Dictionary Says 'Atheism'
Means 'Immorality'!?

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "hariharan"
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: Saturday, December 18, 1999 8:37 PM

Thank you for your letter, Hari.

Dictionaries give word usage -- not necessarily word meaning.

Mirriam-Webster's Dictionary gives, as a synonym for atheism, the word wickedness.

This reflects usage not true meaning (of which only the Microsoft Encarta World Dictionary print edition comes even close). That people in the West have equated atheism with wickedness (and still do) is a sad but true fact. Since the majority of people who use the word atheism are theists (who think faith is the epitome of morality), then this usage stands.

In the West, the latest, most fashionable taboo is against bigotry. To equate atheism with wickedness is the epitome of bigotry, so this definition is guaranteed to raise eyebrows in America and Europe. I have taken this travesty (the definition) and used it to atheism's advantage several times. The Mirriam-Webster's definition is a handy indictment of theism and I have used this angle effectively with several of the more open-minded theists with whom I have spoken. This definition comes to them as more of an embarrassment and a call to arms against fundamentalism than it ever comes as a tool against atheism.

I have mixed feelings over the fact that Microsoft Encarta has stopped giving wickedness and immorality as synonyms for atheism: it can no longer be said that the synonym for atheism is wickedness; however, this is one fewer record that people have equated atheism with wickedness.

I am currently negotiating with a few of the larger atheistic organizations to submit to Microsoft Encarta some changes for their entry for the word atheism. I would like the definition to say, "one who lacks a god belief (weak atheism) or one who says that no gods exist (strong atheism)." Several of us would like them also to list, as an option, spelling atheism with a capital letter (like they do for the word evangelical).

The problem in doing this is that my most powerful ally, American Atheists, thinks atheist should always be capitalized, and the word god should always be set in lowercase (or so their current President tells me). We will get nowhere with dictionary editors if we have an attitude like that. So, I am quietly soliciting the support of local- and world-level organizations who would like to lobby one or more of the reference book publishers to change the word atheism. I would prefer to see the option that it be capitalized, and would prefer to see the traditional definition (according to George H. Smith) be used as the primary definition.

I realize that Atheist Centre goes even further, seeing atheism as more than simply a description of one's lack of a god belief, and seeing atheism as itself a form of morality. I am not sure if we can go that far with the dictionaries, but I hope you will agree that the dictionaries do need to update their definition for atheism.

Perhaps you would be willing to discuss with me the meaning for the word atheism as it is currently used at Atheist Centre, versus how we use it here at Positive Atheism Magazine. We tend to agree with George H. Smith, whose studies of the definitions are described in the articles "Defining Atheism" and "The Scope of Atheism."

I look forward to hearing more from you.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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