It's like "I think he's not coming" and "I don't think he's coming".

  8. I really loved this post. I generally try to point out the mereness of atheism (as well as the nonbelief aspect, as opposed to this idea of active belief in nonexistence).

    I appreciate atheism precisely because it is not tightly defined. I don't have to be bound to another atheist's views on morality, ethics, or on what is an appropriate way to seek knowledge because atheism doesn't stress one way for all of these things. And I point out that if it is the case that certain atheists seem to have similar perspectives on certain issues, then this is a result of coincidental and demographic factors.

  9. I still have a problem with using the word "believe" in any definition of the word 'atheist'. The word "believe" has too many connotations with religion, it has been used by theists to "prove" atheism is a religion.

    I prefer the Atheist Foundation of Australia's definition of atheist/atheism:

    is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural.

  10. As a scientist, you should no better than to use the word proof like that. Outside of mathematics, including in all of science, we do not prove things. We deal in evidence, not absolutes.

    We can have evidence against the existence of many things, including most gods. To summarize an argument that Victor Stenger makes in God: The Failed Hypothesis, if a god who led hundreds of thousands of jews out of egypt in the 14th century BCE exists, then we should have lots and lots of archeological evidence for it, since people have looked for such evidence. As it turns out, we have no such evidence. Therefor, a god wh oled hundreds of thousands of jews out of egypt in the 14th century BCE does not exist. We can make arguments of this basic form against every god that matters, so I actually think we should be saying affirmatively that no deity exists. It's not merely an unrejected null hypothesis, we actually have evidence that the gods people believe in do not exist. Again, the argument form is this: if a god with certian specified properties exists, we should have the following evidence for it, we do not have such evidence, therefor no good with the said properties exists.

    Finally, I think you make a good point about the positive things we do believe being associated with the word atheism. I think pragmatically we have to stick with that word though, just cause people know what it means. Also, while I agree with the principles that self-identified humanists generally put forward as constituting humanism, I'm not sure I want to use the word humanism, because I don't want to be associated with some of the people who do. I am thinking here mainly of people like Greg Epstein, people who would prefer to adopt for humanism the privileged status that religion has in this society rather than remove that privilege from religion. They use the word humanism, often capitalized, and I want nothing to do with them. If we are to pick a word to represent the positive things we do believe, we need a different one, I just don't know what word that would be. Taking another word from the english language and making it our own has been tried before witht he word "bright", and unfortunately, it didn't work.

  11. re Anonymous at 4:08 (at least, my time):

    To me, lack of *knowledge* = agnosticism. In the question, "Does God exist?" I think nearly everyone should say, "I have no idea." I recognize that some people don't (and they think that they KNOW God exists or that they KNOW God doesn't exist). But that is my bias to agnosticism.

    However, that generally isn't the question. The question is usually, "Do you believe God exists?" or "Do you believe in God?" And then, with this, it's a pretty simple (well, some people think it is less so) yes or no question. The difference is that the former question implies the possession of external knowledge (for ex: knowledge about the objective, external existence of a deity) which might not be available. The latter, an inventory of our *internal beliefs*, doesn't require any such external knowledge (although we'd HOPE that our beliefs are based on knowledge.)

    So, in this case, I think historically, intuitively, and etymologically, the answer "no, I do not believe," has been the atheist statement. Most people did not go and ask, "BUT DO YOU BELIEVE GODS DON'T EXIST?" so even though I think there is a popular movement to make it that way, I don't think this fits.

    I think that when you actively state a belief that God does not exist, then you have to make some kind of assumption. I don't necessarily know if it reaches the level of faith, but I think that in some cases, it can. Now, if your argument is that x deity is logically impossible, then I don't think that argument requires faith.

    But if your argument, in some way, refers to a chain of reasoning, "Absence of evidence = evidence of absence," then I think one has faith in that claim. Absence of evidence doesn't equal evidence of absence, but it doesn't provide persuasive reason to believe either.

    If you believe your girlfriend loves you, you can make this claim based on evidence about the natural world. If you eschewed such evidence (entering stalker zone), then people would question your belief. Your belief that Patti Smith is great is not a valid belief up for "faith" or not...because this does not make a claim about the way the external world is without evidence. You have all the evidence you need to say YOU BELIEVE Patti Smith is great, because this claim *only* says something about *your perception* of Patti Smith.

    I think the point is that there's a world of difference between saying "I think he's not coming" and "I don't think he's coming." I am interested if Spanish *really* eliminates the difference or if you're just not seeing it. The placement of the negative modifier is very important. Consider, "I nearly failed every class" and "I failed nearly every class." If we modify the verb (I nearly failed...or I do not believe), this is different than modifying the object (nearly every class...or no God.)

  12. Frank, you're right, I was being sloppy by using "prove." I think that's a relic of so often hearing theists say atheists have to offer some sort of evidence for nonexistence, rather know, the theists actually providing evidence for their claims.

  13. I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many word are used in different ways by the religious to support their religion.

    The simple religious response to the denial of God's existence is to imagine that that is a non-sequitur.

    "Why, how can they deny the very existence of God, His existence is a large part of the definition OF God! Atheism makes no sense."

  14. I'd have to agree with Paul's comment here. The only time "lack of belief in X" has any significant difference from "disbelief of X" or "believes there is no X" is if you have never heard of X, or X is undefined. Otherwise, they generally mean the same thing.

    Beliefs are always based on incomplete evidence (hence the propensity of hardcore agnostics to claim that we don't know anything), and they are always to degrees of certainty. Saying "I lack belief in X" and saying "I believe there is no X" both indicate which side of a line you fall on (or which side of a central region you fall on, if you count the center region as "withholding judgment"). There's no significant difference in meaning between them. Like Paul said, the only reason I can see to use "lack belief" is to get out of the responsibility of making a decision, when in reality you've already made the decision and based actions off of it. You already act as if there is no deity - that means you believe there isn't one.

  15. Great Post Jen! This addresses my concern and question that I posted last month on your blog here:

  16. I like this. I'll have to remember "Secular Humanist" next time I talk philosophy with my friends.


  17. Simply put - you have hit the nail on the head exactly. Great post!

  18. @Frank Bellamy: In my country, the Secular Humanists are registered under the religious-denomination laws. They do hatching, matching and dispatching.

    @Andrew S: I concur wholly with your linguistic point.

    Our sentence structure biases us to affirm the existence of anything that is used as a grammatical subject. If I may be permitted to cite myself:

    Better to start with a negative existential modifier and only then introduce the non-existent object. As well as "creo que dios no existe", can we say "creo que no hay dios"? If so, that would serve to free us from our deep-rooted conviction that if we can name something, it already has some kind of shadowy being even before we start discussing whether it exists.

    I really dislike the expression "I lack belief in....". First, it sounds like a disability. Second, it sounds like a moral reproach (confer "He lacks any notion of table manners"). Third, it makes belief sound like an emotional state, and it is precisely the confusion between epistemology and emotion that drives the religionists, no?

  19. Brent, I get around to answering questions eventually, sometimes it just takes a ridiculous amount of time ;)

  20. I prefer to think of myself as 'belief challenged'

    btw the OED is even worse than MW.
    Capital-lettered 'God' and all.
    This is from the 2nd Edn 1989

    atheist, n. (and a.)

    [a. F. athéiste (16th c. in Littré), or It. atheista: see prec. [Atheism] and -IST.]

    A. n.
    1. One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.
    [a1568 COVERDALE Hope of Faithf. Pref. Wks. II. 139 Eat we and drink we lustily; to-morrow we shall die: which all the epicures protest openly, and the Italian atheoi.] 1571 GOLDING Calvin on Ps. Ep. Ded. 3 The Atheistes which say..there is no God. 1604 ROWLANDS Looke to it 23 Thou damned Athist..That doest deny his power which did create thee. 1709 SHAFTESBURY Charac. I. I. §2 (1737) II. 11 To believe nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any Cause, Measure, or Rule of Things, but to be a perfect Atheist. 1876 GLADSTONE in Contemp. Rev. June 22 By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.

    2. One who practically denies the existence of a God by disregard of moral obligation to Him; a godless man.
    1577 HANMER Anc. Eccl. Hist. 63 The opinion which they conceaue of you, to be Atheists, or godlesse men. 1660 STANLEY Hist. Philos. 323/2 An Atheist is taken two ways, for him who is an enemy to the Gods, and for him who believeth there are no Gods. 1667 MILTON P.L. I. 495 When the Priest Turns Atheist, as did Ely's Sons. 1827 HARE Guesses Ser. I. (1873) 27 Practically every man is an atheist, who lives without God in the world.

    B. attrib. as adj. Atheistic, impious.
    1667 MILTON P.L. VI. 370 The Atheist crew. 1821 LOCKHART Valerino II. xi. 316 Borne from its wounded breast an atheist cry Hath pierced the upper and the nether sky.

  21. @Hugo,

    I liked that post, but am not sure I completely got the linguistic grasp of it (insofar that it also applies here). I think I have some grasp of it as it relates to immortality discussion...I have often wondered why people fear death...(Forgive me for using the faulty language as you write in your article), but when "we" are "dead," there isn't a subject "we" to feel or perceive it. We, as we know ourselves, won't be existent enough to even ponder our nonexistence.

    I think how ideas about immortality persist is because of a biological "oops" about consciousness. Everything we consciously think is obviously thought through consciousness. So how can we *think* about our consciousness ceasing? We cannot, because to do so would involve the consciousness itself.

    Regarding "I lack belief in..." I guess I'll catch a lot of flack, but I think that belief *is*, in some sense, an emotional state. But rather, I'd view it as a psychological state, and inclination, a lens in the framework of perceiving and viewing the world. I *lack* the inclination for faith. I *lack* whatever thing it is that makes saying "I believe God exists" or "God exists" "sound right" to me. I think that believers simply have whatever thing that is, so they can say that.

    I don't think it is necessarily a disability, per se. For example, if you lack belief that 2+2=5, then you lack whatever it is that allows "2+2=5" (and all the illogic that you could use to "prove" that) to sound right to you. We would not say that someone who lacks belief here has a disability...but rather that someone who has an emotional or psychological inclination that accepts whatever illogic leads them to accept 2+2=5 is in some way disabled.

    As per God, the problem is we don't quite have a solid mathematical proof.

  22. @Andrew,
    I am interested if Spanish *really* eliminates the difference or if you're just not seeing it.

    Probably I'm just not seeing it.

  23. "The only time "lack of belief in X" has any significant difference from "disbelief of X" or "believes there is no X" is if you have never heard of X, or X is undefined."

    Is there a coherent definition of god?

    I'm not convinced that, even as you describe it hear, that it doesn't apply to belief in god.

    My usual take on this is, I do not believe in any conceivable god. This whole, "god is indistinguishable from a naturally occuring universe" crap that can't be contradicted is not worth the time it takes to type the parentheses around it.

  24. re: NQbass7 and Paul:

    I believe that lacking belief in X, not believing in X, and disbelieving in X are the same. Or, lacking belief that X exists, not believing X exists, and disbelieving X exists.

    The difference is that I believe all of the following are different from saying, "I believe X does not exist."

    This is not necessarily related to having never heard of X or of X being undefined, but rather an emphasis on self vs. an emphasis on X.

    Saying "I do not believe X exists" puts the negation on the verb...and the verb is something that I do. So, this is an emphasis on the subjective -- e.g., I internally am not persuaded to believe X exists.

    On the other hand, "I believe X does not exist" puts the negation on the objective claim. So, instead, the negation is a claim about the external, objective world (namely, in the universe, is there something X?)

    While, for most intents and purposes, the distinction *functionally* means the same thing (after all, both someone who does not believe God exists and someone who actively believes God does not exist will *do* similar things, most likely, as a result. They will both be "contrasted" with someone who believes God does exist), I think that there are a few examples when the distinction is meaningful.

    For example, let's take an swans. Before black swans were discovered, there were probably people who said, "I don't believe black swans exist" but there were others who said, "I believe black swans don't exist."

    Then came a year when people discovered black swans. The practical effect was that people who believed black swans did not exist simply had an incorrect belief (which they probably changed with the right evidence.) On the other hand, people who did not believe black swans exist didn't have an incorrect belief. After all, they had no persuasive reason to believe swans existed, so they did not. Now that they do, they do believe.

  25. I fear going beyond the lack of belief in the supernatural (which would include deities) would, in a way, turn atheism into a religion, or in the least, make it easier for theists to use that tactic (which isn't a good argument in favor of the existance of God, its rather silly. "You don't believe in god? Well, Atheism IS A religion." What are they even saying?)

    Atheists, especially vocal atheists, tend to share common views on morals and ethics, because we are all human beings. Once you remove yourself from the need for the ultimate authority of a higher being to direct your life, you are left with following your conscious, which evolution and civilization has shaped pretty well. Its exceedingly difficult to justify actions that people find to be 'wrong'. Even the most militant muslim terrorist would think someone raping his sister was bad, he would probably stone her to death, but he would also want to punish the rapist.

    No countries allow (and by allow, I mean have laws making it illegal to commit such an act, doesn't mean its always enforeced) murder, rape, theft, or any other action that would hinder the progress of civilization. The human race could not continue with anarchy (true anarchy, not the idealized vision of anarchy that has no central governments).

    So, yes, Atheists share traits, but we share them with most humans. The difference is that some are able to justify prejudices and evil through the authority of a higher power. Its rather childish in thinking. It really is the justification a child would come up with. So maybe we should just calling ourselves mature adult humans. Or Atheist could mean mature adult.

  26. I'm a strong proponent of the "rational agnostic" as best evidenced by Spinoza. There's no denial, no frolicking about deities, simply, pay attention and give merit to things with proof. Those without are simply disregarded, completely.

  27. @Andrew S: Thanks for visiting! By the sound of it, you certainly "get" the linguistics of immortality. The way it relates to the existence of God is the subject-predicate form, because ordinary language misleadingly treats existence as a predicate. Which was also the basis of the Ontological Argument of Anselm. Kant, bless him, pointed out that existence is not a predicate at all. Since, as pboyfloyd references, religionists regularly go, "existence is part of the definition of God", or "you can name God therefore he must exist, or subsist, or in some other way be", this approach has unfortunately survived Immanuel the Slayer. No hay alguna que se llama dios.

    You're totally right on verb v. subject emphasis.

    Regarding the lack of a belief organ, however, I must differ with you, because if that is what it is all about, then no one could ever go from believing to atheism, other in that horrid OED sense of espousing sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. On the other hand, I like the idea of a (non-permanent) inclination to accept the smoke and mirrors that indicate that 2+2=5. This seems to border on meme theory.

    @Pablo: "god is indistinguishable from a naturally occuring universe" is pretty much Spinoza's position: deus sive natura. But such a god, you don't DO anything with. It's just an alternative name for the multiverse, and I think was intended as a sop. Probably a bad idea, as the believers will then point, hoot and demand their blood sacrifices.

  28. I've never been much of a fan of Spinoza's kind of god (or indeed even Karen Armstrong's kind of a god). All it does is confuse the issue; redefining the word 'god' to mean something other than most people mean when they use the word can only confuse and obscure discussion (of course, in the case of people like Armstrong that may actually be their goal).

    Regarding the linguistic issues: I always thought Dan Barker's take was interesting. He wrote at one point that he simply 'does not believe' in gods in the generic sense, but he actively disbelieves in the Abrahamic god because it is logically incoherent. I more or less take this position, except that I've found pretty much every god concept ever espoused to be logically incoherent in some form or another, so I find myself taking the active disbelief position more often.

    As an alternative (tongue-in-cheek) proposition for the definition of atheism, I seem to remember Richard Dawkins saying once that "an atheist is just somebody who doesn't believe in whatever god you happen to believe in".

  29. I try to more or less stay away from the use of the word "belief" in general. This is because, as an ex fundamentalist, I am familiar with the peculiar ways fundamentalist groups understand and use the term, and I think using it to describe my atheism just is likely to cause unneeded confusion due to their baggage on the term.

    Fundamentalists use the word "believe" to denote a strange determination to stick with an idea regardless of anything, any evidence on either side. Their statement is not as much trying to be a description of reality as a password aimed at escaping hell. Believing "right" means believing what will help you escape hell, not what is *actually* correct. That's irrelevant. So there can be a strange disconnect with reality with their use of the term, as seen in the following links:

    There's a denial of reality connected to an extremely strong wish for reality to be different, and these feelings are what they mean when they use the word "believe." So I avoid the word.

  30. Hugo
    "@Pablo: "god is indistinguishable from a naturally occuring universe" is pretty much Spinoza's position: deus sive natura. But such a god, you don't DO anything with. It's just an alternative name for the multiverse, and I think was intended as a sop."

    That's why I said it is a dumb thing to dwell upon. If this is what "god" is, then it's awfully boring.

    I tend to go with mcbender on this whole thing: I disbelieve in any god that has been put forward (aside from the aforementioned waste of time). I cannot say that I believe a god that has never even been conceived of does not exist, but that is a tall order, to disbelieve something that is completely undefined.

    But if you ask me, "Do you believe in god X?" then I have no problem saying, "No, I believe god X does not exist" where X is among the set of defined deities.

  31. @Jemand: I'm also an ex, and you're quite correct. "Belief" is not epistemology at all, but an emotional performance intended to coerce events.

  32. Paul wrote the following: For the most part, you really are just mincing words. If you lack belief in deity, it is likely accurate that you do not believe a deity exists

    I disagree with the characterization (re. mincing words). There's a fine yet important distinction between believing something and being willing to assert that belief. I know plenty of atheists who believe no Gods exist, yet they stop short of stating this belief as fact - this line is what differentiates Weak and Strong atheism.

    Jen's not mincing words, imho. By lacking belief while not being willing to claim God doesn't exist, a person is being consistently skeptical.


    Great post, Jen. I found myself making the same point over at our humble blog/forum, IRT PZ Meyer's suggestion of a Unity convention. I kept seeing people call it an "atheist convention" while simultaneously talking about secular humanism and the suckiness of religion in general (the latter being my characterization, not a quote).

    For a long time I've sided with the "lack of belief" crowd, but have been slowly becoming uncomfortable with other characteristics being attributed to atheism (by atheists). I agree that terms can change with time, and if this is the result of a collective atheist consciousness, then so be it. On the other hand, the event would then result in the "lack of belief" definition no longer being valid - and I think this is troubling from a philosophic / semantic point of view.

    Cheers on an excellent blog entry.

  33. I've been anti-religion for a looong time, and I'd call myself a budding skeptic and god-questioner. I like the discussion of the different definitions of atheism in this post.

    I have felt an aversion to the term "atheist" precisely because I don't avidly believe there is no god; there's just no proof of god. So for me, a god/greater being is literally a non-entity. I just really...don't care. If empirical evidence for god becomes available, I'm there.

    But, I do resent people using the idea of a god(s)/greater being(s) as an excuse to commit crimes against my fellow humans, so here we get drawn into the struggle.

    "The existence and validity of human rights are not written in the stars". Einstein

  34. Great essay, Jen. I'm often quite bewildered at the how we tend to rally around "atheist" and not "secular humanism", when it seems that secular humanism developed from the very need you are describing: to assert our positive beliefs, not rally around a common lack of belief. If we all stopped emphasizing the fact that we are atheists, and instead made groups expressly for secular humanists, then it might be a more coherent movement.

    Whats a crazy thought is that people like us have influence over how the movement, as a whole, advances. The Humanist Gospel According to Jen?

  35. I wrote to MW to inform them about their error:


    You appear to have and incorrect and potentially inflammatory definition in your dictionary.

    You've given the definition of "atheist" as: "one who believes that there is no deity". This implies - wrongly - that atheism is a belief system. Most atheists would disagree vociferously. In reality, an atheist is one who does not believe in a deity or deities. A lack of belief in something is not the same a belief in the lack of something.

    The definition as it stands implies that the atheist does not believe in something that does exist. Belief in God or gods requires faith, as their existence cannot be proven. Conceivably, proof could come at some point. But at present, none exists. To imply that it does is fallacious. And consequently, to imply that atheists disbelieve in something that is implied to be true is offensively misleading.

    Strangely, the primary definition for "atheism" appears to be correct as: "a disbelief in the existence of deity".

    Please correct this mistake, or at the very least, provide an explanatory disclaimer so that others seeking an appropriate definition of the word can either accept or avoid the one you have provided with all of the facts at hand.


    They kindly replied:


    Dear _____:

    Thank you for your message. A handful of other readers have also written us about this, and we've been making careful note of all such comments for review by our editors during the preparation of future editions.

    Merriam-Webster Editorial Department,
    Merriam-Webster, Inc.

  36. Terminology BAH!!
    Different words will have different nuances depending on who you're talking to.
    I say atheist when I'm speaking to other atheists, being matter of fact, wanting to challenge the other person, inviting discussion, and purposefully setting myself apart. I say atheist most often.
    I'll say secularist when I'm trying to brush someone off and avoid the subject, or I don't trust their potential reactions.
    I'll say rationalist when I'm trying to be snotty and condescending. Ya, I don't do that too often.


  37. Jen's not mincing words, imho. By lacking belief while not being willing to claim God doesn't exist, a person is being consistently skeptical.

    That was not what I said. I said she was "lacking belief in deities" as an alternative to saying "I don't believe deities exist", and that is what I was characterizing as mincing words. That's not being consistently skeptical, that's refusing to state what your belief is even when it informs your viewpoint and actions, and as I said before reeks of trying to move into "immune from criticism" land like the religious types try to do.

    I did not say that people should come out and say "god(s) don't exist", which seems to be what you read. Please try to read my text as charitably as you do the original poster's.

    If your position is that it is impossible to know whether or not deities exist, great. You're a hardcore agnostic, and I can respect the position. What I said doesn't apply to you. But if you're an atheist, "lack belief in deities" is functionally equivalent to "believe deities do not exist", and it's a cop-out to try to use the first as a manner of trying to hedge criticism of your position.

    @Andrew S

    On the other hand, people who did not believe black swans exist didn't have an incorrect belief. After all, they had no persuasive reason to believe swans existed, so they did not. Now that they do, they do believe.

    I disagree. Just because their disbelief was based on lack of a persuasive reason doesn't change the fact that they disbelieved. If you want an example, let's look at atoms. Before atomic theory was formalized, people did not know that there was a smallest discrete element that makes up everything else (I'm simplifying a bit, obviously). Say there were two camps: "I don't believe in atoms" and "I believe atoms don't exist". Sufficient scientific work is done to prove the existence and properties of atoms. The people that "don't believe in atoms" were incorrect. Whether they were withholding judgement due to insufficient evidence (sticking with the null hypothesis) or they were just misguided, they were still incorrect. Reason or motivation behind their position does not change that. Same with the black swans.

    For fun, try a reverse Pascal's Wager on a theist sometime. Tell them it's ok, God will accept you because at worst you wouldn't be incorrect. You simply "didn't believe God existed" as opposed to "believed God doesn't exist". Then again, maybe it will work. Some of them thought Pascal's Wager was a good argument in the first place.

  38. Paul.

    "lacking belief in deities" IS actually equivalent to saying "I don't believe deities exist"

    HOWEVER, BOTH statements are different than the statement "I believe deities don't exist."

    I think you've completely misread this post.

  39. And in any case, as I said before, "believe" is probably a bad word to be using.

  40. HOWEVER, BOTH statements are different than the statement "I believe deities don't exist."

    I'd be very interested in hearing you explain how it's possible to not believe deities exist while believing that deities do, in fact, exist. Because that is what is necessary to make those statements different in any practical sense.

    And in any case, as I said before, "believe" is probably a bad word to be using.

    You were a fundie, so we need to stop using words that fundies use? Great logic. Fundies also consider themselves Americans, do we need to not use that label? After all, to them American entails being a Christian that does not doubt the fact that the Founding Fathers were all dyed in the wool Christians. Do gay people need to not call themselves gay since fundies use it as a pejorative?

  41. I think the addition of all the baggage that tends to go along with atheism only serves to confuse. I mean we can't help but load all of our language with connotations leant from the common culture. That doesn't make it right or productive. Quite the opposite, in many cases. A simple but effective political tactic is to take a benign word, commonly used to identify a group, and taint that word with negative connotations until it can be used as slur. "Liberal" and "Socialist" have suffered this fate in much the same way as "Atheist".

    I think that many atheists realize this and prefer to keep it simple. Once you get down to brass tacks, down to the simplest definition of the word, it becomes more difficult to make it something it isn't.

    "Athesim" is merely a negation of "theism". "Theism" is the belief in the existence of god or gods. You can't really escape the word "belief" because we're talking about something that requires faith to even exist as a concept. You can't prove they exist. You can only believe. "Believe" should be perfectly fine to use in this context.

    So theism is a belief. Atheism is a lack of belief. To say it is a belief in a lack is to obfuscate and, again, load up the word with negative connotations. To say that atheism is a belief that gods do not exist is to imply that it is a belief system, which it isn't.

    If I said that the mighty Norglestrump, the perfectly serene and holy Flatworm, creator of heaven and earth, was the one and only God, you could either choose to believe or not believe the same. You would not be compelled to adopt a belief that Norglestrump was nonsense. You would be free to do so, but I would be incorrect in saying that you did when you merely failed to adopt the belief in the existence of Norglestrump in the first place. Saying you believe He doesn't exist implies that we have two different beliefs. It adds a layer of unnecessary confusion. We're only talking about one belief, which you either have or you don't.

  42. I like evolution so much that I'll give you my favorite blog about issues like this:

  43. Paul, "believe" has significant connotations to a people group we are going to attempt to communicate with, and these connotations are intensified when used in the construct "I believe there is no god" as compared to other constructs such as "I do not believe there is a god." Believers will be much more likely in the former to understand your statement as an emotional claim of how you want the world to be, and a password required of your "in group"-- which is perfectly understandable as that is exactly how they DO use the word and the construct.

    But do you really WANT to pick language that just fosters confusion when there are easy alternatives which skirt the problem of background and connotation and will ensure your point is understood better by your audience? If so, why the hell are you so dead set on confusing and sabotaging communication?

    Besides, ignoring for a moment how your audience might understand your statement, there is a very real difference in the emphasis in the constructs themselves. "I believe there is no god" really does imply greater certainty, the 100% negative proof which really isn't possible to get, while the emphasis in "I do not believe there is a god" is more on the current lack of evidence for the given premise. This is a grammatical difference in emphasis which is real, perhaps small, but it does exist. Language between humans has nuances and shades of meaning that you will completely miss if you try to push every single statement into two simple "yes" and "no" logic boxes. A difference in emphasis really can be critical to an argument.