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January 6, 2006

The "A" Word

The word "atheism" is used in the subtitle of this blog. That decision was made after some debate. It has always seemed to me to be a harsh word.

As Leslie Stephen (who has been quoted a lot here lately) puts it, "atheism" is a name that "still retains a certain flavour as of the stake in this world and hell-fire in the next." It was, for numerous centuries, a widely and quite loosely used term of disparagement. Catholics called protestants "atheists," and vice versa.

We considered "disbelief" or "nonbelief" or "freethinking" (the title of Susan Jacoby's book) as alternatives.

Yet "atheism" does, as we finally concluded, get attention and make the point, rapidly and clearly. And the meaning of "a-theism" seems right, as I understand it -- without belief in the existence of god or gods, not against such belief.

Is the word too harsh, too off-putting, for the title of the book?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at January 6, 2006 9:51 AM


I don't think the word is harsh at all. It's clear, it's meaningful, and it's certainly what atheists use as a self-descriptor.

Conversely, freethinkers are not necessarily atheists, are they?

As for disbelief or nonbelief, going back to the blogs you have on your "positive" view, these terms introduce real problems. Recall the huge controversy when Penn Jillette read his essay on why he "believes" that "there is no god" as part of the "This I Believe" series for WNYC (picking up on Murrow's series from the 1950s). WNYC specifically tried to avoid the controversy by introducing his essay with a statement that they look for essays about what people believe. They are NOT interested in what they disbelieve. In my view, Jillette produced exactly such a statement. But, in truth, a lot of listeners called to complain that he didn't meet the criterion. Below is a snippet of his essay; the whole thing is available on the WNYC website:

'So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy.

But, this "This I Believe" thing seems to demand something more personal, some leap of faith that helps one see life's big picture, some rules to live by. So, I'm saying, "This I believe: I believe there is no God."'

Posted by: george at January 6, 2006 8:48 AM

i hadn't thought of the plus/minus valence of the word atheism until you mentioned it. it's as if the theists came to the table first and everyone thereafter had to define themselves in relation to them. as you mentioned in an earlier post, it's usually preferable to define yourself in terms of what you are for than what you are against. my sense though is that atheists are united in their opposition to belief but in little else.

Posted by: bob stein at January 6, 2006 10:45 AM

I think that there's a closet interest in the word that will draw far more than it will keep away. These are your readers, your audience anyway.

Posted by: susan at January 6, 2006 12:28 PM

"Athiest" is the right word. Most opposition to athiesm seems to be come from people who think the word is a synonym for "antitheist."

As an example: I consider myself a firm athiest, since I firmly believe there is no god. I am a "soft" antitheist, because even though I do oppose the idea of belief in god, I'm not militant about it, and I value over-ruling concepts like freedom of speech and thought more than I dislike theism.

Posted by: Crosius at January 6, 2006 2:08 PM

You mean the (working) subtitle, yes? No, I don't think it's harsh. Maybe 100 years ago it would have seemed that way. Now it's just a nice clear term. "My neighbor's an atheist." "Oh, really? Pass the butter."

Your book will be in good company. Using Open Worldcat, I see 627 instances of "atheism," 216 with the word "atheist," and 14 with "freethinker." If you want people to understand what your book is about, use some variant of the word atheism.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at January 6, 2006 3:59 PM

A couple of days ago here in Chennai the "rationalists" held a conference. (I assume they are nonbelievers -- and they certainly have a lot more gods to nonbelieve in round here -- although most of the resolutions they passed, as reported in the newspaper, concerned social justice.) Is "rationalist" a positive name upon which we could agree? Probably not. Was Shelley a "rationalist"? Bob's probably right that there is no positive name and maybe no alternative to atheism, said loud and proud. (Maybe "dis" can sound like a dis and "non" is inescapably negative.) But I'm increasingly taken with the positive *idea* discussed below and built on the thought that god is intended to fill some lack in reality (that belief is the dis); to be an atheist is to believe that reality's capable of carrying on on its own, thankyouverymuch.

Posted by: mitch at January 7, 2006 1:08 AM

I wish more people would embrace the term (atheist). I understand why many (who do not believe in God(s)) do not, given the common misconceptions about them.

One of the common misperceptions is that to be an atheist one must be absolute, granting exactly zero chance to the possibity of God's existence (and hence believing they can prove a negative). But since they have no problem granting the term "theist" to someone who believes but without absolute certainty, I think this is more a reflection of their general desire to disparage atheism.

Since most people who apply the term "atheist" to themselves do not utterly discount the possibility of gods, they just think it highly unlikely, there's little real distinction between us and people who prefer to call themselves "agnostics," as the majority of those people put the odds of God's existence at less than 10%.

If one wants to stress the unknowability of it all, I suggest "agnostic." If one wants to express what one believes, I suggest "atheist." I don't think it's a good idea to abandon the term for less disparaged synonyms, because that disparagement is targeting the belief -- regardless of what we call it. I believe it is better to take those attacks on directly.

Posted by: Peter A. at January 7, 2006 5:17 PM

I consider atheist is as offensive as aunicornist or aleprechaunist.

Posted by: Todd Sayre at January 10, 2006 7:13 PM

I agree on atheist being the right word to use.  Most common analogs for it, such as freethinker or humanist, always feel like euphemisms to me.

Posted by: Dayv at January 19, 2006 3:14 AM

Posted by: renewed at May 31, 2006 2:09 AM

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