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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

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"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Historic Usage of Atheism

by Donn Day

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, Humanities Press-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 though
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 .

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 reflect recent 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".


10:56:00 pm