What You Ain't Ain't What You Is
April 13, 2010 by Paul McKeever
Over on facebook.com, I posted the following “status” message, which has led to some interesting feedback. I post it some of it here, without name attribution (for the sake of the privacy of my facebook friends). I’ll update this blog post, as warranted, so check back from time to time to see how the debate develops.
My status message read:
Paul McKeever is not an atheist. One cannot be identified by what one is not. And, no, atheism did not “cause” communism. A zero cannot “cause” anything.
The responses were as follows:
Me: To clarify: I’m not an aSanta-ist either.
C: Come on Paul. Atheist is Greek atheos, the A meaning “without”, and Theos “belief in gods”. Simply the absence of belief that deities exist.
The word Agnostic, was created by Thomas Henry Huxley, again Greek, the A meaning “without”, and Gnostic “Knowledge”.
Words are slippery things, and language is inexact.
“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Stephen Roberts
“To clarify: I’m not an aSanta-ist either”
Well, of course you are not Without Belief in Santa. Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Santa Claus you have belief in. He was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. The historical figure of gift giver Saint Nicholas may have been inspired himself by a nearly identical story attributed by Greek and Byzantine folklore to Basil of Caesarea.
G: I see nothing wrong with that term. An atheist is one who lacks a belief in god(s). When describing or explaining my view of religion or “God”, I describe myself as an atheist. It is a word that describes a position with regards to the supernatural (lack of god-belief) so I have no problem using it and properly defining it….even if others want to think therefore I’m a communist or satan-worshipper. Or even if a lot of self-described “atheists” are of the skeptic-Dawkins type.
Just as I call my self a capitalist in regards to my political beliefs, even if some people want to think that capitalism means “big business” or corporatism.
B: In the context of a mostly theist society, ‘atheist’ is a perfectly reasonably term (if contextually appropriate). I do agree w Rand that atheism is nothing to get excited about a la Richard Dawkins.
Me: C: no, no, I understand the etymology of the word. That’s not what I’m driving at. I suppose its not only the amateur philosopher in me, but also the social tactician.
We don’t go around calling people who don’t believe in Satan “Asatanists”. We don’t call people who do not believe in evolution “Aevolutionists”.
For similar reasons, we don’t go about calling women “penis-less” men (though, arguably, there are a few alleged males who might rightly be called “dickless”…most of them, in office). A homosexual is not an “unheterosexual”. A “black” person is not an “unwhite” person. A tall person is not “unshort”, and a fat person is not “unslim”.
We normally identify people by what they DO believe, by what sexual organs they DO have, by the sexual orientation they DO have, by the amount of melanin they DO have in their skin, by the height they ARE, by the amount of fatty weight they DO have, etc. In order: rational, evolutionist, woman (or “having female sexual organs”), homosexual/gay/lesbian/bi, black/African-American/Canadian, tall, and fat.
The purpose of a Theist, in calling someone an Atheist, is to suggest a LACK of something that one SHOULD have. To speak of a lack is to speak of something that is missing, lost, stolen, gone, broken, etc.. It is to speak of a nothing, of an absence, of a zero. The Theist/Atheist dichotomy is, by its very nature, one that STARTS with the root concept – a god – and then categorizes everyone according to the god’s absence of presence.
But, here’s the KEY point: the Theist/Atheist dichotomy is an attempt not merely to separate the “haves” (of a believe in god) from the “have nots”, but – more importantly – to raise belief in the non-existent to the status of HAVING something. When “atheists” agree to identify themselves as people NOT HAVING a belief in god, they sanction the false notion that those who HAVE a belief in god HAVE something.
Put another way: A person who “has” a pocket chock full of no thing does not have some thing in his pocket. So it is with having a belief in any thing for the existence of which there is absolutely no physical evidence.
J: So what you’re saying is that it’s not enough for someone to just describe themselves as an atheist because it doesn’t define what drives them to act and choose?
Me: J: well, more precisely, for someone to describe themselves as an atheist is for someone NOT to describe THEMSELVES at all.
Imagine that you’re in the crowd at Disneyland. I say “Jason is the word we give to refer to the non-green thing”. Nobody – on the basis solely of your colour – will ever identify you.
But that’s not the essential problem with respect to the word “atheist”. The fact is that a theist is a person who believes an arbitrary assertion or a falsehood (depending upon the physical plausibility of the god in which the person believes). Arbitrary assertions and falsehoods, being false, are nothing; zero. To “hold” a zero is to hold nothing; to “hold” zero is NOT to hold. One who believes a falsehood does not HAVE something…he LACKS something: a connection to reality.