Tuesday, October 09, 2007

And Just Think: No More Silly Scarlet A's

All the brouhaha about Sam Harris and his call to stop using the word “atheist” to describe ourselves has generated umpteen posts in the Atheosphere. (Now, umpteen plus one.)

Some, like Spanish Inquisitor, have made an analogy between "atheist" and "gay."

... the word [atheist] has the capacity to become a wonderful umbrella term, much like “gay” is used to describe homosexual, lesbian, bi-sexual and even to a certain extent, the transgendered, along with not only a lifestyle and a sexual practice, but a culture. Atheism can include, despite its definitional limitation, a multi-faceted number of differing and complimentary world views and philosophies, if we allow it.

The above is a false analogy. "Atheist" is a common term for a nonbeliever, and always has been. But "gay" was not a common word for "homosexual" until homosexuals started using it to describe themselves. "Gay" used to mean "festive, colorful, merry," as in "don we now our gay apparel." Ever since the 17th century, it has also had a second, underground meaning relating to sexual conduct. Originally, though, "gay" was used to denote promiscuous heterosexuals: a prostitute was a "gay woman;" a brothel was a "gay house;" and a womanizer was a "gay man." Only after World War II, did a slow but concerted effort by the gay community change the standard meaning of that word.

The evolution of the word "gay" gave me an idea. While I'm perfectly happy with "atheist" to describe myself, I'd like to suggest an alternative.


Here's a future conversation I imagine.

Theist: You can't call yourself a reasoner. Anyone who uses reason is a reasoner. Look it up in the dictionary! I'm a reasoner, too.

Reasoner: Do you believe in any gods?

Theist: Yes, of course.

Reasoner: Then you're not a reasoner. We reasoners don't believe in any gods.

Theist: But you can't just change the meaning of a word that way.

Reasoner: Why not?

Theist: Because that's not what "reasoner" means.

Reasoner: Yes it is. A reasoner is a person who doesn't believe in any gods.

Theist: What about all the other people who use reason? The ones who do believe in god?

Reasoner: Well, they may claim they're using reason, and they may even be using reason. But they aren’t reasoners, by definition. You're not a reasoner if you believe in any gods. That’s what “reasoner” means: a person who doesn't believe in any gods. Any reasoner will tell you that.

Theist: You can’t just take over a word like that.

Reasoner: Yes we can. You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.

Theist: Well, I won’t. I’m still going to call you “atheists.”

Reasoner: That’s fine. Reasoners don’t mind being called “atheists,” although that word is a little old-fashioned, and viewed by some as pejorative. Still, you’re free to call us anything you like. Just understand that the accepted polite term for a person who doesn't believe in any gods is "reasoner."

Theist: I absolutely refuse to call you “reasoners.”

Reasoner: OK. But you should know that when you read a book by a reasoner, or when you see a reasoner being interviewed on TV, or when you hear a reasoner being quoted, that reasoner is a person ...

Theist: Yeah, yeah. A person who doesn't believe in any gods.

Reasoner: Now you're getting it.

So what do you think, fellow reasoners?


nullifidian said...

It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Perhaps that's just the way I say it, "ree'zuhn'uhr", though - I can imagine someone else saying it "reez'nuhr".

PhillyChief said...

I think it's all a waste of time arguing semantics. Brights, Reasoners, Freethinkers, Atheists, blah blah. How about the Sane? How about the Non-Delusional? How about Those Who Use Their Fucking Minds? No, not as snappy?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the objection to Atheist is that the word triggers negative predispositions, correct? So a new title would change that? Bullshit. As you wrote above, the typical response would be to just call us atheists anyway, which we are (personally I prefer anti-theist) so wtf?

I say we just take the word back. Yo, my Atheist! How many Atheists we got up in here? What now? I'll tell you what now. I'm gonna call up some hard, reason hittin' Atheists to go to work on my homes here with a pair of unhealed amputees and a list of bible contradictions. You hear me there theist? I'm gonna get 21st century on yo' mind. Sorry, went all Pulp Fiction there. Still, my point is so what if "Atheist" conjures certain feelings in people? That speaks to them, not us and we can't run away from who we are or hide behind a new word. I think this is all silly. We're fucking Atheists, damn it! Get over it.

The Exterminator said...

Nully: How about pronouncing it RAY-znuhr? Or how about letting it roll off the tongue as AY-thee-ihst?

Philly: The Sane. Hmmmm. I like the sound of that. How shall we pronounce it?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

When I was young and less...ummm...reasoning...I used to think that gays were queer, faggots, and a few other pejoratives I'd be embarrassed to use now. Today I think gays are nice people, just like me, who happen to experience and enjoy sex in a different manner. Nothing more.

Most people think atheists are those things I mentioned in my post. If they actually thought what we know is the truth, that we think clearly, are not swayed in our beliefs by illogic or unreason, that we simply insist on evidence before we come to conclusions, that we are, in effect, just like them, except that we look at life (and death) a little different than they do, we will have effectively done to atheist what queers did to gay.

So I agree with Philly. It's all semantics at issue. Lets focus on attitudes and understanding, not words. Change the attitudes, the words will fall in line.

Besides, I think the Harry Reasoner Estate has the copyright on "reasoner".

The Exterminator said...


Well of course it's a semantics issue. Actually, it's a non-issue, just an attention grab by Sam Harris. And, um ... me.

I'm just saying that we do have to call ourselves something, at least as long as our godlessness is not accepted by the majority of the world's human inhabitants. (Animals, I believe, are all atheists, although I would hesitate to call them "reasoners" -- except maybe for tool-making crows and other corvids, parrots, octopi, cetaceans, and the higher primates. Oh, and I can't forget Lassie. And, to be fair to the people who think the sun rises and sets on their brilliant kitties, let's throw in the whole lot of domestic cats, too. So on second thought, looking through that list, perhaps there are more reasoners -- in the original sense of the word -- among critters than among humans.)

For most of us, though, "atheist" is just fine. Although I do think RAY-znuhr has a very nice ring to it.

Russell Hume said...

Personally, I agree with Exterminator, this was a silly grab for attention by Harris.

Sure, a theist may instantly disregard anything you have to say after the word atheist comes into the conversation but does anyone really believe they won't disregard anything you have to say if you choose another title? As soon as they ask you if you believe in a god and you answer no and if that person is already predisposed to ignore you then they will anyway, despite what non-threatening title you use to describe your particular viewpoint. The only way to avoid being ignored by theists with this attitude would be to lie about your beliefs, and who wants to commit to dishonesty simply to convince a person that obviously cares less about truth and more about the opinions of like-minded zombies? I think I'll retain my intellectual dignity thank you.

A better route might be to actually educate people about the history of the word itself. I've touched on it a little bit in one my blog posts (shameless plug) but will discuss it a little more here.

The word "atheos" was originally slung around by Greek philosophers as an insult. The slur would continue to be used on into the early days of Christianity, and was often used by pagan Philosophers as a slur against Christians, particularly the word "atheotatous," meaning "the most atheist ones." Perhaps, by pointing out to Christians that the very word they use to vilify and dehumanize us is the etymological descendant of the word once used against them, they may be more prone to listen to us.

Then again, they might not stick around for the history lesson.

Babs Gladhand said...

I think I'm just going to stick with godless heathen.

The Exterminator said...


You may want to get Sam Harris's permission on that one.

John Evo said...

Reason is the tool. Atheism is the result.

Hey, I wonder if there are any reasoners in a foxhole?

Susannah Anderson said...

I am an atheist .... I am a reasoner ... godless ... infidel ... apostate ... a "bright" ... a member of the EAC ...

Hmm. None of those does anything for me. They don't define me; they point at one (important, but not defining) facet of who I am.

I believe many things. I don't believe many others. The existence of God is just one of those others.

I don't think I need a label, which doesn't define me in any case, just the box people may want to put me in.

The Exterminator said...

Glad you wandered over here. You've restated my point exactly.

However, there are those folks in the Atheosphere who want to claim that you can't tell the players without a scorecard.

Susannah Anderson said...

"However, there are those folks in the Atheosphere who want to claim that you can't tell the players without a scorecard."

Yes, they do. The purpose being, I think, to be able to accept or reject whatever is being said without the necessity of actually listening.