Berean cogitations

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Defining atheism

In recent years, it has become fashionable to assert that atheism is simply non-belief in God. This is a convenient tactic for atheist debaters to use. By adopting that definition, they can say, "We don't have to prove that there is no God. Atheism is simply the absence of belief. It's atheism; that is, being without theism. " By using this approach, they can cast aspersions on theism and Christianity, while asserting that they have nothing to defend.

The problem is that they're using the term "atheism" incorrectly. According to The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, atheism specifically means "the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God." In other words, it asserts that there is NO god. Clearly, this goes far beyong merely lacking any particular belief in a deity.

Similarly, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary cites the following modern definitions of that term:

  • a disbelief in the existence of deity
  • the doctrine that there is no deity
Clearly, this goes far beyond merely a lack of belief in God. If one wants to describe this lack of belief, there's already a prefectly good term for that: non-theism. There is simply no need to co-opt the term "atheism," which has a more precise and thoroughly established definition.

Some are fond of saying, "Look, atheism means a-theism -- that is, a lack of theism. Therefore, it's just a lack of belief." That's not how the word is properly broken down, though. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, "atheism" derives from the Greek word atheos, which means "godless" (i.e. a-theos, or "without god"). To insist that it must be parsed as "lack of theism" is etymologically naive.

It frustrates me that people frequently adopt this looser (and inaccurate!) definition of the word, thereby making their stance more defensible. This is what I call the Humpty Dumpty school of philology. In his classic novel, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll describes an exchange between Humpty and the visiting Alice, which went as follows:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many
different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master -
that's all.'

Clearly, by making words mean whatever we want, we can only hinder communication, rather than help it.