The Importance of a Clear Definition of Terms
It is often the case than in arguments the participants are talking past each other due to using the same word in different ways. The more I look at quickfire ‘discussions’ such as that on Twitter, the more I see the need for clear definitions of terms to avoid this cross talking and misunderstanding. When the participants are clear and hopefully agreed on how key terms are being used then at least the debate isn’t just confusion over terms but can be conducted with that clarity.
Atheism – the most commonly used definition by atheists online for atheism seems to be ‘lack of, or without belief in god(s)’. However, that definition is incomplete insofar as representing all of atheism as there are those who would define atheism as the assertion that no god(s) exist. These two definitions have commonly become known as weak/strong or negative/positive atheism. The difference between these terms primarily lies with the burden of proof. For the weak/negative atheist who is not making a claim to knowledge about god(s) there doesn’t seem to be a burden of proof attached to their atheism but with the latter, since it is making a claim to knowledge about god(s), there most certainly is a burden of proof. I find it good practice to let the atheist define their own atheism rather than try to impose a definition upon them and then go forward with the discussion on their definition.
Note: the above are not my definitions of atheism but represent the most common definitions of atheism as it exists on the Internet and in dictionaries:
“The broader, and more common, understanding of atheism among atheists is quite simply “not believing in any gods.”
“There also exists a narrower sort of atheism, sometimes called “strong” or “explicit” atheism. With this type, the atheist explicitly denies the existence of any gods — making a strong claim which will deserve support at some point”.
“Strong-atheism is usually labeled as a subset of atheism, although they pertain to different mental attitudes.
Atheism is composed of the prefix a (not-) and theism (belief in gods), and means lack of belief in gods. It is a negative position.
Strong-atheism, also called positive atheism, is the proposition that we should not suspend judgments about the non-existence of God or gods. It is a positive position”.
atheism: 1. the doctrine of belief that there is no god 2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings
2a. a disbelief in the existence of a deity 2b. the doctrine that there is no deity
I personally prefer the definitions offered by Professor Theodore Drange as put forward in the following article: Atheism, Theism and Non-cognitivism http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/definition.html
Christian – this doesn’t at first glance seem to be a word upon which there ought to be any equivocation but I find in discussions it is very much so. Atheists wax long and weary about survey this and statistics that where Christians are shown to be less moral than atheists and the prison populations are more represented by Christians than atheists etc. This is usually the result of confusing a proper meaningful definition of the word for a non-meaningful definition:
Minimalist meaningful definition: Christian – a follower of the life (beliefs) and applicable teachings (actions) of the Jesus of the New Testament.
Meaningless definition: Christian – Anyone who declares themselves to be a Christian.
The latter is an absurd definition of the word Christian leading to situations where regardless of a persons beliefs about the Jesus of the New Testament or their actions in light of the teachings of the Jesus of the New Testament a person IS a Christian merely on self-declaration. On that definition we can have atheist Christians, Jesus mythicist Christians, devil-worshipping Christians and totally immorally living Christians. Anyone is a Christian so long as they declare themselves to be so and even if their entire belief system and way of living is in complete contradiction to the founder of Christianity. Such a definition ought to be rejected by all sane, rational individuals and a minimalist definition such as the one I propose above adopted and used in discussions.
The reason it is important to have such a definition, apart from getting behind many of the surveys/stats frequently put forward, is to pre-empt another atheist charge and that is of the No True Scotsman Fallacy. Unless the word Christian is defined and agreed *before* discussion begins (e.g. was Hitler a Christian) then as soon as the Christian tries to demonstrate that X was not a Christian this fallacy will be leveled in their direction. However, that is not the case when both parties are working with an agreed definition because you then have a criteria upon which some sort of assessment can be made on any individual as to whether they meet that agreed definition and can be rightly and properly called a Christian. Where a definition cannot be agreed then no progress can be make in the discussion because both people are operating on different definitions of a key term.
Faith – it’s very important to distinguish between what I call, ‘blind faith’ which is ‘belief in the absence of, or contrary to the evidence’, or as Mark Twain is said to have described it, ‘believing something you know ain’t true’, and faith proper which is ‘confident trust in a person, thing, or idea’. I regard the former as without any value at all as it can be used to justify belief in anything at all and is impervious to both reason and evidence. However, the latter I regard as having much value and indeed is the kind of faith held by most Christians. I say this because it is apparent to me that most Christians believe there is at least some sort of reason/evidence for what they believe and it is that ‘some sort of evidence’ that engenders their faith (proper). In fact, I can think of not a single thing in which I have confident trust that I do not consider based on some sort of reason/evidence. On this useful definition of faith that actually reflects Christian beliefs (except for fideists) the attempted divorce between faith and reason/evidence is broken.
Jesus – In the context of the question of the historical Jesus it is important to distinguish between the proposition that a man (Jesus of Nazareth) existed who is the subject of the New Testament and other extra-biblical documents and the proposition that the Jesus Christ of the New Testament (with miraculous birth, powers, etc) exists. The historical question deals with the former and not the latter which requires further evidence and arguments.
Nothing – It seems strange to suggest that there could be equivocation on the word ‘nothing’ but in recent days that has been brought out clearly by the statements of physicist Lawrence Krauss who makes exactly that equivocation positing to answer the philosophical question ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ by claiming that from nothing science not only says we can get something but it’s expected that wherever we have nothing we will get something! (my paraphrase) See his book A Universe from Nothing. Philosophically speak ‘nothing’ is equivalent to non-being, not anything but when Krauss uses nothing he actually means empty space that is a ‘a bubbling, boiling brew of virtual particles’. On his definition the philosophical question remains unanswered.