‘Atheist’ As Retronym
Shows Atheism As
The Default Position

Beth Baughman

From: “Beth Baughman”
To: “Positive Atheism”
Subject: Positive Atheism Letters Section
Date: September 26, 2002

As I was reading through the letters section today (I’ve gotten about halfway through the archives, starting at the beginning), I came across, for the umpteenth time, your explanation and definition of the word atheism.

The thought popped into my head that the word atheism is a retronym, a word like anolog watch or acoustic guitar. These words were unnecessary when there was only one type of the thing in question.

At one time, there were simply people. Then when theism was introduced, either into the culture or the individual’s life, then there was the need to define the situation as it was before, which continues in some people, as atheism. Of course, in the example of the watch or guitar, it’s not possible to “revert back” to being analog or acoustic, but I think the comparison holds. Explaining atheism as a retronym is, I think, a great way to additionally define it.

Beth Baughman


From: “Positive Atheism Magazine”
To: “Beth Baughman”
Subject: Positive Atheism Letters Section
Date: October 29, 2002

Yes, and even if you don’t have a rotary phone, it’s a good chance that you’ll get much better service if you simply sit through this menu twice and wait for an operator to assist you. I’m plesantly surprised that the public is still sharp enough to have prevented them from trying to invent a retronym for operator as well! (And I promise you that those “chat” screens on AT&T Broadband’s Technical Support page (the ones with the way-too-tiny type which has disabled the size adjustment on your browser) are automated, run by a program that reads and discerns what you might be saying. I challenge any AT&T Broadband customer to try them out some time and convince me otherwise! Ask several simple questions that a program like that could expect to hear, then ask something really off the wall, such as, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” I promise you that the machine will mull over that one for a minute while it flashes an alert to the human who is overseeing about 30 to 50 of these “conversations.”

This holds, I think, in the limited sense of the individual, as you pointed out. Alas, I suspect that religion, or at least superstition, has always been with us.

Regardless, the point you make about the retronym, I think, remains a wonderfully powerful way to get across the gist of the point we’re trying to make of seeing atheism as the “default” or “original” position when it comes to religious beliefs.

True, we may never have seen an era when there wasn’t superstition, what we today might call theism. Indeed, evidence suggests that the Neanderthal conducted memorial or funeral services and at least mourned the dead: this is suggested by the discovery of what appears to be a Neanderthal burial site, where flowers were placed either on or near the deceased, who had been laid in a cave which appears to be specifically suited for burial. Even though we cannot know what the Neanderthal survivors were thinking, I think most will agree that this funeral scene, in at least one sense, symbolizes the beginning of religious belief for almost all derivative human culture.

Even if superstition has always been with us, however, I still think we’re on to something when making the point about seeing atheism as the default position, of sorts, when it comes to religious viewpoints. Additionally, I think the idea of seeing atheism as the default position remains key to understanding atheism itself. By understanding atheism I mean accepting atheists as a permanent and legitimate part of human culture. Most importantly, this means accepting atheists without misunderstanding us and, therefore, accepting us without having to fear us.


When I call atheism the default position, I am not speaking in a context of the history of human culture. I speak, rather, in the context of an individual human’s personal history! If the “weak” definition for atheism holds (at least when describing the overall, “big picture” of atheism as a whole), then every theist was once an atheist.

Regardless of what you call it or how you want to describe it, though, every theist went through the same phase. First, our child in question did not have a god-belief; indeed, she did not have any beliefs! There came a time, though, when somebody introduced her to the concept of God, however patchy and unsophisticated her understanding may have been at the time.

If our child grew up in a Baptist household, she was, at one point, directly asked if she believed; then she went through the particulars of “giving her life to Christ” or “accepting Jesus as her personal savior” (or whatever language is being used these days). If she was Roman Catholic or from one of the Reformation sects, she was instructed and then went through the Confirmation. If she grew up in the rural American South, she may have been called forward to “make a decision” in an emotion-filled tent revival service, the culmination of months or years of the prayers and sordid urgings of an aunt or grandmother.

In any event, and from whatever viewpoint, she passed from unbeliever (or whatever) to believer. Whether this was part of a dramatic rite of passage, whether it was part of the growth of the child in the family context, whether it was personal and private, a surprise even to our child in question, the transition came about in the same sequence: first she did not have a god-belief, then, later, she did.

This is the picture I am trying to draw when I speak of seeing atheism as the “default” or “original” position when it comes to religious beliefs. It is the position we start out with (the absence of a god-belief) and it is the position that we can expect to retain — unless acted upon by an outside influence, of course!


So while I cannot pin it down at this moment (and I’ve been trying to for weeks: note the date of my response versus that of your letter!), I still get the very strong impression that your contribution to this discussion is well on its way to playing a powerfully effective role in our attempts to describe, to theist and atheist alike, what atheism is as well as what atheism is not.

This ties back to the very core of the Positive Atheism project: In my quest to find ways to reduce or eliminate the stigma and bigotry against us, the very first point I’ve noted (and still the strongest, most effective point) involves trying to define or describe atheism in the thinking of the general public.


1. The first thing I did was to latch on to the “weak” definition. At first I saw this mostly as a way to simplify the discussion: the “weak” definition neatly divides humanity into two groups: theists and atheist. (It’s also the most etymologically correct definition, in my opinion).

In addition, the “weak” definition serves to temper the notion that atheists are making a claim, specifically, the claim that God does not exist. Most of us, in fact, do not make this claim at all. As a result, of course, we are not saddled with the burden of proving out position regarding the god-question because it is, at most, a non-position. To put it bluntly, the “weak” definition is pragmatic in that it defies refutation! The “weak” position makes no claims or statements. Instead, it throws the burden back onto the shoulders of the theist who is thereby challenged to come up with a more effective evangelistic style!

The “weak” position, at minimum, says, “I have yet to hear a god-claim that is worthy of my assent.” Of course, as you note, this aspect is covered more than thoroughly throughout the Forum and FAQ sections, so I will not spend much time with it here.


2. I then saw atheism as the default position among religious viewpoints, this being an outgrowth of the “weak” definition. We’ve already discussed this at length, above, having at last brought clarity to my expression of this observation: the chronology involved is in the life of the individual and has little or nothing to do with the evolution of a culture.


3. Last year I showed that the vast majority of nontheists (that is, atheists as defined by the “weak” definition) rarely if ever even think about the subject of atheism. Much less is atheism an important element in their comprehensive world view! I simultaneously questioned the very idea of organized atheism, advocating, instead, that we become consistent with this view or “vision” of atheism. To conform to the concept of atheists for whom atheism is no big deal, we for whom it is or has been important might want to learn how to assimilate into “regular” society rather than seeking the mixed metaphor of “an oasis of sanity amidst a sea of superstition.”

On the subject of individual atheists working as activists, I suggested that atheists join an existing activistic movement, avoiding groups that have a religious test (specifically “atheists only” groups). No issue under the Sun is addressable solely by atheists — not even promoting atheist dignity.

If the only opportunity you can find for doing certain work (such as feeding the homeless) is with a group that promotes religion through charity, join hesitatingly, voicing to the executive office your objection to the practice of performing charity for the purpose of drawing attention to an ideology. If that’s not bad enough, we must now be wary of greedy “faith-based charities” diving headlong amidst a scrambling mass of faith-based piglets all sucking on the public teat; we must now be wary of charities that are in the charity business, charities which, as Frank Zappa put it, are “Only In It For The Money.”)

Be hesitant, at first, to reveal your atheism: let the fact come out naturally, if at all. Atheism is no big deal to the average atheist, remember. Many an atheist can count on one hand or both the number of times he has uttered even a synonym of the word atheist in the context of self-identity. For example: a coalition of clergymen gathered to ask the outgoing President Washington whether he was a Christian. (He had not said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion, they said.) As Thomas Jefferson observed, “the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly, except that, which he passed over without notice.” My father is that way, as were both grandfathers (atheists all). I suggest this to be the rule, not the exception, and many a theist simply cannot relate to people actually being indifferent toward religion.

Occasionally I hear atheists envy the theist who “openly and freely talks about her faith.” Such a theist, however, is not necessarily a person to be emulated. This is easily seen by watching a roomful of people start to fidget whenever the theist starts pouring on the spiritual syrup. And if people twitch from hearing about religion, which is popular, what reaction can we expect when someone stands up and starts talking about atheism? I wouldn’t want anybody’s most recent experience with an atheist to elicit memories or feelings of discomfort!

None of this in any way conflicts with any desire (if it exists) to meet others who might be open to discussing atheism, particularly in regards to the stigma and bigotry we endure. The hope, here, is to learn a few tricks, maybe try them out, and perhaps even report back to this or a similar Forum, sharing your findings with the rest of us. Forming bonds with antibigotry activists would be most conducive to this goal, but often activists of one specialty sympathize with a wide range of similar issues.


4. Lately I have noted that in any atheist’s comprehensive world view, his or her atheism is rarely a very important component. This differs drastically from how the theist generally relates to his or her theism. The problem is that a great many theists assume that atheism plays as big of a role in the lives of atheists as theism does in the lives of believers. This makes sense: in lieu of any special “inside” information, people have only their own experience with which to compare and thus try to understand.

For example: unless I know what the game of football (soccer) means to various nations around the world, I, as an American, can really only compare it with what I know about baseball, basketball, and American football. And no knowledge of American sports will help me to understand why a soccer stadium incurred heavy damage at the hands of the fans! Soccer, in countries other than America, has no equivalent in American sports. Similarly, atheism is not the counterpart of theism. There is no equivalent to atheism in the rites, practices, values, or beliefs of any theistic sect that I have encountered.

This last matter, I think, might end up being the key to the misunderstanding of atheists on the part of theists. I say this in a very limited sense. Certainly the vilification of atheists week after week from pulpits across the land plays perhaps the biggest role in fostering the widespread hatred of atheists.

Ah, but we have no control over lying, spite-filled preachers, do we? No! But there are things that we can do, things over which we have plenty of control! We can work to show how atheism plays a very minor role in our lives, compared to how a theist typically sees his or her theism. Thus we can simply bring it up (“Hey, I was reading an article the other day, and did you know that...?”), changing the subject to something else as soon as possible. The gist of the matter will sink in and do its own work. We don’t even need to say that we’re atheists in order to send a fact on its way, though we can and often should reveal the simple fact that we sympathize with the plight of the atheist. One simple move and yet another group of theists knows what’s up about atheism.


As you can see, I think your analogy with the retronym can play a crucial part in helping people see what we’re talking about. Though it may fall slightly short of having the precision that a few of us might desire, the fact is that effective metaphors rarely need the precision of a Swiss watch (the analogue variety, of course: accept no substitutes)! A cheap Timex has always kept time almost as accurately and has also kept itself within reach of the common consumer of watches! Similarly, if our metaphor can draw the basic picture that we’re trying to put forth, even if it does not feature photographic resolution, then our metaphor can work wonders in conveying the gist of the message we’re trying popularize.

I have been thinking a lot about this and have even tried it out on a few people. Hopefully I’ll be able to report to you what I have come up with, and hopefully it will be welcome news to our ears. Meanwhile, I must thank you, once again, for sharing with us this most enlightening observation of yours.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Seven years of service to people
    with no reason to believe


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