Divides and schisms, definitions and implications

I keep running across these imagined barriers and schisms.  These vague, yet highly contentious definition differences.  The argument that there are certain implications no matter what the words mean.

So let’s start with some basics.  Most people reading this know I identify myself as an athiest (and if you didn’t – SURPRISE!!)
Now there always seems to be lots of contention between the concepts and definitions of atheist, agnostic, anti-theist etc  so let’s take a quick look at it ….

Atheist (gotta start somewhere right?) now Merriam Webster defines this as “one who believes there is no deity”  The Urban Dictionary attempts to go further, making divisions within atheist, ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ based on the assertions (if someone believes there is no god but does not assert this, they are claimed to be ‘weak’ atheists, as opposed to those that actively assert there is no god being ‘strong’ atheists.

In truth the word has nothing to do with how the person conducts themselves or what they tell others.  If we look at the roots of the word, which can be found on the online Etymology resource, we will see that Atheist is rooted in the Greek word theos, which means god or gods.  The prefix a~  means without, thus an atheist is one without god.  Now if the dog does not have dinner, does it matter if he barks, growls, humps your leg or lies in the corner?  Not to his having or not having dinner, he is still a dinnerless dog.  Having him bark at you does not make him a ‘strong’ dinnerless dog, while if he lies in the corner he is not a ‘weak’ dinnerless dog.  So making claims that someone being an atheist is, or can be defined by how much they talk about their lack of belief in one, many or any gods is patently and irretrievably garbage.

And to make claims that an atheist has some particular stance on religion beyond his or her lack of belief in any deities is worthless too.  As the word speaks nothing to religious bodies, only to beliefs in deities.  The only thing we can draw from it is that the person doesn’t agree with the assertion of any particular religion in their particular god or gods.

So let’s keep playing on this train-track before the next train shall we?

Agnostic – Ohhh this one has potential to light a few fires.  Merriam Webster defines agnostic as one who does not commit to belief or non-belief in god or gods.  I would posit that this is a very bastardized version of the word’s meaning.  The Urban Dictionary is far less cautious or apologetic about it’s bastardization of the original word, loading it’s definitions with charged phrases like “one who is not arrogant enough to presume to know whether or not god exists.” among others.  It seems that many of these definitions are designed to be inflammatory.

So let’s look at the formation of agnostic, where it came from and what it means.  The etymology is clear.  A~ the Greek prefix meaning not or without, and gnosos, the Greek word meaning knowledge.  T.H. Huxley was the person to assemble and use the word.  He used it to speak of Darwin’s great works, and the fact that humans don’t actually know what the ‘first cause’ was.  Assuming cause and effect for everything.  Thus agnostic says nothing about belief, it talks about a lack of knowledge.  From the explanation Huxley gives about the word  it seems clear that this is not the kind of lack of knowledge described by ignorance, but the kind of lack of knowledge caused by lack of access to facts.

So let’s look at another schism.  Skeptic vs skeptic vs sceptic.

At first blush the difference is obvious – English spelling vs US spelling and capitalisation vs no capitalisation.  But we really need to look a little deeper, because the only thing that could be explained here is the contention between true English speakers and Americans.

So why the contention?  The word, sceptic, is defined, in an unsurprising move for an American dictionary, by Merriam Webster, as “The British version of skeptic”.  This is ironically arrogant.  Seeing as the language is English, formed and spoken first in England, the country renamed as Britain.  This would make the British version the original version, and other ‘versions’ to be localised variants, or, in the view of some, just plain examples of bad spelling that have been codified.  However, to continue with the thought.  Sceptic means someone who doubts or questions.  However, despite referring to sceptic as the British version of skeptic, Merriam Webster defines skeptic in a different way.  Attachments are drawn to religion and the idea of scepticism as a movement.  skeptic is also equated with cynic.  And these are two entirely different concepts.

Many of these associations have been forced by people who would see people who engage in scepticism misrepresented and in a bad light.  scepticism does not specifically relate to religion, however it can be applied to religion and religious thought.  Scepticism is not the same as cynicism, cynicism is the act of viewing the world in the worst possible options.  I should know, I am very good at this.  Scepticism is the act of questioning assumptions not assuming the worst possiblity.

There is a movement to create a social body under the name of skepticism, using the k to define it as a social group or movement.  An attempt to reclaim the word sceptic or skeptic from the twists applied to it’s definition.  I support the idea of a sceptic movement (or skeptic movemen) and since this started in the US I guess it fits that the k is used to define it.  But I will never be a fan of American spelling.  It always strikes me as an example of ignorant arrogance.




~ by scawalrus on December 4, 2011.

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