Are you a Capital-A Atheist?


When I was invited to join Freethought Blogs, I was grateful for the opportunity to meet new people, reach new eyes, and join some interesting conversations about various and diverse topics. I’ve thus far not been disappointed on any count! A topic I haven’t yet broached was brought to me by a reader via e-mail yesterday that I think merits some discussion.

Thank you, kind reader! I’ll do my best to address the question appropriately.

A number of theist factions on the internet — proselytizers, apologists, et cetera — often capitalize the word atheist in order to present atheism as Atheism, a dogma that Atheists have in place of Christianity. It is presented thus to allow minds steeped in the inherent tribalism seen within religious doctrines to pigeonhole self-described atheists and respond appropriately. It is this mentality wherein each adherent to each philosophy can be prejudged and appropriate steps can be taken to make your conversion efforts more likely to succeed.

Grammatically, capitalizing “atheist” is as incorrect as capitalizing “Football Player” or “Shopper” or “Hipster” — these are not proper nouns. They are common nouns, descriptives, which describe some aspect of the subject. There’s a special case for adherents to a particular organization, though. Being a member of a group that, itself, is a proper noun, means the word that describes you as a member also gets that capitalization. The organization called the Catholic Church has adherents called Catholics. There’s a word “catholic”, though, divorced from the name of the church itself, which means “free of prejudices or attachments”. It’s also a common noun, though long years of abuse by the Church has divested it of its secular meaning. The Church named themselves using the word, and with their prejudices and attachments to material possession have proven themselves to be its antonym.

If there is an organization, or a dogma, or even a unified philosophy associated with atheism, I am unaware of its existence. One can properly capitalize “New Atheist”, but I take issue with the existence of the term in that there’s nothing particularly new about the movement or its ideas — being chiefly that people who are atheist should be allowed to participate in the public policy or conversations that generally allow religious special interest groups. The term is often used in a pejorative sense, suggesting that “New Atheists” are firebrands and godslayers, dogmatic adherents to materialism and incapable of treating religious folks with any measure of civility. But we’ll not get into that — we’re talking language today, and others have covered the “Accomodationism/New Atheism” dichotomy better and more thoroughly than I ever could. (Though I have tried, once upon a time.) Regardless, the fact that none of us attend a service, worship any particular ideas, or can even be called a unified group — seriously, 99% of the things you could say about how atheists other than that they do not believe in a god or gods, do not translate to every member of the group! — indicates that there is no need to make “atheist” a proper noun.

There’s another situation where capitalization changes the sense of a word, which should be obvious to theists. When one says “god”, one means a different thing than “God”. God with a capital G is a title, given by the Abrahamic religious adherents, to their particular monotheistic “creator of the universe” entity. With a small G, the word means “deity” in the generic. Surely with such an example of how the capital letter changes the word, people will remember from now on that the word “atheist” is not capitalized.

As for your pimple, gentle reader, try an exfoliating scrub next time you’re in the bath. I’m not sure how that will help humanity in general, but I do hope it helps with your ass.

Comments

  1. wunelle says

    Never take grammatical advice from someone who doesn’t know the difference between your and you’re (not that YOU ever seemed like the one in need of help).

  2. says

    In private with a friend being targeted by this same guy, I said pretty much the same thing, Neil. The funny thing is, this guy wants attention on a particular subject. The only attention he’ll get from me is on completely unrelated subjects, though. Not playing into his hand and turning this place into a Google-bomb for his nonsense.

  3. lordshipmayhem says

    When he defines “Capatalize”, maaaybe I’ll respond. Maybe.

    Could he mean, “turn into a Capatallian”? “Place a cap on a tall person”?

  4. Steve A.E. says

    Jason, most of your points here are good, of course, but, being as pedantic as I am, I’ve got to note that “football player,” “shopper,” and “hipster” are not adjectives but common nouns. Valuable insights in this post nonetheless.

  5. says

    Oi. You know, my degree was in English. Aside from the fact that there was to my recollection no “parts of speech” component in any language course I’ve taken, I really should have known that. Corrected, Steve. And thanks. :)

  6. Seymour Brighton says

    Some people are mentally ill or coming up or down off drugs, even some as innocuous as marijuana. They take out their frustration and angst on bloggers.

    You don’t need to reply to these people. They probably deserve pity from strangers, and support and understanding from friends.

    Don’t assume they’re just assholes.

  7. says

    I believe Madalyn Murray O’Hair used to argue for capitalizing “Atheism” to refer to her American Atheists version of atheism, with herself as the pope-equivalent.

  8. Rieux says

    So should “(G/g)nu (A/a)theism,” the snarky reclaiming of the (indeed) inaccurate “New Atheism” label, be capitalized? Should we who are willing to take on the label (this might not include you, Jason—not my place to say, obviously) call ourself “gnus” or “Gnus”?

    I’ve used that particular G-word a bunch of times online and, to date, I’ve been entirely inconsistent with the capitalization. I’d love to have a definitive answer.

  9. says

    Luckily we don’t tend to follow prophets of atheism dogmatically, Jim! For all the good work she did, that’s one part of her argumentation I could never find palatable. The idea of replacing one dogmatic adherence to an orthodoxy with a self-appointed head of the movement, with another, is anathema to my nature.

    Rieux: I would personally not capitalize it, owing mostly to the “there’s no proper noun for the Church of Gnu Atheists” condition that I made in the post. Especially since Gnu Atheism isn’t a doctrine, it’s just an in-joke. If anyone actually fits the description given to “New Atheists”, then maybe with the properties it’s intended to confer upon its recipients, it deserves capitalization, since people seem to think “New Atheists” follow a specific doctrine of confrontationalism which is secondary to the “atheism” part of the name.

    In other words, I dunno. It’s fuzzy. I’d argue the term “New Atheist” is outright wrong, instead of quibbling about whether they capitalize it.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    (ahem!)

    cath·o·lic
       /ˈkæθəlɪk, ˈkæθlɪk/ adjective
    1. broad or wide-ranging in tastes, interests, or the like; having sympathies with all; broad-minded; liberal.
    2. universal in extent; involving all; of interest to all.
    3. pertaining to the whole Christian body or church.

    Particularly when rendered with an uppercase “C”, you’ll only find “free of prejudices or attachments” under the antonyms section of the definition.

  11. says

    Before the Church black-bagged then pressganged the word into their service, definition 3 would have read “pertaining to the whole body of humanity” or something similar. The word predates the church. And thus language is eroded.

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