This blog entry might be somewhat off of my normally well-beaten path, but it addresses an issue that has arisen more than once in this blog. I addressed it in passing, and I think that it warrants some more direct attention. It concerns the question, “What is an atheist?”
In an article in American Chronicle, David Glesson decides to address some “Common Misconceptions about Atheists and Atheism.” He starts off with the “misconception that, “Atheism is the belief that no Gods exist.”
I deny that this is a misconception.
A Few Words about Words
Language is an invention. It is a tool – like shovels and computers - that we design to do work. There is no “natural law” of language that dictates what a word must or must not mean. There is, instead, the purpose for which the invention of language is created and the question of what design will best serve that purpose.
The main purpose of language is communication. It is not the only purpose, but (particularly in this context) all of those other purposes are insignificant compared to the purpose of causing a particular idea to emerge in the mind of the listener or reader. As I write, the foremost questions that I have when I choose a word is, “When the reader sees this word, what will pop into his head? Will it be the same thing that I want to have pop into his head?” If the answer to the second question is, “No,” then I have to pick a new word.
In other words, the 'correct' definition of a word is the prediction of what thoughts pop into the mind of the reader or listener when they encounter the word.
What pops into the minds of almost all English speakers when they read or hear the word “Atheist?” It is, “Somebody who has the belief that no gods exist.”
We find some evidence for this in the fact that, if Gleeson were correct, then it should be instantly clear to every person who reads or hears the words ‘atheist’ that infants are atheists. Instead, what pops up in the minds of most English speakers is that those who would call an infant an ‘atheist’ is speaking gibberish. It is gibberish precisely because an atheist is one who has a belief that no god exists, and there is no way that an infant can have such a belief. Gleeson accepts that his definition of atheism means that all infants are atheists. He does not see that this conclusion is a reductio ad absurdum of his thesis.
Indeed, think about how absurd it is to argue that there is this word that is a normal part of the language. People use it all the time. People who read or hear the word almost never misunderstand those who write or speak the word. However, all these people who are using the word and not misunderstanding each other do not understand what the word really means.
This is a very strange claim to try to defend.
Note: In some cases, a word has a technical definition that does not correspond with the common usage. The technical definition of ‘argument’ among logicians is ‘two or more propositions where one proposition (the conclusion) is said to follow from the other propositions (the premises)'. However, when the kid comes to us and says, ‘My parents are having an argument,’ we do not say that he does not understand what the word means. We simply recognize that he is not using it in its technical sense.
The root of ‘a’ – ‘theist’
Gleeson defends his position as follows:
The word 'atheism' comes from the Greek prefix 'a', meaning without, and 'theist', meaning having a belief in a supernatural deity. Atheism, therefore, literally means "without theistic belief". Atheism does not positively assert anything; rather, it is a statement of withheld belief.
Now, consider this argument:
The word ‘atom’ comes from the Greek prefix ‘a’, meaning without, and ‘tomos’ meaning ‘to cut’. ‘Atom’ literally means ‘that which cannot be cut’. Yet, we have people today who assert that atoms can be split. Nothing can be more absurd than to say that it is possible to split something that, by definition, cannot be split.
The fact is, we cannot defend a definition on the basis of what the parts of a word may have meant to the ancient Greeks - not unless we are actually talking to an ancient Greek. We defend a definition on the basis of what ideas it causes in the mind of the readers and listeners who are competent users of the native language that contains the term.
I also want to note the condescension that Gleeson gives to those who do not share his opinion. He writes, “This statement's ubiquity is exceeded only by its utter falseness; not only is it misleading, but it is the complete opposite of the truth.”
Imagine that you are talking about splitting an atom, or about the parts of an atom, when somebody comes up to you, looks down his nose at you, and sneers, “You talk about splitting the atom. Your statement's ubiquity is exceeded only by its utter falseness; not only is it misleading, but it is the complete opposite of the truth.” He then goes on to say that the ancient Greek meaning of ‘a – tomos’ proves that you have no idea what you are talking about.
Ultimately, once the intruder admits to the 'ubiquity' of the term, he has already conceded defeat. He has already admitted that the common definition of the term 'atom' has become something other than 'that which cannot be cut.'
Atheism and Faith
After ‘proving’ his definition of atheism, Gleeson goes on to discuss what he calls another ‘misconception’, that Atheism requires just as much faith as theism.
Against this, he writes:
This misconception arises because of the misunderstanding of the term 'atheism', as described above. If atheism were indeed a positive assertion that no gods exist, then this criticism would be valid. After all, it would take just as much faith to claim that no gods exist as it would to claim that one god or many gods exist. But atheism makes no such claim.
His statement, If atheism were indeed a positive assertion that no gods exist, then this criticism would be valid. is false.
I look back at human history, at the number of different gods that different people have created, at the stories with their contradictions and inconsistencies, at the fossil record that tells us of evolution, at the fact that even today in the 'information age' people are inclined to believe ‘stories’ that are not only poorly founded but easily proved false (e.g., Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was involved with those who planned 9/11), and I conclude from all of this evidence that the ‘God’ concept refers to a fictional character.
This is to say that the term ‘God’, like the terms ‘chimera’ and ‘Poseidon’, do not refer to any real world entity that has any type of predictive or explanatory power.
Can things with no predictive or explanatory power exist?
Possibly. There might be a parallel universe with absolutely no interaction with our own fictional characters exist. We have no choice but to remain agnostic about the existence of entities that have no role to play in explaining and predicting real-world events.
At the same time, we can say nothing at all about them that is not as likely to be true as fase. Any discussion about such entities – what powers they possess, what they look like, anything at all that can be known about them – would be a very short discussion. There is nothing to say, other than the same types of things that fiction writers put into their books as a matter of course.
My belief that the term ‘God’ refers to a fictional character is as secure as my belief that no ghosts exist, no leprechauns exist, the Loch Ness Monster does not exist, phlogiston does not exist, the earth is not flat, and it is not the center of the solar system. If the proposition that the term ‘God’ refer to a fictitious character is a matter of faith, then all of these other propositions are also a matter of faith.
Can this type of argument prove beyond all possible doubt that no God exists?
No, it cannot.
However, there is no proposition in science that can be proved true beyond all possible doubt. It is a part of the very nature of science that every theory that one can think of is a set of 'possibly false' propositions. In fact, it is the nature of all scientific propositions that they must be ‘falsifiable’.
The proposition, “The earth is 4.55 billion years old” is possibly false. It is not very likely to be false. It is, in fact, practically certain. Yet it is still ‘possibly false’.
When a person makes the assertion, “The earth is 4.55 billion years old,” he can do no more than state that this proposition has the most and strongest connection to everything else that we know – the best connection to our understanding of atomic theory, the nature of light, plate tectonics, the fossil record, and even facts about human perception (e.g., how our eyes work so that we can observe the results of our experiments).
When we look at human history, at different cultures and their invention of fictitious creatures, their invention of gods, the different types of gods that they invented, the propositions that has the best fit with our best understanding of all of these facts include the propositions, “There never were any dragons. There never were any ghosts. There never were any tree spirits. And there never were any gods.”
As I said, language is an invention. The meaning of a word depends on what ideas pop into the minds of the reader or the listener when they encounter the word (in that particular context). This, at least, is the meaning that any clear writer or speaker needs to use.
The meaning that pops into the mind of almost all readers and listeners of common English when the word ‘atheist’ is used is ‘one who holds that the term ‘God’ refers to a fictitious character.’ Gleeson admits this. In admitting it, he admits that the alternative definition he provides is mistaken.
Given enough time and enough effort, it may be possible to change the meaning of the word ‘atheist’ to ‘one who lacks belief in God.’ Given enough time and enough effort it may be possible to change the meaning of the word ‘atom’ back to ‘that which cannot be cut (or split).’ Language is one of those areas where even those who wrong, if they are persistent enough and persuasive enough, can actually make their false claim true.
The day may come when the word ‘atheist’ actually will conjure in the mind of the common listener or reader the idea, ‘one who withholds belief in a God.’
But it is not this day.
As a consequence of an anonymous comment below, I would like to add the following.
The common-language 'meaning' of the terms atheist, theist, and agnostic depend on how one would answer this question.
Does God exist?
(Almost) Certainly Yes: Theist.
Probably: Weak theist.
I don't know: Agnostic.
Probably not: Weak atheist.
(Almost) Certainly No: Atheist.
This is the breakdown that makes the most sense of how people actually use the terms when they talk to each other. This is the breakdown that has the best explanatory and predictive power as the best theory of what the terms mean in English.