Word evolution and the problem with “atheist”

The meaning of some words change over time. It’s a common trait of the English language, but can have some potentially negative effects when the words are associated with controversial topics. Most people nowadays consider “idiot” to mean “stupid” or “foolish” and have completely forgotten it once referred to people with actual mental disabilities. The real trouble is when you’re stuck in the middle of a word’s evolution, and you see generational differences. Hearing “that’s so gay” makes me cringe, but many young people don’t bat an eye because they sincerely don’t intend it to be derogatory – it’s just the meaning of the word to them and has nothing to do with ill will towards homosexuals.

I’m sure people write whole dissertations on this topic, but I’m going to focus on one word with particular interest to me and my readers: atheist.

I think we’re seeing the meaning of “atheist” slowly change because of the new vocal atheist movement. Some of you may be thinking, “How can the meaning of “atheist” change? It’s simple!” Hang in there for a minute and let me try to explain, first looking at the typical dictionary definition you’ll get for “atheist.”

From Merriam Webster’s Dictionary:

atheist (n): one who believes that there is no deity

Look okay? It seems to get the key point correct – no deity – but the wording is different than what the majority of modern atheists would use. Here’s how I would define atheist:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities

I think there are two key differences between the definition atheists give for themselves, and the definition others give for us:

  1. Some of you may think this is just semantics, but I think there really is a difference between “active belief that something does not exist” and “an absence of belief in the existence of something.” The former requires some sort of proof to validate it, and it is practically impossible to prove a negative. The latter, however, is a completely reasonable view and in line with scientific thinking – it is the null hypothesis, that we will assume the simplest thing (nothing existing) until given evidence that falsifies that. (Nearly) everyone uses this sort of thinking when it comes to unicorns, fairies, and the boogieman under the bed.
  2. The original definition only includes “deity,” which is very monotheism-centric. Atheists do not believe in any deities, not just the one (probably the Judeo-Christian God) that the dictionary assumes we’re talking about (I mean, obviously all those other silly ones don’t exist, right?)

Maybe these things aren’t really a change in meaning, but rather an illustration of the past biases of dictionary creators (and the populous they’re drawing their definitions from). The majority of American-English speakers are theists, so it makes sense that we’d see these artifacts in official definitions.

Being able to define ourselves is great, but the problem comes when we keep changing how we use the word atheist. Often times I see it expanded to be:

atheist (n): one who lacks a belief in a deity or deities and the supernatural

This is different from the original meaning, but most atheists don’t have too big of a problem with it because they also don’t believe in the supernatural. However, there are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, astrology, Qi, and other woo-filled superstitions that aren’t supreme beings. Does that mean they’re not atheists? No. It just means the the majority of atheists, or at least the vocal ones leading the “New Atheist” movement, tightly associate skepticism and atheism.

If we stopped right there at “not believing in any supernatural BS,” we’d probably be okay. But atheists have recently developed a very bad habit – they use “atheist” interchangeably with “secular humanist.” These are the tenets of secular humanism, stolen from Wikipedia:

  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.

Atheists are constantly promoting these tenets under the guise of atheism rather than secular humanism – probably because most atheists are also secular humanists, and the term “secular humanist” would likely generate even more confusion than “atheist” to a layperson. When have you heard an atheist activist simply say “I don’t believe in God” and then leave it at that? They wouldn’t be an activist then. We talk about how religious and supernatural thinking effects politics, we promote science, we debate ethics, and we contemplate the existence of God in a search for truth. Dawkins does it, Hitchens does it, Myers does it, piddly random bloggers like me do it…it’s more common than not.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is our answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” trope. No, I do not think atheism (or secular humanism for that matter) is a religion. There is no dogma, no churches, no rituals, no scripture, no official leaders. Even though we have books and public figures, we often disagree and still think for ourselves. We’re a diverse group, and our most common answer to the “Atheism is a religion!” assertion is usually something like “Atheism is merely the lack of belief in god(s). That is the only commonality we have.”

But is it? I think the meaning of atheism is starting to change to encompass the tenets of secular humanism. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this other than the fact that we’re going to confuse the hell out of many theists and maybe come off as disingenuous. They can easily shoot back with “Nothing in common? But you just went on about how atheists have these certain ethics!”

I think the best thing we can do is be careful in our wording. When you’re talking about a trait other than a lack of belief, qualify it by saying that “most” or “many” atheists feel that way, but that there is no dogma about it. Mention that “many” atheists are also secular humanists before diving into the tenets. Or at the very least, admit that the word “atheist” is slowly changing into something more complex and human – that we’re finally defining ourselves by our positive qualities rather than what we don’t believe in.

Maybe this really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But I know I’m excited that the atheist movement is something more than a lack of belief, and I’d really like to be able to properly define it to an outsider.

Need a new year’s resolution? Support Foundation Beyond Belief

I know I don’t have to explain why volunteering and charity are important and worthwhile. But if you need a little extra motivation to help others, consider Foundation Beyond Belief, a “a non-profit charitable and educational foundation created (1) to focus, encourage and demonstrate the generosity and compassion of atheists and humanists, and (2) to provide a comprehensive education and support program for nontheistic parents.” If you’re sick and tired of hearing people claim that atheists don’t volunteer or care about others, here’s your chance to show them wrong.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8uhWVgJVqs&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

One life or one hundred thousand?

I just finished watching House, and boy was that ending a doozy. I’ll leave out any details/spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, so don’t worry. The entire episode was very morally gray, which is both thought provoking and discomforting. It makes you think, “What would I do?” and when you don’t know, you get uneasy.

I’ll present this dilemma since it’s a common thought experiment, not exclusive to House.

As a doctor, you have the ability to end the life of one ill horrible man, an act which will most likely save the lives of a hundred thousand innocent people. If you let the man live, these people will probably die because of his actions. You will most likely not be caught for killing this man, but it’s always a possibility. However, it is your duty as a doctor to save lives. What do you do?

Would your actions be different if you were 100% sure it would save lives, or 100% sure you wouldn’t get caught?

I won’t tell you what happened on House, but beware: read the comments at your own risks. Comments are allowed to contain spoilers about the episode. I’m also not sure what I would do. I may have to stew over it for a while, then I’ll add my thoughts to the comments.