Highlander Fallacy

The repetitious nature of folks trying to prescribe a singular definition of atheism, and claiming that other definitions are, “talking about something else” or are “wrong”, seems to never die.

What’s worse, these folks who take you saying that there are actually multiple uses of atheism claim that YOU are the one being prescriptive and restrictive, yet you’re the one saying there are multiple definitions…

This article discusses some of the recent behaviours and examples of bad logic and mental gymnastics used by folks when discussing this topic.

Contents

The Highlander Fallacy

Last year I coined the “Highlander Fallacy” as I was tired of people claiming to have a monopoly on a definition, especially when a word is so polysemous and has such a long and rich history as atheism. I compiled a number of sources and examples in Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism and have also provided them separately. Unfortunately, this evidence is ignored or dismissed without good reason. We’ll get to this later, but for now, let’s discuss the Highlander Fallacy.

Highlander was a movie which, ironically, there should have only been one of. *spoiler alert* In this movie a number of immortals were in a battle to kill each other, and the only way they could do this was by removing the heads of their opponents.

As they did so they shouted the words “There can be only one!”

This seemed apt for the gatekeeping and prescriptivism of definitions. I did what any good blogger/social media addict did and created the meme.

Unfortunately, it seems like someone else had already created this as an informal fallacy to do with the gatekeeping of a topic. It was defined as “the false perception that one person can/should own a topic, and all others must avoid [it] or get permission [to discuss it].”

This felt like it could be expanded further, from “one person could own/discuss a topic” to “one group/person could discuss/define a topic”, and applied to statements like “only politicians have the right to discuss and define politics” or “only Rabbis have the right to explain the Torah” or even, “only atheists have the right to discuss and define atheism”.

With those being prescriptive over the definition of atheism, they are gatekeeping a word’s definition rather than a topic as a whole. With this slight broadening my, unfortunately, unoriginal coining of the term actually fits with the theme.

Language and Dictionaries

Language is something that evolves over years; words take on many different meanings, and sometimes if we read historical texts using modern language, they don’t really make sense.

“Awful” used to be used for something that made you feel “full of awe”, and “awesome” used to mean roughly the same thing… but they mean something quite different to each other now.

The word “awe” first appeared in English in the 13th century, based on Scandinavian roots carrying the sense of “fear and terror.” The original meaning of “awe” in English was also “fear, terror, or dread,” but use of the word in reference to religious belief eventually led to a modified sense of “awe” in which “fear” was mixed with veneration, and the result was “awe” meaning “reverential fear and wonder in the presence of supreme authority.” This religious “awe” was, by the 18th century, expanded to include a deep emotional response to extraordinary natural phenomena such as great storms, majestic waterfalls, and electronic gizmos prefixed with the letter “i.”

“Awful” appeared around the same time as “awe,” and originally meant “inspiring great awe,” i.e., causing profound dread or great fear. As “awe” evolved, so did “awful,” gradually coming to mean “deserving great respect” and “inspiring, majestic.”

In the early 19th century, however, “awful” took a sharp detour, and began to be used to mean not “inspiring great dread and humility,” but simply “very bad, scary or loathsome.” This new use, a dilution and weakening from the previous sense, actually drew notice from observers at the time: “In New England many people would call a disagreeable medicine, awful; an ugly woman, an awful looking woman…. This word, however, is never used except in conversation, and is far from being so common in the sea-ports now, as it was some years ago.” (1816).

Both “awful” and “awfully” also came into use around this time, in yet a further weakening, as simple intensifiers that could amplify both positives (“A prairie town called Follansbee that looks awful good to me.” 1923) and negatives (“An awful bad sermon from Hudleston.” 1832).

Interestingly, “awesome,” which appeared in the 16th century meaning “full of awe” or “inspiring awe” (i.e., roughly synonymous with the original “awful”), never took that negative turn, although it lately has been diluted into a tepid synonym of “groovy.”

http://www.word-detective.com/2015/01/awe-awful/

There are other words we can think of, either through slang use or colloquialism, that have changed their meanings; consider how the words wicked (evil) and bad (opposite of good) can now both mean good/awesome.

Translation, Etymology and Use

Sometimes the translation of words into English makes no sense either. The French pomme du terre translates as “apple of the ground”, yet means “potato”. I think it worth mentioning for clarity that pomme means “apple” in modern French. It was, like “apple”, a general word for “fruit”, so historically “potato” would have been “fruit of the ground” in French, despite it being a root and not a fruit.

The itallian tagialltelle translates as “to cut” and stringozzi is drawn from its resemblance to shoelaces, as stringhe is Italian for “strings”. Barbine means “little beards”, whilst capellini means “little/thin hair”, and Su Filindeu means “the threads of God”.

With the pasta ones, they are largely descriptors of how the pasta looks, not actually what they are. This seems somewhat obvious, even if you didn’t know what these words meant, but it does show a direct translation isn’t the same as what is meant by the words; the translated meaning is different from its functional meaning or actual use.

The same can be said when translating an etymological root, or etymology in general: it doesn’t provide you with the context of the actual use of terms.

People are very quick to point at “atheos” – The etymological root of “atheism” – and say: “It literally means without gods!”, whilst not taking the point that what it actually meant originally (in the period and context of pre/early Classical Greece) was someone who had lost the support of the gods, and later (in the Golden Age of Greece) was used for those that didn’t believe in the gods of the state. In both instances, people still believed in some form of deity or prime mover, at least usually.

They will also ignore that the modern form of the word “atheism” came in to English from the French athéisme, which wasn’t really used as a simple “lack of belief” either:

Doctrine or attitude based on the negation of a personal and living God. Anton. deism, theism.

A.− DOGM. Refusal of religious beliefs, by blindness of the intelligence relative to the existence of God.

B. – PHILOS. Atheism (absolute). Explicit denial of the existence of God, generally with the establishment of a humanism without religion.

C. – SOCIOL., POL. Denial of God in the practice of social or political action.

https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/ath%C3%A9isme#:~:text=masc.-,ATH%C3%89ISME%2C%20subst.,un%20Dieu%20personnel%20et%20vivant.

Even through the 1600s and 1700s, “atheism” in the English language had a more polysemous nature, and whilst there was a large leaning to things like “thinking god does not exist” and “believing God does not exist” there were some that used the definition “not believing in gods”. These are detailed more in the article: Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism.

Now, there is a difference between “not believing” and “lacking belief”, which you can read in more detail in What is the Difference Between Does Not Believe and Lack of Belief?, but you can glean a basic idea of the differing logical entailments of these statements through the following tables that I used in the above article.

This first table provides a reference to specific statements denoting attitudes towards a proposition and their entailments.

Logical Entailments of statements

This second table looks specifically at not believing something true and not believing something false.

Don't Believe Lack Belief

The main thing to consider is “I don’t believe you” aka “not believing true” is a responsive statement, even though it can sometimes be used synonymously with “lacking belief”, whereas “lacking belief” by itself just describes a mental state that is absent. That is to say, “lacking belief” falls under the umbrella of “not believing true”.

Suffice it to say, between translations, etymology, use, and logical entailment, we can see how things are far more complex and nuanced than most people give credit for, right?

Dictionaries

Dictionaries are descriptive. That is to say, they describe how language is commonly used. That’s why colloquialisms end up in the dictionary. Most dictionaries have multiple uses for any given word, some even the history of uses, but many (especially those found online or as presented by a Google search for a word’s meaning) will have just the current or most common use(s) from the area.

That’s why, even within English speaking countries, you can have differences in the dictionary. In fact, a learner’s dictionary will probably be a little more simplistic than a university dictionary, and you’ll get different definitions in technical dictionaries or papers, too, be they for engineering, philosophy or science.

As you can see, there are a few different definitions of atheism here, and that is just one term spread across multiple dictionaries. Why, when it is so largely accepted there are multiple definitions of atheism, do people point to just a single dictionary and say: “see this is THE definition of atheism!”?

Context

Context matters too. Sometimes you can work out which definition of a word should be applied through its use and the words and sentences surrounding it. The word “theory” will mean something different on the street to “theory” in the context of science; in one it means “a guess” or “an idea”, whereas in the other: “established, evidence-based explanations accounting for currently known facts or phenomena”. So, context can be important to how a term is used; if you’re unsure, it is best to ask.

Stipulation

Due to the polysemous nature of many terms, it’s often better to stipulate how you are using these terms. It is something I try and do at the beginning of articles. However, people tend to argue that “that’s not the definition” rather than accepting that is how the word is being used. If someone stipulates a use, then it’s often best to just go with their use and focus on the actual content.

There is, at times, a problem where stipulation and context can be at odds with each other. For example, the word “subjective” can mean a number of things: one of them is “from a mind”, yet that is not how the word is used when discussing morality, so even with a stipulated use, it can cause confusion. To find out why that isn’t the use read @trolleydave article On Morality: Part 1 – Defining Our Terms.

Bias

Unfortunately, bias can get in the way of definitions, too. Many folks online have added negative connotations to words like “belief” and “faith”, which then causes them to make irrational statements about these words, as covered here: Dirty Words – Conflated and Misunderstood Terms Volume 4: Belief, Faith and Evidence.

There are also some that only see “evidence” as “scientific evidence”, and anything else is “not evidence”, but this doesn’t really describe what evidence is. For that here’s a Short: Evidentially Evident Evidence.

Social Media

Recently Godless Mom (Courtney Heard) made another post about there only being one definition of atheism. If you remember, one of my first streams with Dave on YouTube was addressing an article of hers, where she claimed this: “Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. If you add more to that, that’s fine, but you’re no longer talking about atheism.” We noted that we like the way she wrote, she seemed to have a good sense of humour, and agreed with a lot of what she said, but that she made a few erroneous statements.

Multiple people have told her in a number of different ways that there are other definitions of atheism, an example detailed later, but she seems to insist on reasserting this evidentially false claim.

To make the point, I’m going to provide a few tweets for you to read. Now, I tend not to like actually bringing up names in these sorts of conversations, but when someone is a high profile account like Courtney on a public site like Twitter, it is fair to say many folks will have seen her posts.

That said, unless I have spoken to the people in question, I will keep other people’s responses anonymous, as I am not trying to encourage dog-piling and don’t think it will be helpful to the situation. Indeed, I feel it might give someone pause for thought if they see their comment addressed anonymously.

There Can Be Only One!

As described earlier, this is demonstrably false. There is also something odd here… she is seemingly conflating believing gods do not exist with a knowledge claim.

Whilst I accept the “lack of belief” usage is a valid definition, and have noted problems with its use, I want to explain a little bit here of what I feel seems to be missing.

The proposition that (at least one) “God Exists” speaks to the ontology of God(s), and as such this statement is either true or false; if this proposition is false, the negation (opposite) of this proposition, that “Gods Do Not Exist”, must be true. These can be seen as ontological positions, but are not necessarily knowledge claims.

If I say “gods do not exist” it is actually different to “gods definitely do not exist”. The issue is the former is unclear; it could be taken as the latter, which is why I think it is better to say “I believe gods do not exist”. What this rephrased statement means is “I accept the negation of the proposition ‘god exists’ as most likely to be the case.”

Because I believe gods do not exist, it follows that I also lack belief in gods existing. As earlier, “lacking belief” falls under the umbrella of “not believing true”. However, there are some people that are more on the fence. They lack belief in god existing and also lack belief in god not existing. They essentially don’t know if they should accept the proposition or its negation, and this is an epistemological position, a consideration or judgement of knowledge, on an ontological position, a consideration or judgement on existence.

I understand that some refer to all types of non-theist as atheists, and whilst I find this broad use to muddy the water, I don’t really mind if that is how they want to refer to themselves. Equally, I don’t think they should be prescriptive with their use and make demands on others to follow suit, which is why I argue against these bad takes on atheism.

However, the fact that there are different types of atheist shows there isn’t just one type of atheism. Even in that thread, people brought up things like the agnostic/gnostic split (which is awful but that’s for another day) or things like weak/strong, negative/positive, implicit/explicit atheist. The ironic thing is, Courtney even referenced Gnostic atheism.

In fact, if you want to know more about the whole quadrant from someone else, check out Emerson Green’s video on the matter.

Watch this video on YouTube.

To be fair to Courtney, she does clarify here (all be it much after a fair few people chimed in):

Essentially she uses atheist to refer to non-theist
https://twitter.com/godless_mom/status/1478436914969526274

Yet on her blog, she does claim ‘gnostic atheism’ is not atheism:

If you want to assert there is no God, please understand that is gnostic atheism, not atheism

https://www.godlessmom.com/post/when-atheists-don-t-know-what-atheism-is-and-get-published-in-the-guardian

This would perhaps be better said as, “gnostic atheism is a specific type of atheism and not representative of all atheism.”

She also said similar in the post that we addressed a while back:

When I explain what atheism is, it is a statement of fact, not an argument. Atheism is a lack of belief in a god. If you add more to that, that’s fine, but you’re no longer talking about atheism. 

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/godlessmom/2019/08/are-these-7-arguments-for-a-creator-god-convincing/

You can see here that she claims you’re no longer talking about atheism, and that her statement is one of fact.

Is this poor wording again? As someone who is quite high profile in the community, perhaps she needs someone to check her tweets and posts for this poor wording before she publishes them.

I fully accept there are various uses for atheism that exist, even if I think there are better definitions to use than others. However, I find these sorts of statements and this prescriptivist demand for the use of a singular definition to be frustrating.

It was one of our early, poorer quality videos where we did the review of her (our second video, in fact), but if you are interested:

Watch this video on YouTube.

I did try to engage Courtney about this, but was simply ignored. That is, of course, her prerogative. She doesn’t owe anyone the conversation, but I felt it could have been productive.

Anyway, Philip Muller (who you might remember from some of our live streams) addressed her with this comment:

He addresses the fact there are actually multiple definitions of atheism and that she shouldn’t dictate meaning. He also addresses the point that folks like Aron Ra make. They claim WE are being prescriptive when WE are saying there are multiple definitions of atheism and that it shouldn’t only mean a lack of belief in gods. Yeah, you heard that right. By saying we should let people identify how they like and that there are multiple definitions of atheism, we get prescriptivism projected at us by those that claim there is only one definition.

Philip actually has a really good article about these silly usage wars on medium.com:

Someone responded with a dictionary definition and etymology from google. I addressed both the dictionary definition, providing an alternate use, and how a direct translation as in the etymology is not the same as how the word was actually used, nor how the term evolved. The etymology also doesn’t back up there being a single use/definition.

etymological fallacy

There were, unfortunately, many folks claiming that there was only one definition and using a singular dictionary to do so. This isn’t how language or dictionaries work, and indeed is a fallacious way of reasoning, especially if they are only looking at ONE dictionary.

The appeal to definition (also known as the argument from dictionary) is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone’s argument is based, in a problematic manner, on the definition of a certain term as it appears in a dictionary or a similar source.

The main problem with such arguments is that dictionaries are descriptive in nature, rather than prescriptive, meaning that they attempt to describe how people use the language, rather than instruct them how to do so in a definitive manner.

https://effectiviology.com/appeal-to-definition/

In fact, this same person also decided that the “belief gods do not exist” definition was exactly the same as “not believing gods exist”:

Whilst believing “gods do not exist” entails “not believing in gods”, the reverse is not true. In other words, “not believing in gods” doesn’t entail “believing gods don’t exist”. As an analogy, consider the classic about Socrates, where Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, and therefore Socrates is mortal. Here, as with “believing gods do not exist” and “not believing in gods”, the reverse does not hold true; Socrates being a mortal man does not mean that ALL men are mortal. It also isn’t an argument that supports the statement that there are not multiple definitions of atheism, it’s just saying all these different definitions mean the same thing. If that was the case, then the atheists that say “I don’t believe gods don’t exist, I only lack belief in Gods” are again speaking erroneously; they would be saying they believe and don’t believe one thing at the same time! As explained, there is a difference in the statements made, even if there are other statements like “gods are imaginary” which do contradict the “only lack belief” claim.

People really like to try and misconstrue the argument. The argument is against those that claim there is only one definition. There can be very good reasons for preferring a particular definition, but the problem comes when you tell people they cannot use a definition or their definition is wrong.

Courtney responded to Philip, and her response was interesting, to say the least:

  1. Philip didn’t claim an atheist is one that claims there are no gods.
  2. Philip clearly states in the tweet she is responding to multiple definitions of atheism exist.
  3. She claims he is gatekeeping atheism… by what? saying there are multiple definitions and not just her singular use?
  4. Her issue with this “gatekeeping” is exclusion? That’s interesting.

To address the exclusion/inclusion point. Some people will talk about non-theists and types of non-theist (atheist being one of them), and others will talk about different types of atheists instead. Someone like Philip will have a preferred definition, but will acknowledge other definitions. He won’t deny their identity if they want to be known just as an atheist or something like an ignostic atheist; even if they might be an agnostic or an ignostic in his head, he will use their preferred label for them.

Courtney, on the other hand, argues for a singular definition of atheism and claims if you add anything else to it, that’s not atheism.

And her argument seems to rest on inclusivity?

Firstly, telling people how they must identify is not very inclusive at all. The whole point of identity is that the person gets to decide how they identify. It is THEIR identity.

Secondly, is inclusion a good rationale for a definition? If so, then defining an atheist as someone that believes in 0-10 gods is more inclusive, no?

In fact, the only reason to be worried about this sort of inclusion is for ideological reasons… Political support, for example. I can understand that in places where religion has a stronghold, uniting under a single banner of “atheist” could be useful. But why not “non-theist”? Or even better, “secular”? There are plenty of theists who are secular, politically speaking. Surely that would be a much more inclusive banner to fly? In fact, some theists are secular religiously too, but that’s beside the point.

Of course, besides missing the entire point, she also got a lot of support from her followers who joined in with the misrepresentation. One of the main ones I saw was this:

This is such an awful take. Mansplaining is a very real thing, something we men often do without even realising due to social conditioning regarding women, but also many of us are just arrogant, misogynistic wankers. Unfortunately, it has become a way for women to dismiss men, rather than actually addressing the comments. At best, you’re wrong, but it seems like you’re gaslighting.

Frankly, that thread and the ones surrounding it only got worse.

Conspiracy

Godless mum is atheism the default position

On a previous thread of hers talking about if babies are atheists, I responded that they were not as they don’t hold a position on the topic; they are innocent or ignorant of the proposition. I also provided a link to my article on ‘The Problem With ‘Atheism is the Default Position’ Arguments‘. Whether she read it or not, I don’t know, but I doubt it. I have tried to engage her a number of times on some of her ideas and she tends to ignore the messages.

Anyway, it did get responses from some people. Some who missed the point of the article by only getting as far as the bit where I briefly address Aron Ra’s claim that ‘rocks are atheist’, and others who clearly hadn’t even read it and just wanted to argue their point. All of their points had pretty much been addressed in the article.

One such person was the author Roman Piso. He had some very odd ideas.

He claimed that babies and animals were atheists, that atheism was the default position. He also made a strange claim that theists bought all the dictionaries in the 80’s and changed the definition of atheism.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find anything to support this. In a number of our conversations, I asked him to support his assertions, but he would always dodge and project some form of “religious thinking” or similar because I didn’t just accept what he asserted without evidence.

Roman Piso Mind Trap Projection

Now, many publishing houses do have links to religious institutions, but to say they were intentionally changing the meaning of words to match their religious texts seems a bit far fetched. I had already provided a link to Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism which went through a number of different definitions of atheism throughout the years in various dictionaries, encyclopedias, and philosophical material. Just as a small demonstration, here are some of the dictionary and encyclopedia entries from the 16th to 19th century taken from Nathan G. Alexander’s Defining and Redefining Atheism: Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Entries (2020), which can be found here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17496977.2019.1642582.

Definitions of Atheism from 16th to 19th C
From Nathan G. Alexander (2020) Defining and Redefining Atheism: Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Entries for “atheism”…

The biggest issue with Roman was that rather than engage honestly, answer questions, read the articles/links and such, he would just talk about “mind traps” or say you were not thinking critically because you didn’t agree with him.

Roman Piso can't answer questions

He ended up making a statement that seems to imply he thought of himself as a “genius” and “true atheist”. I responded saying he seemed to have a pretty high opinion of himself, which earned me a block. That’s no real loss, as I prefer to live without Twitter drama, but it does mean that there is one less person challenging his nonsense.

Dave did a video that I think pretty accurately describes Roman’s behaviour (and that of people like him) within the atheist community.

Watch this video on YouTube.

So what is this all about?

The issue isn’t so much about the definition of atheism. The problem is with:

  1. People with a high profile within the atheist community peddling false information.
  2. Their followers accepting what they say without question.
  3. Both sets not being open to new evidence.

You see, it’s starting to form a structure like religion. Instead of people being open to evidence and being critical thinkers or freethinkers or whatever label they use to describe themselves, they are actually starting to behave like those in a church who just nod along and agree with their pastor.

Obviously, you can easily say it is different; the consequences are not the same, there isn’t this larger implication of what some religions/denominations do, and I would agree that, presently, it isn’t in the same ballpark… But it does seem like things could move that way. You could argue this is a slippery slope, but not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Especially if you consider that these people might already be prone to that way of thinking from a long time in religion.

Can we really call ourselves sceptics or freethinkers when what we actually mean is, “follow the crowd” and “ignore any evidence that goes against your beliefs” and when even the idea of disagreement means our interlocutors are not fellow ‘free thinkers’?

This is the problem I see with Ra’s “Rocks are Atheist” argument and Courtney’s prescriptive definition of atheism. They are quite well known in the atheist community, and they can both be incredibly charismatic and knowledgeable. The problem seems to be that when they make a false claim, they are above reproach.

Not only are they are damaging their own reputation, but they are damaging the image of New Atheism and the ‘lack of belief’ atheists. Instead of lacktheism being used to discern between “lack of belief atheism” and “propositional atheism” as Ozy first intended when he coined it, it is now used as an insult for someone devoid of rationality trying to escape their epistemic responsibility.

‘Lacktheism’ is a term I coined in 2014 while in a discussion/argument with fellow atheist Greg Brahe in a Facebook group called ‘The Cult of Honesty’ to describe those atheists who define atheism as a mere “lack of a belief in a god or gods”, in other words, ‘non-theism’.

The term ‘non-theism’ is, of course, not new, but I first introduced the term ‘lacktheism’ to underscore the fact that many atheists (people who think there’s no god) equivocate between non-theism and atheism and do so primarily because the latter would have no burden of justification since non-theism isn’t a position at all, but is instead a catch-all for a host of different positions (each with it’s own burden of justification) which would include atheists, fence-sitter agnostics and Huxleyan agnostics, igtheists (or theological non-cognitivists), and even people who have never even heard of a god, including a small children, etc.

Ozymandias Rameses II

I doubt this [damage] is what either Ra or Heard are trying to do, in fact, I think they are good people with good intentions, but they are unfortunately doing that with these really bad arguments and statements. It’s not just them, but many who claim to change their mind with new evidence are consistently demonstrating they don’t seem to listen to reason and instead ignore evidence and arguments contrary to their position.

So What’s the Takeaway?

  • Language is defined through use, therefore no definition is ever truly wrong.
  • That said, the point of language is that we understand each other, so introducing random definitions isn’t helpful.
  • Anyone telling you that there can be only one definition of anything is wrong.
  • Anyone telling you other definitions of atheism are “wrong” is themselves wrong.
  • In both instances of the above, the person is being prescriptive with their preferred definition.
  • There are, however, contextually correct definitions, like how we use theory in science, or subjective when discussing morality, but they don’t have a monopoly on the use outside of that context.
  • It is fine to discuss why you prefer a definition and why you think people ought to adopt it, that isn’t being prescriptive. That is providing a (hopefully) rational argument about the use of a term, so long as you’re not saying people cannot use it another way.
  • Anyone who rejects evidence, especially if they do it in either a dismissive way or if they create a conspiracy to reject it, is probably guilty of irrational thought.
  • If someone questions you, you won’t convince them by just asserting negative things about them; try answering the questions and supporting your claims.
  • Misrepresenting people is not an argument against them; at best you’ll only get the die hard fans who already agree with you to support you.

This article was originally featured in its formative stages on a live stream. Special thanks to everyone who got involved and gave their critique, especially Tim, the Silenced Swordsman, for reading through and suggesting a number of great grammatical tips, corrections and rephrasing for clarity.

Apologies for taking so long to get this out, it was virtually finished weeks ago but real life took hold and I just didn’t have time to put on the finishing touches.

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