The Etymology of Atheism

Many people are mistaken about the etymology of the word “atheism.” They think it comes from an alpha-privative negation a- joined with theism, that is, they think

atheism  =  a- theism

or

atheism = the negation of theism

That is not where atheism comes from, however. ‘Atheism’ is in fact an older word than ‘theism.’  It comes originally from the Greek ἄθεος meaning ‘godless’ or ‘without god’.  The -ισμός is a later addition, which means “doctrine of” or “teaching of.”  Hence

atheismἄθεος -ισμός = atheos -ism

or

atheism = the doctrine or teaching of Godlessness, i.e. the teaching that there is no God.

Here’s a breakdown of the history:

EtymologyOfAtheism

As noted above the new redefinition of atheism as “lack of belief in God” was a bit of philosophical slight of hand (or more precisely slight of language, or even more precisely sophistry, perpetrated Antony Flew and a few of his atheistic fellow travelers starting in the early 1970s.  Flew was probably the most consistent atheist apologist in philosophy through most of the 20th century—and it is worthwhile to note that late in his life, when retired and finally with enough leisure to read Aristotle carefully for the first time, Flew was rationally forced to reverse his lifelong position and embrace rational theism. Maybe he should have read Aristotle earlier in his career? Kudos to Flew for having the intellectual and philosophical integrity to publicly reverse himself on the very position he had built his entire philosophical career maintaining.  That extraordinary act of philosophical courage and integrity almost makes me forgive him for perpetrating this pernicious bit of sophistry:

Flew Atheism Etymology

ADDENDUM: I’m not making this up. Of course I’m not, because I don’t just make stuff up. But for those atheists reading this who just assume that I am making it up, here’s a link to what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about it, in response to atheists’ persistent attempts to bully them into changing their definition:

Atheists vs The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hint: They say the same thing I do. The “redefinition” of atheism was an argument strategy by Antony Flew, one which was never accepted as any sort of consensus, and one for which there are excellent reasons to reject.

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4 comments on “The Etymology of Atheism

  1. […] Read more at Eve Kenienan’s blog […]

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  2. atheisticdreams says:

    ate 16th century: from French athéisme, from Greek atheos, from a- ‘without’ + theos ‘god.’

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  3. atheisticdreams says:

    Sorry: “Late 16th century: from French athéisme, from Greek atheos, from a- ‘without’ + theos ‘god.’” You’ve missed the french part of the etymology, and attempted to wed a piece of word origin to the etymology without cause only to warp the true etymology and prove your point.

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    • Sorry, but you’ve just ignored the “isme” suffix, to warp the true etymology and prove your point. The word “theist” wasn’t even put together until 100 years after. There was no word “theist” in existence to attach prefixes to. Atheos + ism (a doctrine or belief) = the doctrine or belief that no gods exist.

      John Florio, A World of Words (1598)
      Atèo, Atheo, Atheista, an atheist, a miscreant, godles, one that thinkes there is no god.

      17th Century: It wasn’t until almost a full century later, that the same was done with the word “theos” + “ist”, giving us: a deist. Yes, the word “theist”, for another hundred years, would be used to refer to those we now call deists. It wouldn’t be until the 18th century that the word “theist” would start being applied to all god believers, and deists switched to the Latin form “deos” + “ist”. So, for another hundred years after “theist” came into use, it surely didn’t mean “not a deist”, or even Christians would have been “atheists”.

      Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1611)
      Athée: m. An Atheist; one that beleeues there is no God.

      John Bullokar, An English Expositor (1616)
      Atheist. He that wickedly beleeueth there is no God, or no rule of Religion.

      Henry Cockeram, English Dictionary (1623)
      Atheist. That thinks there is no God, or rule of religion.

      Thomas Blount, Glossographia or a Dictionary (1656)
      Atheist ( from the Gr ἄδεος. id est Sine Deo, godless) he that beleeves there is no God or rule of Religion, and that the soul dies with the body.

      theist (n.)
      1660s, from Greek theos “god” (see theo-) + -ist. The original senses was that later reserved to deist: “one who believes in a transcendent god but denies revelation.” Later in 18c. theist was contrasted with deist, as believing in a personal God and allowing the possibility of revelation.

      ^Even for another 100 years after the word “theist” came about, it meant the same as “deist”. That would have made even Christians a-theists. A-theist is not the original word construction.

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