Atheism and an appeal to etymology

Note: This is marked as Humor only because I find it funny. It was not meant to be a joke, as far as I can tell.

As I have written before, the argument from etymology is pervasive, and in some cases, it is used as a defense for the way a word is used currently. Of course, we established that this is invalid reasoning, but it is sometimes telling of the person making the claim and sometimes – like the following – quite ironic.

Scott Adams, the man behind the Dilbert comic strip, is an avid blogger, and he blogs from time to time about religion and science, including some entries on intelligent design. Recently, he posted about atheism (HT: Tim Challies), and, although I didn’t care much for the content of the entry itself (which was about atheists being absolutely certain of their negative belief), the comments were interesting. I mean this in two senses: seriously for the comments that were thought-provoking and expanded the discussion started by Adams and sarcastically for some…shall we say, less informed ramblings.

Commenter “Alex” gave us the following insight:

Sorry, this is the most interesting post in the last few weeks. Need to comment.

Athiest [sic] – From the Latin – Without (not) God
Agnos – From the Greek – Without (not) God

The words mean the same thing. They have different conotations [sic], probably becuse [sic] of the Roman empire [sic] (stroger [sic] meaning given to A Theos), but the root meanings are the same.

First, the factual errors: atheist is from the Greek atheos, “to deny the gods, godless,” while agnostic is from the Greek agnostos, “not known.” So it is simply untrue that atheist and agnostic are derived from “without God” in two different language. (As such, the speculation about the connotations being different due to the Roman Empire is suspect – not that it wasn’t without these errors, that is.)

Second, the linguistic errors: Even if it were true that the “root meanings” (that is, the meanings of the roots) of atheist and agnostic were the same, that would not mean, as “Alex” suggests, that “[t]he words mean the same thing”. The obvious error that I have already discussed is the fallacious appeal to etymology: words can mean different things from their roots, which makes word origins useful for a historical analysis of the word’s evolution but not for figuring out what the word means now. Only contextual usage will help to that regard.

For instance, it does not take much when talking about labels given by professed belief or lack thereof to come up with a good example that does fit the situation that our commenter proposed. The terms “theist” and “deist” are two labels that are, in fact, derived from the same meaning in two different languages: the former from the Greek theos and the latter from the Latin deus, both meaning “god.” By the logic given in the comment, we should be able to use these two terms interchangeably since they both refer to belief in a god. But this is not true in reality; the two words have shifted away from each other, with theism being applied primarily to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) where revelation and divine intervention are common beliefs and deism to a worldview that denies both of these two beliefs (among others). In other words, the two terms have become contextualized, and so using deism when one means theism (and vice versa) would only confuse the distinction that exists by their usage.

This is the biggest problem I see when talking about any of these labels: Appeals to etymology are used when one is trying (usually regarding their own self-label) to persuade someone to think about a word differently when they hear it. Atheists are fond of this technique, but when it does not fit the usage of the word, it can be safely ignored.

Which leads me to my last comment, from commenter Ilíon:

By the way, ‘agnostic’ comes from the Greek, right? If we wanted a Latinate term for ‘agnostic,’ wouldn’t it be something like ‘ignoramus?’

This witty jab, while true (ignoramus literally means “we do not know”), proves my point – ignorance and agnosticism are not, despite the similarity in derivative meaning, synonymous, nor should they be. Ignorance is easily achieved (as we have seen here), but agnosticism comes only after consideration.

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