Mitch Benn, whose satirical songs I’m a big fan of, made the following remarks on Twitter the other day:
“Agnostic” and “atheist” are not different points on the same scale. They’re separate considerations. You can be both (I am).
“Agnostic” refers to what you KNOW. Like all truly honest people I’m agnostic on the question of the existence of gods. We can never “know”.
“Atheist” refers to what you believe. Theism is the belief in a god or gods. A-theism is the absence of this. That’s all.
A-theism. Not Athe-ism. The word describes an absence of a thing, not a thing.
Theism: belief in god or gods. A-theism: absence of this. Words mean what they mean.
A lot of people think “atheism” means The Firm Belief That There Is No God, but a lot of people think Frankenstein is the monster’s name.
I have a few things to say about this.
‘A-theism’ vs ‘athe-ism’
His breakdown of the word ‘atheism’ is spurious.
Look at some other related words. ‘Monotheism’ is belief in a single god, not a single belief in god. ‘Polytheism’ is belief in many gods, not many beliefs in god. And ‘pantheism’ is belief that god is everything, not every belief in god.
The prefixes all attach to the kind of god or gods being believed in, not the belief aspect. In light of this, the logic would favour ‘athe-ism’ (belief in no god) over ‘a-theism’ (absence of belief in god). But in any case, logic and borrowed Greek prefixes don’t fix meanings.
From Greece to France to England and back to France
I took a quick historical tour and was surprised to find that ‘atheism’ appeared in English before ‘theism’, which was a later adaptation. Likewise for ‘atheist’ and ‘theist’.
But ‘theist’ only dates from 1662 and ‘theism’ from 1678. And their parentage isn’t French. In fact, the French equivalents seem to be the offspring of the English. According to the Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales, ‘théiste’ dates from 1705 and ‘théisme’ from 1745. Both entries mention their English forerunners.
Mitch is wrong to suggest a word can have only one meaning. Dictionaries define ‘atheism’ both as lack of belief in god and as positive belief that there is no god. There are lots of words with more than one meaning, and sometimes a word’s meanings are similar enough to risk confusion. This may be an unhelpful feature of English, but insisting that your preferred meaning is the one true meaning (pause to note the irony) isn’t the answer. The answer is to take care in how you use the word.
The same applies to ‘agnostic’, which can mean both a person who believes that we cannot know about god and a person who is simply uncommitted either way. Both meanings date from the late 1800s.
I don’t want you to stop reading
There’s a related issue about the pragmatics of negation.
If you say ‘I don’t eat eggs’, you mean that it is not the case that you eat eggs, and that’s that. But if you say ‘I don’t like eggs’, that will normally be understood more broadly, as meaning that you actively dislike eggs. If your opinion of eggs is neutral or non-existent, ‘I don’t like eggs’ is not what you say – unless you’re being perversely legalistic.
Some verbs, when negated in this way, imply not just their negation but their opposite. Other examples include ‘I don’t recommend taking the train’, ‘I don’t trust estate agents’, ‘I don’t support immigration controls’ and ‘I don’t think Justin Bieber is a good singer’. It seems that these verbs are ones that involve positive evaluation, but that’s just a theory off the top of my head.
You can see where I’m going: ‘I don’t believe in god’ will tend to be understood as meaning that you positively reject the existence of god. So when you’re taking care to clarify what you mean by ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’, take care to take even more care with your explanation.