Apparently, Randal Rauser doesn’t know how to speak English–how else to explain two of the most recent posts on his blog, arguing first that many people who call themselves atheists should stop because they don’t know what “atheism” is, and then that Mormons are actually atheists. Um… wow. I’m tempted to wonder whehter he’s deliberately obtuse, or whether he’s really that stupid.
In the first post, his complaint is that many atheists, when asked what they mean when they call themselves atheists, say something like “I don’t believe in Yahweh, Thor or Allah…” Which is, I think, an obviously sensible thing to do on the part of atheists. Because this is how words work. Dictionaries are neat and all, but most of the words in our vocabularies aren’t words we learned by being given dictionary definitions. Mostly we learn words through examples of how the words are used, examples of things they apply to.
Not only is this how we usually learn words, it’s very often a better way to learn words than trying to give a dictionary definition. The categories that words stand for tend to be complex and fuzzy, and if you really care about accuracy in definitions you’ll soon find that most dictionary definitions are easy to poke holes in. Rauser’s definition of “god” included, because it has the rather obvious flaw that it incorrectly classifies Zeus, Thor, and the Mormon god as non-gods.
Rauser embraces this absurd conclusion–absurd simply because competent English speakers have long used the word “god” to refer to Zeus, Thor, etc. his is a conclusive argument, because meanings of words are established by how people use and have used them. It can make sense to object to a currently-popular usage as “wrong” because it’s confusing given the traditional usage, but it makes no sense to claim a long-established usage of a word is “wrong.”
Now I have to admit the ”deliberately obtuse or stupid” question wasn’t really fair. Of course what’s really going on here is that Rauser is a Christian who, like many Christians, views everything through the lens of Christianity. Therefore he doesn’t even realize that he’s picked a definition of “god” by looking exclusively at Christian theology and ignoring other relevant linguistic evidence. Sigh.