Posted: May 15, 2016 4:04 am
by don't get me started
I can’t remember where it was but in another thread the question was raised about religious terminology for the other. It was proposed that Islam has its word for other (Kuffar) but Christianity does not, and a subsequent post proposed terms such as pagan and heathen as Christian alternatives.
(If anyone can remember where this exchange took place, I’d be grateful for the link…)
In addition, we also have had many many posts and threads over the years dealing with the tired old trope of atheism being a religion/ideology/ etc just like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.
I thought it might be interesting to try to tease out some of the underlying meanings of these kinds of words.

I do not speak Arabic, Farsi or Hebrew. (English, Japanese and German are the languages I speak) so, if I mischaracterize words and usages from languages I don’t speak, I will gladly defer to those that do.

Anyways, to the matter in hand.
My understanding of the word ‘Kuffar’ (and its parallel in Jewish culture ‘Goyim’) is that it is used by members of the in-group to describe people who are NOT members of that group, regardless of what other group they are from. It appears that the salient feature in using these words is to describe what people are NOT, rather than what they are. And what they are not is ‘us’.

The parallel terms from the Christian viewpoint are posited as ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’,
These words also describe others primarily in terms of what they are NOT, rather than what they are. That is, an African animist, a Sunni Muslim and a Hindu could all be subsumed under the words ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’.
I carried out a quick corpus search of these words in the British National Corpus. For the word ‘heathen’, in the 100 million words of the BNC there were 109 instances. None of the occurrences were tagged as ‘conversation’, with most being tagged as ‘fiction-prose’ and ‘humanities-arts. This suggests that the word is quite rare in daily English usage. My sense is that it has spread beyond its original religious meaning and now refers to uncultured people, those who do not appreciate art and high culture.
The word ‘pagan’ threw up 483 instances per 100 million words, so that is also quite low in frequency. Again, none of the instances were tagged as conversation, with the huge majority being fiction-prose and humanities-arts, that is, written, not spoken language.

The word atheist seems somewhat different in its usage. Firstly it can be used by people to self-describe, rather than being a term used only to describe the other. Atheists are usually quite happy to call themselves atheists. I don’t feel that a Muslim amongst, say, Hindus would describe himself as being the only ‘unbeliever' in the room. (Similarly, Japanese would probably not refer to themselves as Gaijin, even if they were outside Japan and in the midst of natives of that country. There would be no real equivalent to saying ‘well, I’m a foreigner here myself’.)

Secondly, the word atheist is based on a negative orientation, i.e. not believing in god(s). Now, the amount of things that a person is not is potentially unlimited. One can not be a ballerina, a Star Wars fan, a Sushi eater, a video game player and so on. Referring to oneself as an atheist only reports one aspect of what one is not. I think the problem may arise for some who are religiously minded in that their multiple identities are all subsumed under the broad heading of religion; one is a Christian ballerina or Christian Star Wars fan or Christian whatever. So, given the religious nature of some groups’ and individual’s identity, when they consider the atheist standpoint they may have a tendency to transfer their own stance to that of the atheist and assume that the atheist is an atheist in all aspects of their existence and identity. I cannot speak for others here, of course, but my stance on supernatural entities plays no role in my clothing choices, food and beverage choices, choice of marriage partner, place of employment etc. If a religious identity plays an important part in choices such as these, it may be hard for religious people to fully accept or understand how non-religious people can go about organizing such quotidian things.

The ways in which the term ‘Atheist’ is often mischaracterized by people of a religious persuasion may be revealing of their world view, not the atheist’s.