Misdefining terms for purposes of propaganda

This is the direct sequel to https://dalehusband.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/atheism-is-a-dogma-get-over-it/

Prior to the 1990s, it was clear to me what atheism, atheists,  agnosticism,  agnostics, dogma, and fanaticism were. That’s because we had clear and logically consistent definitions of those words. They were found in reliable dictionaries like Webster’s New World Dictionary. Here are the definitions I found in the 1975 edition, which I still own and use.

atheism: “the belief that there is no God”. (That’s the ONLY definition in the book.)

agnostic: “a person who beleives that one cannot know whether or not there is a God or an ultimate cause, or anything beyond material phenomena.” (The ONLY definition in the book.)

dogma: “a positive, arrogant assertion of opinion.” (One of several definitions, and it is not implied that dogmas must always be religious in nature.)

fanaticism: “excessive and unreasonable zeal” (Again, it is not specified that only religion can produce fanatics.)

Can one be dogmatic and fanatical about atheism? Using these definitions, the answer seems to be yes. Communist governments made atheism a dogma and promoted it in a fanatical way, using force.

But after the fall of most Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and the rise of the New Atheist movement, the definitions of terms began to change. Atheism was broadened to include disbelief in the existence of God, not just believing there is no God. See examples here:




Some atheists have gone further and asserted that atheism merely means “lacking belief in a god”, but that is illogical since what would follow from that is all newborn babies would therefore be atheist (they are born with NO beliefs at all) and this actually makes the term atheist useless for statistical purposes as well. It is ideologically useful (you can thus argue that atheism is a child’s natural state and thus religious indoctrination violates the child’s “true” nature), but has no empirical foundation. It also fails to take into account that many agnostics, including myself and the late Carl Sagan, have REJECTED the term atheist as applied in the newer sense.


Sagan wrote frequently about religion and the relationship between religion and science, expressing his skepticism about the conventional conceptualization of God as a sapient being. For example:

Some people think God is an outsized, light-skinned male with a long white beard, sitting on a throne somewhere up there in the sky, busily tallying the fall of every sparrow. Others—for example Baruch Spinoza and Albert Einstein—considered God to be essentially the sum total of the physical laws which describe the universe. I do not know of any compelling evidence for anthropomorphic patriarchs controlling human destiny from some hidden celestial vantage point, but it would be madness to deny the existence of physical laws.[35]

In another description of his view of god, Sagan emphatically writes:

The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.[36]

Sagan, however, denied that he was an atheist: “An atheist has to know a lot more than I know.”[37] In reply to a question in 1996 about his religious beliefs, Sagan answered, “I’m agnostic.”[38] Sagan maintained that the idea of a creator of the universe was difficult to prove or disprove and that the only conceivable scientific discovery that could challenge it would be an infinitely old universe.[39]

Sagan was hardly a sell-out, but like me he was a product of that Cold War period mentioned above. It is thus understandable that he would avoid using a term associated so closely with Communism. But even before Communism became a global menace, atheism was scorned even by many unbeleivers, like Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog, who coined the term “agnostic” to distinguish himself from the atheists.


Though Huxley began to use the term “agnostic” in 1869, his opinions had taken shape some time before that date. In a letter of September 23, 1860, to Charles Kingsley, Huxley discussed his views extensively:

I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man. I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it. I have no a priori objections to the doctrine. No man who has to deal daily and hourly with nature can trouble himself about a priori difficulties. Give me such evidence as would justify me in believing in anything else, and I will believe that. Why should I not? It is not half so wonderful as the conservation of force or the indestructibility of matter… It is no use to talk to me of analogies and probabilities. I know what I mean when I say I believe in the law of the inverse squares, and I will not rest my life and my hopes upon weaker convictions…

That my personality is the surest thing I know may be true. But the attempt to conceive what it is leads me into mere verbal subtleties. I have champed up all that chaff about the ego and the non-ego, noumena and phenomena, and all the rest of it, too often not to know that in attempting even to think of these questions, the human intellect flounders at once out of its depth.

And again, to the same correspondent, May 6, 1863:

I have never had the least sympathy with the a priori reasons against orthodoxy, and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel school. Nevertheless I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call, and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling, atheist and infidel. I cannot see one shadow or tittle of evidence that the great unknown underlying the phenomenon of the universe stands to us in the relation of a Father [who] loves us and cares for us as Christianity asserts. So with regard to the other great Christian dogmas, immortality of soul and future state of rewards and punishments, what possible objection can I—who am compelled perforce to believe in the immortality of what we call Matter and Force, and in a very unmistakable present state of rewards and punishments for our deeds—have to these doctrines? Give me a scintilla of evidence, and I am ready to jump at them.

Of the origin of the name agnostic to describe this attitude, Huxley gave the following account:[18]

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain “gnosis,”–had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of “agnostic.” It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the “gnostic” of Church history, who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. To my great satisfaction the term took.

Huxley’s agnosticism is believed to be a natural consequence of the intellectual and philosophical conditions of the 1860s, when clerical intolerance was trying to suppress scientific discoveries which appeared to clash with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis and other established Jewish and Christian doctrines. Agnosticism should not, however, be confused with natural theology, deism, pantheism, or other science positive forms of theism.

And I would add that it shouldn’t be confused with atheism either, but that’s what the New Atheists are trying to do. They even claim that one can be an agnostic and a theist at the same time. Since Huxley coined the term agnostic, it shouldn’t be used in conjunction with either atheist or theist, because he didn’t!

Why is this such a problem for me? Because in broadening the meanings of the terms atheist and agnostic, the New Atheists risk damaging their credibility if they also claim that the number of atheists and agnostics is increasing in the world, when in fact that may not have happened, but the terms used to refer to them have been altered to create the appearance of increasing popularity.

This is what the world looks like now, religiously:

How can anyone measure religious affiliations if they cannot even agree on the definitions of terms? Then that pie chart appearing above becomes useless as far as measuring actual unbeleivers is concerned. I’m interested in honesty and accuracy rather than using semantic ploys to make an ideology more palatable to the public. Atheists should make the ideology itself more palatable instead, regardless of terminology. In short, it should become more socially acceptable for people to deny the existence of God, period, not merely alter the usage of a word to take its social stigma away. Most religious people will not be fooled by this stunt.

Here is a chart made by New Atheists:

Note there is no room for agnosticism here. That is WRONG! I have made my own chart which is consistent with how terms were defined by Carl Sagan, Thomas Huxley, the 1970s editors of Webster’s New World Dictionary, and myself today:

An agnostic would say: “I don’t know if there is a god and I won’t commit to believing or disbelieving in him.” He is also a non-theist, but not an atheist, by this definition. His neutrality is the issue, not merely his lack of belief.

An atheist that is non-dogmatic would say : “I believe there is no god.” He is NOT neutral like the agnostic is, but definitely rejects theism as a viable option for himself. The idea that non-dogmatic atheists are “weak” is an insult I won’t accept from anyone, thus it does not appear on my chart.

A so-called “strong” atheist  would say dogmatically: “There is no god.” If he does behave like he has a dogma, he shouldn’t be outraged when someone calls him out on that.

An anti-theist would say: “I despise all theistic concepts and those who follow them.” He would be a fanatic.

It is a non-theist, not an atheist, who can be properly defined as “lacking belief in God”. The term non-theist could not be used for statistical purposes, but atheist and agnostic still  can under this system of definitions because they are now clearly separated from each other, as well as from theists.

A friend of mine said this about me years ago:


I have known Dale for several years – and he does not preach atheistic materialism – nor has he ever done so as long as I have known him. He professes to be an agnostic – i.e he claims that the existence of G-d cannot be either proven or disproven. Rather than being a materialist he is very much an ethical/spiritual sceptic, which is far from being an atheist materialist.

That is indeed correct. Otherwise, I would never have written blog entries like:





22 thoughts on “Misdefining terms for purposes of propaganda

  1. You say,

    Some atheists have gone further and asserted that atheism merely means “lacking belief in a god”, but that is illogical since what would follow from that is all newborn babies would therefore be atheist (they are born with NO beliefs at all) and this actually makes the term atheist useless for statistical purposes as well.

    Last time i heard a “new atheist” use the term so liberally like that, the reaction he got from the person (a christian) was “All I can say is ‘Kids, say no to drugs.'” Wouldn’t say the same thing, but . . . I agree with you here.

  2. I swear, if I hear another New Atheist deny that they are dogmatic and absolutist in their thinking, I’m going to hurl. See two perfect examples of their dogmatism and absolutism:


    truthspeaker | June 15, 2010 2:53 PM

    It wouldn’t matter if all religions behaved like the Society of Friends and the ELCA. It is still based on the premise that believing in things without evidence as a virtue. As long as it starts with that premise – and it always will, because if it didn’t it wouldn’t be religion -, it will always be evil. There’s just no getting around it – promoting irrationality as a virtue is bad for humanity. No matter how much you polish the turd, it will still be a turd.

    Yes, that’s bigotry, because he doesn’t distinguish between harmful beliefs that can be disproven and harmless beliefs that cannot be disproven. Even skeptic champion Carl Sagan said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” To be a New Atheist, you must endorse the opposite assumption.

    Senator Adley! There is no god. Pray all you want, it will avail you nothing. Instead of wasting your effort in making pleas to the nonexistent, go down to the beach with an eyedropper and a thimble, and pluck up a little globule of oil — and you will have accomplished more.

    Oh, no, that’s not dogmatism, it cannot be absolutism, it will never be bigotry, merely because they say it is not! But you put those statements in religious terms:

    It wouldn’t matter if all atheists behaved like Mother Teresa. It is still based on the premise that there is no God. As long as it starts with that premise – and it always will, because if it didn’t it wouldn’t be atheism -, it will always be evil. There’s just no getting around it – promoting unbelief as a virtue is bad for humanity. No matter how much you polish the turd, it will still be a turd.

    P Z Myers! There is a god. Deny him all you want, it will avail you nothing. Instead of wasting your effort in making insults to him, go down to a homeless shelter, and give a child there a single M & M — and you will have accomplished more.

    How do they sound now?

  3. And that’s a really good point…

    As a Theist, I guess I could be accused of dogmatism, and I can really understand why. But that doesn’t mean that I am closed to the idea of the non-existence of God, since I do think that SOME OF THE QUESTIONS raised by atheists and non-theists ARE valid and interesting in their own right. — I try to be reasonable. . though I feely admit I do fail, to be absolutely honest.

    I think the only statement that doesn’t take dogmatism is: “God may or may not exist,” I.e., agnosticism. There are times when I DO find myself making the lean towards agnosticism, and . . that is the first time I ever admitted that to anyone. — Even though i personally believe in God, I do accept the possibility that he may not exist.

    • An even more damning statement made by New Atheists can be found here:


      Intolerance of ignorance, myth and superstition; disregard for the tolerance of religion.
      Indoctrination of logic, reason and the advancement of a naturalistic worldview.

      That’s exactly what COMMUNISTS would have said half a century ago! If it is unacceptable to force religion on people, how can it be acceptable to force IRRELIGION?

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  7. I have to admit I find your reliance on the dictionary or original definitions peculiar. Definitions change over time definitions of marriage for example are currently including more and more same sex partnerships where 20-30years ago you wouldn’t see that.

    • My point, MichaelD, is that the one who coined the term “agnostic” should have been the only one to define it forever and the very reason he did so was because he lacked belief in any god (which is the New Atheist defintion of “atheism”), but did not DENY outright the existence of God (which was the only definition of atheism that he and most others used in his time). To call Thomas Huxley’s position a form of “weak atheism” makes everything he actually said about atheism and agnosticism pointless. You should not deny or disparage the actual historical background of concepts while redefining them, EVER! That is as dishonest as the “doublespeak” of the novel 1984 by George Orwell!

      And New Atheists should also stop saying that no one can ever “know” there is or is not a God and therefore nearly all atheists are also agnostics. That was not Huxley’s point.

      • And I just find that needlessly dogmatic and silly in the face of the changing usage of words.

        (Dale Husband: Insisting on dealing fairly and logically with historical reality is “needlessly dogmatic and silly” according to you.

        Your credibility just went out the window.)

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  10. I don’t suppose in all your research on the proper usage of “atheist” that you were able to find anything from self-described atheists on the subject of their dogmatism or lack thereof? Seems like you’re relying on people who’ve categorically rejected the label to define it. Somehow that doesn’t seem quite fair.

    • Maybe, but it is definitely unfair for Atheists today to claim Carl Sagan, who rejected the atheist label for himself, as one after his death.

      Corliss Lamont, in his book the Philosophy of Humanism, stated in the introduction to its sixth edition (1982):

      Click to access philos8.pdf

      Speakers for the Moral Majority insist that all Humanists are pernicious atheists, although Humanists have more and more tended to call themselves nontheists or agnostics. Humanists find no adequate proof of a supernatural God functioning upon this earth and guiding the human race to a divine destiny; but the immensity of the universe makes them cautious about absolutely denying the existence of a God among the billions of galaxies billions of light years away, and all containing billions of stars, many of which might have planets where some form of life could have developed.

      I support atheist and non-theist people that are moderated by Humanist philosophy. Those that are not are repulsive to me.

      • When you say “claim Carl Sagan”, are you talking about people actually claiming “Carl Sagan was an atheist”? (A claim I don’t think I’ve ever seen.) Or are you talking about people claiming “Carl Sagan was an advocate of naturalistic worldviews and secular politics?” (A claim that’s entirely true and justified.) If the former, you’re absolutely right it’s unfair — it’s contrary to Sagan’s own statements on his beliefs.

        (Dale Husband: Yes, I am referring to the former, because once you claim that atheism means “lacking belief in God” [which was certainly true of Sagan], then it follows logically from that that Sagan was indeed an atheist. The fact that he publicly denied being one thus makes him look like a liar and a coward decades after the fact, when in reality he was using the older definition of atheism commonly understood in his [and Huxley’s] time. And here is a video showing exactly that claim: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdVucvo-kDU )

        I’m not particularly interested in moral philosophy, not least because moral philosophy doesn’t seem to have any impact whatsoever on the real-world events that we describe as “im/moral behavior”; I guess that makes me repulsive.

        (Dale Husband: Are you a racist, sexist, homophobe, or anti-Semite? Or do you support a political ideology that denies freedom and justice to any group of human beings for the benefit of another group, like Fascism and Communism did in the 20th Century or social Conservatism does now? Many professed atheists might, because rejecting Theism does not automatically make you free from prejudices against other human beings. If no to both questions, I have no quarrel with you.)

        • ” when in reality he was using the older definition of atheism commonly understood in his [and Huxley’s] time.”

          Again, I dispute your definition because I think your “methodology” of deriving it is flawed. However, I believe Sagan has the right to define his views how he sees fit and I agree it’s unfair to claim after the fact that he was an atheist. It might be acceptable to me to say “under my definition, Sagan would have been an atheist,” but if he rejected the label then that rejection should be acknowledged.

          ” Or do you support a political ideology”

          I don’t support political ideologies period.

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  13. From the blog Debunking Christianity, we find this:

    The author says:

    I object to someone defining the words I use. The people who seek to define my words for me have power over me. They basically are claiming I cannot use a word the way I want to use the word. I can use any word I want to, so long as it communicates.

    Can’t we all just get along here and ask the person using a word what s/he means if it’s used differently than the dictionary definition? You see, dictionaries don’t attempt to tell us what a word should mean. They tell us how most people use the word.

    In any case, what word would you propose to describe Russellian agnostics? There are many of them. If there is no word describing them then shouldn’t there be?

    That part I can agree with. But if you read the definitions of agnosticism provided by Thomas Huxley and Bertrand Russell, they do not seem to contradict each other to me, because I actually consider the position that there is no god to be “not demonstrated or demonstrable”, as Huxley would have said. Quite simply, you cannot prove a negative.

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