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Friday, June 27, 2014

A-theism or Atheos-ism?

  For the purpose of this post I am simply going to quote a well known atheist who makes this argument and then briefly examine the etymology of the word “atheist” to see if the claim holds true.
It is not uncommon for atheists who want to defend that atheism is merely a lack of belief to try and show that this conception is entailed by the etymology of the word atheism. Now to be clear, here in this post I am not attempting to reject that atheism can possibly mean “a lack of belief.” I have argued that elsewhere and in countless threads.

David McAfee writes, “The word atheist breaks down into two parts: A (without) Theism (belief in deities).” For McAfee this is a lead pipe lock of an argument. Atheism just means without belief in deities and anyone who says otherwise is just wrong on what the word even means. He wants us to believe that atheism is a-theism.Well is that the case?

Not at all in fact. The problem arises in that when we are talking about the etymology of a word we are talking about the root language from which it comes. For McAfee’s tortured deconstruction of the word, it requires him to actually subtly slide between languages. The etymology in the Greek is θεος (atheos). This was a term used in the Ancient world to describe people who rejected the existence of the gods and refused to worship them. Christians were often called θει (athei) because they refused to worship the Greek and Roman deities or to worship Cesar as a god. It did not mean to lack a belief but a rejection of the gods and a refusal to worship them.

The other part of the word atheism is English suffix “-ism” which is a way of delineating that a certain noun is the object of a particular school of thought. Absolutism is the school of thought that there are absolutes. Calvinism is the school of thought that traces its theology back to John Calvin. This means that the “belief” aspect of the term is actually bound up in the suffix –ism. The best way to parse the word is more like this:


The reason that McAfee and so many others miss this is because they think that the prefix a- is a later addition to the word “theism” thus arriving at a-theism. This is simply mistaken since "atheism" has its own etymology that is largely independent of the word "theism." Atheos is a Greek root word all on its own. So in the English, as I have shown, it is quite literally atheos-ism, or the school of thought that there are no deities (i.e. that we live in a god-less cosmos). That is the etymology of the term.

Now language is fluid. I do not pretend that root words and etymology are determinative of what a word must mean in modern English. It is perfectly possible that the term “atheism” has come to be a signifier for the concept of a lack of belief in deities. We can argue the merits of that elsewhere as I have done,[1]  but the point here is that McAfee’s argument that the structure of the word “atheism” just means a lack of belief (a-theism) is simply misinformed.

[1] I have argued elsewhere that this is not only indistinguishable from agnosticism, and when combined with agnostic/Gnostic and some atheists would like to do (such as a Gnostic atheist) can even be an incoherent concept that maintains that we know X is false while lacking a belief that X is false. You can read the article here:


  1. Your comment plugin is half broken. Several tries to post, and it keeps screwing up.

  2. Words change. Words have different meanings. Does it mean rejection of gods? Yes. Does it mean lacking belief in gods? Yes. Without god? Certainly.

    But the rejection definition is the most common in dictionaries. Why? Probably because religious people wrote them.

  3. An old atheist quote showing the definition as "lacking belief in god" or "without god":
    "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God." 1772, Baron d'Holbach - "Good Sense" (translated).

  4. And I'm not trying to be a rigid lexicologist. My point here and in other posts is more that conceptually that definition has issues. However, there is also problems (and that is more what this specific post is concerning) when atheists (like David McAfee and co.) who argue that atheism MEANS "a lack of belief" precisely because that it was the etymology of the word is. The point of this article is to show that this is not the case and that the etymology of the word is actually strongly in the position that the word has historically meant not a lack of a belief in God but a belief that there is no such being. Now, I concede the point that maybe over the sands of time that the term has morphed into being simply synonymous with agnosticism (lack of belief). That is possible. At that point I would challenge it on two levels:

    1. The inconcistency between that definition and the actual practice of most atheists who mock and deride religion and religious belief. Can one said to lack a belief in X if they think that X is so false (or plasuibly false) that those who believe in it should be mocked and called deluded (Dawkins) or dangerous (Hitchens) or have a virus of the mind (Stenger) or are pathogenic nd clinically mentall ill (Boghossian)?

    2. There are conceptual problems with defining atheism as a mere lack of belief in that it just become rheotrically vacuous and actually ends up making atheism a impotent concept. For more on this I recommend my other article:

  5. The problem is that personhood and it being a philosophy are attached to the suffixes -ist and -ism.

    A-theism is not a philosophy. A rock is without God belief. Likewise, a-theist, does not actually define a person. To define a-theist as not a theist requires personhood to remain with the theist part of the word. So, again, a rock is a-theist.