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My student needed an adjective which means "irreligious" or "does not believe in God/a god." I suggested the words "heathen" and "ungodly".

Would you say there's a difference between the two sentences below?

  1. My student has the impression that the Poles, a deeply religious nation, think of their Czech neighbors as a heathen lot.

  2. My student has the impression that the Poles, a deeply religious nation, think of their Czech neighbors as an ungodly lot.

Thanks a lot!

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    Definition of 'ungodly' vs definition of 'heathen'. Yes there's a difference.
    – Doc
    Feb 4, 2014 at 17:47
  • Susan, I did need a word with a negative connotation that could encompass both "irreligious" and "does not believe in God" (two different things). My student wanted to communicate the idea that the Poles condescend to the Czechs because of this.
    – Louel
    Feb 4, 2014 at 17:59
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    My mistake then; my apologies. I'll remove my comments. Feb 4, 2014 at 18:02
  • @Louel I would probably use "heathen" so long as the referred to neighbors still followed some religion or such and weren't completely immoral (but rather just completely against their religious beliefs).
    – Doc
    Feb 4, 2014 at 18:19
  • @Doc, let me quote Terje B. Englund, author of The Czechs in a Nutshell: "...while many pious Poles regard the Czech Republic as a European branch of Sodom and Gomorrah, which judged by the amount of brothels close to the Polish borders, seems welcomed by quite a lot of them." Sounds more like "ungodly" right?
    – Louel
    Feb 4, 2014 at 18:25

2 Answers 2

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Heathen comes from "of the heath" and was originally a derogatory term for those who held pre-Christian beliefs, and later those who held beliefs the speaker considered unenlightened.

It doesn't mean "un-godly" in general (heathens believe in gods) but does mean "un-godly" as it relates to any particular god that isn't of the heathens.

It is sometimes used of Pagans generally, but among Pagans today tends only to be used by those whose practice has a focus on the Æsir, the Vanir, or otherwise relating to the religious history of the Germanic peoples (at their loosest, so including the Anglo-Saxons, and the Nordic tribes). There's a general consensus on this within Paganism; that is Heathens mostly call themselves Heathens and other Pagans mostly don't use the term of themselves (unlike other terms within Paganism that are more hotly contested).

Heathens get annoyed if you use it in a more general negative sense. It's probably an apt description of what you are trying to convey in a way (the particular Poles you are thinking of would likely not think much better of Heathens than of Czechs) but since you're trying to describe a negative view held by one group of another, rather than start flaming on yet another group, it's probably best avoided.

"Un-godly" is a rather vague term in terms of whether it means "atheist", "ignoring god", or just "not very moral, as a good follower of our god should be", but that vagueness is perhaps precisely what makes it the mot juste; coinciding with the attitude you are trying to convey.

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  • Your use of capitals leads on e to believe that you think of these groups, Pagans and Heathens, as somewhat organized, like the Scientologists or Wiccans. Some pagans and heathens may well feel that way (organized that is), but the usual sense of the term is as uncapitalized and is more about calling someone else a pagan or heathen rather than oneself.
    – Mitch
    Feb 4, 2014 at 19:25
  • @Mitch. I think of them, from experienced as very disorganised (and as not including the Scientologists, I don't know by what basis you include them). I personally think pagan is to be preferred over Pagan, but the most commonly found is Pagan by a large margin IME; also those who favour pagan (like myself) tend not to get as upset about it as those who favour Pagan. The capitalisation of heathen is more evenly split, but capitalising remains common. Notably Arlea Anschütz and Stormerne Hunt's influential essay "Call us Heathens!" caplitalised Heathenry and...
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 4, 2014 at 19:37
  • @Mitch Heathenism, but not heathen as either noun or adjective. I find though that as with pagan those who prefer to capitalise get more upset over the matter than those who prefer not too, so again I'm inclined to include that as a guide.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 4, 2014 at 19:39
  • Fine work, pointing out that even rarified terms like h/Heathen are widely polysemous and potentially whatever-ist. Feb 4, 2014 at 20:51
  • @Edwin I know a few Heathens.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 4, 2014 at 21:13
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I would have to say that there is a big difference betwwen those two words.

Heathen refers to a person who doesn't belong to a widely held religion (Christian, Jew, or Muslim, etc.). That person may still believe in a/multiple god(s). See this link for an example : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pagan_religions

Ungodly leans towards not revering God.

Ungodly would be the better choice. You could also opt for :

  1. Atheist in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities

  2. Godless not recognizing or obeying God.

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  • Yet, the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary says it is "used by people who have a strong religious belief as a way of referring to a person who has no religion". I've always thought there was a an overlap between the meanings of these words. That's why I wanted to know how other native speakers feel about these words. oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/heathen
    – Louel
    Feb 4, 2014 at 17:54
  • I agree with @Susan. Though in an academic paper, I might say that culture A viewed culture B as ungodly/godless/heathens/etc. which is (I believe) the context the OP was going for.
    – Doc
    Feb 4, 2014 at 18:03
  • @Susan, with "no matter what their theological beliefs" one could make an exception for Ásatrúer, Vanatrúer, Odinists and other actual Heathens.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 4, 2014 at 18:04
  • That's exactly what I'm driving at, Doc.
    – Louel
    Feb 4, 2014 at 18:05
  • @Louel So long as it isn't high academia (i.e. we're talking about a high school report rather than a graduate thesis or published paper) I think the two would be roughly interchangeable for general context. Refer to the definition for more strict contexts. For higher academia, there is probably either a more apt word choice or more precise construction to refer to the specific circumstances discussed.
    – Doc
    Feb 4, 2014 at 18:17

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