Is Webster wrong?

Skeptics CircleA conversation about atheism over at Stupid Evil Bastard got me thinking about my own atheism. I went over to Websters to find out how they defined atheism. I was a little perplexed by their definition:

Main Entry: athe·ist
Pronunciation: ‘A-thE-ist
Function: noun
: one who believes that there is no deity

I’m not sure that is correct. I call myself an atheist because I do not believe in a deity. That does not necessarily mean I believe there is no deity. I do not believe in a deity because there is no evidence that a deity exists. For me to “believe” something, I need some evidence. Therefore I can’t believe there is no deity unless there is some evidence that there is no deity. As you can’t really produce evidence for the absence of something, there is no way to believe that something does not exist. You can only assume that something doesn’t exist unless evidence presents itself to tell you otherwise.

So my assertion is that the correct definition of atheism should be:

one who does not believe in a deity.

Did Merriam-Webster get it wrong?

17 thoughts on “Is Webster wrong?”

  1. Maybe you should consider yourself agnostic instead of atheist?

    agnosticism (?gn?s’t?s?z?m) , form of skepticism that holds that the existence of God cannot be logically proved or disproved. Among prominent agnostics have been Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and T. H. Huxley (who coined the word agnostic in 1869). Immanuel Kant was an agnostic who argued that belief in divinity can rest only on faith. Agnosticism is not to be confused with atheism, which asserts that there is no God.

  2. No, agnosticism is sitting on the fence, neither believing or disbelieving. Atheism is definite disbelief. I do not believe in gods. It’s still not the same as believing in no gods though. Maybe I’m just being too picky with my semantics.

  3. Disbelieving and not having belief are two different things. I disbelieve in any god. I don’t have any belief either way. I assume there is no god until evidence tells me otherwise, but believing that there is no deity requires a leap of faith. Just like believing there is no tooth fairy requires a leap of faith.

    Belief requires either evidence (although some might say that once you have evidence, then belief becomes knowledge) or a leap of faith. Lack of belief does not and in fact cannot.

  4. The distinction you make is good, but doesn’t go far enough. An atheist is a person who knows there are no dieties. This definition makes it obvious that, contrary to popular opinion, atheism is not “just another kind of religion.”
    You think ‘knows’ is too strong? Substitute ‘Santa Claus’ for ‘diety’, and read all three versions. Which is the most appropriate?

  5. We can say we know there is no Santa Claus (sorry kids!), but it’s still just a lack of belief. It’s possible that there is a Santa Claus somewhere, and there is no way of disproving it, so strictly speaking it is impossible to “know” that Santa Claus does not exist.

  6. Maybe you would like the original Greek a bit better: Atheos, without a god.

    If I follow you, you are balking at using ‘believe’ in the definition. You divide belief into two catagories, that which has evidence and that which has no evidence (a leap of faith).

    However, belief has more than one definition. Among other definitions, belief can be simply an opinion or the acceptance of truth. I suspect you are willing to say you deny the existance of gods due to lack of evidence, an opinion. Yet, you are not willing to say you accept as a given truth that there are no gods.

    You may rather have Webster say that there are two (or possibly more) definitions for atheist:

    1. One who accepts as truth without evidence that no gods exist.
    2. One who denies the existance of gods due to lack of evidence.

    The first definition would be strong atheism, the second weak atheism (but not agnosticism). So I don’t think that Webster is incorrect, just imprecise.

    I realize I’m repeating what you just said, but that’s one way to know if we really are communicating.



  7. I’ll second Flex’s motion, with a variation:

    To be a-theistic is to be without a god, just as, say, one can be apolitical without denying the existence of politics.

    I recently looked through the owner’s manual for my truck, and noticed there was no reference to any god in it. Does that make the Chrysler Corporation, or even just that manual, atheistic? (Yes – but it doesn’t make either of them god-denying.)

    Would Chrysler see its sales increase among the believers if it changed the manual to read:
    Change oil every 3,000 miles. Pray.
    Change oil filter every 6,000 miles. Pray.

  8. Somewhere on the web, smarter people than I (maybe Hank Fox) proposed this: “Do you believe in God?” contains the apriori assumption of the existance of God. The best response noted was “I do not hold any god belief.” which rejects the (inferred) false dichotomy.

  9. Ok, I know this isn’t following the conversation’s direction, but, why do you think you can’t produce evidence for the absence of something?

  10. In a closed system you can prove that something is absent from it. For example you can prove that an envelope doesn’t have a letter in it by looking in the envelope. But in a more open system things get more difficult.

    If I say I have a god in my pants, you might look in my pants and say I don’t see it, I’ve proved that it’s absent. But then I tell you it’s an invisible god. A god with no mass or shape. An undetectable spirit god sitting in my pants. There is no way to prove the absence of my pant god.

  11. I think Kerry has it right. You seem to be streching the definition of atheism and contracting the definition of agnosticism. When I say definition, I mean the commonly accepted and used definitions.
    From your post, I would say you are an agnostic. It appears that your misconception of agnostics as “fence sitters” is preventing you from calling yourself one.

    Join us. It isn’t so bad here.

  12. I’m not an agnostic. My wife is an agnostic, and I know we do not have the same belief, or lack of belief. I’m an atheist. It looks like I might be a “weak” atheist based on Flex’s nice definitions, but I’m still an atheist.

  13. Actually, you strike me as being more stubborn than atheist. :)

    It seems to me (and others) that you’re an agnostic. I know I am but I don’t agree that I’m a ‘fence sitter’ or that being agnostic isn’t a belief system. In point of fact, I feel that agnosticism is a very pure belief. I’m not sitting on a fence when I hold that if there is a god, or gods, that they are beyond our ability to define or prove–or understand.

    As an agnostic, I’ve never held to the idea that there could be a god or could not be a god, in some wishy-washy fashion. Quite the contrary; I believe that humans just aren’t able to venture into the mindset to feasibly worship in a fashion that accurately honours their deity, especially when no one can effectively prove that one exists, or what one would want of mankind. It’s all hearsay, and hardly a concrete way to begin setting out lifestyles and rule sets for people to live by.

    Therefore, as an agnostic, my beliefs go beyond simply stating that one cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity, and carry over to how mankind and religion is not a realistic way to judge, govern, or coerce society into certain behaviours and beliefs.

    I was once told that there are things that we know, we know, and then there are things we know, we don’t know, but the area that causes the most trouble are the things we don’t know, that we don’t know. Agnosticism, to me, is admitting that there are things we know, that we don’t know. Atheism, is assuming knowledge when in fact, it’s a clear case of not knowing, what they don’t know–y’know?

  14. ok let’s try using Pierce’s analogy. I’m fairly apolitical in that politics don’t interest me much and don’t play an important part of my life.

    Using the same linguistic construct I am also an atheist, in so far as theism doesn’t interest me and plays no part in my life.

    Continuing with this linguistic train of though, agnostic means not gnostic, and gnosis is defined as: esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the ancient Gnostics to be essential to salvation. Well I guess that doesn’t interest me or play any part in my life either.

    So surprisingly, I am apolitical, atheistic, AND agnostic. I’m not asexual or amoral though.

  15. What do you call it if you’re not even sure what exactly it is that you’re supposed to believe or not believe in?

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