Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fun With Language: Atheism vs atheism

I have been challenged that atheism and Atheism cannot be different things simply because of capitalization. A poster in the comments of one of Uruk’s posts claimed “what I do call nonsense is the idea that a definition changes simply because you capitalize a letter in the word. Atheist will always mean the same thing, whether it is a big A or a little a - and it does not mean the same thing as agnostic (big A or little a).”

I will refute your claim in two parts. The first part is easy. You must not be familiar with English if you don’t understand that capitalization makes a huge difference in a word. The word God, for example, refers to the monotheistic deity followed by English-speaking Christians (and sometimes Jews and Muslims, though they have their own terminology which is borrowed from Hebrew and Arabic, respectively). The word god or gods refers to the basic idea of deities, and may refer to any divine beings from any of a number of religions.

But I’m not done there. I was so intrigued by the ignorance of this statement, I went on a quest to discover as many as I could. Many names have this trait. For example, Rich and Dick are both short for Richard, whereas rich and dick are synonyms for Republican. 10,000 Maniacs is a band, whereas 10,000 maniacs would be a Republican convention.

There’s Earth, which is the name of the planet we inhabit, while earth is soil. The next one is in the form of two example sentences: “The Irish march through the streets in March for St. Patrick’s Day. The gays may have a parade in May.”

A Pole is someone from Poland, while a pole is something strippers dance around. If you fly west from California, you will reach the East (as the compass directions aren’t capitalized, unless denoting a place). Much later, after writing some of these, I found this, which actually defines the term for this phenomenon of language (capitonym) and gives many more examples. It has two great poems at the bottom.

Now that we’re clear that capitalization is clearly an important component of the English language, we can move on to whether there is (since there clearly can be) a difference between Atheist and atheist.

Before I go too in depth, realize that my goal in self-applying the term “atheism” is to avoid confusion. While I could use some esoteric terminology, I pragmatically sided with atheism over agnosticism (the two being the most popular, over non-religious, non-theistic, and others) because many theists, in my experience, think an agnostic is fodder for recruitment, since there appears to be some implication of doubt.

Short of the clouds parting and a heavenly voice calling my name and beckoning me, I can’t imagine anything that would make me rethink theism. To a percent, I am 99.999 repeating-forever percent sure. This is mathematically 100%, as .9 repeating is equal to 1. Don’t believe me? What is 1/3rd expressed as a fraction? The answer is .3 repeating to infinity. Triple that, and you have .9 repeating to infinity. So while I may not express myself as 100%, it is virtually the same. If I seem like a literalist, it is because I am.

Since theism cannot prove its existence, some people do not even acknowledge it. Some are apatheists, and don’t care about this “god” stuff. Some brush it off as something other people worry about, believing it won’t affect them. Then they get sick one day; it’s not a prophecy, its mortality. Suddenly the fact that religious fundamentalists hate funding science plays a direct role over whether there is medicine which will treat you. I can’t ignore this moral travesty, and the other little things that religion messes with (like equal rights) will just be icing on the cake if religion ever loses its influence. Since religion won’t topple itself, it’s up to skeptics to help.

I’m more accurately a non-theist, or perhaps antitheist. However, some would misinterpret antitheist to mean I somehow envision myself as aligned in opposition to gods. This would in turn imply belief in gods. Antitheism has nothing to do with faith, only an opposition to theism. Non-theism, then, is probably the best descriptor for my stance on gods. Also, I think the title of my blog pretty much sums it up.

However, non-theism, like atheism, is not a statement of affirmation. Instead, it is merely the rejection of an idea. If I were to describe myself, I would say I’m an opinionated, independent, argumentative rationalist who believes in total unification (though not homogenization) of the human race and who is fascinated by mythology, philosophy, morality, and ethics.


  1. Thank you! I am so sick of people getting on my ass when I don't capitalize the word god, but I won't capitalize it unless I am talking of Yahweh, or another specific god. Duh! :)

    Of course, at times, I do also tend to under-capitalize, but that's my writing style. And at work, people call me Big A.

  2. Great explanation. This inspires me to be a little more careful with what I capitalize and what I don't. Sometimes I honestly forget to consider capitalization outside of the obvious. :/

  3. I was a writing tutor when I wrote this, so I took professional pride in things like this. These days... not so much :P

  4. So what is the difference?

  5. Well, for me (and I am the only one who makes the distinction, as far as I know):

    To me, Atheism is the claim "there are no gods," while atheism is the observation that no evidence for gods has been presented.


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