There has been plenty of pushback recently against the existence of the word atheist. Many argue that the term is nonsensical because it is unnatural to identify oneself as not-something. It is said that because atheism is a rejection of other claims, by using a word to describe this position, we invite misunderstanding, so we shouldn’t (need to?) describe people as atheists. Indeed, there are nonbelievers who reject the label for just this reason.
Sam Harris makes an analogy in suggesting that we do not have a term for a non-golfer*. Why the disparity? Because the majority of people practice some form of theism, it is relevant to identify non-theists as members of the minority group in much the same way as we have a word to describe fish that don’t rely on gills for respiration. The majority of people do not identify as golfers, but if 90% of the population regularly played golf, and people who didn’t play golf were treated differently from golfers, we would surely have a term for non-golfers.
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How can we know this? It’s easy to speculate (in the subjunctive) about what might be if conditions were different, but we don’t have to go this far to find real-life examples that prove the point equally well. Consider one meaning of the word short: below average height (i.e., not average). Or the etymologically similar “apathy,” meaning “without feeling.” In everyday life, we use a number of words whose meanings approximate to “not something” when something may be the expected default position. Why should religion be any different?
We have far more words to describe things that do not meet our expectations. Hot and cold are representations of temperature extremes, but what word is used to describe that which is neither hot nor cold? If something is entirely normal, with no deviation from our expectations, we have no need for words that represent the myriad ways in which it is not deviant. Only in comparison to other things does a need for these words become apparent. It is only a fluke of chance that we have come to use the words we prefer today, and the lexicon of our descendants will surely be entirely alien to that of the present day.
Words exist for all kinds of things. When pressed, a logophile can find or coin a word for perhaps any conceivable idea. Religion can not be excluded from this observation. As you go about your daily life, it is unlikely that you will have any particular need for a word that means “a person who does not worship Thor,” yet if I say I am an athorist, I have conveyed precisely this meaning. I am similarly an ajehovahist.
Language is dynamic—it is the product of culture. It would be a mistake to read too much into the existence of words. Because we know that towering buildings are a relatively recent invention, we may be able to safely assume that ancient Babylonian had no word for “skyscraper.” Even if it did, however, this would not be sufficient evidence to conclude that their engineering prowess matched that of our own. No matter how tall their structures might have grown, they clearly lacked our technological ability. We can learn about cultures by examining their languages, but we cannot assume this cultural backdrop to be inherently representative of reality. A number of cultures have words for concepts like unicorn, dragon, fairy, and leprechaun, but where are these creatures? Have you ever found one? Of course not because they do not exist. The absence of evidence that would confirm their existence is evidence of their absence.
This is why I cannot take seriously anyone who makes the argument that “atheists have to presuppose the existence of a god in order to call themselves atheists.” This is the suggestion that because the word “atheist” is a combination of “without” and “god,” there must first be a god before you can be without it. This is so far removed from reality that it would be thoroughly amusing—if it weren’t such a common trope. Is there any better indicator of a person’s lack of linguistic understanding than this ignorant argument from etymology? By this same reasoning, unicorns, dragons, fairies, and leprechauns must really exist because not only are there words for these things, there aren’t words for people who don’t believe in them. (Until you add an “a-” prefix and an “-ist” suffix, that is. Then there are words for these people, and the majority of English speakers will reflexively understand your intended meaning. Isn’t language magnificent?)
I wonder if this argument isn’t actually just an “argument from monolingualism?” At times, I can’t help but wonder if the worst crime being perpetrated on American schoolchildren isn’t the lack of multilingual education. If children were exposed to other ways of viewing the world, perhaps they’d be less eager to accept their parents’ uncritical rejection of unfavorable scientific findings. (It is, after all, only the scientific findings that they view as contradictory to their faith-based beliefs that believers reject. I know of no ID-iots who reject science’s conclusions when they lead to cars, buildings, better farming techniques…) I don’t suppose there’s any way to establish what the biggest shortcoming of our education system really is, though; there are just too many options to choose from. It’s not all bad, of course, but “It’s not completely terrible!” isn’t an acceptable justification for allowing it to fester in its current state. Perhaps this is a rant better left for another time.
* At this point, you should be able to recognize the flaw in this argument: the phrase non-golfer follows exactly the same pattern as the phrase atheist. I wrote "non-golfer" and you understood it in exactly the same fashion that "non-theist" makes sense to you. Thus, we do have a word for someone who doesn't play golf, and what this argument is really saying is that we would regularly use a term for non-golfers if the vast majority of people actually golfed.