Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wading In

A few days ago I couldn't help posting part of a previous post as a comment to this post on Scott Adam's Dilbert blog. Other atheists like PZ and Austin have already jumped all over it. Since replying to anyone in the hundreds of comments there is a lost cause I will reply here to the person, "Mark", who wrote the following in response to me:
No, I'd say we're agnostic: we neither believe there is a god nor believe there isn't one. We are without belief. Agnostic. We can
a) remain without belief
b) gain a belief
If we gain a belief, it can be
a) for the "right" god.
b) for the "wrong" god.
c) for no god.
mind you, there are shadings there too.

This reply was referring to my story about people being born atheist, and then choosing to become theist, or remain atheist later in life. Once again people don't realize you can be both atheist and agnostic, and insist on defining the umbrella term of atheism as the specific kind of atheism, called strong atheism. Also Mark's definition of "agnostic" isn't correct, which actually refers to knowledge not belief.

However I wonder if we can be born agnostic, since to be agnostic means to claim you don't have knowledge about something. I don't think babies can do that. But babies can lack belief, and be implicit atheists. It isn't until the person replies "No, I don't think so." in response to a theistic claim that they become explicit atheists, though not necessarily strong atheists.

And before you comment or send e-mails, YES we atheists are changing the meaning of "atheism" as it is commonly used. So what? The whole point of the change is that it makes more sense philosophically and the word becomes more useful. Besides the word has changed in the past. The Romans were calling early Christians "atheists" for crying out loud.


Update: I should have said "correcting" not "changing". See Austin's comment below for clarification.


Austin Cline said...

It's not really a change, it's just not what everyone is accustomed to.

Most unabridged dictionaries list "disbelief" as the first definition of atheism, and this in turn is defined first as simply "not believe." Thus the primary definition of atheism is simply "not believe in gods." A couple of dictionaries have even listed "lack of belief" as the definition of disbelieve.

This use of atheism can also be traced to 1772 when Paul Henri Holbach wrote that "All children are atheists, they have no idea of God." He didn't treat this as a novel statement, so it would appear that people had been treating atheism this way for at least a little while by this point.

Why isn't it what people are used to? Most people are religious theists and their only contact with the concept of "atheism" is through Christian apologists who are attacking it. How many actually crack open a dictionary to look it up? Even those who do, in my experience, pass over "disbelieve" as if it weren't there at all.

I can't begin to count how many times I've seen someone quote the full definition, including "disbelieve," and then talk about nothing except the "denial" part. This includes otherwise intelligent people like Michael Shermer.

that atheist guy said...

Hi Austin,

Thanks for dropping by. You bring up some excellent points. As you say, it isn't really a change, but a correction. In the eyes of the people accustomed to the "denial" definition though, it is a change and as you know it can be hard to educate them. Sometimes it's difficult to argue against a word's shift in meaning if the perception is that "everyone" is now using the new meaning.

I just hope our correction isn't a lost cause, which seems to be the case for another pet peeve of mine: the misuse of the phrase "begging the question." There's even a website: