OK, this post’s title is using a cheap journalistic trick because we all know that, fortunately, the number of ‘confessing’ atheists in the US is rising. This post instead discusses the decline of the word “atheism”, not the phenomena of atheism. Google Ngram is a great way to investigate word usage over the last 200 years. The graph below is of the frequency of the usage of both “atheism” and “Atheism” in books since the 1800s.
When I write about Atheism, just like when I write about Christianity, Buddhism, Communism or any other positions, I spell these words with a capital letter. But I have seen others use small letters when writing about Atheism, so I thought I’d see what Ngram had to show us about frequency. Interestingly, this graph shows that my choice of a capital “A” is in the minority. So out of respect for the majority (not my usual inclination), my post title uses a small “a”.
But more interesting than that orthographic insight, my research shows that the word “atheism” (capital or small lettered) has continually seen less percentage of press than in the past (with only occasional transient spikes). Perhaps that is good since the words “Atheism” and “Atheist” are largely used pejoratively. Perhaps their decline is for the better. When religion holds a non-privileged role in society, perhaps the use of the word “atheism” will fade. Take the word “non-stampcollector” for instance, it has always been a flat-line on Ngram. May atheism’s trajectory follow!
If you identify with “Atheism”, then this will be sad for you, and my apologies for possibly upsetting your sensibilities. 🙂
Questions for readers: How would you interpret the graph? Would you be sad if “atheism” faded from the English language?
I have written posts on how “Atheism” is not an identity of mine. Apparently this pisses folks off. I had a Christian pastor vehemently disagree with me on this. And last week I got private emails from an Atheist who is disappointed that I don’t “admit” to identifying as an Atheist. So I am hoping this post helps again address the issue of “identity” — which I am sure I will write more about later. I doubt it will convince those folks — for we know how persistent beliefs can be — but it may be interesting to the rest of you.
(2) Embracing Pejoratives
I experimented searching Ngram for other pejorative terms of other hated groups and see that some terms are actually increasing. Embracing a term is actually a way of weakening that term too, so one could see this as a good method of killing prejudice. So perhaps a rise in a bigoted term would be like a final agonal breath before its demise.