Tuesday, March 07, 2006

We Need A New Word

I've been thinking about word choice in conjunction with the charge that evolution is atheistic and/or leads to atheism. Whether it actually does or not is a separate discussion, but its hard to ignore the fact that "atheistic" is probably a word that most people would use to describe evolution if you asked them. A more appropriate choice would be "agnostic". Strictly speaking evolutionary theory is agnostic; it espouses no position on the question of God. But this runs into two problems:
  1. "atheism" and "agnosticism" are often conflated in popular discourse. The word "agnostic" is tainted by associated.
  2. Calling evolution "agnostic" doesn't really address the primary charge leveled at the theory.
The primary charge, of course, is the crime of "writing God out of the picture". In popular discourse the whole God question is posited as a dichotomy: you must advocate for God or atheism, there is no middle ground1. Hence the notion that evolution is expressly atheistic. The dichotomy noted above is clearly false, since there are clearly three classes of theories with regard to this issue:
  • Theories which require the existence of God for correct operation ("theistic" theories).
  • Theories which require the non-existence of God for correct operation ("atheistic" theories2).
  • Theories which operate independently of the existence of God ("???" theories).
It's that's third concept that we need to highlight and popularize. Are there any Greek wordsmiths in the house? About the best I could come up with was meseuotheism (from meseuo), but that doesn't really trip off the tongue.
1 As a side note this seems to be a good argument to use when people say that evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Point out that the 2nd Law is totally mechanistic and doesn't allow for the existence of God either. Presumably its against the ground rules to use a godless law to disprove another godless law, since both must be false to begin with. 2 Strictly speaking this is inaccurate, since atheism encompasses both those who believe there isn't a God and those who are simply "not theists". Again, though, the common understanding of the word as describing solely "those who believe there is no God" is what I'm concerned with. And anyway, why the hell are were still using one word for two markedly different ideas?


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