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The Capital A: A Position Paper

By: Justin Wishart

You may have noticed in my articles that I use the capital “A” when I use the word Atheist. This is not a common practice with writers and I have been questioned as to why I do. The purpose of this blog is to provide a justification for why I capitalize Atheist, or Atheism. I do not suggest to provide an argument here that is binding for others to use the capital “A”, but only that I am justified in doing so.

The issue first begins with a quick review of words that are capitalized; words such as Christianity, Judaism, Behaviourism, Islam, Wicca, Scientology, Empiricism, Rationalism, and Shintoism.[i] Why is it that we capitalize these words and yet deny also capitalizing Atheism?

     One response could be that words such as “Christianity” derive its name from proper nouns, such as Christ; likewise Judaism is derived from Judea. However, what proper noun is Wicca derived from? What about Islam? It seems that these words do not need be derived from a proper noun to be capitalized, and as such Atheism cannot be denied capitalization on this base.
2    There are many other words that seem to be similar that are not capitalized. Words such as conservatism, liberalism, materialist, and monarchists.[ii]Yet, how is this an argument for whether or not Atheism should be capitalized? Granted, some words are capitalized and some words are not, but we are talking about a specific word. While this might be used to lend weight to an argument against capitalizing Atheism, this cannot be used as a base for denying the use of the capital “A”.

3    It might be said that Atheism is simply unbelief, not an actual belief in anything. While Christianity posits positive claims about God and morality, Atheism simply denies belief in any god. Thus, due to being devoid of any unifying creed or dogma,[iii] Atheism is simply in a different category then Shintoism is. The bulk of this article will be to address this concern.

Atheism as a Worldview

There are a few different definitions of what a worldview is. Our executive director, Jojo Ruba, likes to put it this way: “What is a worldview? It is the way we view the world.” Many like to use the analogy of glasses that you put on which are used to see the world around us. If you put on yellow tinted glasses, you see yellow everywhere. Likewise, if you put on Buddhist “eyeglasses”, or Christian “eyeglasses”, you will see the world in a certain way. Late philosopher Ronald Nash had a slightly different definition:

“A worldview contains a person’s answers to the major questions in life, almost all of which contain significant philosophical content. It is a conceptual framework, pattern, or arrangement of a person’s beliefs.”[iv]
Nash then presents five different “clusters of beliefs”[v]which he says should be part of a worldview. They are God, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and human nature.[vi]It is important to note here that a worldview shared by a group, let’s say Christianity, will not always have the exact same view on these subjects as people espousing the same worldview. What is meant here is that there is a general adherence by members in this group on such topics.

Atheists can often be very dogmatic on the idea that they do not posit any positive claims about the nature of reality. That all they do is deny the existence of any god. I have always been bewildered by this assertion. By simply denying the existence of any god it is clear that there are many logical implications to such a view. Atheist philosopher, Alex Rosenberg, has made an attempt to answer these types of questions by trying to discover the philosophical consequences of Atheistic thought.[vii]

             “Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Is there a soul? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What is the difference between right/wrong, good/bad? There is no moral difference between them.”[viii]

We can here see that at least to Rosenberg, Atheism is a distinct worldview with distinct “clusters of beliefs” around philosophy’s greatest subjects.[ix]With books like ‘Atheism for Dummies[x]and ‘An Atheist Manifesto’,[xi]it seems as if many Atheists believe that Atheism has much more to say than just “there are no gods”. It seems as if, while out of one side of their mouths they will say there is no specific positive truth claims, they turn around and say volumes about all sorts of positive truth claims based on their Atheism. The third argument is therefore undermined by their own members.

When we look at Christianity, we will find that there is no universal theological agreement on all things “Christian”. An Evangelical might view things differently than a Roman Catholic, which is different than an Eastern Orthodox, etc. In fact, many Atheists often use this as an argument against Christianity. Yet, we still capitalize Christianity. However, it is true that all people who call themselves “Christian” will have at least a most basic set of core beliefs. I think it is fair to say that Atheistic organizations generally share a basic set of beliefs as well.[xii] For example, an article on the infidels.org site answers this question: “…What are the fundamental messages of atheism?”
  • “There is more to moral behavior than mindlessly following rules.
  • Be especially skeptical of positive claims.
  • If you want your life to have some sort of meaning, it’s up to you to find it.
  • Search for what is true, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
  • Make the most of your life, as it’s probably the only one you’ll have.
  • It’s no good relying on some external power to change you; you must change yourself.
  • Just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good.
  • If you must assume something, assume something easy to test.
  • Don’t believe things just because you want them to be true.
  • And finally (and most importantly): All beliefs should be open to question.”[xiii]

Who am I to argue with how Atheists understand themselves? It might be further pressed that even if some Atheist argues for what they call an Atheistic worldview, complete with positive claims, there is no overarching Atheistic organization that dictates what is Atheism. This is also true, of Wicca, however. While some Atheists might not have any Atheistic creed as stated above, some obviously do. Therefore, argument 3, does not seem to be universally true, and it can be shown that at least some atheists put forward positive views they express and defend. While augment 3 might work to establish that the capital “A” cannot be universally binding, it does not make the point that one is not justifiedin using the capital “A”.

One Further Consideration

Additionally, Atheists are becoming increasingly organized. It started in various clubs in universities to large scale events like the “Reason Rally” to even so called “Atheist Churches”.[xiv]  It is clear that many self-professing Atheists want to be identified as a distinct group. And, for many distinct groups we use capitals when naming them.[xv]Since many Atheists view themselves as a group, this gives further weight to the justification of using a capital “A”.
I feel that due to these considerations, I am at minimum justified in using the capital “A” for the words Atheism, Atheist, and Atheistic. Much from being a senseless exercise in semantics, this actually has a few significant implications. One of which is an important contribution to the question of the “burden of proof” when talking about whether God exists. Another is that this causes a major dilemma for the Atheist as well. However, due to limited space, I cannot explore and outline these implications. But, I hope that I have provided an adequate justification for using the capital “A”.

[i] Some of these words (such as Rationalism) I have seen capitalized and not capitalized by published authors. The point is that the capitalization seems to be permissible with these words.
[ii] Again, I have seen these words capitalized and these words not capitalized.
[iii] Atheists like using these types of religious terms because it seems to separate Atheism from religion. However, once we get past the rhetorical nature of these words, it seems what is meant is Atheism is devoid of any specific positive truth claims.
[iv] Ronald Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions, Zondervan, 1999, pg.13
[v] Ibin, pg. 14
[vi] There are more, but this should provide a good idea of what the types of things these “major questions in life” are.
[vii] It is interesting to note that Rosenberg does not capitalize Atheism.
[viii] Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011, pg. 2, 3
[ix] It is important to note that not all Atheists will agree with Rosenberg’s beliefs; but it is equally important to note that for there to be a distinct worldview does not require uniform adherence to every belief, just a general agreement by a majority of its members
[x] In the book description on Amazon.com, it says: “Unlock the mystery behind atheism — find out what atheists don’t believe, do believe, and why”.
[xi] And the multiple volumes of book writings from an Atheistic perspective.
[xii] I am unaware of any study on this point.
[xiv] Calgary even has her own “Atheist Church”. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/01/30/calgary-secular-church-first-atheist-church-alberta_n_2583930.html (as of 23/07/2013)
[xv] A Canadian is someone who has citizenship to Canada, a Pentecostal is a member within a particular Christian denomination, and a Zen Buddhist is a particular type of Buddhist.