Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Results, and why I asked

The results from the atheist question are in. (I would have liked a reply from SatoriSam, but he's too hungover. Also, it's possible his net connection has been cut off since he lost all his money in Las Vegas and can't pay the bills).

I feel as though I opened a can of worms with my last post. From now on I will try to avoid the topic of religion. However, in terms of language, and how we use words, I found it very interesting. I hope you did, too, and that I'm not trampling on anybody's feelings.

Some of the results to my question come from my blogs, and some from friends I asked tonight when I met them. I forgot to ask the one German representative. (I was too busy beating her at 3D tic-tac-toe.)

I'll divide the results by country.

The question (condensed): What kind of person would you expect an atheist to be?

The answers (condensed - if I missed or mis-stated any, feel free to correct me):

1. An atheist is someone to be pitied.
2. An atheist is to be admired for their strength and independence.
3. My stupid hippy brother-in-law.
4. Anybody who identifies somebody else as atheist is most likely not atheist themselves. It's like identifying somebody else as 'black'.
5. Somebody with an air of smug superiority. A word that you whisper.

1. An atheist is to be admired for their strength and free thinking.
2. An atheist is to be pitied.
3. Whoever calls themselves an atheist is a bit sad. Still living in the Victorian age, when it was an issue. Who do they think they are, Oscar Wilde? Who cares?
4. Huh?

1. Huh?

Australia/New Zealand (except me, but my background is not typical)
1. Huh?

1. Huh?

1. A strong person, because everybody around them will be trying to convert them.
2. Opinionated and probably intelligent

India (I think)
1. Curious to meet such a person.

Out of interest (and because of the way some people defined atheist) I looked up the definition of atheist on the web, and discovered something interesting. I found a definition from Websters Dictionary, 1913, and this is what it said:

1. One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being.

2. A godless person. [Obs.] Syn. -- Infidel; unbeliever.

I then looked up the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a modern version, and it said:

One who believes that there is no deity

The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary, also modern, had this to say:

Someone who believes that God or gods do not exist

The modern and the old definitions come from different ways of thinking. The second definition of the old one (2. A godless person. [Obs.] Syn. -- Infidel; unbeliever) is clearly loaded - but can you spot the loading in the first definition? And the loading in the modern definitions is quite different, and equally revealing. (Actually I'm not sure whether 'loading' is the right word for these differences. They might simply show how the definition of the word has changed over time. I don't know if that's the same thing.)

Many people felt compelled to qualify their answers with statements of personal belief, even though I had specifically stated that I was not interested in that. But it was a very personal question, really, and I should have expected this response. I didn't really understand how personal a question it was, perhaps because I have been forced to distance myself from the culture I grew up in. For me, calling up my 'cultural' reaction to the word is academic. What I personally feel now and what I was brainwashed into feeling when I was young are two quite separate and different things. But for most people the line is not so clear, and there isn't so great a difference, and I should have known that. (It was brutal, that cutting-off line, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I tell myself I learned a lot from it and so it was all worth while. Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. The jury is still out - there must have been an easier way, surely?)

In case you were wondering, the reason I starting thinking about this at all (aside from my interest in loaded language) was this article, in which the writer states,

As an atheist I am a member of the last minority group that is still subject to open and acceptable derision and discrimination.

I found this difficult to understand. Like my English friend, I thought atheism was an old and irrelevant issue. Who cared, these days? I have friends who are Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and humanist (or possibly atheist or agnostic, if you prefer). Nobody I know identifies with the label 'atheist', and many (possibly most) people I know have trouble coming up with any label for themselves - and indeed, do not see the need for a label. I also have friends whose religious (or non-religious) persuasions I have no idea of. I was under the impression that most people, like Torrygirl, would react to the idea of atheism with a resounding "Huh?" I was wrong about that. (This says more about me and my ignorance than than it does about the people who answered, I should add.)

My reaction to the word atheism comes from the upbringing I had. There is a split second when I recoil with horror. I cringe. I feel both alarm and pity.

And then I remember that the word world has pretty much the same effect on me, and I think about what atheist actually means. And then I guess my reaction is something like Torrygirl's.

So the word is loaded, for me, but the idea doesn't have power.

And isn't that funny?


Pkchukiss said...

It seems like some sort of an irony - Singaporeans are not known for harbouring opinions. We are mindless robots working for the common good. There was once this joke about Singaporeans:

"A Somalian, an Indian and a Singaporean were asked 'What is your opinion on the nutritional value of beef?' The Somalian said 'What is nutritional value?' The Indian said 'What is beef?'. But the guy from Singapore stayed silent. 'How about you?' he was asked. He replied politely: 'What is an opinion?'"