Archive for the ‘definition’ Category

Definition: secular


Much of the disagreement between people – in areas of religion and elsewhere – centres around unacknowledged differences of definition. It is important to know what someone means when they use a word, and it is often pretty easy, if you’re paying attention, to notice that a difference of definition is serving as a barrier to communication. Please read this in the light of my recent comments on What words mean. I hope that people who disagree with me will continue to lay out their reasons in the comments, and everyone with me will tell me how well I am conveying my ideas.

Today’s definition: “secular”.

It is variously used to refer to “everyday life” (as opposed to consideration of religious ideas of the transcendent), or as a pejorative for the increasingly non-religious way many people approach life these days. What is common is that it tends to be associated with a lack of religion.

What seems to be disputed is whether “secular” approaches to life – particularly public life and politics – are actively anti-religious, or simply non-religious.

This distinction has come up before on this blog. Long-time readers will, I hope, already anticipate my preferred definition here.

When I promote secularization, or a secular public sphere, I mean one that does not privilege one religious perspective over another. That is, a secular government is one that does not take a side in questions of faith. It doesn’t promote prayer; it doesn’t prohibit prayer. It doesn’t encourage religious observance; it doesn’t discourage religious observance.

For the most part, I would say that is what secular governments aim for in the real world. (I’m quite pleased with this trend, so far as I have observed it in the countries I’ve lived in.)

So why might some people associate the word with anti-religious sentiments and actions?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that some of the vocal cheerleaders for secular government these days are atheists. The National Secular Society in the UK is a prominent example – they actively lobby against religious privilege in that country, and advocate for the equal treatment of atheists. And of course, many of the most vocal atheists these days are vocal in their criticism of religious beliefs. So it is natural for people to connect in their minds the word “secular” with “anti-religious”. Similarly, people like me who identify as secular humanists are all (so far as I know) atheists. From my perspective, this is because approaching the world from a secular perspective – one that begins as neutral toward religious claims – will tend to lead one to atheism. From another perspective, it may seem that secular has some built-in anti-religious bias.

Another reason is that, historically, pretty much every culture has privileged one or another religious belief in its laws and customs. So, when we move towards a secular society, those privileges tend to be lost. The groups who once enjoyed those privileges naturally feel like they are under attack. They lose their special voice in government (removal of laws that are exclusively motivated by religious dogma). They lose their special voice in education (removal of teaching materials that are informed by religious dogma, and/or that are in contradiction of scientific evidence). They are no longer able to impose their rituals on public events, to the exclusion of others (removal of sectarian prayers in council meetings, or the inclusion of other religious and non-religious voices).

To someone like me, who identifies with a group (atheists) that never enjoyed those privileges, it is laughable to hear religious people moan about intolerance when they learn that they will finally have to follow the same laws as everyone else.

But I certainly can understand how humbling and, perhaps, frightening, it must be to see one’s tribe fall from a position of accustomed privilege to become an equal among many competing voices.

And, of course, there are people who would like religion to disappear from the world entirely. There are dogmatic anti-theists who blame much human evil on religion, and then advocate that we would be better without this blight on our culture. There are ideologues who see religion – or at least, undomesticated religion – as a threat to their ideology (such as Stalinist or Maoist communism).

I am not one of those people. And, though some would call them “secularists”, I would not. They are not neutral to religion. A secular state is neutral toward religion.

So being an atheist doesn’t automatically make one a secularist. Nor does being a secularist automatically make one an atheist. For example, one of the main reasons the US constitution was formed in explicitly secular terms was because many of the religious groups in the fledgling country had fled from persecution in Europe. They recognized that a secular state – one that did not give state power to religious institutions – was the best protection for their religious freedom. Quakers, Unitarians, Deists … even, at different times, Protestants and Catholics, have experienced the tyranny of an ascendant religious power over those weaker in numbers or force. A secular state provides protection for everyone against the majority.

Current demographic trends show non-belief outstripping belief to varying degrees in many developed countries. If this continues, it may be that within a few decades atheists will be the majority. It will then be even more clearly in the best interests of the religious minority to have strong secular protections in place so that their religious freedoms are protected from possible attacks from this new majority.

Other people’s definitions and discussions:

Oxford dictionary online main definition: “Not connected with religious or spiritual matters”

Google search definition: “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis” main definition: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal”

Merriam Webster definition 1b: “not overtly or specifically religious”

Free Dictionary definition 2: “Not specifically relating to religion or to a religious body”

Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance glossary entry for secularism: “A term created in 1846 by a British freethinker George Holyoake:

  • The belief that government decisions should be made independently of religious considerations.
  • The promotion of ideas and values not based on religious criteria.”

Wikipedia article on secularity

Other commentators: No Forbidden Questions, and here’s a debate at Camels with Hammers that revolves (in part) around competing definitions. It is clear to me that not everyone sees “secular” as I do. I’ll try to use the word carefully.

What words mean


I’ve offered a few definitions on this blog. For those who know I am a linguist by profession, but who don’t know many linguists themselves, I fear this may come across as an attempt to impose definitions by authority of my expertise.

So I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how linguists actually approach language.

I thought I’d spend a thousand or so words giving a brief introduction to terms like “prescriptive” and “descriptive“. Maybe talk about the inexorability of language change. Perhaps I could indulge in some side-notes on how most of the cherished rules of modern grammarians are violated not only by the common speakers and writers of English, but also by the authors the grammarians admire, and also (far too often) by the grammarians themselves, when they’re not paying attention.

I’d indulge in a rant or two here and there, and generally weary everyone into either agreeing with me or walking away.

Then I realized, if people want to be bored by all this stuff, they can bloody well come and take Linguistics 101, pay tuition and help keep me gainfully employed. And anyway, you don’t need all that to see the main point anyway.

It all boils down to this:

  • Linguists are scientists. We want to know how language actually works.
  • Behind everything else, language is about being understood – conveying an idea from one mind to another.
  • Words mean what people use them to mean.

Oh, there’s more. Syntax, morphology, phonetics (oh, sweet phonetics!), semantics … but each of them boils down to that one point.

Words mean what people use them to mean.

That’s what my definitions are about. I want to be clear how I’m using words, so we can communicate as clearly as possible.

Definition: “religion”


I’ve been asked for my definition of “religion”. I’ve blogged for some time now without really offering a definition.

Let me offer the normal preface: I do not offer my definition as a prescription, nor lean on my authority as a trained linguist (can you believe I have a doctorate now?) to suggest that others ought to conform to my opinion here. I’m simply trying to clarify how I tend to use the term, in hopes that this will help people better understand what I write on this blog. See here for a friend’s much more eloquent summary of the linguist’s standard attitude to prescriptivism.

So here goes…

A religion is a system of thought or belief that includes some supernatural, transcendent entity or phenomenon.

Now, what would count as a religion under this definition?

  • Certainly, any belief in a god or gods – orthodox forms Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Paganism – is a religion.
  • And not just organized religions: any belief in a god or gods, even if it’s outside the scope of any particular organized religion, is a religious belief. This includes deism, the belief in an impersonal creator-god.
  • It is possible to believe in an afterlife without believing in a god; for me, this too falls under the umbrella of “religion”.
  • Similarly for belief in karma, fate, etc: they are transcendent and supernatural, and so they are religious.

What doesn’t count as a religion, by my definition?

  • Atheism and humanism are not religious systems; the one specifically excludes the supernatural, the other is simply defined without reference to religious elements.
  • Other systems that exhibit social elements analogous to organized religion – sport fandom, the adulation of celebrities, some flavours of patriotism – are not religions. (Though, of course, I reserve the right to use the term “religious”, as any other term, metaphorically when talking about such phenomena.)
  • Science is not a religion. It saddens me to have to even mention this, but there are those who would lump science in with religions.
  • Ethical systems are not religious, except where they invoke supernatural justifications (God-the-Lawgiver, or supernatural versions of karma, the threefold law etc). It is here that I would say Unitarian Universalism, as an overall movement, is not religious. The organizing principles of Unitarianism are non-religious ethical precepts, not specific supernatural beliefs.
  • Superstition, astrology, and other (non-supernatural) instances of human credulity are not religious. The whole “alternative medicine” scam is not (in general) religious.
I think this definition broadly agrees with the common usage of the term. I also think the term “religion”, and affiliated terms like “religious” or “spiritual”, are messy things.

What kind of atheist?


Both Luke at Common Sense Atheism and Sabio at Triangulations have presented taxonomic breakdowns of the sort of differences one finds between atheists.  I thought it might be worth laying out my own position.  See their blog posts for some of the other alternatives in these categories.  I have not used all of their categories, but the following covers the most important points:


I’ve discussed some of these before.  I prefer to call myself a humanist.  I am also an atheist, agnostic, skeptic, and freethinker.

Level of certainty:

On Dawkins’ scale of 1 (strong belief in a god or gods) to 7 (strong belief in no god), I generally fall around 4.  For most specific claims that I’ve heard made by particular religions, I fall closer to 6 or 7.

Level of affirmation:

I am an implicit (or “weak” or “negative”) atheist:  I withhold belief in the apparent absence of evidence.  I do not assert that there is no god; I simply decline to assert that there is a god.


Broad – I apply the same lack of belief to all god-claims I have encountered.


I am open about my beliefs, though I am cautious around new acquaintances and certain family members.  I am (obviously) quite open online.

Degree of action:

I affirm my beliefs, I blog about them, and I donate to humanist-themed charities.

Degree of enchantment:

I am a very enchanted naturalist.  I find the natural world (including all of us) to be a truly wonderful place, and am delighted to have some time to experience it and grow to understand it.

Mystical inclination:

I am somewhat mystical, as I understand the term.  Although I enjoy knowing and understanding things, I find a certain amount of delight in thinking about things that my understanding doesn’t (or cannot) penetrate.

Non-theistic leanings:

I incline to believe in an entirely natural universe, with no transcendent personal nature (no god or ur-consciousness).  I am flatly agnostic on the question of a prime mover (the deists’ god).

View of reason:

Reason is the discipline that most reliably allows our deeply-held values to be expressed in effective action.  It is indispensible for leading a fully authentic life.

Faith items:

In the absence of proof (or even the possibility of proof in principle), I believe that my perceptions are caused by real objects and events.  I believe that the past is a generally-reliable guide to the future.

Stance toward religion:

I am relatively indifferent toward beliefs.  Though I am often curious what people believe and why, I am rarely inclined to condemn beliefs in themselves.  As for religiously-motivated actions, I respond to on their individual merits (as I do actions in general).

Religious participation:

I attend a weekly Unitarian service.  I sing along to most of the hymns.  Is that religious participation?  Not to me, though I guess that largely depends how widely you define religion.

Belief history:

I am a lifelong non-believer.  I’ve “tried out” Paganism, Mormonism, and more mainline Christianity.  That is, I have explored them as different ways of approaching the world, and dipped my toe in the practices associated with each.  But I never adopted the beliefs though (so far as I can recall).

Theory of religion:

I am far from certain about this, and am content to leave explanations to those who study it more rigorously (sociologists and psychologists, that is, not theologians).  From what I understand of their findings, I suspect that the existence of religion in the apparent absence of supernatural reality is due to some combination of adaptive cognitive biases and historical accident.

Degree of secular superstitious thinking:

I have bad habits, and habits that are not harmful but are not grounded in reason, but I don’t know of any that could be called superstitious.


I hope that this has helped to clarify some of my positions, and perhaps further elucidate what I mean when I call myself an atheist.  As with any such declaration, I reserve the right to change my mind about things as I learn more about myself and about the universe around me.

How about you?  How would you fill in the above categories?

My definition: humanist


Happy HumanWell, I’ve managed to post three “personal definitions” so far without tackling the one that is probably most relevant to this blog:  what is a humanist?

Partly this is because the term humanism isn’t as misunderstood as the other terms I’ve covered:  atheist, Christian, and fundamentalist.  It is unfamiliar to many, but at least folks don’t tend to have conflicting ideas of what it means.

But, in the comments to the post about fundamentalism, I was directly asked about a definition of humanism.  So, at long last, I thought I’d tackle it.

First I’ll give the usual caveat.  I offer the definition here to clarify what I mean by the term humanist.  I’m not trying to impose this definition on anyone else, or to declare that all other definitions are “wrong”.

So let me start by identifying the two core features of humanism as I understand it.

One is compassion.  A humanist outlook takes human well-being as a central value.

The other is reason.  Humanism entails using rational enquiry to decide what is true and what is false.*

Now, I would love to leave it there.  If you live a life that demonstrates the values of compassion and reason, then I think you are entitled to call yourself a humanist.  But there are some side-effects of this definition that affect who will call themselves a humanist and who will not**.

For example, it omits mentioning the existence (or non-existence) of any god.  Most people who believe in a god also value compassion and reason.  Are they humanists?

My tentative answer is no, for two reasons:  they don’t call themselves humanists, and people who do call themselves humanists don’t call believers humanists.

Believers tend to choose other labels themselves – labels associated with their god-belief:  “Christian”, “Hindu”, “Muslim”, “Pagan”.  The extra values associated with those groups vary, but generally include obedience to the god(s) they believe in, commitment to certain rituals (Hajj, prayer, Communion, etc), and veneration of particular texts as sources of sacred truth.  Religious people give some or all of these values a privileged position above the humanist values of compassion and reason.  A related point is that, while atheism and humanism are not synonymous, the association is strong enough that many religious people probably avoid the label humanist simply because it seems to imply atheism†.

Like many self-described humanists, I think religious people, by accepting the existence of a god, are not fully living up to the stated value of reason.  I know how arrogant this sounds – remember that it’s just another way of saying that I think I’m right (otherwise I wouldn’t call myself an atheist).  I may be wrong, but this is my best guess so far.

So only people who lack god-belief (atheists – but not all atheists) choose take on the label humanist, and nobody – neither believers nor non-believers – applies the term humanist to believers.

I suppose it is also worth pointing out why I and many other people prefer the label humanist to atheist.  After all, if there’s so much overlap, why not simply go with the term that most people know?

First, the definition of atheist is not always obvious.  That’s why I offered a post on what I and others mean when we call ourselves atheists.  Second, the term atheist is so fraught with emotional baggage that in some situations it’s worth avoiding on that basis alone.††  Third and more importantly for me, “atheist” and “humanist” mean different things.  Being an atheist is about what you don’t believe.  Being a humanist is about what you value.

For me, atheism is a consequence of living as a humanist.  I withhold belief in a god because the belief is both irrelevant to my capacity to behave compassionately, and unsupported by rational evaluation of the evidence before me.  As I’ve said before, if someone showed me convincing evidence that a god exists, I would no longer be an atheist, but I would continue to value compassion and reason above all else.  I would remain a humanist.

To sum up:  I take humanism to be an approach to living based on compassion and reason.  I think that this approach leads to atheism, but that atheism is not an inherent part of humanism.  Religious belief is not in principle contrary to humanism, but seems in fact to be inconsistent with a rigorous application of the twin values of compassion and reason.  When I call someone a humanist, I’m asserting that they take reason and compassion as the root of their worldview, that they probably don’t believe in the supernatural, and that they probably self-identify as a humanist.

Let me know if that isn’t perfectly clear.‡


* I confess to borrowing this characterization directly from the Humanist Network News podcast, which introduces humanism as “a worldview based on reason and compassion”.

** Observant readers will notice that I am implicitly taking self-identification as an important test of what it means to be a humanist.  This is a common attitude among linguists:  words get their meaning through usage, so the meaning of a word like “humanist” (or “Christian” or “banana”) will be largely shaped by the people who take that word as a label for their beliefs.

† I’m not suggesting that all religious people have some bigoted bias against atheism.  (Some do, some don’t.)  I’m just saying that they don’t want to take on a label that would misleadingly imply they are atheists.

†† But not all circumstances – I’m happy to call myself an atheist if someone asks whether I believe in a god, or simply asks if I’m an atheist.  I should also add that some atheists avoid the term “humanist” because they think it’s just a cowardly way of avoiding the controversial but more appropriate term “atheist”.  (See for example this discussion at the Rational Response Squad forums.)  Let me be clear:  I am an atheist.  But I am also, and more fundamentally, a humanist.

‡ Sorry about all the footnotes.

Some links to other definitions

(Note that these definitions, as they are based on use, often give religious disbelief more weight than I do.)

Cambridge Dictionary Online.
Oxford English Dictionary (access not free).
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
BBC article on humanism.
Humanist Society of Scotland.
International Humanist and Ethical Union “minimum statement“.
Humanist Academy (Scottish humanist educational charity).

Image credit

The Happy Human is trademarked by the British Humanist Association and is used worldwide as a symbol of humanism.  I use the version from the Wikimedia Commons, which is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license.  It was created by Denis Barrington for the British Humanist Association, and adapted to the current format by Howard Cheng.

My definition: fundamentalist


[In an effort to make my posts more readable, I'm experimenting here with footnote references in place of in-text links. Please let me know whether this makes things easier or harder to read.]

So far I have defined atheist and Christian. Today, I’d like to tackle another word that gets used by many but whose definition is elusive: fundamentalist.

First, I’d like to explore how the word seems to be used by people. I’ll then get to how I try to use it, and why.

There are three meanings that I have seen the word “fundamentalist” used for.

First, there is the historical origin of the term, to refer to those people who accept the doctrines outlined in the series of essays titled The Fundamentals: A testimony to the truth, published between 1910 and 1915 [1,2,3,4]. This definition would mean that only those Christians who accept these doctrines (creationism, virgin birth of Jesus, the atonement, and others) are true “fundamentalists” – only they hold to those particular fundamentals [3,5,6].

Second, there is the obvious extension to other dogmatic positions. Perhaps anyone who dogmatically accepts a particular set of doctrines as true is a fundamentalist [3,6,7]. This could include some (but not all) members of most major world religions. I think some religions have more of a tendency to this sort of fundamentalism than others. It is also not unreasonable to apply this definition to other beliefs – for example atheism (though I don’t think you’ll find many fundamentalist atheists by this definition) or political ideologies [6,7].

Third, I feel that people are increasingly using the term fundamentalist as a slur – to mean little more than “somebody who passionately believes something that I disagree with” [4,7]. I’ve seen this meaning used by humanists (including myself) to refer quite broadly to a range of conservative Christians; I’ve also seen the term used in this sense by Christians to describe a wide range of atheist writers.

So those are three definitions that are used for the term fundamentalist. I suspect that they represent points on a continuum of meanings, and that some mix of these three definitions is often in people’s minds when using the term. But let’s consider these three definitions in particular.

The first definition, while historically well-motivated, is so narrow that it’s not very useful for general discussion. Very few discussions need to refer specifically and exclusively to the original Fundamentalists, and these could be distinguished by capitalization (as I’ve done in this sentence) or by explicitly referring to The Fundamentals as their statement of belief.

The third definition is neither historically well-motivated nor particularly informative: we have plenty of words to use when we find someone’s position distasteful, and adding one more is unlikely to help us communicate any better. (Yes, I am assuming that the purpose of language is to help people communicate. Call me an optimist.)

So, as the more astute of you may already have guessed, I’m opting for the second definition:

A fundamentalist is someone who dogmatically holds to a set of beliefs as true. (As opposed to tentatively holding to beliefs and being willing to revise those beliefs in the face of opposing evidence.) 

This definition covers a wide enough range of beliefs to be relevant in general conversation, while remaining specific enough to be informative. For example, I know some Christians who are fundamentalists under this definition, and others who are not. I don’t know any atheist whose position could be called fundamentalist in this way, but I’m fairly sure that some must exist. I know some very woo-oriented people whose positions are fundamentalist (the conspiracy-theory approach to anti-vax, for example), but I’ve also known people who seem to be honestly willing to follow the evidence. (These latter are generally now non-woo, simply because the evidence always points in another direction.)

Can you think of people with fundamentalist attitudes in other areas of life? With non-fundamentalist attitudes who might be branded fundamentalist? Is there a belief, community, or identity that you think is inherently fundamentalist? Inherently non-fundamentalist? Let us know in the comments.

Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep on saying it: I’m not trying to impose a definition on others. I am a linguist (and so an expert of sorts), but language (like science, and like truth itself) does not get handed down from authorities. Nor are the meanings of words decided by some noble democratic process. Meaning in language emerges by a sort of quasi-Darwinian selection, in which people participate only semi-consciously – a sort of mob-consciousness. Meanings that fit the speaker’s and the listener’s purposes are propagated; meanings that do not fit are not propagated.

[1] Online text of The Fundamentals
[2] Wikipedia entry on The Fundamentals
[3] Wiktionary definition of fundamentalist
[4] Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance essay on the term fundamentalism
[5] definition of fundamentalist
[6] Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary definition of fundamentalist
[7] Wikipedia entry on fundamentalism
[8] Oxford English Dictionary definition of fundamentalist (access not free)

My definition: Christian


For the second in my running series of personal definitions, I define what I mean by the term “Christian“.

Let me preface by reiterating that I’m not trying to produce an authoritative definition, or devalue others’ definitions (particularly the definitions that Christians themselves hold). I’m simply letting you know what definition I am normally working with when I call someone “Christian”.

So here it is:

I take to be a Christian anyone who uses the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as a guide to leading an ethical life.

In practice, this definition will catch pretty much everyone who self-identifies as Christian. Of course, many “Christians” under this definition will not be considered True Christians by many other “Christians” (if you follow me).

I can live with that.

It also means that “Christians”, under my definition, are a varied bunch indeed – Gnostics, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Mormons, Quakers, some Unitarians, and others. So varied, in fact, that I should be very wary of making sweeping generalizations about “all Christians”. You’ll tell me if I slip up, won’t you?

Here are some other definitions on offer for what a Christian is:

OED (access to dictionary not free): “Believing, professing, or belonging to the religion of Christ.” (This is pretty vague – depending on how restrictively you define “the religion of Christ”, this definition is almost circular.)

Wiktionary: “An individual who seeks to live his or her life according to the principles and values taught by Jesus Christ.” (Basically what I said.) and Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary: They each give a range of definitions, including something close to mine.

And of course, I encourage you to explore the discussion of this issue at the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

My definition: atheist

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism

I’m a linguist by training, so I’ve decided to start posting working definitions of words that bear on the topics I talk about here.

Today I will give my definition of the word “atheist“.

I take to be an atheist anyone who lacks a belief in the existence of a god.

A religious friend once asked me, “Why are you not agnostic?” The implication was that one cannot be both an atheist and an agnostic. In fact, I consider myself both an atheist and an agnostic. I am an atheist because I do not have a belief in a god; I am an agnostic because I have no way to know for certain whether a god does or does not exist.

I decided to post this definition because many religious people seem to take atheist to mean one who is certain (or at least, positively believes) that no god exists. This doesn’t coincide with how most atheists define their beliefs.

In my experience, the definition I use above is the one most atheists would use to describe themselves. This is supported by the entry at Wiktionary. However, the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary only gives the more restricted definition of an atheist as “someone who believes that God or gods do not exist”. follows the Cambridge definition.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which I generally take as a gold standard in lexicography, also limits its definition of atheist to one who rejects belief in gods, rather than simply one who lacks such belief. However, the OED bases its definitions on examples in a corpus of English texts, and the most recent text in which they note the use of the word atheist is from 1876. I suspect if they had a sample of 20th- and 21st-century writing by atheists, they would include the definition I (and most atheists) use.

The excellent website, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, which aims to discuss in as unbiased a way as possible all of the religious beliefs of the world, has a good article on the question of what atheism is. They back up my assertion that most atheists will use the “lack of belief in gods” definition, rather than the “belief in lack of gods” definition.

Let me end this first “definition” post with a standard linguist’s caveat. I am not trying to impose a meaning on people. I am not trying to authoritatively decree that this word means what I say it means, instead of what someone else might say it means. I am trying to describe the meaning of the word as I use it, and as most self-described atheists use it. (For further evidence, here are some atheists defining atheism: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)


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