Atheism, Language, and Theology

As a follow-up to my post from earlier today about atheism and the meaning of “god” I thought I would offer here some further thoughts that I also shared in comments on that post.

If someone objects to calling something or someone a “god” because that is not an accepted use of that word in English, that is a linguistic point.

But if you say “that isn’t really a god” about a view with a long established history of such usage – as for instance in pantheism as a way of referring to Nature – then that is not a linguistic point, but a theological one.

I suspect that the view of most atheists is that (1) the gods of ancient polytheists and modern monotheists are not real entities with the attributes depicted in their sacred texts, and that (2) no entities, including persons, cats, and nature, are worthy of worship and reverence. In the latter case, it is not so much denial of existence as a rejection of the claim to be deserving of a certain kind of honor.

Anyone want to start using the term aproskynism? :-)

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  • Ian

    Its pretty simple for me. I call myself an atheist in certain contexts when I feel it would be helpful for those who I am addressing to understand my views.

    There are many definitions of ‘God’ that I have no problem with, there are some of them I would actively want to support. I could call myself a Cultural Christian, or a Christian non-realist, but that would be less understandable. And if I shortened that to just ‘Christian’ then I know most people would assume I held a set of beliefs that I don’t hold, and that would be unhelpful to the dialog. So, as error prone as any single word for a person’s whole set of beliefs might be, atheist seems the better starting point to build from.

    As I talk in more detail to someone, we can explore each other’s actual beliefs, and then the ‘label’ is increasingly irrelevant

    If I were to describe you to other people, James, I would not describe you as a ‘Christian’ in unqualified terms for the same reason. As unfortunate as it is that some form of fundamentalism is the default understanding of Christianity, that is the way it is, so if you’re interested in communicating, rather than using language in a self-satisfied way, one has to take account of that.

    Your original post sounded like naive essentialism and word-play. Various folks have tried that on my blog before, telling me I’m not a ‘real’ atheist, because I don’t reject all concepts of God, or because everyone worships something, or because… Its all sophomoric word games, I’m afraid. Understanding that language is descriptive and not prescriptive is part of the English language curriculum in high school over here.

    • James F. McGrath

      My aim was neither to engage in sophomoric or even senior word games, but to indicate that the use of vast sweeping rhetoric and generalizations can sometimes obscure where there is significant agreement across our linguistic divides. I think that there is much more room for cooperation between many atheists and many religious people who eschew superstition and irrationality, than polemical rhetoric fosters.

      • Ian

        I agree – definitely – but is polemic rhetoric the best way to make that point? Anyway, doesn’t really matter – I think this blog is generally a forum in which there is definite support and cooperation between atheists and non-traditional-theists on a range of issues. One where polemic is usually reserved for mutual targets. Which is why I generally enjoy the conversations here so much.

        • James F. McGrath

          Is polemical rhetoric the same thing as a sensationalist headline? I’m definitely guilty of the latter in this post… ;-)

          • Ian

            :) The headline was fine, imho, it got people reading. But judging by the comments on that post, it was the content that people disagreed with. If it was intended to be a deliberately weak argument to satirise similarly weak arguments from the other side, I suspect most missed the point. But, hey ho, sometimes a rant is a fun way to blow out the frustrations of dealing with asinine objectors. And it gave you a nice boost to your comment numbers!

  • Joe Cogan

    I’ll go with Einstein’s “I do not believe in a personal God”. And I’ll add that I don’t think that the idea of an impersonal God has any utility, except as “Spinoza’s God” (or Einstein’s), a metaphor for an underlying order to the universe. There are plenty of things I find transcendence in, from music, to cosmology, to particle physics, but I doubt that this is anything more than the human capacity for marvel at the unexpected and the unknown, and how they affect our emotions.

  • spinkham

    Igtheist works perfectly well for covering this semantic point, IMHO. Before we can talk, you have to define what God/god means to you, and our conversation is then limited to that particular god concept.

    If you want to say your cat is what the token god signifies for you, well than your signifier refers to an actually existing god (assuming you do in fact have a cat at present ;-).

    On the other hand, it would be handy if you’d choose a different token to refer to your cat so there’s less confusion for all involved. The problem is there’s so much and varied cultural bagage tied up with the word “god” that the word itself is now basically useless.

  • Erp

    However pantheists were considered a variety of atheists. The OED has as one of its earliest quotes “That Species of Atheism commonly called Pantheism” (1743). The earliest quotes are about 1700. There are also quotes like “Pantheists treat the universe and nature with the same sort of bated
    breath, awe, submission, love and a sense of belonging that believers
    feel for their gods” (1999).

    • James F. McGrath

      Pantheists have regularly been labelled atheists, but usually by their detractors, and not always with Pantheists themselves agreeing that the label is apt!

      • Erp

        However pantheism itself is diverse. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article is of interest. The spectrum of the definitions of god is broad. Problems arise if people start with one definition (or group of definitions) and switch half way through the argument (this also applies to pantheism).

  • Undercover Louky

    You need magic and rules to be a religion. Atheism has neither. It makes no claim of anything.

    • James F. McGrath

      Deism has neither magic nor rules, does it? So ought atheists and Deists to make common cause against superstition?

      • J

        Deism has magic.

        • James F. McGrath

          I can only conclude that you have not read the writings of any famous Deist.

      • Undercover Louky

        Deism by definition is totally magic. It’s watered down creationism. Magic.
        Although I’d be willing to bet most deist are really frightened atheist.

        • James F. McGrath

          Can you provide me an example of a Deist affirming belief in magic?