Atheism: Etymology vs. Common Usage

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Atheism: Etymology vs. Common Usage

The lines have been drawn and Atheists and Theists are now disagreeing on what the definition of Atheism is.  By virtue of being the most populous group to mold the terms meaning throughout history theists have redefined the word Atheist to apply much more restrictively than it actually does.  So I present my own arguement for what the definition of Atheism is and why this is the most logically consistant view of atheism that we should all embrace and present.

The definition through common usage is informally, "One who denies the existence of a god."
The Etymological definition is informally, "One who lacks belief in a god."

I use Deism (The Concept) as a comparative example.
The words deism and theism are both derived from the word god:

The Etymological meaning of these two words is similar, they both at one time meant the same thing in different languages, "one who believes in a god."

* The root of the word deism is the Latin word deus, which means "god".

* The root of the word theism is the Greek word theos, which also means "god".

Using the Etymological meaning of these words it would be consistent to say that "All Theists are Deists" and simultaneously say "All Deists are Theists" and both of these statments would be true. 

The term Deism has evolved and taken on newer more refined characteristics to designate a specific subset of theistic belief, a specific philisophical position.  Deism and Theism are no longer epistemologically equivalent concepts, theism subsumes deism and now we can say that all Deists are Theists, however not all Theists are Deists. 

This was simply an illustration of how and why language changes, the important aspect here is that the etymological meaning of Deism does not contradict the meaning it carries now because all Deists are Theists. 

The sturcture of our knowledge conceptually exists in a heirarchical fashion with certain concepts existing "above" others in scope and are more general in meaning, and some "below" others in scope and are much more specific in meaning.  This is just a relative way to refer to them, our conceptual frabric actually exists as an interconnected network that we structure often in a 2 demensional way for order and understanding.

The point being that for these terms their current meanings do not contradict their etymological meaning, but add additional essential characteristics to make them separate and understandable for the purpose of further definition not a complete change in definition. The reason the change happened is because of a new type of theistic belief that just so happened to be labeled Deism. The choice of using that word is superfluous and there may have been a more applicable word for it, maybe not, doesn't matter. But it is essential to note that Deism's current meaning does not contradict it's etymological meaning, it only adds additional parameters to it making it a more specific type of theistic belief. It evolved into something more specific and retained it's original defining characteristic.

Atheism is a stretch To overextend...

*"Lack of Belief in a God(s)"(etymological) into (a-without)(theism-belief in a god or gods)        *"Belief that god does not exist"(current)

This creates a contradiction between the two and burdens the concept of Atheism with more than it can withstand. This is the meaning that Theists use when they say things like "Atheists do not exist" because in order to state absolutely that no gods exist is, as Richard Dawkins put it is only really a 99.99(repeating)% probability and, while we have no reason to believe in a god what-so-ever, there's nothing but that lack of evidence for god's existence that we can use in a case against gods existence.  Speaking strictly from a scientific stand point.(without digging into a deeper philisophical understanding)

Does the Common Usage definition really do anything more than build up a strawman for any theist to make the aformentioned arguement and in 2 seconds discredit all "atheists" as being intellectually insufficient because they've made a statement about an abstract god that they cannot prove?  It was intended for that purpose and through the ages, as the meme evolved the church has felt it's own insecurity as science has nibbled away at it.  In an attempt to justify itself, and bring about some of it's own justification for existing the criticism of the (minority) Atheist evolved.  This was really a metaphore for those believers who were not true to the faith, those who would do what they wanted and ask for forgiveness on sunday and think all was well.  It was also a tool used via comparison to scare because the fool in the bible does not say, "I have no knowledge of god" he says "there is no god."  So the manufacturing of this deliquency proceeded.

The two definitions are polar, one is too specific and inapplicable, one is more broad. So a process of reason must take place now and the only applicable definition must be accepted to be assigned to this philisophical position.

It's scale with which people use it hasn't diminished at all and most theists will point to an atheist who has a "lack of belief" and proclaim that he "believes no god exists" because for those who've been the majority in the past the difference wasn't important. That meaning that even if you're undecided you're going to hell as far as christians are concerned, so the difference between agnostics and atheists was of no importance unless you were looking to convert someone. Agnosticism isn't a very effective when attempting to scare believers into straightening up and giving their tithes or buying more pardons, so Lumping them all together worked on a few levels.

Now that Atheism looks as though it's having a tiny spotlight cast on it this difference must be emphasized so those who generalize do not any longer. The Generalization is the proof that the current definition is the wrong one.

For example: I say theist and refer to members of monotheistic and polytheistic religions and the term applies equally because the term connotes one aspect of their beliefs that are common. The scope doesn't apply to all Atheists when the current mainstream definition is used because some atheists simply lack belief.  Even if an Atheist is considered "Strong" with respect to the Christian god and denies this particular deity outright this does not sum up this persons entire Atheistic position as being absolute denunciations of all gods.  Pronouncing this person an Atheist in general only works if the etymological meaning is understood as merely lacking belief in a god or gods.  Because just like concepts like "polytheism" and "monotheism" are subsets of "theistic belief" so "Strong Atheism" and "Weak Atheism (or agnosticism)" are subsets of the Atheistic position.  A positive belief that the christian god exists does not negate the etymological meaning of lacking said belief.  This the the contradiction that arises if the common usage definition is given and credence.

That is 2 contradictions, and 2 reasons why the etymological definition is the only appropriate one for Atheism. The tier that the concept is placed on denotes that it is the broadest in it's category, not a subcategory in regard to the question of a persons' philisophical position about god.


    Non-Theism as a concept is exactly like Deism was in relation to Theism before the Deist position developed, undifferentiated. Really the two were never even compared/contrasted because they stemmed from different languages. "not a belief in a god(s)" It's exactly the same as saying without, signifying a lacking, a negative, an absence of theistic belief. There is no difference other than spelling. Atheism is going through the same type of evolution that Deism did as it was forming, but as Deism formed those defining it did not contradict it's original, etymological meaning. When we're trying to Define Atheism we can't either if it is to remain something that refers to all Atheists.

The fact that there are multiple types of Atheism aids my point. Three separate types of atheism exist but regardless Atheism without the qualifier "strong" or "weak" is an umbrella term that must apply to all subcategories to be logically coherent. That is to say, Weak-Atheism would make no sense if Atheism itself were a positive denunciation of theistic belief.  The fact that subcategories exist proves my point and demands that the broadest categorical term that must be used must have a broad and inclusive meaning so that its subsequent categories have meaning relative to the broad/main category.  The concept of Polytheism or Monotheism would be impossible without the concept of theism because they rely on it's meaning to have any substance of their own. 

It is my position that Epistemology is objective, and that if it weren't objective coherent thought and coherent communication would be impossible. The evidence that this thread exists and Atheists and Theists are discussing the importance of the words' definition is a plea for an Objective definition that can be understood by everyone. Objectivity does not exclude the fact that concepts may evolve because we've got new knowledge and new understandings of positions coming in all the time. Objectivity is contextual, and because we have several different types of Atheism at present, and each exists with it's own qualifier "Strong/Weak" this explains that the context is such that we have many subcategories and a main category that designates that these subcategories exist within a larger context. That context is Atheism as a lack of belief. Objectivity in the conceptual realm is achieved through logical consistency and understanding the hierarchical structure of concepts, like "Atheism"(higher) vs. "Strong/Weak Atheist or Agnostic"(lower) Just as we classify biological organisms. When we find a new specie that kind of looks a lot like all other specie's in the branch but is a little different, we don't redefine the tree (sometimes we do but only VERY rarely now as science is becoming more tested) in order to understand the single specie. A Solar systems entirety vs the celestial bodies that exist within it, when we discovered Pluto the Milky Way remained the same, it's definition evolved and didn't contradict any of the previous knowledge we had about it, one more planet, one more qualifier.

Lastly Logic and Reason are a much more valid tool for understanding our world than polling the majority of people who haven't really thought much about it because as far as they are concerned Atheist = Non-Christian/Muslim/Jew.  The point being the common usage should not, cannot determine meaning.  Common usage definitions are for people who "kinda-sorta" understand a subject, but the nature of Atheistic belief and the redemption and promotion of reason within our civilization demand us to clarify this most basic of points.  To really drive it home.

The Etymological Fallacy
doesn't apply here because this isn't a squabble about which version to use before we move on to use it in argument somewhere else. The Etymological Fallacy would apply if I were arguing for my intelligence using the original meaning, and you were arguing that I was a fool using the current meaning (a very common argument). This discussion precedes that fallacy, it doesn't apply yet. It will apply in the future more often that any of us would like unless we(atheists) come to a consensus on what Atheism is so that we can educate others. Thus far no logical arguments are being widely circulated that articulate why Atheisms definition is only applicable in it's original (etymological) form. This thread's scope is limited to Atheism's definition, understanding which is the most applicable and why.

Take the concept of "god" for example: theists attempt to ascribe tons of attributes to god. For a quick understandable reference, the omni-god argument and the first cause argument.
Atheists and Agnostics use the laws of the external physical universe to match up against what that god would have to be like in order to exist. The contradiction between omniscience and omnipotence only exists in reality because it's inconceivable how the two attributes can coexist. The contradiction exists internally because we can't map those qualities onto reality in an understandable way to form a coherent concept of what such abilities would entail.
The contradiction of a monotheistic god's first cause argument is refuted by Atheists and Agnostics referencing the external worlds laws of cause and effect. If God had to use a cause in order to make the world, god is not exempt from the laws of cause and effect, therefor a monotheistic religion is incompatible with god because god needed a cause, presumably other gods.

So for the final death blow to the current common usage of the word.

They who define, do not properly use their own definition.
The Contradiction is between what they mean, and what they say.
(This is the point)
It has nothing to do with me or my usage, I don't determine common usage. Common usage is the subject.

So, the Theist is unintelligible who uses the word for including those that he himself has defined out of Atheism, but is the Person wearing the label atheist who merely lacks belief wrong for carrying the label? Even though, at the same time the Theist who calls this person who "lacks belief" an atheist through generalization?!

That is what makes no sense. It's completely circular and is only admissable by a complete disregard for logical consistency.

There is no logic to be found in that reasoning.

I still maintain that the structure with which I along with many published Atheists use, is logically more consistent, and that we should promote this understanding until it is the dominantly accepted understanding.

Thank You 

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I think that the common

I think that the common usage has it's place.
It only causes problems when they try and stretch it too far.
For me, the obvious solution is to define a clear translation between the philosophical usage and the everyday usage.

In everyday usage a theist accepts belief in God, the atheist rejects belief in God and the agnostic has no opinion either way.
In philosophical usage, the theist believes and the atheist is anyone who doesn't. Also in the philosophical usage is the distinction between explicit atheism and implicit atheism. Explicit atheism is when you've consciously rejected theistic belief for whatever reason while an Implicit atheist doesn't believe it, but hasn't absolutely rejected it either.

So the translation seems to be:
Agnostics are implicit atheists and Atheists are explicit atheists.
(theists are still theists! Smiling)

I see no reason to extinguish the everyday usage because it has its place. When everyday people ask whether you believe in God, the everyday terms provide the information they are looking for. The only problem is when we go into deeper theological debate and the everyday terms become lacking so we stick to the philosophical terms that are more useful in such context.

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Etymology is serious

Etymology is serious business to me.

I've been thinking of spanotheism (spano-, "lack of," as in spanocarpia, "lack of fruit&quotEye-wink, a word that I coined for "lack of theism."

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I just spent a half hour of my life reading this because I was listening to Alan Watts talk about the origin of the word belief.    

So I googled "Belief" word origin. This was like the 5 or 6th listing. I'd like to think of myself as an Atheist. I don't want to sit around and argue with someone over a deeper meaning of the word Atheist. Life is short bub.




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Not sure I agree that

Not sure I agree that etmylogically atheism means 'lack belief in God'. I point out that I write this as someone who affirms a position of 'lacks belief in God'.

It seems to me that the word 'atheism' has 3 components: the root word 'theos' (from the Greek, God); the privative a- prefix and the suffix -ism (from the Greek -ismos, ideology of the preceeding word). So, we have a root word and two affixes, both of which will act to modify the root word. But here is the question, in which ORDER do they modify the root? Because it seems to me the application of the prefix and suffix are not associative. That is (a+b)+c is different to a+(b+c).

Consider, for atheism to mean 'lack of belief in God', one is saying that the suffix -ism first modifies the word 'Theos' to give 'Theos+ism=Theism' or 'ideology of God'. Then you would be saying the word 'theism' is modified by the privative a- to give 'a+(theos+ism)=atheism' or 'no ideology of God'. That is, atheism is the negation of 'ideology of God'. So, you would be arguing that it is the word 'ideology' which is negated rather than 'God'. Under that construction, atheism would indeed simply mean 'no ideology of God' or 'lacks belief in god'.

But, what if one applies the prefix a- first. Then you get 'a+theos=atheos' (which is actually a Greek word meaing 'Godless') or 'no God'. This is then subsequently modified by the suffix to give '(a+theos)+ism=atheism'. In this case, atheism does not mean the negation of the ideology of God, but means 'ideology of atheos' or 'ideology of no god', the ideology of the negation of God or 'believes there is no god'.

So, which one is it? Consider a structurally similar exampel 'monotheism'. The meaning of this word is much less controversial, it means that one believes in a single god, rather than mutiple gods or no god. But consider what you need to do to get there. You first go 'mono+theos=monotheos' (or one God) and subsequently you modify that to be '(mono+theos)+ism=monotheism' to get 'ideology of one God'. So, the prefix acts first. If you take the suffix to act first, which you need to in atheism for it to mean 'lacks belief in God', then monotheism should mean 'one ideology of God'. So the word should simply mean that a person has a single concept of what God is. In that case, monotheism should also encompass atheism or ploytheism, as both have a single idea of God, in the former case the idea is he does not exist in the latter the idea is there is more than one. However, I am not aware of anyone who claims that the meaning of monotheism is commensurate with atheism or polytheism.

There are other words you can try like agnostic, polytheism, and of course non theistic words like prehistoric. In all cases, for the words to mean what we hold them to mean, you have to let the prefix act on the root word before the suffix. Therefore, I think this must be the correct manner to use the word 'atheism', giving us 'ideology of no God'. If you want to say 'no ideology of God', the best word I can think of is non-theism.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge am not an etymologist and if anyone has examples of words whose meaning is non-controversial and where the suffix acts on the root before the prefix I'd love to hear it, partially because until very recently I agreed that atheism should simply mean 'lacks belief in god', but at present I am unable to reconcile that construction of the word with how other words in the English language are constructed.

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Usage of a word is what

Usage of a word is what defines its meaning. Period. 

All else is pedantic nonsense, apart from showing how the word originated.

Especially in English, words frequently change over time in how they are commonly understood.

At best you can point to words that are comparable in structure, and argue by analogy to what the word in question was intended to mean, but appealing to etymology is ultimately irrelevant, IMHO.


Favorite oxymorons: Gospel Truth, Rational Supernaturalist, Business Ethics, Christian Morality

"Theology is now little more than a branch of human ignorance. Indeed, it is ignorance with wings." - Sam Harris

The path to Truth lies via careful study of reality, not the dreams of our fallible minds - me

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Science -> Philosophy -> Theology