What’s the Opposite of Dictionary Atheism?

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So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism and dictionary atheists — atheists who insist that “atheism” can only mean, and should only mean, “no belief in any gods,” with no other implications, and no atheist activism about anything else. (Except, of course, for the issues they think are clearly connected to atheism, like church/state separation.)

So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism, and I want to talk about the opposite of that: atheists who use the word more broadly, for whom “atheism” can also mean the implications that they see as implied by lack of belief, or the communities and movements and organizations created by atheists, or the critical thinking skills and commitment to evidence-based thinking that led us to atheism in the first place, etc.

So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism, and I want to talk about the opposite of that, and a question occurred to me: What’s the opposite of “dictionary atheist” What would be a good term for that?

I was thinking “thesaurus atheist,” which I like — but it’s a little hard to say, with all the th’s and s’s. What are some other ideas?

A few suggestions that were made on Facebook, where I first posed this question: connotative atheism; encyclopedic atheism; consequential atheism; extended atheism; practical, pragmatic or functional atheism; applied atheism (this sounds like a college course, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing); descriptive atheism (“as opposed to dictionary atheism, which is inherently prescriptive”); philosophical atheism; expansive atheism; verb atheism; Wikipedia atheism (“Full of helpful connections to related topics and subject to change without notice”); Big Picture Atheism. (This isn’t a complete list: it’s a longish Facebook thread.) Do you like any of these? Do you have others to propose? Your time starts — now!

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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What’s the Opposite of Dictionary Atheism?
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39 thoughts on “What’s the Opposite of Dictionary Atheism?

  1. 1

    Consequential Atheism feels right, implying that atheistic belief both has consequences and is, itself, of consequence to the world. Or how about a simple, “Active Atheism”?

  2. 3

    How about ‘Corollary Atheism’, as something that follows naturally from the original concept.

    But I like ‘functional atheism’ or ‘applied atheism’ as well.

  3. 4

    I like “practical” or “functional” atheist. I’m always saying that I’m an agnostic in my approach to knowledge and therefore an atheist for all practical purposes.

  4. 5

    I remember some televangelist railing on about those evil “God-less Secular Humanists” when I was an adolescent. It seemed about right to me. I’ve self-identified and a secular humanist ever since. My atheism is a small part of who I self-identify. Atheism as an isolated belief never made any sense to me. Shouldn’t it be part of a larger worldview? Free thinker. Secular Humanist. Even Dickbag Libertarian. Something! Anything! Why bother focusing on just the atheism at all?

  5. 6

    “Dictionary” anything carries a sense that it is cleanly defined and neatly pigeon-holed. It is cast in stone, forever static and never changing.

    The opposite would be something that is adaptable. Flexible. Something that changes as necessary and is able to adapt to new situations. Something that can die back occasionally, only to return more vigorous than ever, with flower and fruit. Something that, as a result, is somewhat vague but always vibrant. Something alive.

    I would go with “living atheism.”

  6. 7

    It seems like we have already been through this several times, with commentary by Jen McCreight, PZ and others in the fights against the slymepitters. Isn’t that what Atheist + was all about? I liked Atheist +.

  7. 8

    My problem with atheism is that, fundamentally, “dictionary atheism” isn’t incorrect: it is a conclusion, not the process that led to that conclusion. Being an atheist doesn’t inform how that conclusion was reached and it is in fact possible to become an atheist on the exact same basis as one becomes a theist. In other words, being an atheist doesn’t alone describe any person to any greater extent than merely rejection of gods, i.e dictionary atheism.

    I do however understand the desire of looking for a stronger term reflecting deeper ideals, but I think looking for a descriptor attached to atheism is a mistake. The interesting bit isn’t to describe what kind of atheist you are but to identify the process that lead to that conclusion. At least for me, the term atheist is ill suited as a personal label simply because it is oddly specific: the rejection of gods is no more central to my identity than my rejection of unicorns or fairies. I think the better way is to look at what made me reach these separate conclusions, and the answer is that I reject faith.

    So my preferred label isn’t any kind of atheist but apistevist, meaning “without faith”. I think that has, for me, the correct far reaching implications, not only about rejecting gods but also seeing reason as the primary tool to be moral.

  8. 10

    I look at it all as secularism, skepticism, and humanism. Maybe secular-progressivism? I know if any word applies entirely, but there is a huge overlap between atheism and those 3 groups, and we here find ourselves in the center of the Venn diagram.

  9. J B
    11

    (Different JB here. Hi, other JB!)

    Could take a page from the Buddhists and call it “Engaged Atheism”. In Buddhism it contrasts with what might be called “dictionary Buddhism”–focusing on one’s own enlightenment, following the rules of one’s sect as written, and generally having one’s Buddhism be its own hermetic little world. There’s a bit of a “social good” angle implied there that might be an imperfect fit for Libertarian Atheist Douchebroism, I dunno.

  10. 12

    I think the term consequentialist atheist is appropriate, but a bit cumbersome. The decision to be an atheist has consequences, essentially it requires not only the denial of imaginary deities, but also morals/world views based upon those religions using their deity to define such things. Once that basic tribalism and resultant paranoia is rejected, most will define all humanity as their tribe, not just those of the same religion, skin color, etc., etc. It requires one to look at the results from a different point of view.
    Ends up being Atheism+, at least in my case.

  11. 13

    “Applied atheism” really works for me. I’m an atheist; that says something specific about me, per the dictionary definition. I then apply that viewpoint to other things in my life and use it as a fulcrum to apply my skepticism and things like my interest in church/state separation activism and such to those activities.

  12. 14

    I’m also a fan of ‘applied atheism’, at least as a self-described label – I’m an atheist, therefore X. However, as a specific opposite of ‘dictionary atheism/atheists’, I’d suggest ‘organizational atheism/atheists’ (or if that’s too wordy, just ‘organized atheists’). After all, the main thing (in my eyes) that sets apart dictionary from non-dictionary atheists is that the former question why we need atheist-specific organizations.

  13. 15

    How about “slang atheism”? That’s what they usually write in the dictionary next to the definition which the Very Proper And Precise People don’t like, isn’t it?

    (I actually like “living atheism” better, but I thought I should suggest it anyway.)

  14. 17

    All dictionary atheism means is that the atheist in question doesn’t think their atheism has connection to values or much else. Keeping this in mind, it’s quite possible to be a progressive dictionary atheist. Although most of the people around here being dictionary atheists have been scumbags, a few were just semantically obsessed regular folks.

    That also means it’s possible to be a regressive non-dictionary atheist, who finds that their horrible ideals flow from their understanding of a godless universe. I’m sure many scumbags fit into that category, probably including some who argued for dictionary atheism dishonestly.

    Therefore, being a non-dictionary atheist isn’t an especially important position to hold, and I wouldn’t even other coming up with a descriptive term for it. I feel ambivalent and it doesn’t bother me if people have different opinions on this, just felt like I should say something since no one else is representing this argument yet.

  15. 18

    I see the phrase “dictionary atheist” and I immediately want to go into my “atheist means lack of belief in gods NOT certainty that there AREN’T gods” speech. 🙂

    [I currently lack a belief in “spider on my desk”. I am not CERTAIN there are no spiders on my desk. If one turns up, my belief structure will simply change to accommodate the new data.]

    Sorry. 🙂 As for the actual topic at hand… I also like “applied atheism”. Actually, I’ve always carried around a rather loose definition of “humanism”, and thought of that, specifically, as “applied atheism”. Essentially, the richer, deeper atheism, not covered by the simple definition — which I think is what Greta is reaching for…

  16. 19

    I would go with secular humanist except that the Humanists, many of whom aren’t atheists, have laid claim to that title. So applied atheist or engaged atheist or living atheist could be used. Personally, I just go with atheist and, if asked, will further define what my atheism entails. Besides, I don’t know what the title for the opposite of a Dudebro Libertarian Atheist is.

  17. 20

    Semantics, but the Oxford dictionary is specifically descriptive, so a dictionary can certainly prescribe meaning of a word, but let’s not forget that the way everyone above me has used the word atheist could be found in Oxford, which is more concerned with cataloguing the ways a word is used than the way it “should” be used.

  18. 23

    Dithering Atheist would apply to me. I used to think homosexuals were criminals (they were back in the day) now I don’t. I was against the Iraq War but I agree with the idea of waging war against ISIS. On many other subjects I find myself agreeing with the last person to speak. So Dithering Atheist for me.

  19. 25

    Library Atheism, Living Atheism, Dynamic Atheism, Complex Atheism, Active Atheism, Anthropic Atheism, Human Atheism, Humanatheism, Humaneism, Humanism, Human Organism, Alien Organism, Alien Autopsy, Alien Trilogy, Alien Resurrection, I’m sorry I forgot the question?

  20. 26

    I’d just talk about atheism in real life, or the real-life implications of out and open atheism. True, dictionary atheism doesn’t necessarily involve a concern for one’s fellow xrglxrst, but basic human decency does. So you can be a dictionary atheist and a nihilistic, self-centered psychopath, or you can express empathy for the daily struggle of other atheists, as well as facing all the problems that organised religion compounds in life and politics. If you are an atheist activist, advocating for issues that matter to atheists, that should make you de-facto intersectional (although you may perhaps need to be educated and informed about the problems atheists other than you yourself face).

    A nice example being: many of us atheists here on the European side of the pond have never had to face all the issues of “coming out” (me only to my RCC family) or religion in politics, or state-church separation issues affecting our daily lives that we read about in US atheist circlies. I still care about these issues however, because I recognise that atheists in the US face other challenges than I do, I understand that I could be one day treated the same. Similarly I’m interested in issues of ex-muslim poly non-binary queer minority atheists (also because Heina rocks ass), of atheist women, trans(*?) people, lgb people, whatever, because I can recognize that my particular limited personal experience of being an atheist is only one of many, many more.

    So in the real world, my atheism (and how I arrived at it) have a profound impact on how I think about others, and conversely an attempt to understand and find compassion for believers is part and parcel of that, while at the same time being accutely aware of how their beliefs are harmful to society (or have been harmful to myself in the past). Not to denigrate the never-been-theist atheists, but if they were true Dictionary Atheists™, “ex-atheism” shouldn’t be an issue for them, nor should they show interest in deconversion stories, or ex-theist support groups!

    In real life, for humans, atheism is about a whole host of things, and a religion-free, a dogma-free viewpoint naturally leads to so much more than just “there’s no god, duh!”. So that’s how I’d phrase it: there are Dictionary Atheists™, who are just people who argue semantics in an attempt to narrow the focus of atheist activisim to the small number of socio-political issues that influence or interest them in particular, and then there are reality-based atheists who aknowledge the broad host of actual real-life problems atheists as a group encounter.

    Um as a last note.. there was this TV show, which chose a title basically about that.. what was it called.. oh the Atheist Experience? Yeah, atheist activism is about all the issues atheists experience in real life.

  21. 27

    It sounds a bit too pretentious, but I always liked Richard Carrier’s “Enlightened Philosophical Atheism.” Although he was using this term to differentiate this from apathetic/aimless atheism, where people happen to not believe in God, but don’t have a robust worldview/philosophy to use to frame their experience. So it’s not a great fit.
    I like “applied atheism” best, although “living atheism” has potential. I almost feel like it should be “lived atheism” because it’s not just something one preaches, but something one lives. Pragmatic atheism might work, too.

  22. 28

    Do you mean, “everyone whose atheism is part of a wider worldview or movement”? Because I think people who SAY they’re dictionary atheists generally AREN’T — for instance, I think most would hesitate to make common cause with someone who thinks morality is derived from a non-God supernatural source. And most would have other things in common with each other but not with SJW-type atheists, which I think constitutes something of a movement, even if they don’t want to describe it that way.

    But I would probably say something like “movement atheists” or “community atheists”. Or maybe “skeptics”.

    If I meant to include people in the sort of atheist community I WANT to embrace, I might say SJW atheist or atheist+ or social-progressive atheist or inclusive atheist. Or humanist-atheist. Depending what shade of meaning I want to convey. In fact, I often say “Greta Christina atheist” if I mean people who follow the sort of atheist you talk about and am talking to someone I think will understand 🙂

  23. 29

    but not with SJW-type atheists, which I think constitutes something of a movement, even if they don’t want to describe it that way.

    Just because there are atheists movements, or movements of atheists doesn’t mean that’s somehow an ideology imposed on top of atheism: like I said if you’re an atheist and are interested in issues other atheists face because of their atheism or due to the impositions of religion on public life you should be by definition dealing with intersectional issues. Participating in feminist/pro-equality/anti-racist/anti-ableist/etc. atheism online is simply dealing with issues atheists who aren’t a white cis hetero, able-bodied male deal with every day… and deal with due to their atheism. (Or are you going to ignore all the religious encroachments on the lives of atheists from religionists if they aren’t about “does a dog exist”?)

    Even the strictest dictionary atheism is a rejection of all the god-based nonsense thrown at atheists all over the world.

  24. 30

    “Social atheism.” Atheism as it relates to people and societies and how they interact.

    Dictionaries are about words. Societies are about people.

    It also gives one’s opponents an obvious moniker: *anti*-social atheists. *smirk*

  25. 31

    Larry @ 30:

    “Social atheism” is now my favorite of those so far. It encapsulates everything we’re talking about. Not just a philosophy involving no gods, but one that is actively engaged with the rest of society. Brilliant.

  26. 32

    Whenever I try to participate in discussions related to this term “dictionary atheist”, I always get confused. And I also have strong suspicions that other people are very confused too. Which is why I prefer it when people do not use the word “atheism” to mean “the atheist movement” or their own personal philosophy or whatever. Because it leads to this kind of mess. And all of that is very inefficient in those cases where there are disagreements of substance that need to be resolved.

    Anyways, now that I’ve deleted my previous attempt to comment because it was confused, I’ll try again.

    So I’m writing this piece that talks about dictionary atheism and dictionary atheists — atheists who insist that “atheism” can only mean, and should only mean, “no belief in any gods,”

    I’d like to stop here and point out that it is mere linguistic prescriptivism to insist such a thing . Linguistic prescriptivism isn’t that bad. At worst it’s a failure to recognize how language actually works, as if other definitions are not “real”. At best, well, I myself just gave you an argument for a “should” which I think is quite sensible.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_prescription

    I’ve had people get confused and think that I’m a “dictionary atheist” for saying this. So yet another point of possible confusion needs to be watched out for!

    with no other implications,

    “Implications” is yet another word to get confused over. Here do you mean the word “atheism” “has implications” (i.e. “refers to things”) other than god belief? Or do you mean that actually having that belief belief has “implications” (i.e. “effects such as social consequences, intellectual conclusions based on the premise that no gods exist, actions taken in response to these other consequences, and so on”) other than god belief?

    I’m guessing the latter is what was intended. But just notice this is yet another confusion that can occur!

    Ok, that’s all I can manage for now. Perhaps I’ll write more later.

  27. 34

    I think several commenters here are confused about what Greta is asking for.

    She is not asking for a synonym for “humanism” or “Atheism plus”.

    She is asking for a word that refers to people that are ok with using the word “atheism” as a synonym for “humanism” or “the atheist movement”.

    There’s a difference.

  28. 35

    Brian Pansky @34

    Atheism is not a synonym for humanism. I know that James Croft and others of that ilk get confused about the difference between humanism and atheism but they are not identical. Many atheists are humanists but. as I said in my post @19, not all humanists are atheists.

  29. 38

    Which is why I prefer it when people do not use the word “atheism” to mean “the atheist movement” or their own personal philosophy or whatever. Because it leads to this kind of mess.

    Brian Pansky @ #32: It’s true that when words have multiple meanings, and different people use them in different ways, it can be confusing. I don’t see an alternative, though. That’s how words work — especially Big Meaningful Words. Pressing people to use these words in the way you want them to be used, and/or in only the narrowest possible way,

    (a) is disempowering — self-definition is an important form of power for marginalized people, which is one of the main reasons I push back against any attempt to come up with one single definition of “atheism” that everyone uses,

    and (b) is a waste of time, and will never work.

    She is not asking for a synonym for “humanism” or “Atheism plus”.

    She is asking for a word that refers to people that are ok with using the word “atheism” as a synonym for “humanism” or “the atheist movement”.

    Actually, I’m not asking for either of these things. I’m asking for a word that means “people who are okay with using ‘atheism’ to mean anything at all other than ‘lack of belief in any gods.'” I’m asking for a word that means “people who are okay with using ‘atheism’ to mean “humanism,” or “the atheist movement,” or “materialism,” or “a set of conclusions reached as a result of accepting atheism, which may or may not mean humanism,” or…”

    Here do you mean the word “atheism” “has implications” (i.e. “refers to things”) other than god belief? Or do you mean that actually having that belief belief has “implications” (i.e. “effects such as social consequences, intellectual conclusions based on the premise that no gods exist, actions taken in response to these other consequences, and so on”) other than god belief?

    I mean that having the belief (or the lack of belief) has implications — and that some people use the word to refer, not only to the lack of belief, but to its implications.

  30. 39

    Atheist, sexual identity and gender-terms seem less and less meaningful. If someone claims either as a part of their identity you can’t know what they mean without more conversation. Post-modernism as social lubricant!

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