It’s All a Matter of Semantics
“I am thus, one of the very few examples in this country of one who has not thrown off religious belief, but never had it. I grew up in a negative state with regard to it. I looked upon the modern exactly as I did upon the ancient religion; as something that in no way concerned me. It did not seem to me more strange that English people should believe what I did not, than that the men whom I’d read of in Herodotus had done so.” –John Stewart Mill (1806-1873)
"The Christian religion is so manifestly contrary to the facts, belief in it can only be held with the most delusional gerrymandering imaginable." –Richard Carrier (Historian, PhD)
In the following essay we will discuss some of the specifics regarding semantic games Christian apologists employ, namely that of “semantic confusion,” and I will show how it is used and what the effect of it is in the semantic discourse. Also in this article I will seek to clearly define semantics, and show using critical methods why apologists’ use of semantics is, not only slapdash, but also frequently misapplied as well as grammatically incorrect.
What’s in a Word?
Christians love nothing more than to try and change the implied meanings of words. I’ve studied this apologetic tactic extensively, because no other field, with perhaps a few exceptions in philosophy, tries so desperately to create a “semantic confusion” in its discourse.
Nevertheless, where philosophers change meanings of words it is often times for the purpose of challenging our conventional understandings of the usage, meaning, and purpose of the word so that it may sponsor new ways of thinking about it—this is known as inferential role semantics (also see: coherence theory of truth). Yet the deliberate semantic confusion employed by Christian apologists, and occasionally theologians, rarely, if ever, is concerned with different ways of thinking and seeing—but is preoccupied with just the one devotional or “orthodox” way of thinking and seeing.
Consequently, this begs the question: why then for all the word play?
The Rhyme and Reason of Semantic Games
The answer is surprisingly transparent. Speaking from experience, Christian apologists will repeatedly distort or reverse the meanings of words to force the terminology into having a new or different implied meaning for the purpose of convincing you of their case. Needless to say, this new meaning inevitably coincides with the Christian stratagem of reversing the burden of proof along with supplying a barrage of ad hominem attacks while simultaneously sowing semantic confusion.
If you call them on it, challenging their methods, they will simply rely on this semantic confusion to deny your accusations and peddle backwards, rework the terminology to re-align with their beliefs, all the while giving you the run around. I only point this out here because it shines light on why Christian rhetoric is so persuasive.
Betwixt the confusion of language and fluctuating meaning Christian apologists can find ample wiggle room to adapt their intent, their desire to convince and evangelize, in a fly by night fashion allowing them to deflect or reroute unprepared debater’s questions and comments and hijack the discourse.
In this way, instead of having to give an example of what is categorically true, they can simply reverse the burden of proof and rhetorically ask you in return, “What is your definition of truth?” After which they may wantonly call attention to how your definition limits their beliefs or convictions, how this is unfair, how you’re being too materialistic with your demand for proof or evidence, and so on. Since the term truth accompanies with it an explicit meaning, something they are extremely uncomfortable with, they will change it to have an implied meaning, and thereby escape having to give account for what isn’t apparent to be factually true at all; except for their propensity to wish to continue their belief in it as something which is true (to them) regardless of what is and isn’t palpably true. But don’t let all the smoke and mirrors charades fool you, because the truth isn’t always necessarily relative and observer dependent; in other words, sometimes a spade is just a spade.
Statements of Truth vs. Truth Claims
Consider the statement that “Although atomic particles do not observably appear to have mass, we know they must because we can split the atom…” is a statement of truth, of knowing something is true because it is testable and so provable. The proclamation, “I know it to be true in my heart that fity-thousand invisible pink unicorns dance on the head of a pin in the fourth dimension…” is not a statement of truth—it is a declaration of faith. To believe it is true, contrary to what the evidence suggests or what is discernibly true, is a matter of belief, not of knowing. We must not overlook this distinction.
Even so, I would caution that shifting the emphasis on the implied meaning rather than the explicit meaning is only an apologetic tactic to sow even more semantic confusion. The difficulty lies in the fact that for the apologist a spade is only a spade when they want it to be, the rest of the time they change it to whatever best suits their needs, and if your definition is in disagreement to theirs they ask you to “define spade,” to catch you up in a relativist trap, and will promptly dismiss your explanation if they should find it to be disagreeable and in conflict with their convictions or belief system.
Technically speaking, assigning arbitrary implied meanings to refit words to the Christian worldview is utilizing semantics for the purpose of forcing the terminology to align with their devotional understanding of what they hold to be the “God’s honest truth” so that they can dictate the terms of the semantic discourse. In other words, they want to redefine and replace the semantic theory of truth with the religious truth as they see it, and if allowed this standard, they override the definition to set up a semantic holism. In so doing, the word itself, or the sentence or phrase itself, does not count for much in the semantic discourse, but rather, it only becomes vital to the overarching set of thoughts or the whole theory. If your definition doesn’t support their theory, then they throw it out, and guide the discourse back to their standards. But this, in all intents and purposes, ignores the fact that words do mean things, and contain primary definitions, independently of the semantic discourse or how you would seek to use them otherwise.
Disbelieve me if you want: It’s Not Disbelief
Before I move on to define Atheism according to how I understand it, I feel I must clear up one last misconception about nonbelievers and atheists. One of the most abused and frequently misappropriated terms of the religious debate, one which often crops up to my great dismay and irritation, the term: disbelief. But before we get into the analyses of the terminology, we must not forget the grammatical context of the terminology itself, since semantics is predicated on logic and so have logical rules which make sure that arbitrary meanings can’t simply be given to words at random. Let me give some examples to better explain how semantics is regulated by logic.
Semantics is one of the tree branches of semiotics, the others being syntax and pragmatics. Semantics is the study of the meaning of words and the relations of signs to the objects to which the signs are applicable. However, in everyday discourse the semantic problem is not that of specification but of understanding the relationship between terms of various categories (names, descriptions, predicates, adverbs…) and their meanings.
As we all know words are organic, as is language, therefore pliable, which is to say they can and do contain various meanings. Antonyms and synonyms arise from the fact that words do often contain multiple meanings, linking words and ideas, and allowing the definitions to be, more or less, flexible. But this acquiescence only works within the proper grammatical context. If you change the context then the word’s meaning will change accordingly, or else, it will lose its meaning.
For example, even if the word potato and car are both nouns, a potato never means car and vice versa. On the other hand, car and automobile have synonymous meanings, and we know that car and vehicle may or may not share meaning—it all depends on what the context of the surrounding grammar is and what “vehicle” is specifically in reference to. If, say, vehicle means: milk delivery truck—then we can semantically stretch the meaning to encompass automobiles. Yet if the word vehicle is in reference to a 747 jumbo jet then it can neither mean car nor automobile.
Recently I have seen a resurgence of the noun disbelief, and its verbal counterpart disbelieve, being tossed around indiscriminately on the nightly news networks, in interviews, on message boards, websites, and online posts. The problem is that those proponents of religious faith are under the false impression that atheists are refusing to believe, that they are denouncing religious faith, therefore are disbelieving in it. However, this is abusing the semantic rules of common word usage to force a different, and sadly myopic, meaning to the word disbelief.
Most Christian apologists employ the word to mean: lack of faith. Granted, it can mean this, but this meaning is an auxiliary, or secondary, meaning. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, disbelief is [in actuality] the inability or refusal to accept that something is true or real.
Consequently, when believers accuse atheists of being “disbelievers” or in “disbelief” they have misappropriated one term, superimposed its meaning onto another term, and are going out of the context of what the word allows for semantically. In other words, they are calling a jumbo jet an “automobile” when they mean to say vehicle. This is completely improper word usage, not to mention incorrect. Yet if they were intending to use the auxiliary meaning of disbeliever to denote one who lacks faith, then this begs the question, why not use the appropriate term of atheist instead? It seems only fitting, since disbelief comes with the corrigible understanding that something is palpably true, and therefore, likely has data and tangible evidence to support the profession of belief and thereby fix the corrigendum or misapprehension in order to “see the light” and get beyond mere disbelief. Basically, a person in disbelief is one who does not believe it in spite of its being true, best summed up in the commercial jingle, “I can’t believe it’s not butter!”
Scientists who attest to the theory of evolution, for example, can back up their assertions that evolution is true with a mass amount of data, empirical evidence, and experimental proofs. All this hard won evidence bolsters, not only their claim, but also confirms to the layman that the theory of evolution is, in fact, true. Those who deny the theory of evolution are, in point of fact, in a state of disbelief. They disbelieve evolution could be true even as it is decisively true. This is the correct usage of the term disbelief.
Why Not Disbelief?
The question arises, however, if the term disbelief can mean someone who “lacks religious belief” then why is it incorrect to call atheists or agnostics “disbelievers?” Well, as mentioned earlier, the context presumes all atheists secretly know that God is real but are rebellious and defiant or else in denial of this “fact.” Two things to keep in mind: 1) the evidence for God is wholly inadequate, if not completely lacking, and good arguments to believe are, without qualification, utterly unconvincing. Thus God’s being real is not an evident fact, in reality it’s highly contestable, therefore the primary meaning and auxiliary meaning of disbelief are put into contention and this creates a “semantic confusion.” 2) Nonbelief and nonbeliever are the primary meanings for a person who does not believe in a particular thing, especially one who has no religious faith (Oxford Dictionary, 2005). Meanwhile,
Atheist (n.) comes from the Greek root atheos, i.e. without theos, which literally translates to ‘without God’. Atheism, then, is simply the absence of theism. It makes no sense to disbelieve in what isn’t even there. Just like not stamp collecting isn’t a hobby, it makes no sense to point out that non-stamp collectors disbelieve in the non-hobby of not collecting stamps. The British philosopher A.C. Grayling makes a similar comparison regarding atheists in his informative book Ideas that Matter. The term atheist (without theos) designates someone who “lacks a belief in God,” and concordantly is correct for describing someone who “lacks faith” as well.
Applying the term disbelief to a multitude of various types of nonbelievers puts the term in the wrong grammatical context, frequently making improper usage of the word. In this context using the term “disbelief” or “disbeliever” to explain nonbelievers, such as atheists or agnostics, is wrong. If you’re trying to defend your position as being more correct than your oppositions, then it’s best to use the proper terminology lest you place yourself in the precarious situation of losing all credibility for appearing to not know what you’re talking about.
Noticeably, it is strange to use uncommon auxiliary terminology for things which have perfectly good primary definitions. For this reason nobody goes around calling all cars “vehicles” and air planes “flying machines.” Not only does it sound irregular, but also it becomes meaningless when you consider that air planes are vehicles too and other flying machines include helicopters, dirigibles, hang-gliders, and the NASA space shuttle. Why use a word that only sometimes means the thing you mean it to mean when it already has a perfectly good primary vocabulary to express its actual meaning? Relying on secondary meanings not only adds to the semantic confusion but it sounds irregular as well.
As such, keeping in mind the sensitivities of the other person is just good etiquette, especially when it’s common to make the mistake of referring to atheists and other non-believers as disbelievers, since it is not just categorically wrong, but it sounds weird, moreover it breaks the semantic rules of the English language. Which, in my opinion, makes the person doing it appear to be uneducated and less likely to know what they are talking about. And why would I waste my time listening to the gibberish of a “know-it-all-know-nothing?” When people speak using random and incorrect language they are either inflicted with an acute case of glossolalia or they are an imbecile akin to constable Dogberry in William Shakespeare’s hilarious play “Much Ado About Nothing.” Although these people may be well intentioned, it would seem, they typically don’t know the first thing they are talking about and so cannot be trusted as having the correct or reliable answers.
Don’t mistake my linguistic criticism of this oft misused branch of semiotics for condescending remonstration. I’m not saying this as an attack on anyone’s educational background or on those who occasionally misuse the terminology, but I am saying it to help elucidate why Christian apologists are in the wrong when they try to redefine the definitions of words, and these insights may help others avoid the same mistakes in the future and help to make their arguments that much more clear.
Settling on the Proper Terms
Atheists, such as myself, who were once believers but have since put their faith behind them may be referred to as unbelievers. However, we might wish to pay special attention to how we use this expression because it can come off sounding a bit condescending when used disparagingly. And if one are trying to convince somebody else that their argument has merit, we typically don’t start out with insulting and demeaning them.
Furthermore, to call a nonbeliever who was raised without religion and brought up with secular values a disbeliever presupposes they had some sort of faith to begin with but, for reasons unknown, later rejected it. Such an assumption is not only presumptuous—but literally equates to calling a cat a dog. It would spark strange looks, if not mocking laughter, and would be a surefire way of getting yourself stuck wearing the dunce’s hat. If in doubt as to the prior convictions of the person you are addressing or referring to, it’s best to err on the side of caution, and use the more accurately descriptive term of nonbeliever instead.
Before you take my word for it and go calling all those who don’t subscribe to any belief in God (or gods) nonbelievers though, let’s not forget to consider that Buddhists, although maintaining a distinct absence of belief in any personal God or gods, do indeed have deeply seeded and passionate religious beliefs. Buddhism is five centuries older than Christianity after all, so it’s not a mistake you’d want to make. Calling a Buddhist a nonbeliever not only lumps them in the same boat as those who don’t adhere to any belief in the supernatural, but also with those who don’t share any such religious beliefs whatsoever—so be careful not to imply they have no religious values or sacred beliefs at all, since it is pretty inconsiderate and extremely callous, when you think about it.
Then again, it’s downright discourteous to suggest anyone who lacks the belief in any god lacks beliefs worth having in the first place. Free thinker or nontheist work best when talking about those who don’t share a belief in any god but may share the same values, and have many strong personal convictions, even deeply spiritual beliefs, along with those who call themselves religious.
As for those apologists and Christians who insist on calling all atheists and nonbelievers by the incorrect label of “disbeliever” then I fear they are as constable Dogberry espouses:
Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixt and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.
All this hoopla can be avoided if we stick to the reasonable terminology and mean what you say and say what you mean without all the unnecessary semantic word play. What I have shown here is how, technically speaking, Christian apologists misuse semantics, break the grammatical structure, take words out of context, misconstrue definitions to fit their faith based ideologies, and often employ semantic confusion as either an diversionary tactic or an ad hominem denunciation, or sometimes both. This I find to be wholly unnecessary given the correct understanding of semantics and how it works within the proper parameters of what logic and language allow for.
As for the supplementary reasons why Christians persist in further semantic antics, the following video will elucidate matters and reveal the (not so) hidden agenda behind this deliberate, but occasionally unaware, vituperative verbosity.