Des (deskitty) wrote,
Des
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The Definition of "Atheism"

::sigh:: I'm getting really tired of seeing this myth spread around.

Normally I don't quibble over the definition of words, but I'm going to make an exception in this case because I feel the argument is starting to render the word "atheist" meaningless. We need to choose one definition, or the other, before we lose both. I make my argument here with the qualifier that words are just words -- we're free to redefine them as we choose, and as such, there's no "right" or "wrong" answer as to how to define a word.

Now that I've made that clear...

Hypothesis: "Atheism" does not mean "a lack of belief in the existence of god(s)" (hereafter referred to as the passive definition). It does mean "a belief in the non-existence of god(s)" (hereafter, the active def.).

I assert these two meanings are substantially different. The basis for that assertion is beyond the scope of this post, but I'm willing to revisit it later if challenged.

The argument that I'm making here concerns the authoritative definition of "atheism", and is specifically not intended to cover its casual use, or address the ideas and beliefs of those who label themselves as "atheists". (I'll touch on casual use later, in a less logically-rigorous fashion.)

To give a bit of historical background: I've been aware of the word "atheist" for ... probably 13 or so years now. (I'm 23 now.) Sometime in the past few years (as far as I can guess), people started showing up on the Internet who argue that "atheism" is defined passively. Prior to that time, everyone I spoke to about it defined "atheism" using the active definition.

>>> Authoritative Definitions

To make sure I wasn't totally crazy and misremembering things, I did a Google search on "English dictionary". Google returned links to the following online dictionaries (I stuck with the first page of search results):

  1. Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged Dictionary)
  2. Merriam-Webster
  3. Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
  4. MSN Encarta Dictionary
  5. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary
  6. Wordsmyth Educational Dictionary
  7. The American Heritage Dictionary


Each of these dictionaries defines "atheism" as follows. I have copy/pasted all the listed definitions, verbatim. [I believe this constitutes fair use under US copyright law.]

  • Random House:
    1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
    2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

  • Merriam-Webster:
    1 archaic : UNGODLINESS, WICKEDNESS
    2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity
    b : the doctrine that there is no deity

  • Cambridge ["atheism" is listed under "atheist" with no defs. of its own]:
    someone who believes that God or gods do not exist

  • MSN Encarta:
    unbelief in God or deities: disbelief in the existence of God or deities

  • Compact Oxford:
    the belief that God does not exist.

  • Wordsmyth:
    1. the belief that there is no God.

  • American Heritage:
    1a. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
    b. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
    2. Godlessness; immorality.


Every dictionary except Encarta explicitly states in at least one of their definitions, "the belief/doctrine that there is no god/deity". This is not the same thing as a lack of belief.

The other common theme running through these definitions is the idea of "disbelief". Let's see what these dictionaries have to say about "disbelief". I'm only going to look up "disbelief" in those dictionaries that use the word in their definitions. [Note: I've omitted irrelevant definitions here -- disbelief may also be defined as "amazement" or "astonishment".]

  • Random House
    1. the inability or refusal to believe or to accept something as true.

  • Merriam-Webster
    the act of disbelieving : mental rejection of something as untrue

  • Cambridge
    the refusal to believe that something is true

  • MSN Encarta
    feeling of not believing: the feeling of not believing or of not being able to believe somebody or something

  • American Heritage
    Refusal or reluctance to believe.


Most of these seem pretty ambiguous; it isn't clear whether "disbelief" refers to non-belief, or implies a belief that the proposition is not true.

However, Merriam-Webster stands out -- the words "rejection" and "untrue" imply active opposing belief. Encarta, on the other hand, seems passive -- "not being able to believe" something does not imply that someone necessarily believes the opposite.

So let's assume that all except M-W define disbelief as non-belief. (Why? Because it goes against my hypothesis of an active definition for "atheism", and thus presents a harder test.) How, then, do these dictionaries define "atheism" -- do they use the active or passive definition?

  • Random House: both
  • Merriam-Webster: active
  • Cambridge: active
  • MSN Encarta: passive
  • Oxford: active
  • Wordsmyth: active
  • American Heritage: both


So, let's assume each dictionary is equally reputable. Since they all appeared on the first page of Google's search results, this seems like a reasonable approximation. I've chosen to keep the "both"s in their own category, because I recognize that the two definitions are not mutually exclusive. To break it down:

  • Active: 4
  • Both: 2
  • Passive: 1


It seems there is a preponderance of evidence, then, for atheism's authoritative definition as "a belief in the non-existence of god(s)". Over 50% of the sampled dictionaries give the active definition exclusively. Of those that give the passive definition, all but one also give the active definition.

(As a footnote, if I've missed any dictionaries you think should be included, please let me know. If you want to argue methodology, that's fine too. But if you do, please keep in mind that this section is focused on authoritative definitions -- it is not concerned with common usage or individuals that claim the label "atheist" for themselves.)

>>> Why You Should Use the Authoritative Definition

Now that I've demonstrated the authoritativeness of my preferred definition of "atheism", I'm going to switch gears and make a values-based argument as to why you should use that definition. You're free to choose your own values (and your own definition), of course, but I want to explain why I think you should use the authoritative one.

Words are used primarily as a medium of communication. In order for a given word to be used successfully (i.e. convey the intended meaning), all parties to the communication must agree upon a common definition. This is particularly important in public discourse (such as LiveJournal communities) where a communication may reach a potentially unlimited number of recipients.

In order to maximize the accurate reception of your message, it is therefore important to use definitions that are in common use, or that can be readily agreed-upon. In the case of ignorance, confusion, or (less commonly) a disputed definition, dictionaries provide a handy reference point.

Modern dictionaries are generally a reflection of words as they are defined in common use. [Britannica] They are also often widely-regarded as authoritative, which is important in more formal settings where a precise definition (or at least, a definition that is more precise than common usage might yield) is important.

Now, "authoritative" and "commonly used" are not the same thing. In this case, however, they have the same effect because dictionaries (which most consider authoritative) often reflect the common use of a word. In any event, an individual who is confused or uncertain about the definition of a word will most likely consult a dictionary.

So we have linked the concept of "authoritative" (above) to the concept of "common usage".

When trying to communicate, you'll want to choose words that most accurately reflect the concept you're trying to convey, as they are understood by your target audience. For example, when talking to statisticians, you might use the term "random variable". But to programmers, the term "random variable" means something entirely different, and so you'll want to choose another term to convey the same concept.

Similarly, when you are writing to the general public (e.g. in a public LJ post), you'll want to use terms appropriate for the general public. Since the authoritative (and commonly-accepted) definition of the term "atheism" is the active one, that's the definition you'll want to use.

To use any other definition is only to engender confusion.

-- Des
Tags: atheism, semantics
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