Let Dictionaries Usurp
Ur Right To Self-Definition
Bobby Minnows

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Bobby Minnows"
Subject: Re: A few queries
Date: Friday, April 13, 2001 8:41 PM

As you can tell by reading our FAQ and any number of responses to letters, we do not go along with the dictionary definition for the word atheist, considering most of them to be just another form of institutionalized bigotry against atheists. It is bigotry because the dictionaries almost universally side with what the Roman Catholic Church has declared to be the definition for the word atheist rather than reporting what atheists themselves have traditionally said about what the word atheist means. In other words, the dictionaries are pretending to usurp from atheists our own right to self-definition. Their work in this area has been so effective over the past several decades that people actually write to atheistic journals and castigate us for insisting on our right to our own self-definition and for using the traditional definition for the word we use to identify ourselves!

If the dictionaries were the bottom line, then we could look up the word God and would be forced to become theists because the dictionary definitions almost universally presuppose the existence of God. Very few of them are careful enough to distinguish between what is and what some people believe to be the case.

And, using your logic, here, if I were to look up the word atheism in the Merriam-Webster's dictionary and define myself according to its definition, I would be in real trouble: Merriam-Webster's lists, as a synonym for the word atheism, the word wickedness. Do you think I should use Merriam-Webster's when establishing my own sense of self-definition as an atheist?

Just as Christians need to be the ones who determine what the word Christian means (they certainly wouldn't want me to write the dictionary definition!), so do we atheists need to retain our sense of self-definition. But the dictionaries (with the notable exception of the print edition of Encarta World English Dictionary) almost universally define us the way the Roman Catholic Church has defined us, rather than how we have defined ourselves. This would be akin to me looking up passages in the Bible that describe the Earth as being flat, and then defining Christian as "one who believes that the Earth is flat" and then not allowing any Christians to voice their objections to my definition.

The definition I provide is the definition that the bulk of atheistic writers have used throughout history (at least since being an atheist stopped being a capital offense). I refuse to let some clown go to the supermarket and pick up a Pocket Webster's and tell me who I am or what I believe or what I ought to call myself. I will, rather, conduct a careful and long-term study of my philosophical heritage. Then I will compare it with what is being said today. After that, I will compare what I've heard from others, past and present, with what I think about the situation. Finally, I will decide for myself whether to go along even with my philosophical forebears in describing who I am and what I think and what to call myself.

I strongly suggest that you take your dictionary (any dictionary) and open it up to the front matter, where all dictionaries admit that they are reporting popular usage rather than pretending to define words. Any dictionary which would not make this admission in its front matter is not worthy of taking space on my bookshelf.

Finally, if you wish to bring credibility to your case -- particularly when discussing what the dictionary says -- and especially holding the dictionary to be the final word on certain matters, as you have done here -- then I strongly recommend that you look up the correct spelling of such basic English words as: I; you; your; isn't; etc. By disregarding the commonly accepted spellings of these words (thus rendering your letter that much more awkward for others to read), you admit that the dictionary is not really the authority you make it out to be, by using its authority as the premise of your argument.

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

Graphic Rule
Added: April 21, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Bobby Minnows"
Subject: Re: [Re: A few queries]
Date: Sat, 21 Apr 2001 03:43:20 +0100

I don't see how this can be the case, even with your flawed understanding of what the word atheism has meant to atheistic writers ever since admitting that you are an atheist stopped being punished by death. I am certainly glad that my self-definition is not nearly as muddled as this.

You completely ignore the issue of a people-group's right to self-definition. Why is this?

Yes, it is convenient for me to have intensively studied the English language almost nonstop for 40 years: I can instantly recognize a unique opinion in this field (such as the opinion that dictionaries pretend to do anything other than simply report popular word usage).

What I have learned (and what I must realize if I wish to succeed as a writer or a copy editor) is that dictionaries, like grammars, are written by fallible humans who sometimes fail to transcend their own personal or cultural biases and who at other times abuse their position of authority and insert their own agenda into a reference work. Some dictionaries show a high degree of responsibility in this regard, while others show their colors as the patently biased works that they are. More than one major dictionary is owned and published by a major denomination of Christianity. Merriam Webster's is owned by the Church of Christ, Scientist, and Oxford is ultimately an arm of the Anglican Church. Also, dictionaries do not purport to state what a word actually means, but instead simply report the common and historical usage of that word. If popular usage is imprecise or if usage is not otherwise universal, a responsible dictionary will make special note that this is an opinion.

Here is the Merriam Webster's definition for the word God:


the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe


Encarta World Dictionary (print edition) defines the same word as follows:


the being believed in monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity to be the all-powerful all-knowing creator of the universe, worshiped as the only god


The Oxford American Dictionary defines it this way:


the creator and ruler of the universe in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim teaching


Were I to use your understanding of the role that dictionaries play in determining word meaning, and were I to rely solely upon the Merriam Webster's, I'd be in big trouble, because this dictionary expresses its definition as fact, rather than reporting it as the opinion of some people. I'd have to believe that a "God" exists because the dictionary does not qualify its definition as the opinion of some but not all people.

The other dictionaries are more responsible than this, the second reporting that this description is "believed" by certain groups, and the third that this is according to the "teaching" of certain groups. So, as a man who is proficient in the English language, I would reject the first definition as patently biased, and would accept the second and third as being accurate reports of how people use this word.

Merriam Webster's changes its tune when it comes to defining the word astrology:


the divination of supposed influences of the stars and planets on human affairs and terrestrial events by their positions


Ah! The "supposed" influences of the stars and planets, not the actual influence of the stars and planets! So we see that MW is at least capable of showing that something is an opinion and doesn't accept every controversial claim as fact. This is clearly a double-standard, typical of somebody with an agenda (such as propagating the Christian faith)..

Encarta says this:


the study of the positions of the Moon, Sun, and other planets in the belief that their motions affect human beings


And Oxford American says this:


the study of the supposed influence of stars on human affairs


So here we have complete agreement between the three reference works that astrology is a belief or an allegation made by some people. None of the three presuppose that astrology is based in fact. This makes sense, seeing as how the astrology movement has never never seen fit to organize for the purpose of gaining widespread political control over entire continents of nations, and thus has never become so intoxicated with power that it would dare to think it could get away with doing what Merriam Webster's has done with the word God.

Now, let's look at the various reports of the usage of the word atheist and compare them with how atheists themselves have defined themselves. First, let's look at Merriam Webster's:


one who denies the existence of God


Now Encarta:


somebody who does not believe in a God or gods


Now Oxford American:


a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or gods


The Merriam Webster's definition shows two biases: First, this definition presupposes the existence of God. Then, MW has the audacity to assert that an atheist is someone who denies this "fact." Encarta and Oxford, on the other hand, leave open the possibility that an atheist simply lacks belief, not forcing their definitions to mean that an atheist asserts that no gods exist. Neither Encarta nor Oxford overtly presupposes the existence of God.

If you care to find out what atheists have historically said the word atheism means, and would like to study the arguments about its etymology, check out the article 'Defining Atheism' by George H. Smith. I will not repeat it here. If this usage is good enough for this veritable Who's Who of classic atheistic thought and advocacy, it's certainly good enough for me. If it's true, as Charles Bradlaugh said, that "no position is more continuously misrepresented" than atheism, then I don't want to give up and simply go along with that misrepresentation, I want to get busy and work for change.

But the bottom line is that you choose to allow a single dictionary to usurp an entire people-group's right to self-definition. You are entitled to your opinion and I, as an individual, am entitled to disrespect your opinion. I am also obligated, as an activist, to denounce that opinion whenever I find someone using it to denigrate myself or my fellow-atheists.

Again you show your ignorance of what atheists do and do not believe, choosing instead to depend entirely on what a biased dictionary says (and to place more weight on what the dictionary says than the dictionary writers themselves even recommend), and all the while rejecting, out of hand, the self-description offered by the prominent spokespersons of a large people-group.

Almost all atheists have absolutely nothing to say to religionists. We do not go around telling others that they are wrong, but simply do not assent to their claims and occasionally go further than this. The main exception is when religionists choose to inflict their world view and their standard of morality upon others, insisting to us that we are what this or that book says we are. Even if we did not endure persecution and bigotry, we'd still be atheists in the interest of distinguishing ourselves from the theistic majority.

True, a few busy-body atheists go around trying to set everybody else straight. If you combine this offensive activity with the fact that atheists are almost universally despised, you will note that almost every atheist who does as you describe is swiftly and prominently displayed as an undesirable. Almost anybody who approaches theists to set them straight will draw attention to himself, and will often incur the wrath of even their fellow-atheist. The public will not omit notice of an atheist denouncing theism -- although atheism is routinely maligned from pulpits across the land, and even the atheists hardly bat an eye.

Finally, were it not for the intrusiveness and the bigotry, I would not be doing this work. At all. One need never be a "professional atheist" except in the context of advocating for justice and dignity. We have nothing to sell and nothing to say outside of this context. However, this is a comment on atheistic activism, not on atheism itself.

But for you to suggest that I should appreciate theists for persecuting my forbears and for mistreating me -- just so I could know that I am an atheist and so I could have a foundation for my self-definition as an atheist -- borders on the absurd. I'd much rather be allowed to live a normal life, and to live that life in peace. I would still be made aware that I am not a theist whenever the subject of Jesus came up, just as I am made aware that I am not a Objectivist whenever that subject of Ayn Rand comes up. But I will not have to stump for the dignity of my fellow-arandians unless the Objectivists suddenly adopt the recruiting techniques of the Christians.

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

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Added: April 22, 2001

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From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Bobby Minnows"
Subject: Re: [Re: [Re: A few queries]]
Date: Sunday, April 22, 2001 10:24 PM

This statement is at variance with your first letter, which went to great lengths to ask me to read carefully, to think real hard, and to be absolutely clear.

This statement is at variance with your first letter, which contains neither the words considerable nor variance.

The fact that there is less agreement among the various dictionaries than there is among the various atheistic writers suggests to me that it is the dictionaries who are muddled, not the atheists -- who, as a group, may describe and define ourselves however we see fit!

I showed you how Merriam Webster's does just that!

You didn't even get my point! You missed it entirely!

How do you distinguish "fanatical" from pesky and won't go away?

How do you distinguish "bigoted" from slanderous attack?

How can you not call yourself bigoted and fanatical if you persist in trying to denounce me, and use false premises in your attempts to denounce me -- even after I have shown those premises to be false?

How can you not call this an attack when you're the one who insists that I have something to prove? (I make no such insistence anywhere in my writings) You then proceed to demand that I prove something that only you insist that I can prove (or would want to prove if I even could)?

Please go away! I'm glad you're not working for our side!

If atheism is as I report, it is virtually nothing. If atheism is as I report, it is a very minor and often insignificant aspect of any atheist's comprehensive outlook. That's the point! People slander us and persecute us for what we don't think about, not what we do think about! They tell us that we do think things that we, in fact, do not think!

Kindly remove your head from your ass, wipe it off with a damp towel, and have a nice life: as far as we can tell, it's the only one we get.

I will not waste any more of my precious time with your nonsense: even when I show you the truth, you proceed as if you have heard or read nothing. I would gladly address any legitimate criticisms of my position, but your criticism is of your own fantasy of what I believe (or ought to believe), it is not an accurate description of my actual position at all.

Are you some kind of masochist? Perhaps you're just doing this to make me look like an asshole?

No, I won't respond to any more of this. I have given you my position on atheism, and misrepresenting what I have said is not how to change my mind on any matter. Most of the readers are sharp enough to distinguish my actual position from how you represent it, so I don't need to say any more.

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

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