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May,2001

Dictionary Definition Of Prejudice by Cliff Walker

Yet another critic is accusing us of defining words to suit our needs by creating a specialized definition for "atheist." To give us an example of a specialized definition, he contrives a Muslim who says an atheist is "anyone who does not believe in Allah" (regardless of whatever other deities that person may believe in). He tells us that our definition, "one who lacks a god-belief, one who is not a theist," suits only atheists. He even dismisses our right to self-definition -- as if we even need to carry it that far!

To straighten us out as to what we really are, he suggests we consult the "American Heritage" dictionary. This book defines an atheist as (get this!) "one who denies the existence of God." Unfortunately for the credibility of our critic, this is a specialized definition if I ever saw one. It presupposes the existence of God and then defines an atheist as one who denies this "fact."

A generalized definition, I think, would be one that everybody could find useful. It wouldn't exclude one group or the other. In particular, such a definition would need to resemble unbiased reporting -- that is, to describe the argument rather than to take sides in the argument. Neither our critic's "Muslim" definition nor that of "American Heritage" meets these criteria.

I suggest that the traditional definition which we use (the "weak" definition) fits these criteria better than any other. Our use of the word will harmonize with that of a wider variety of dictionaries than the meaning suggested by "American Heritage."

The traditional meaning of "atheism" is "without theism." Atheistic writers have defined it this way since it stopped being a capital offense to defend the atheistic position. Charles Bradlaugh, Britain's most prominent paladin for atheism, exclaimed that "no position is more continuously misrepresented" than atheism: "Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God." Baron d'Holbach even went so far as to assert that "all children are atheists -- they have no idea of God."

The majority viewpoint among atheistic writers since the Enlightenment can easily be reconciled with what most modern dictionaries say about atheism. "Encarta" says an atheist is someone who "does not believe in a god or gods." The "Encarta" definition doesn't require that we assert that no gods exist (like some insist we do); it leaves room for either understanding.

The "Encarta" language can range from "lacks belief in gods" to "asserts that gods do not exist." This generalized, inclusive description can satisfy just about anyone (except our critics, of course). To go any further, one should stop using buzzwords and simply describe the idea itself: "unconvinced by god-claims"; "asserts that gods do not exist"; "does not know if gods exist"; "has no idea of God" -- varieties of atheism, diverse expressions of the lack of theism.

In short, we don't need to apologize for our use of this word; nor should we resort to asserting our right to self-definition as a people group. It is "American Heritage" which advocates a specialized, biased, and unusual meaning -- not the atheists.

The "American Heritage" entry, written by a monotheist, is suited for a world that is populated exclusively by monotheists.

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Copyright ©2001 Cliff Walker; Portland, Oregon