The Definition of Atheism, the Anal-Retentive Defense of Etymological Purism, and Linguistic Relativism

Back when I was the moderator of the USENET newsgroup alt.atheism.moderated, I used to debate the definition of atheism and I used to defend the atheism as the lack of belief position. I’m persuaded, however, by Ted Drange that by default we should define our terms in a way which matches ordinary usage. Ordinary usage of the word “atheism” is that it means the belief that God does not exist. I see no benefit whatsoever to the proposal that nontheists should spend their limited time on trying to convince people both that (a) atheism is rational and (b) that they should use the word atheism in a different way, as opposed to merely focusing on (a).

Among professional philosophers, including self-identified atheist philosophers, probably the majority viewpoint is that atheism is the belief that there is no God and agnosticism is the lack of belief in God’s existence and God’s nonexistence. (Notable exceptions would be Michael Martin, Antony Flew, and Keith Parsons.) When professional philosophers want an umbrella term to group together people who believe God does not exist with the people who merely lack belief, probably the majority of them use the term “nontheist.”
For the record, I am fully aware of how condescending it can come across when person A says, “I’m an X,” and person B says, “No, you’re not. You’re a Y.” In other words, who am I to tell people how they should self-identify? In response, I would point out the following.

(1) I think people have the right to label themselves however they wish; I am not making a normative or ethical issue out of this. In other words, I’m not saying nontheists have an ethical requirement to use the word atheist consistently with ordinary usage.

(2) I am suggesting as a matter of strategy and “resource management” that there are much better uses of our time than an anal-retentive defense of etymological purism, i.e., the “but the greek roots of atheism, a + theism, mean literally without theism” defense. The meaning of words can and do change over time. If the meaning of “atheism” has changed from its Greek roots, then so be it.

Instead of focusing on etymology, I suggest a more pragmatic approach. With respect to the definition of atheism, I think we have a situation where two people who speak English and use the same words (e.g., belief, God, atheism, etc.) are effectively speaking two different languages. A self-identified ‘atheist’ and theist may even think they have a disagreement because superficially it seems they are speaking the same language, but they’re not. Because they’re not speaking the same language, we must distinguish the labels we assign to various positions from the positions themselves.

Imagine the following conversation:

Self-Identified ‘Atheist’: I’m an atheist.

Theist: Oh, so you believe that God does not exist. What’s your evidence for the nonexistence of God?

Self-Identified ‘Atheist’: No, I lack the belief that God exists. The lack of belief that God exists does not require any justification unless we first are given some reason to hold that belief.

Theist: No, you’re re-defining words. Atheism is the belief God does not exist.

Rather than continue beating a dead horse, you then try this approach:

Self-Identified ‘Atheist’: We’re using the same words in different ways. Based on how you define the word atheist, then I’m not an atheist; I’m an agnostic. Based on how I define the word atheist, however, I am an atheist. If we’re going to have real dialogue rather than just the illusion of communication, we’re going to have to agree on a set of terminology for the discussion.

Theist: [at this point the theist will either insist on his terminology or be willing to adopt yours; either way, the difference in terminology will be explicitly acknowledged by both sides and real communication will be possible.]

The point is that there is rarely much value in debating definitions, but real dialogue is possible if one of the parties is willing to state their position in terms of the definitions the other party accepts. As Andrew Kirk pointed out, “This is no different to learning a new language, or even a local dialect, and then using it rather than your own native dialect, to aid communication between yourself and a speaker of that dialect.”

I think the main obstacle to taking this sort of pragmatic approach is an unstated (and probably unconscious) assumption of what I will call “linguistic objectivism,” the idea that the truth of definitions of words does not depend upon the subject states (beliefs, desires, etc.) of persons. I cannot even imagine how linguistic objectivism could be true. If it even makes sense to talk about something being the ‘correct’ definition of a word, it seems to me that could only be the case in a relative sense. In other words, to borrow terminology from ethics and apply it to linguistics, I’m suggesting we should drop the pretense of ‘linguistic objectivism’ and instead be ‘linguistic relativists’: we should recognize that linguistics are relative to different cultures and different times.

Indeed, to press Kirk’s analogy all the way, what etymological purists about the “atheism is the lack of belief that God exists” definition are doing is equivalent to an American going deep into Mexico to a city that is not a tourist town, and then being hellbent on the fact that the Mexican locals must speak English, despite the fact that he is, quite literally, on their turf. The point is that, everything else held equal, it seems odd, if not presumptuous, for a group representing a minority linguistic tradition or culture, to insist that the majority linguistic tradition or culture submit to the minority group’s linguistic norms. (Here I am assuming that “atheism,” regardless of how it is defined, is the minority position.)

Jesus on Faith – Part 6
Apologetics Infographic #1: Atheism and Nothingness
Geisler & Turek Rebuttal, Part 7: Chapter 8
Religious Experience – Recognizing God
About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • Rike

    Isn't is though that if I believe that means I have faith? Shouldn't an atheist prefer to be without "believe" – without faith? That's how I see myself. To say "I believe there is no god" sounds to me like saying "I believe XX will be our next president" – in other words, I'm not really sure about it. I would rather say "I do not believe god exists" since I neither believe, nor have faith in his existence.
    Am I looking at this the wrong way?

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Rike — You may define things differently, but that isn't how I use or define the word "believe." I would say that I believe that gravity exists on the basis of overwhelming physical evidence. For me, the word believe does not have any connotations of tentativeness, lack of evidence, etc.

  • Rike

    Ah, Jeffery, so you believe that gravity exists and the theist believes that god exists…
    English is my second language and it gives me some difficulties! Shouldn't you say you are convinced that gravity exists, rather than believe?

  • Ryan M

    I generally think of the definition of atheism like this: God exists = G

    If S believes that G, S is a theist. If S believes that ~G, S is an atheist. S can possibly believe that neither G or ~G is justified simultaneously (Potentially due to insufficient data, arguments, etc). Lets call the third option NG.

    I think NG is a real position a person can hold. NG is perfectly compatible with the definition of atheism as the "Lack of belief that G". But if we define NG as being an atheist, and the believer of ~G to be an atheist, then I believe we make "Atheism" a more ambiguous word than it already is, which ought to be avoided for obvious reasons.

  • Jim Lippard

    Rike: In both most ordinary usage and philosophical parlance, "belief" means solely to have a certain attitude towards a proposition, namely, to think that it is true. There is no implication of certainty, or dogmatism, or belief-without-evidence–it's the neutral term for thinking that something is the case.

    Thus the standard formulation for knowledge in individualist epistemology is that you know something if you believe it, you are justified in believing it, and it really is the case. (This formulation was found to be inadequate by Edmund Gettier (and Bertrand Russell before him) as it is subject to counter-example where we would generally deny an attribution of knowledge in the case of a justified true belief, but various attempts have been made to patch up this model in various ways so that the reasons for belief "track the truth.")

  • Bret Alan

    Atheist, agnostic, non-theist, Pastafarian, New Atheist, Gnu Atheist, irreligious, skeptic, humanist… the conclusion is the same and a person acts in such a way as they do not factor "god" into their decisions or routine.

    What you really have here is not actual distinction, but an attempt by cliques and intellectuals to separate themselves from those they deem undesirable. If this group of non-believers over here calls themselves this and act this way, then clearly they can go on feeling superior to that other group over there who act another, totally wrong and embarrassing way. Call me wrong if you like, but keep that thought in mind when analyzing future events, and perhaps you'll notice something similar.

    I also think the problem may be that you also don't see that "atheist" and "agnostic" answer different questions. If someone asks me if I believe in gods, the answer is simply, "no." That makes me an atheist. If someone asks if I know there are no gods, I would also have to say, "no," which makes me an agnostic. "Atheist" means "not theist," and agnostic means "not knowing." You don't need to know anything to not be a theist, and frankly you must not know much if you are.