HTLG: Again--Why the (Atheist) Hostility?
I’m a dictionary nerd. Within the dictionary-loving community, there are a host of lightly-held allegiances, and room for informed people to disagree. For example, I’m a huge fan of Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, and turn to it first in all things lexicographical. But I would never bother to claim that 11C (that’s what we call it) is the only reference worth consulting. I can recognize the virtues of any decent dictionary—Merriam-Webster’s New International Second (also called the NI2) has an amazingly large number of bizarre words, and the New World probably has the best-written definitions—and I can spot a shitty dictionary as soon as I read the generic “Websters” on the spine. But my preference for 11C is, I will admit up front, one of pure personal taste. The dictionary I choose is a reflection of who I am and what I use the 11C for. (A few things I love about 11C is that the 11C is the only dictionary that lists the date a word entered the language, and it’s the only one I know of that comes with a fully-searchable CD-ROM in the back that was designed by puzzle people and helps you to find anagrams, cryptograms, words in definitions, and so on. I don’t care that all the definitions are one sentence long and occasionally cumbersome.)
But if I’m faced with a person obsessed with the NI2—and they certainly have a point—we can both see each other’s perspective, and we can agree to disagree. That person seeks, and gets out of, their dictionary reading something different than me. But at heart we’re essentially the same.
Now, let’s assume that at a convention of dictionary lovers, there comes some guy who loudly declares that the New World Dictionary is not only the perfect dictionary but is the only one that anybody should use. And let’s say that this person hands out literature and argues vociferously and tries to get everyone to accede to his dictionary Weltanschauung. I think you’d be safe in assuming that this person was sort of missing the point, and that their claims to certainty were merely a mask for some kind of obvious insecurity. How do you think other folks at the convention would treat this guy?
But we’re not done yet. Let’s assume further that this New-World-only guy---wouldn't it be safe to call him a jerk, even if his motives are pure?--- also insists that, say, the word “picnic” is offensive because it comes from a term for old lynching parties, and it’s short for “pick a nigger.” Anyone who can read a dictionary knows that this etymology is false—it comes from the French word pique-nique which means, not surprisingly, “to dine lightly, al fresco.” So now this guy who irrationally claims the superiority of one dictionary over all others is also aggressively claiming something that his own dictionary flatly declares is untrue!
Now add the fact that this ignorant, pushy jerk is actually the holder of an extremely popular opinion. So popular that—as actually happens—I can’t use the perfectly innocent and useful word “picnic” in a crossword puzzle without wincing because I’ll get an angry letter from an ill-informed person who would rather write an angry letter than, say, look up a nearby fact.
Those of us at the convention were already tense when this yahoo showed up and, in the name of dictionary-loving, threatened to ruin all the joy that dictionary lovers actually feel. Add the fact that this guy is 100% certain about something he’s 100% wrong about, and that the entire culture at large , who are not dictionary lovers and don’t know any better, assume this ignoramus has a real point.
But wait! I’m not done yet! Now let’s assume that if any true dictionary lover—one who has actually done the reading and studied the history—bothers to object, this same guy (let’s call him Jerry Falwell) is actually condescending, and declares publicly that the person who disagrees with him is afraid of truth and goodness, and could only hold their views because of moral depravity or intellectual cowardice.
Can you see how someone like that might piss a person off?
That’s your dictionary version of the evangelical Christian. Evangelicals are far and away the most likely to assert the superiority of their worldview while a.) insulting people who disagree with them (usually very nicely, but the hellfire is implied) and b.) showing rank ignorance on almost every fact that real Bible-studiers actually think about and discuss. (The most obvious example would be their odd tendency to harmonize the four gospels, a strange unliterary courtesy that isn’t extended to any other historical books, and which leads to frankly nonsensical results a child could notice.) And this worldview is so pervasive and popular despite its ignorance that well-meaning Bible Studiers can’t move two obvious steps without defending themselves on several touchy but (to Bible experts) boringly basic points. So I’ll admit it: when I hear someone say, “Hi. I’m a Christian, and I’d like to talk to you about God,” I start to feel around in my holster. Because I’m being threatened with a well-intentioned battle, down to the ground, over things that serious scholars dismissed a century ago.
And I further assert, Mr. Rabbi, that that’s not actually hostility; it’s beleaguered irritation. And it seems entirely justified.