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Linguistics and ‘atheism’

April 24, 2013

The exact meaning behind atheism in often caught in a quagmire for various reasons. Are we referring to strong or weak atheism? Does the concept of agnostic atheism apply? While I don’t have to consider these exact views (I have philosophical warrant to cautiously support theism) myself, they present a key area of debate for religion in general. But today we’re not to write another article on the epistemological issues – No need to add to that big pile! Instead we’re going to attack what ‘atheist’ means … from a linguistic viewpoint.

This article will focus on a refutation of written by R.T Carrol who writes for the Skepdic website. [see footnote 1] I recommend you go read that (rather questionable) article now. It’ll assist in understanding the refutations. Here’s what I wrote in reply to the article (see footnote for background) :

Let’s approach this topic from a linguistic angle.

The prefix ‘a’ often denotes ‘not’ . Think atypical, asocial, apolitical etc. Henceforth, the use of atheist is perfectly legitimate in denoting ‘not theist’ . That’s the linguistic viewpoint; we’re not very well going to start erasing words from English, are we? Theist in turn denotes belief in a God and atheist denotes ‘not belief’ in a God. Positions like agnosticism refer to the assurance behind one’s knowledge and so forth. Then again, I said I’d approach this linguistically, so I won’t broach epistemologically focused approaches.

Like any word, atheist has denotations and connotations. Mr. Carrol cries foul over some of the ridiculous (I agree here) connotations ascribed to the term atheist… and then goes on to deny the denotative aspect of ‘atheist.’ This is, to put it mildly, idiotic. What Mr. Carrol ought to say is something like ‘the connotations of atheist are misguided, and don’t follow in any way from the denotations.’ Mr. Carrol does focus on the denotative aspect of atheist briefly near the end, but it’s scarce remedy for the multitude of other faults he commits.

For instance, Mr. Carrol happily engages in the egregious use of connotations of theist, going far beyond the denotative aspect… but that’s exactly what he was bemoaning about theists attacks on atheism! Mr. Carrol can’t have his cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, Mr. Carrol engages in an unsubstantiated assault on the connotative aspects of theism.

Mr. Carrol does that which which he decries, and misses basic points of linguistic theory (prefixes anyone?) . He’s a laughing stock by the article’s end.

On a sidenote, I don’t mean to viciously attack connotations. Connotations are an extraordinarily important part of communication – they complement the denotations of a word. Furthermore, connotations can (and are often) borne out by experience. That said, that experience is often of limited use as per induction, small sample size etc. On this particular issue it would be much better if both sides did not engage in the use of connotations. Let’s let theist simply mean to believe in a God and end there. Let’s let atheist simply mean a lack of belief in a God; the extent of disbelief and the degree of atheism (strong vs. weak) is outside a linguistic viewpoint. Let’s avoid dousing the flames with petty words.

Unfortunately, Mr. Carrol simply throws a bucket of water on one flame while setting 2 other fires alight. The fire expands from his efforts.

There’s our linguistic angle; that’s most of what I wanted to say really. We simply cannot ignore language – the prefix ‘a’ often denotes ‘not’ ; this is a clear point in linguistics. There may be legitimate concerns as to the strength of ‘not theist’ – weak vs. strong atheism (and theist counterparts of course) , debates over BOP and presumption (these are more easily resolvable) and so forth. However, those are issues which require a more epistemological grounding. It’s crucial to demarcate the linguistic and epistemological aspects of words like atheism. Let’s be very clear in dispelling the misconceptions of atheists and theists who make the same crude mistakes as Mr. Carrol does in his work; intellectual enlightenment is not served by this blatant tomfoolery.

To conclude, we’ve shown how what appears to be at first glance a simple matter – the mere usage of a word – is informed by both epistemological and linguistic factors. Many people commonly forget the linguistic aspect; how many people think of ‘atheism’ in terms of prefixes? This is a clear example where knowing the thoughts of multiple fields provides an insight that is not within the purview of any single field.

That is the epitome of holistic thinking.



Footnote 1 – I came across this article by chance in this thread , and posted my thoughts in the thread. However, different mediums are important in conveying different messages. Remember, I’m Logic_on_rails on


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