Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When In Doubt... Return To Your Roots (And Root Words)...

As someone who has little desire to be right, and much desire to be ACCURATE, I am always noticing little ways that misunderstandings occur and outright confusion is perpetuated through carelessness in communication, be it written or spoken.

One of the things that is often a bone of contention between atheists (non-believers) like myself and religious people is that there is a huge misconception that atheist means something that it does not, in fact, mean. This is partially because many dictionaries contain inaccurate definitions for it (and many other words) written by those who sometimes fail to adhere to the definitions of the root words and their prefixes and/or suffixes, thus embellishing or even changing the definitions to the point where the word becomes an inaccurate distortion of not only the origin of its root word and any prefix or suffix, but also a distortion of the word's functional meaning.

I'm referring to the fact that several dictionaries falsely define atheism as "one who believes there is no deity", as in the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary online. Why is this inaccurate? Because it varies from the actual meanings of the prefix and root word, when anyone who studies language will tell you that such variation is a huge cause of confusion and mis-translation.

Here is the actual definition of the word atheism, with the Latin prefix and root word to the left, and its meaning in English to the right:

A = not, without
Theism = belief in the existence of god or gods

In other words, atheists are "not" theists. Atheists are "without" theism. (Atheists are without a belief in a god or gods.)

Somehow, in adding ONE LETTER to the word theism, which they accurately defined, they have come up with a COMPLETELY different, arbitrary and inaccurate definition of not only the word "atheism", but the prefix "a" as well.

How on EARTH can one get "one who believes there is no deity" from a root word that is defined as "a belief in the existence of god or gods" simply by adding one letter that means "without"? This is a glaring error, and one that must be corrected if any dictionary is to be respected as an authority on the definition of that or any other word.

In this example, Merriam-Webster has taken the established definition of the prefix "a", which is "not" or "without", and changed it to mean "believes there is no". This prefix simply doesn't have that meaning. The prefix "a" has nothing to do with belief, and it does not have the same meaning as "anti", which means "against" or "opposite".

If Merriam-Webster defines the word "theism" as "belief in the existence of god or gods", adding a prefix that means "without" should change the meaning of the word by only one word, to include the word "without" rather than to embellish and include other words that mislead one to come to the conclusion that there is some type of "belief" involved in not having a belief to begin with. "Belief" implies an active decision toward a specific conclusion, not a lack of a conclusion based on a lack of evidence.

One letter should only change the definition of the word "theist" according to the definition of that one letter, a Latin prefix meaning "not" or "without", to mean "without a belief in god or gods"... and yet we see here that whomever authored the definition for the word atheist inserted their own misguided assumptions about those who call themselves atheists, and I'd be willing to bet that the person who wrote it was NOT an atheist.

If I had a dime for every time I had to explain to a "believer" why atheism does NOT mean that one "denies" there is a god or gods, claims to know that there is no god or gods, or has a "belief" that there is no god or gods, I would be a very wealthy woman.

The lack of belief of the atheist is not required to be based on a belief that there is no god or gods, but rather, is most often based on the fact that there is no credible evidence whatsoever to support it. In fact, there is no more scientific evidence to support the idea that there is a magical being in control of and/or which created the universe than there is to support the idea that when a child loses a tooth a flying entity comes and takes the tooth and leaves money under the child's pillow.

Both beliefs are based on the claims of human beings to other human beings. Both beliefs are believed based on blind faith in the claims and the person making them, with no critical thinking whatsoever involved. That's what "faith" means... "complete trust" or "firm belief in something for which there is no proof".

I suspect that the reason many have this misconception that atheists have a "belief" in there being no such thing as a god or gods is that there *are* many atheists who *do* claim to know this, and millions of atheists like myself disagree with that position, since it is not knowable whether there is or is not a god or gods. Most atheists simply recognize that there is about as much likelihood that there is a god or gods as there is a likelihood that there is a tooth fairy or anything else of a supernatural nature written and/or spoken about and/or taught by humans to other humans over the course of humanity.

Then comes the next stage in the discussion (I've had this same discussion with literally HUNDREDS of people over the past decade), which is usually that "you aren't an atheist then, you are an agnostic".


The word "agnostic" is Greek in origin, and means: "Greek agnōstos unknown, unknowable, from a- + gnōstos" known

A = not, without
Gnostos = known

In other words, not known.

Agnostics tend to be "on the fence" about whether they believe in a god or gods. However, atheists, while most are humble enough to acknowledge as agnostics do that it is not knowable whether a god or gods exist, are not on the fence at all. This isn't to say that they have a "belief" that there is no god, any more than they have a "belief" that there is no tooth fairy. Rather, they are not inclined to waver back and forth like an agnostic tends to do, and remain steadfast in their position that it makes no sense to believe anything based on faith, and that until there is proof of a god or gods, it makes no sense to behave as if there is, anymore than the fact that having no proof one way or another that there is or is not a monster under your bed means that you should have faith that there is and behave as though there is, living with irrational fear that you will be grabbed if your feet dangle off of your bed.

Likewise, the atheist position is that it makes no sense to live in fear of burning in an eternal lake of fire or fly planes into buildings in the hope of obtaining 77 virgins after one's death in an invisible world called "the afterlife" simply because there is no proof that there is or is not a god or gods. If one plays the odds in such a foolish manner, as in Pascal's Wager, one must then adhere to all religious claims and carry out all instructions from all religions in order to "be safe", since there is no way to know which religion is true among the many religions in conflict with one another.

Some people believe that it is bad luck to cross the path of a black cat. An atheist would not adjust their path to avoid a black cat. An agnostic might do so "just to be safe". The atheist position is that it makes no sense to do so without evidence to support the theory, and the believer's position is that you must not just *pretend* to believe in a god or gods in order to "just be safe" but that you must really believe wholeheartedly in the god or gods in question and obey whatever the humans who claim to quote them say, or else pay the consequences.

The desire for religious people to define atheism as a "belief" comes from a need to attempt to put atheism in the same category as religion so that they can put themselves on equal ground with atheists and argue that "atheism is just another belief that you can't prove". The reason why this doesn't make sense is that belief implies a commitment toward something specific in spite of the fact that there is no proof, and un-belief (lack of belief) simply dismisses any notion that it makes sense to have "faith" in something that is not supported in any way by scientific evidence.

Atheism is a "belief system" or "religion" the same way "off" is a television channel. It isn't.

Science is a "belief system" or "religion" the same way "off" is a television channel. It isn't.

Put another way, an agnostic isn't sure whether they do or do not have a belief in a god or gods. Often, agnostics find themselves believing that there is a god or gods based on faith, even though they acknowledge that it isn't knowable. At other times, agnostics doubt the existence of a god or gods, which is really what agnosticism is all about: doubting that there is a god even though they at times believe that there is one.

Atheists do not waver back and forth. Atheists do not believe in a god or gods one moment, and then change their minds the next. Atheists are without a belief in a god or gods based on faith or anything else. We simply do not find a reason to believe in anything based on faith, since one can believe in anything based on faith, as faith does not require any supporting evidence whatsoever. We are open to believing if someone provides us with evidence to support such a theory, but it must be real, testable, repeatable, observable, verifiable evidence, and not just someone's word from ages ago back when people didn't even know where lightning comes from.

If someone approached you today and told you that a bush caught on fire and began speaking to them, and claimed that it was a god speaking to them, I seriously doubt even the most religious among us would find that person credible, simply because such a statement flies in the face of everything we know to be possible and/or realistic. In fact, we would probably ask them what drug they had just ingested. Why, then, do we accept such claims made by people from thousands of years ago?

I am without a belief in a god or gods. I am not against such ideas. I am not anti-god or anti-gods. In fact, I rather like the idea of the version of the Christian god that is all-loving and protective, even if I do not care for the jealous, angry, vengeful, torturing god that wants to throw those who do not believe into an eternal lake of burning fire, which doesn't seem loving at all to me. (Even most humans aren't that sadistic. Aren't gods supposed to be above humans in their behavior? Seems like a very low-level being that would threaten such a thing.) However, liking the idea of something does not mean that it makes sense to believe in it.

I am extremely fond of the idea of Leprechauns and the pots of gold they are said to carry around. Unfortunately, I have no reason to believe in those, either, and even if I believed in them, it is not going to change the reality of whether they do or do not exist.

In order for a person to be rightfully accused of "believing" there is no god or gods, one would have to be an ANTI-theist... since "anti" is a Latin root meaning "against" or "opposite". What is opposite of believing in the existence of something? Not a lack of belief in it, which is passive, but rather, an outright declaration or claim that it does not exist. Most atheists do not make such claims. They simply declare the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim, and until there is, they find no reason to believe. It's not the same thing as saying "I know there is no god." It's a very distinct difference.

Need another example?

An atheist says "I am not against the idea of a god or gods. Prove it to me and I'll believe. Until then, I find no valid reason to believe."

An agnostic says "I am not against the idea of a god or gods. Prove it to me and I'll believe for certain, but I might already believe on some level based on faith, I'm just not sure all of the time. Sometimes I *feel* that there is a god or gods even though I recognize that it is not knowable, but sometimes I think that's just wishful thinking."

You can not prove a negative. Proving that there is no god is not possible. We can only prove something that exists, not something that doesn't exist. The burden of proof is on those making the claim. If there is one, prove it. It isn't our job to prove that it *doesn't* exist. Science doesn't attempt to prove what does not exist. Science only looks for evidence of what does exist or is thought to exist. To date, despite the fact that there are thousands of scientists who are religious and desperately want to prove the existence of a god, there has been not one bit of evidence that meets scientific standards that shows any sign whatsoever that there is such an entity.

Furthermore, you don't prove there is a god responsible for creating the universe simply because you disprove an alternate theory. The proof that one is invalid does not create proof that the other is valid by default.

If I have two suspects in a crime, I can not convict one because the other is found not guilty. I must prove that suspect number two is guilty the same way that I must prove suspect number one is guilty. The same is true of theories on how the universe began. The fact that we can not prove the big bang theory does not create proof that the universe was created by a supernatural entity, nor does it make such a magical idea any more likely to be true.

Another argument gets made that "but lots of atheists claim that there is no god and argue that they know there is no god". To assume that making such a claim somehow changes the definition of the word "atheist" or "atheism" is every bit as ridiculous as claiming that Westboro Baptist Church members who carry signs that say "God Hates Fags" somehow changes the definition of the word Christianity into something that means "a religion whose followers hate homosexuals". How ludicrous!

It is a mistake to define a word by what people who call themselves by that label do. The word or label has a specific definition that is not interchangeable, otherwise it becomes useless as a word.

Unfortunately, there are many words and concepts that are misunderstood in every language, and some are unable to resist the temptation to explain a word according to their (mis)-understanding when defining it and submitting a definition for inclusion in a dictionary.

Dictionaries are not written by any one person, but by many people, all of whom submit definitions, and those definitions which get updated periodically are adjusted for the sake of clarity or to correct errors.

I can hear the cynical jackasses of our society now. "Oh my flying spaghetti monster! I can't believe Angie Max is actually disputing the dictionary! How ARROGANT of her! Who does she think she is?!?"

I'll tell you who I am... I am a human being, no more and no less than the people who submit definitions for inclusion in dictionaries. The reason why dictionaries get updated is that errors do occur and are pointed out by others just like me. There's nothing arrogant about attempting to correct errors, and no, it doesn't mean I think I'm "smarter than the people who wrote the dictionary". It simply means that, regarding the word atheism, I have insight and knowledge that those who varied from the well-established meanings of the prefix "a" and the root word "theism" obviously did not have.


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