Atheism – Etymology

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Donn R. Day
“Etymology is the tracing of a word or other form back as far
as possible in its own language; the branch of linguistics that
deals with the origin and development of words” (Webster’s).
The correct definition of the word “atheism” has been a source of contention with every atheist I have communicated with on the Internet. In this article I plan on discussing the following three points.
The correct literal meaning of the word.
The historic use of the word.
The modern use of the word.
The Correct Literal Meaning
As the quote at the top of the page states, etymology is the study of words, there origin and development. In ancient Greece, the word for “god” was “theos”. Obviously, if “theos” meant god, then there would need to be a word that meant the opposite. By putting “a” in front of “theos” the word “atheos” was formed, which means “no god”. In Greek “a” can also mean “without”, although I think in this case “no” makes more sense. Taken this way a person that says, “no god(s)”, is making a denial of the existence of god(s). Any confusion about whether it meant “without belief in god(s)”, as modern atheists claim, would not have been a consideration at this point in time. It was simply a denial of god(s) existence.
These two words, “theos” and “atheos” are the root words from where we get “theism” and “atheism”: “ism” means; “Greek -ismos; orig. suffix of action or of state, forming nouns from verbs.” It’s usage today is a “doctrine, theory, system, etc.” (Webster’s).
At the time “theos” came in to existence, there was no formal “doctrine of god” so “theism” developed sometime later, most likely during the (French) Enlightenment. This period of time is also when the modern form of “atheism” came into existence as well. This tracing of the development of a word is also part of etymology.
Once more formal doctrines came into being, then the word “theism” was created.”Theos” god; “ism”, belief or doctrine. Thus, the modern use of the word “theism”, belief in God. We must remember, however, that the literal, Greek root for “theism” is “theos”. “Atheos” then, in modern usage, means “no/without belief in god”. But just like the word “theos” (god) is the root, literal meaning of “theism”, so too, “atheos”(no god), is the root word for “atheism”. That’s why when you look in a dictionary, or encyclopedia under the word “atheism”, they list the Greek, literal meaning as, “a denial of god(s).”
The following are the definitions offered by two dictionaries of Etymology. The word is followed by the accepted literal meaning from the Greek root word.
Atheism: a + theos, denying god, (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology-1966).
Atheism: all are coined words from the Greek atheos, denying the gods, a word introduced into the Latin by Cicero in the form; atheos, a-, negative, prefix, and theos, a god, (Etymological Dictionary of English Language-1958).
As we shall see, current Dictionaries, Encyclopedias, and Philosophical sources, follow the literal meaning when giving the standard usage of the word. Since many of the following definitions use the word “disbelief”, we need to have a correct definition of that word as well.
Disbelief: The refusal to believe that something is true (Cambridge International Dictionary of English-1995).
Disbelief: Refusal or reluctance to believe (American Heritage Dictionary of English Language-1996).
The Historic Usage of Atheism
Atheism, from the Greek a-theos (“no-god”), is the philosophical position that God doesn’t exist. It is distinguished from agnosticism, the argument that it is impossible to know whether God exists or not (Academic American Encyclopedia).
Atheism, system of thought developed around the denial of God’s existence. Atheism, so defined, first appeared during the Enlightenment, the age of reason (Random House Encyclopedia-1977).
Atheism (from the Greek a-, not, and theos, god) is the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God, the use has become the standard one (Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy-1995).
Atheism is the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments, but these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods (Oxford Companion to Philosophy-1995).
Atheism is disbelief in God (Introduction to Philosophy, Perry and Bratman, Oxford University Press-1986).
Atheism from the Greek a (not) plus theos (god). The doctrine of disbelief in a supreme being (Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, William Reese, HumanitiesPress-1996).
Atheism (Greek, a- [private prefix] + theos, god) is the view that there is no divine being, no God (Dictionary of Philosophy, Thomas Mautner, Editor-1996).
Atheism is the belief that God doesn’t exist (The World Book Encyclopedia-1991).
Atheism, Greek atheos-Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of God (Oxford English Dictionary-1989)
Atheism, commonly speaking, is the denial of God. Theism (from the Greek theos, God) is belief in or conceptualization of God, atheism is the rejection of such belief or conceptualization.In the ancient world atheism was rarely a clearly formulated position (Encyclopedia Americana-1990).
Atheism, the critique and denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings. Atheism is to be distinguished from agnosticism, which leaves open whether there is a god or not, professing to find the question unanswerable, for the atheist, the non-existence of god is a certainty (The New Encyclopedia Britannia-1993).
According to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no god…(rejects eccentric definitions of the word) (The Encyclopedia of Philosophy-1967).
Atheism is the doctrine that God does not exist, that belief in the existence of God is a false belief. The word God here refers to a divine being regarded as the independent creator of the world, a being superlatively powerful, wise and good (Encyclopedia of Religion-1987).
Atheism (Greek and Roman): Atheism is a dogmatic creed, consisting in the denial of every kind of supernatural power. Atheism has not often been seriously maintained at any period of civilized thought (Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics-Vol II).
Atheism denies the existence of deity (Funk and Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia-Vol I).
Atheist philosopher Michael Martin disagrees with the definitions used above:
If you look up ‘atheism’ in a dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek ‘a’ means ‘without’ or ‘not’ and ‘theos’ means ‘god.’ From this standpoint an atheist would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God (Michael Martin).
Mr. Martin has taken the Greek word and tried to make it say something it does not, as all the sources above clearly show. Before looking at this new definition of atheism, let’s see how atheists have generally defined the word.
Here’s an example of traditional atheist comments from the book Critiques of God concerning the meaning of the word “atheism”. First, a short review of the book from the Secular Web:
“_Critiques of God_ is a hard-hitting, comprehensive anthology of essays by leading atheist philosophers. My only complaint is that Prometheus Books should have updated this book to reflectrecent developments in the philosophy of religion since the book’s original publication in 1976 (e.g.,the kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the evidential argument from evil, etc.).”– Jeffery Jay Lowder
In the chapter Philosophical Concepts of Atheism, atheist philosopher Ernest Nagel had this to say about the meaning of the word “atheism”:
Atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief, or with disbelief in some particular creed of a religious group. Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist-for he his not denying any theistic claims
As I see it, atheistic philosophers fall into two major groups; (1) Those which hold that theistic doctrine is meaningful, but reject it either on the grounds that (a) the positive evidence for it is insufficient, or (b) the negative evidence is quite overwhelming; and (2) those that hold that the theistic thesis is not even meaningful, and reject it (a) as just nonsense, or (b) as literally meaningless , but interpreting it as a symbolic rendering of human ideals.
It will not be possible in the limited space at my disposal to discuss the second category of atheist critiques; and in any event, most of the traditional atheistic critiques of theism belong to the first group.
As the above quote points out, the historic use of the word “atheism” has meant the use of evaluation and reason in the rejection of theism. So we see that even atheists traditionally followed the literal meaning of the word “atheism”.
The Modern Usage Of Atheism
The earliest source that I have been able to find that slightly resembles modern usage, is by Charles Bradlaugh, an agnostic.
The atheist does not say, ‘There is no God,’ but he says, ‘I know not what you mean by God; the word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation.’ (A Plea for Atheism-1864).
It should be noted that this was the definition that Kai Nielsen used when debating J.P. Moreland in the book, Does God Exist?. The Secular Web has this to say regarding that book:
This book is divided into three sections: (i) the transcript of the oral debate on the existence of God between Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland and atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen; (ii) commentaries on the debate by two Christian philosophers (William Lane Craig and Dallas Willard) and two atheist philosophers (Antony Flew and Keith Parsons); and (iii) concluding thoughts by Moreland and Nielsen. I agree completely with the conclusion of Craig’s flow of the debate, that Moreland won the debate. In fact, Moreland’s victory in the debate was so decisive I am left wishing that Keith Parsons had been Moreland’s opponent; I wonder if Nielsen even took the debate seriously. In light of this, I am baffled why a secular humanist publisher like Prometheus Books would choose to pubish this particular debate, given how pathetic Nielsen’s performance truly was. (Jeffery Jay Lowder)
As far as I have been able to determine, the modern usage of the word “atheism” has been around, only, since 1979. The first usage of this definition seems to have appeared in, Atheism: The Case Against God”, by George H. Smith, one of the Secular Web’s top ten atheist books. Here’s how Mr. Smith defined the word “atheism”:
Atheism, therefore, is the absence of theistic belief…in its main form, it is not belief; it is the absence of belief.
A year later Prometheus Books released, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, edited by Gordon Stein. This book had the following definition:
…an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important…To be without a belief in God merely means that the term ‘God’ has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is a lack of belief.
Antony Flew in The Presumption of Atheism (1984) concurs with the above, although acknowledging this as a “new” definition:
…we need to give a new and much more comprehensive meaning to the term “atheist.” Whereas it is currently construed as referring to a person who positively disbelieves that there is an object corresponding to what is thus tacitly taken to be a or the legitimate concept of God, I would now urge that the word be hereafter understood not positively but negatively. Let the originally Greek prefix “a” be read in the same way in “atheist” as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as “amoral,” atypical,” and “asymmetrical.” In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the nonexistence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist.
In the last twenty years or so atheists and theists have taken to debating on college campuses, and in town halls, all across this country. By using the above definition, atheists have attempted to shift the burden of proof. In the articleIs Atheism Presumptuous?, atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder admits that “I agree [with Copan] that anyone who claims, “God does not exist,” must shoulder a burden of proof just as much as anyone who claims, “God exists.” However, no assertions, no facts need be offered. Again, George Smith:
If one presents a positive belief (i.e. an assertion which one claims to be true), one has the obligation to present evidence in its favor. The burden of proof lies with the person who asserts the truth of a proposition. If the evidence is not forthcoming, if there are not sufficient grounds for accepting the proposition, it should not be believed.
Also from An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism:
If the atheist is simply without God, then he is not asserting anything. On the other hand, the theist is asserting the existence of something (God), so the burden of proof is on him…Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God.
If I asked you to state your beliefs about “blictopre” you would understand what it really means to have “an absence of belief” (AOB). What AOB means to an atheist is, not only is the burden of proof squarely placed on the theists shoulders, but the type of evidence that constitutes “proof”, is also defined by the atheist. Most atheists claim that they need some type of “empirical” proof of God’s existence, but one popular atheist web page comments; “Let’s suppose that God exists and wants to prove to you that he exists. What can he do to prove it? Suppose he suddenly reveals himself to you and says, “Behold! I am God!” Would this prove that God exists? No, it would not.” The Bible makes the same point in that even though the fleeing Hebrews witnessed the “actual” presence of God in there midst, many still doubted.
Atheists have rigged the outcome in support of their own unbelief, all the time giving the impression of being open to the evidence. In addition, the AOB claim has negated the meaning of the word “atheist” because their “lack of belief” means that they cannot even state whether or not God exists, making them, in reality agnostics, a term most atheists despise.
In the popular sense an agnostic neither believes nor disbelieves that God exists, while the atheist disbelieves that God exists. However, the common contrast of agnosticism with atheism will hold only if we assume that atheism means positive atheism. In the popular sense, agnosticism is compatible with negative (weak) atheism. Since negative atheism by definition simply means not holding any concept of God, it is compatible with neither believing nor disbelieving in God (Michael Martin in Atheism-A Philosophical Justification).
One of my main points of contention with the AOB position is that one would have had to have no contact with any theist to truly not have any beliefs about God. After just one such interaction, the atheist would have started to form beliefs in relation to the existence/ nonexistence of God, and once the atheist begins to examine the evidence, beliefs would exist.
Atheists also state that the AOB claim means that atheism is the “default” position. If a person “has no beliefs,” or if the theist doesn’t present convincing evidence, then atheism wins by default. When Antony Flew used the term “negative atheist” in a debate with theologian Terry Miethe, this was Mr. Meithe’s response:
…the “negative atheist” ends up denying God’s existence just as much as the “positive atheist.” For the believer (and in reality) to deny the idea of God is to deny the actual existence of God no matter what language game you want to play. Remember, Hans Kung is quite correct in pointing out that there is also an “atheistic language game” that is not self-justified…We must not—cannot—arbitrarily “define” out of existence vast ranges of reality simply because they do not meet our predetermined definition. It is not good enough to say that I have no idea of God therefore I am denying nothing about “his” actual existence. You must examine all of reality and answer or explain why millions have had what they thought was an adequate idea or concept of God, from great philosophers to the “common folk.”
Another problem with AOB theories is that this is not they way atheists (or anyone else) decides issues. For example, in a debate I had with an atheist, in response to something I had said about evidence, he made the comment, “Yea, I had a vague sense that there were monsters under my bed at night — I looked and didn’t see any.” So my response was that if he had indeed looked under his bed and found no evidence of monsters, would the natural response be to (1) Have an “absence of belief” about the monsters, or (2) Actively deny the existence of the monsters?
Finally, atheists use the AOB claim to state that atheism has no worldview, or has no bearing on any other perspectives that an atheist might hold. This, too, is just another attempt to keep from having their own beliefs critically evaluated. Everyone has a worldview (way of looking at the world), no matter what they might claim.

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