Tiptoe Through the Terminology

A consideration of the "isms" and other terms applied to and used by unbelieversPresented at the August 3rd, 1997 service of the North Texas Church of Freethought

Those who claim to be the followers of Jesus Christ call themselves "Christians." Yet the words "Christian" and "Christians" are used only three times in the Bible. And for well over a thousand years the Christians called their religion "Christianism," just as other religions go by terms — at least when the derivation is English such as "Hinduism," "Taoism," "Judaism," "Buddhism," and so forth. Except notice that it really ought to be "Christism," if it's a religion that was ever propounded by Christ. "Christianism" rightly refers to a religion created by people calling themselves Christians. And even today nobody can agree on who or what a Christian really is, let alone a Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Jew, or whatever.

Did you know that the term "Christianity" seems to have come into use only since the 17th Century? The suffix "I-T-Y," of course, is what is used to mean a quality of some kind, as in the words "subjectivity," "vanity," "inanity," and "insanity." So it's a peculiar word really, when you think about it, to apply to a system of religious theory and practice.

I mention these matters only to illustrate — despite appearances — how utterly confused is the terminology used to describe the dominant religions of our modern times in America. When we feel some frustration with the imprecision of the words thrown about among ourselves and our fellow travelers in unbelief, we should remember that language is, by its very nature, often inexact and ambiguous. Moreover, as George Orwell argued so effectively, both in his fiction and expository works, language is shaped by those who use it and the process is both governed by and generates its own social and political forces. That is why the only thing one can hope to learn from dictionaries is how certain words are commonly used among the general population. Even then, they are often used in different ways — which is why dictionaries often give several different definitions of a word — and various subpopulations of speakers of a language may have peculiar uses for words which subsequently come to dominate.

Now then, let's consider some of the words we use to refer to ourselves ...

The dictionaries usually say that ATHEISM is the belief that there is no God and that ATHEISTS believe that there is no God. Now there are such Atheists out there, but most people who say they are Atheists, by contrast, use the term only to indicate that they are not theists. That is, they don't say that they believe that there is no God, but, rather, that they simply do not believe that there are god(s). These two kinds of Atheism are sometimes called "strong" Atheism and "weak" Atheism.

AGH! These words! It doesn't seem "strong" headed to me to suppose that one can be absolutely certain of much of anything, much less suppose that one can prove that no god(s) exist. I've looked at some of the arguments offered as such proof by "strong" Atheists and, I must say, I find them only a bit less convincing than the fanciful claims of theists. So although this makes me a "weak" Atheist, it may make me seem "strongly" skeptical to both dogmatic Atheists as well as dogmatic theists.

Except for those who believe in every conceivable god, of course, it could be said that everyone is an Atheist. Christians are Atheists. For they don't believe in Queztalcoatl, or Brahma, or Odin, or Athena, or Anubis. This is why some of us often say that we Atheists only believe in one less god than most other people. Meanwhile, Christians and other monotheists sometimes say of themselves that they "all worship the same God." As if the God of the Catholics, the God of the Baptists, the God of the Presbyterians, and the God of the Methodists, not to mention the God of the Jews, the Muslims, and the Mormons, could all be the same guy. Again, keep that in mind when you're tempted to grieve over the fact that we unbelievers can seem unorganized.

A common terminological objection to Atheism, even among Atheists, is that it's "negative." Well, so are "motionless," "unfold," "nonfiction," "indelicate," "discontinue," and "impatient," all very useful words. Other words have "negative" etymologies, such as the word "atom," which means, literally, that which cannot be cut, since atoms were once considered to be the indivisible and irreducible units of matter. Not only that, but there are lots and lots and lots of "negative" words that are used to convey very positive emotional and practical meaning. I think "Atheism" should be understood in this way and should be considered — for obvious reasons — to be every bit as worthy of honor, esteem, and respectful use as words like "nonviolent," "nontoxic," "undamaged," "uncontaminated," "impartial," "spotless," "disentangle," and "smoke-free."

If there is a problem with "Atheism" being a "negative," it's that it's only a negative and/or that it's too narrowly negative.

The late Isaac Asimov complained that "I've thought of myself as an "Atheist," but that simply described what I didn't believe, not in what I did." Perhaps that's why he lent his name and reputation to the American Humanist Association. Yet Asimov was right. If you say you're an Atheist, it only says what you're not. Not being a theist is a very good start, of course. But Stalin was an Atheist as some believers delight in pointing out. Hitler was not an Atheist, by the way. Hitler was a Christian, and even had the support of the Vatican, so don't let them pull that one on you!

Just as one can be a Christian and also a very bad person, one can be an Atheist and be a very bad person. The difference is that bad Christians have often justified — and still do justify — their bad behavior on the basis of their religious beliefs. And although Atheists are often accused of being bad people because they don't share those beliefs, there has never yet been an Atheist who has relied on a lack of belief in god(s) as a defense for wrongdoing. Can it even be imagined, for example, that a murderer, or a bomber, or even a thief would excuse their actions by saying "But — no god(s) made me do it!?" So Atheists, not having god(s) and their sacred books or holy clergy to tell them what to do, have to look to something else for guidance.

This is why many people say they're Humanists. By this they mean to convey that they consider humanity and human beings to be their standard of value. And to the credit of Humanists, it is people calling themselves this that have gone the furthest — at least in the recent past — at making something visible of their Atheist ideas.

The American Humanist Association was founded in 1941 and has been perking along — some might say limping along — since then. The AHA describes Humanism as:

"a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion. Affirming the dignity of each human being, it supports the maximization of individual liberty and opportunity consonant with social and planetary responsibility. It advocates the extension of participatory democracy and the expansion of the open society, standing for human rights and social justice. Free of supernaturalism, it recognizes human beings as part of nature and holds that values — be they religious, ethical, social, or political — have their source in human nature, experience, and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny."

Well, lots can be made of that, obviously. And lots has been. Keep in mind that in 1941 many decent, honest, and sensible people were persuaded of the idea that Socialism/Communism and what was then going on in the former USSR were the scientifically necessary and predictable results of political and economic history which would ultimately vindicate their "rational philosophy." Perhaps this is why some people find that the AHA and many of its members tend to be very left-liberal, to the point of being somewhat doctrinaire, if not dogmatic about it

Also of interest is that the AHA — at least at one time — considered itself and was classified as a religious organization. And even now, though it maintains no seminaries nor conducts specific training, a branch of the AHA, the Humanist Society of Friends, ordains ministers, counselors, celebrants, or whatever they call them now. Dick Nelson here is the one you want to ask about that.

In reaction to some of these things and others, it seems, other Humanists took to describing themselves as Secular Humanists. Paul Kurtz, now Professor Emeritus of the State University of New York — Buffalo, who heads a veritable empire of organizations, has been at the head of this movement, at the center of which is the Council for Secular Humanism. This brand of Humanism is a bit less specific ideologically and, as a result, more inclusive. The current issue of the CSH's magazine, Free Inquiry, lays out the "basic humanist principles" as being "Our best guide to truth is free and rational enquiry ... concerned with the here and now, with solving human problems with the best resources of human minds and hearts ... committed to moral principles, which are derived from critical intelligence and human experience, and we must pursue positive ideals." The practical consequences of this, it is said, are "caring for one another, being tolerant of differences, and striving to overcome divisive parochial loyalties ... Constitutional democracy ... [and] striv[ing] to realize personal potential, maximize creative talents and artistic expression, and choose joy and hope over despair, guilt, and sin."

One could make a lot out of that, too. But, in practice, the Council for Secular Humanism organization has kept matters largely in the realm of the cerebral and has not chosen to get terribly specific about how these notions ought to be put into effect, which is, perhaps, entirely consistent with its own admonition that "We should defer to no dogma — neither religious nor secular — and never be afraid to ask 'How do you know?'"

As one might expect, this kind of vagueness, though making for more inclusiveness, has been criticized by some as not being activist enough. Paul Kurtz has been specifically criticized by some for other reasons as well, and he has returned the favor. Still, the Secular Humanists — who seem to draw even more abusive denunciations from fundamentalist Christian rabble-rousers than plain old vanilla Humanists — have been practicing what they preach to somewhat greater effect than others. Kurtz's organization has offices on both the East and West coasts, and an outpost in Saint Louis as well. There's a week of summer camp now in its second year. And, of course, most of us know of Prometheus Press from which a lot of good reading material can be had.

But even Humanism, AHA-style, Secular, or otherwise, has not been a satisfying label for many Atheists. So some have resorted to other terms: Rationalist, Realist, and Naturalist, for example, all of which presumably mean what they sound like they mean or whatever those who adopt the labels want them to mean. There is an "International Naturalist Church" out in California which exists primarily now as an internet entity. It promulgates a creed which is reminiscent of the AHA's practices.

Some Atheists have just tried to skip all these considerations and say that Atheism means a denial of the god-concept — we're talking "hard" Atheism now — as well as a complete rejection of all superstition and everything irrational and so on and so on. The late Madalyn Murray-O'Hair took this approach. In fact, she even envied the Vatican and bemoaned the fact — in print, no less — that she didn't enjoy the kind of power over Atheists that the Pope wields over Catholics. Go figure.

Ayn Rand was an Atheist as well, of course, and many Atheists feel most comfortable with the "ism" that Rand promulgated: "Objectivism." Perhaps it's too early to say whether or not this term will go anywhere. But its connotations presently seem almost entirely linked with the political and social ideas that Rand expressed in her writings, rather than with her Atheism.

The problem these days with saying that Atheism means a rejection of all superstition and irrationalism is that no one believes their own superstitions and irrationalities are superstition or irrational. Not even Christians and other believers. And when you think about this, it's a remarkable indication of the progress we've made in the last few hundred years. For even great churchmen like Martin Luther understood that reason was the antithesis of faith. Luther came right out and said that, "Reason is the greatest enemy faith has. Whoever wants to be Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." Yet, today, most all the god-believers want us to suppose that their faith is compatible with reason or even the inescapable logical consequence of reason!

Anyway, there are Atheists — who really do reject god-belief — nevertheless embracing UFO's, ESP, Bigfoot monsters, all kinds of strange ideas having to do with history, physics, cosmology, medicine, and you-name-it. I know an Atheist of some repute who insists that the Apollo moon landings were a government hoax. Another says that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is fantasy because "time always passes at the same rate." Some Atheists — who really do reject god-belief — are even enamored of stuff like reincarnation and other notions that would be supernatural except for the fact that they're claimed to be "paranormal." It's a bit like saying that the queen never sweats, but only perspires. Strange but true.

Atheism could mean something more than a mere rejection of the god-concept if it were also the case that such a rejection was always the result of a thoroughgoing commitment to rationalism, a resolute reliance on facts and reason, and a principled insistence on proportioning one's belief to the evidence. But this is not the case.

But it is a reason to look favorably on the term "Freethought." It's not a neologism, to begin with. It's not an "ism" at all, which is kind of nice. The term actually has a history, though, going back a few hundred years or so. It was used by various people to describe themselves and others as being devoted to honesty and intellectual integrity rather than to any particular ideology. As a result, "freethought" even appears in most dictionaries with the meaning of "opinions about questions of religion formed independently of tradition, authority, or established belief."

It's not perfect, to be sure. We dealt with the matter of perfection once before, of course. No such thing and a good thing too.

In particular, "Freethought" could be taken to mean opinions based on anything at all or nothing at all. But this, perhaps, is a consequence of the corruption of the idea of thought from that of a rational process to that of rationalization, from a locomotive engine to a decorative caboose, and from a revered guide to a debauched prostitute. Clearly, the rehabilitation of the very idea of thought and thinking — in all areas of human activity — is of vital importance, and not just to the cause of Atheism.

The dictionary definition of "freethought" does at least make clear the idea of its being nondogmatic. That is, Freethought encompasses opinions that are susceptible to revision and improvement, and can keep no company with those that are not, even in principle. And when "tradition, authority, or established belief" — broadly considered — are excluded, what is left but a process of thought? And what is thought but the application of reason to facts?

Freethought is also companionable with another "ism" which I've skipped over, that being the much-maligned and much misunderstood concept of Agnosticism.

Agnosticism was coined by the 19th Century British scientist, often referred to as "Darwin's Bulldog" in his day, because of his determined defense of the principle of the evolution of species by natural selection. Although the term has since come to mean something of a fence-sitting opinion on the question of the existence of god(s), consider what Huxley had to say about his intent. To begin with, he noted all the other "isms" prevalent, expressing sympathy, interestingly enough, only with the label "freethinker," but said that he thought all of these other people:

"... were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis" — had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. And, with Hume and Kant on my side, I could not think myself presumptuous in holding fast by that opinion. ... So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic." ... [A]gnostics ... have no creed; and, by the nature of the case, cannot have any. Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, 'Try all things, hold fast by that which is good'; ... Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively, In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable."

This is certainly a good description of nondogmatic or "weak" Atheism. And in referring to placing one's allegiance in facts and reason "without regard to any other consideration," it's also a very good description of Freethought. It's only too bad that Huxley's effort to draw attention to the how and the why of opinions and belief, and especially the idea of restraint contained in his new word, Agnosticism, was so quickly dissipated. For now, as then, we are sorely in need of a large measure of humility in supposing that we understand something about almost anything.

Isn't that the great lesson of history? That perhaps people should have sooner considered the possibility that they did not know that pestilence and drought were sent by deities and that other causes should be sought? That perhaps people should have sooner considered the possibility that the kings and nobles weren't clothed in divine power and didn't necessarily know better than everyone else how things ought to be?

Isn't it also the lesson of recent and even current events? That perhaps the moral worth of people cannot be judged by their skin color, their genitals, or whether they do and prefer to do just exactly what we do and prefer to do? That perhaps our understanding of human behavior — let alone morality and justice — is not such as to permit the construction of socioeconomic and political egalitarian utopias?

About what else we think we know should we be asking whether we do, in fact, really know it as well as we suppose? I suspect that, for me, as for most everyone else here, it is best to start with little everyday things that we are closest to rather than the global and national issues that, despite their importance, do not and cannot occupy our immediate attention most of the time.

Have we done our best to meet our many responsibilities to ourselves and others? It is really the case that our loved ones know that we love them? It is really true that our charity has begun at home? Are our Christian fundamentalist neighbors really so unreachable that it will do no good to give them a smile or do them some other little courtesy?

Ultimately, the terminological controversies are not what is most important. The terms and labels are not perfect and we are not perfect. [A good thing, too, that.] Even Huxley recognized this when he said that:

"The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, ... [and] Agnostics [He could as well have said Freethinkers — who are nondogmatic Atheists.] who never fail in carrying out their principles are, I am afraid, as rare as other people of whom the same consistency can be truthfully predicated. ... I am deeply conscious how far I myself fall short of this ideal, but it is my personal conception of what agnostics [Again, he could as well have said Freethinkers.] ought to be."

What ought you to be? Give it some thought, some Freethought. Independently of tradition — what you've always thought before about what you ought to be. Independently of authority, what you've always thought before about what you ought to be. And independent of established belief, or what you've always thought before about what you ought to be. To paraphrase General Patton, not to plan to do better is to plan to do worse.

You and I can think. We can change. We can try to become better than we've been. No god(s) can do that. But we can. It's not an opportunity that we should let pass, or one that we should let terminological distinctions get in the way of.

Thank you and Good Morning.