(This was also posted at YoungAusSkeptics.com)
One of the great things about the way language evolves is that words change their meaning all the time. The main reason this happens is due to the way in which we generally learn words. How many of you upon hearing a new word actually go to the effort to pick up a dictionary or go to an online one and look up the words meaning? I am sure a few of you do, but the majority of people (myself included) don’t.
Instead we look at the context the word was used in, the sentence it is in and those surrounding, and from there we use our intuition and past experience to decide our own definition of the word. If we get it wrong, we continue to get it wrong until such a time as we are corrected. We may easily decide to start using that word, incorrectly of course, in our conversations with others. They then pick up on this incorrect meaning and maybe even apply their own meaning to it which is different again. As the word spreads and is picked up, the meaning changes. Dictionaries have in the past and continue today to change the official meaning of a word based upon common usage.
This becomes a problem though when certain groups purposefully change a word to meet their own ends. It changes the whole purpose of a debate, often nullifying it. The best example of this I can think of is the word “evolution”. Fundamental theists would like to claim that evolution talks about the origin of life (abiogenesis), the formation of solar systems, all the way back to the big bang. Many of the points they make against “evolution” aren’t actually against evolution at all. All areas of science and skepticism fight hard to keep the definition of evolution true, especially in the public circle. If it changed, we would have little choice but to come up with a brand new word to define the exact same thing evolution currently does, as evolutionary biologists and other scientists certainly do not use anything that even remotely resembles “creationist evolution” to do their daily jobs.
There’s also a few other words that grate my nerves when I hear them used incorrectly, those being agnostic and atheist.
Agnostic comes from two greek words, “gnosis” meaning “knowledge”, and “a” meaning “not” or “without”. Basically it means someone is without knowledge, does not have a positive firm belief. This could be in anything from a political party, to a sporting team, to theism. This makes it an adjective and not a noun as popular belief would have you think. To simply say someone is agnostic would be like saying they are very. Very what? Very tall? Very fat? Very long winded? You cannot be plain agnostic, only agnostic about something. Correct usage would be more like “Jane is an agnostic republican”. Jane, while siding with the side of the republicans for the most part isn’t convinced they are the be all and end all, is open to change and voting for the democrats should they have better policies next election.
Gnostic then quite obviously from reading the above means someone who does have a positive belief in a subject. They are firm in their ways, certain of their beliefs. They “know” what they believe is true, and little or nothing could change them. Again this word is an adjective. It wasn’t always though, 2000 years ago it was a religion in and of itself. You can read more about that over at wikipedia, I am not going to go in to it today.
Theist, like gnostic comes from a greek word as well. “Theist” (theos) means god, and defines someone with a belief in one or many active gods. I specify active gods as there are also deists who believe a god or gods put everything in to motion then nipped off down the pub and are yet to return. If one is a theist they believe their god is still around interacting with the universe in some way shape or form. It is a noun, and can be used as such.
Atheist then takes the word “theist” from above, and the same prefix “a” once again meaning “without”. An atheist is nothing more than someone who does not have a positive belief in a god. Nothing more, nothing less.
So what does that make you? Well, lets take these four words and use them as they should be used.
Gnostic Theist — Someone with a positive belief in a god or gods. They know that their belief is true. I would use this term to describe most creationists and fundamentalist theists.
Agnostic Theist — Someone with a positive belief in a god or gods. They aren’t all that sure about their beliefs though, they do not play a great part in their lives. I would use this term to describe the majority of christian Australians. They list themselves as “christian” on referendums and if asked in real life, but don’t really attend church or have much if anything to do with their religion. They prefer to avoid the topic entirely in conversation.
Gnostic Atheist — Someone with no belief in a god or gods. They know that their belief there is no such thing is true.
Agnostic Atheist — Someone with no belief in a god or gods. Their lack of belief came about from and based upon the available evidence in nature and science, but are open to the concept of there being one should such evidence come along. I would use this term to describe 99.999% of Atheists on this planet, myself (and probably yourself if you are reading this) included.