Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history. The etymology of a word is not exactly the same as the use or definition. Consider how a direct translation of a phrase from French to English might not always make sense, but we would translate it into a form of English that did make sense.
The same can be said for the etymology of a word. They quite often have a Greek or Latin root and have traversed through some European language before reaching English. The etymology, at least from a quick internet search, might give us a direct translation of the original root, but it isn’t actually the same thing as how that word might have been used.
The Etymology of Etymology
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from Old French etimologie, ethimologie (14c., Modern French étymologie), from Latin etymologia, from Greek etymologia “analysis of a word to find its true origin,” properly “study of the true sense (of a word),” with -logia “study of, a speaking of” (see -logy) + etymon “true sense, original meaning,” neuter of etymos “true, real, actual,” related to eteos “true,” which perhaps is cognate with Sanskrit satyah, Gothic sunjis, Old English soð “true,” from a PIE *set- “be stable.” Latinized by Cicero as veriloquium.https://www.etymonline.com/word/etymology#etymonline_v_11669
The Etymology of Definition
late 14c., diffinicioun, definicion, “decision, setting of boundaries, determination and stating of the limits and distinctive nature of a thing,” also “limitations,” also “a statement of the meaning of a word or phrase,” from Old French definicion, from Latin definitionem (nominative definitio) “a bounding, a boundary; a limiting, prescribing; a definition, explanation,” the last sense most often in Cicero, noun of action from past-participle stem of definire “to limit, determine, explain,” from de “completely” (see de-) + finire “to bound, limit,” from finis “boundary, end” (see finish (v.)). In logic, meaning “act of stating what something means” is from 1640s. Meaning “degree of distinctness of the details in a picture” is from 1889.https://www.etymonline.com/word/definition#etymonline_v_25869
So, we can see that etymology is different from a definition. In fact, there are a few different uses of definition noted in the etymology above, but right now we are speaking purely of the etymology and definition of various words or phrases.
Sometimes people conflate the two or, furthermore, suggest that the original use is the only use, which brings me on to my next point.
The Etymological Fallacy
The etymological fallacy generally seems to come in two sections. The first being the actual etymological fallacy, the second conflating etymology with definition.
- Confusing an original/older use of a word with the new/stating the original use is the correct use and how the word should be used.
- Using only the etymology of the word as the definition and circling back into point one, arguing that this is the original and therefore correct use.
Etymology does not always tell us how the word was used.
As an example, I will use a polysemous word quite commonly debated on the internet for an “original use” or that it “only means” which is atheism. We shall start where atheism’s root started, in ancient Greece with the word “atheos”.
The Etymology of Atheos
Look at “atheos”, this is known as the etymological root of atheism.
The etymology, or direct translation, of atheos is; “without gods” but this is very different from the original and subsequent uses of the term.
The Use of Atheos
The original use of atheos meant someone who was godforsaken… The gods no longer believed in them and therefore even though they believed in the gods, they were without the gods.
It then moved to someone who didn’t believe in the sanctioned gods of the state (or someone who denied the gods). They could still believe in a deity but were considered atheos because they didn’t believe in the deity of the state.
This is why Christians were some of the first “Atheos”. They denied the pantheon.
(By some of the first, I mean a large group of people rather than individuals.)
They [Christians] then later went on to use this on pagan religions for not believing in their deity.
Over time the word evolved, the modern use of atheism comes from the French athéisme and due to political ideologies in America is often described as “only a lack of belief” – and this spilt out on to the internet and became a common usage among many internet debaters and YouTubers.
The irony being, folks like Ra will claim “that’s what it has always meant” committing both kinds of aforementioned issues with etymology:
- The original use is how it should be used today.
- Assuming the etymology is the same as use, and looping back into point 1.
The Etymology of Atheism
So, I have mentioned that Atheos became atheism, and from atheism we got atheist.. an ISM is a concept, proposition, ideology etc, and an IST is someone that ascribes to/accepts the ISM.
“the doctrine that there is no God;” “disbelief in any regularity in the universe to which man must conform himself under penalties” [J.R. Seeley, “Natural Religion,” 1882], 1580s, from French athéisme (16c.), with -ism + Greek atheos “without a god, denying the gods,” from a- “without” (see a- (3)) + theos “a god” (from PIE root *dhes-, forming words for religious concepts). A slightly earlier form is represented by atheonism (1530s) which is perhaps from Italian atheo “atheist.” The ancient Greek noun was atheotes “ungodliness.”
In late 19c. sometimes further distinguished into secondary senses “The denial of theism, that is, of the doctrine that the great first cause is a supreme, intelligent, righteous person” [Century Dictionary, 1897] and “practical indifference to and disregard of God, godlessness.”https://www.etymonline.com/word/atheism#etymonline_v_26666
And if we go back to how the French used athéisme we can see it defined as the below (translated to English for ease).
Doctrine or attitude based on the negation of a personal and living God. Anton. deism, theism.
A.− DOGM. Refusal of religious beliefs, by blindness of the intelligence relative to the existence of God.
B. – PHILOS. Atheism (absolute). Explicit denial of the existence of God, generally with the establishment of a humanism without religion.
C. – SOCIOL., POL. Denial of God in the practice of social or political action.https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/ath%C3%A9isme#:~:text=masc.-,ATH%C3%89ISME%2C%20subst.,un%20Dieu%20personnel%20et%20vivant.
We need to address a few things with this use. The French version of athéisme is much closer to the atheism we use today in English than the original atheos. This makes sense, no? So let’s address the above.
“[T]he negation of”
The first thing we have to understand is what is meant by negation. When you negate something, you are stating the opposite. Therefore, the negation of “God Exists” ought to be understood as “God Does Not Exist”.
So, with the opening descriptor is talking about the negation of the personal god, as well as the god of deism and theism in general, it is fair to say it is a statement that they do not exist.
A.− DOGM. Refusal of religious beliefs
This definition is clear, and is contextually talking about dogma. It is talking about a refusal to accept religious beliefs.
B. – PHILOS. Atheism (absolute). Explicit denial of the existence of God
Denial is essentially the same as negation. If I deny you access to my house, you are staying outside. If I deny the moon landing, I am saying the moon landing didn’t happen. If I deny the existence of God I am saying that God does not exist.
C. – SOCIOL., POL. Denial of God in the practice of social or political action.
This is talking about a social and/or political practice. Again it is speaking of denial of God, which is saying that God does not exist.
So what about lacking belief?
Language changes and evolves, and technically any use is a valid use. That doesn’t make it clear or logically sound, but language doesn’t have to work like that. From the 16th to the 19th century, the definition of atheist/atheism in English was pretty consistent, denial of God, claim there are no gods, disbelief in God etc.
Although as Alexander notes in his paper, what was meant by denial was a source of ambiguity. In some circumstances, it was used for those who, even though they may have believed in God, acted against the morals of the bible. In others, it was described as previously, negation. The disbelief entries are much clearer, as discussed in many articles, disbelief in X = Belief in Not X. Therefore disbelief God exists = belief God does not exist.
Before atheism became described as a “lack of belief in gods” it seems to have gone through a stage of “does not believe in gods” which can also be written as a “rejection of belief in gods”, though it was still acknowledged there were those that believed there were no gods as a type of atheist too.
It was often seen that the outright denial of God was an irrational position and the burden was on the atheist to prove non-existence. As we all know, proving the non-existence of a metaphysical claim is incredibly difficult, if not impossible with the persistent moving of the goalposts. We would argue today, that the burden is not to prove God does not exist without a doubt, but justify one’s disbelief to make it rational.
However, as the time was different, atheists were in the minority and often persecuted by the religious, we can see the want for a change in definition. The first noted shift in definition comes from Bradlaugh in his pamphlet, A plea for Atheism.
The Atheists does not say “There is no God,” but he says, “I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that which I have no conception, and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me.Bradlaugh, A plea for Atheism.
This position seems to be what we would refer to as ignosticism today. God is incoherent and therefore meaningless to consider. It also looks like he was one of the first people to make the claim that we are all born atheist. Not because we ‘lack belief in gods’ but because the concept itself is meaningless and didn’t describe any tangible thing. There was no need to deny it because there is no clear concept.
I suppose, even though I don’t like the ‘we’re all born atheists‘ statement, I have a bit more understanding for this use. Everything is meaningless to a baby. They hold no clear concepts. Their consciousness doesn’t even really start to form till they are around 5 months old. I still think both atheism and ignosticism are different considered positions, but I can understand that, at least in that time, theism was seen as the ‘default state’ so it would have made sense to oppose this, arguing for a default non-theistic state. At a time with less precise language, this would have been referred to as atheism.
I’m sure you are aware of Huxley’s Agnostic position from the 1860’s which was an epistemic position rather than an ontological one. The term has evolved and has different uses today, as what happens with language, but theists of the time just saw this as a different type of atheist. Many atheists did too for that matter.
To that end, a book from Robert Flint published in 1903 from his lectures in 1887-8 addresses the agnostic as a form of atheist.
a misrepresentation as is that of the agnostic to which objection is taken. The atheist is not necessarily a man who says ” There is no God.” What is called positive or dogmatic atheism, so far from being the only kind of atheism, is the rarest of all kinds. It has often been questioned whether there is any such thing. But every man is an atheist who does not believe that there is a God, although his want of be-lief may not be rested on any allegation of positive knowledge that there is no God, but simply on one of want of knowledge that there is a God. If a man have failed to find any good reason for believing that there is a God, it is perfectly natural and rational that he should not believe that there is a God ; and if so, he is an atheistAgnosticism – Robert Flint
What we can see here is an attempt to broaden the definition to anyone that does not believe.
I am unsure if he was the first to use atheism in English as such a broad descriptor in this way, but it is certainly different to how atheism first entered the English language a few centuries prior. Perhaps a bit of commentary, TH Huxley, the person that coined agnosticism as an epistemic principle, died a few years before his lectures. This is conjecture, but it seems Flint waited till he wasn’t going to be challenged that agnostics were atheists before he published.
To that end, it would seem prudent for me to look into the etymology of agnosticism past my article that examined the 4 main ways agnosticism is defined: What is Agnosticism? How does it relate to knowledge and beliefs? Time permitting, I shall endeavour to do this over the coming month.
In 1972, Anthony Flew argued for a change in how atheism was perceived. It seems Flint’s offerings were not popular enough to persist and be held by a majority. He [Flew] argued that atheism should not be seen as the proposition gods do not exist, but the psychological state of not believing in gods. He categorised one that does not believe in gods (but doesn’t hold the belief gods do not exist) as negative atheism, and one that holds the belief gods do not exist as positive atheism.
Interestingly the negative atheism (much like Flint’s sceptical atheism) position seen here is seemingly no different from the psychological state of being agnostic, however, this isn’t actually the case. He argued negative atheism as a different position as we can see here:
As you can see above, what he is arguing for is that the negative atheist should not even accept God or gods as a meaningful concept. They should be totally uncommitted, whereas the agnostic would have considered the proposition as meaningful and not committed either way, and the positive atheist would have considered the proposition “God exists” and found it false.
The position Flew argues for his negative atheism seems remarkably close to what we call ignosticism today.
In fact, ignosticism was coined in the 1960s by Sherwin Wine, so again, Flew’s position, like Flint’s, was already covered off by more specific terminology. This position is also essentially the same as Bradlaugh’s version of atheism too but had since been given its own label.
However, this wasn’t exactly Flew’s position either, it was also a method. Essentially, one was to take an ignostic-like stance on the concept of God, be completely uncommitted in each conversation, allow the theist to “present their case” and address any issues in the definitions for the deity, or arguments for the deities existence. This is actually a great method and one we should all follow, regardless of our ontological position. So, whilst it was kind of like ignosticism, it was also a method of investigation/deliberation one should take. This position was still a response to theism.
For more info on Flew, check this stream:
I don’t want to detract from the core concepts. If you’re interested in various ontological positions I cover them off in Ontology and the things we lack.
Now, the “don’t believe” positions proposed by Flew and Flint are not exactly the same as the lack of belief position, and generally, it was seen as superfluous because it is a position already held by either agnosticism or ignosticism.
When you have two words that clearly convey two different ontological positions, why would you create a broad term and add modifiers to it to denote your specific position? That said, at least Flew appreciated that this position still required some form of justification to be rational, even if it was just explaining the concept of God is meaningless.
Dictionaries and encyclopaedias continued to define atheism, mostly in the denial/disbelief but we can see the change in language occurring from the late 19th century through the 20th to sometimes include not believing in gods or living as if god does not exist.
The first use I can see for “the absence of belief in God” is in the 1948 ‘A Rationalist Encyclopaedia’ yet subsequent dictionaries and encyclopaedias still tended to use denial/disbelief. The absence of belief position didn’t seem to pop up in an official* dictionary/encyclopaedia again until 2016 where the Oxford Dictionary of Atheism defined it as ‘A belief in the non-existence of a God or gods, or (more broadly) the absence of belief in their existence)’
*By official I mean a well respected and maintained dictionary over an internet dictionary.
Now, as for the precise moment the lack of belief definition became popular, I do not know. I hadn’t heard of this position until I joined the internet debating world circa 10 years ago. It is still not a position used in philosophy, even if you argue it is similar to Flew’s or Flint’s doesn’t believe. There is some conflation that goes on between does not, lack and absence of belief within the online atheist community, and a lot of inconsistency around what any of them actually mean. I assume that political ideologies of groups like the American Atheists who like to claim ‘atheism is only a lack of belief in gods’ have something to do with this. America is possibly the largest English speaking country in the world, and through the internet, the world has many more Americanisms residing within it.
The line “rejection of the assertion that there are gods” means “refusing to accept that there are gods” which in turn, as described in Flint’s work, is the same as one that does not believe in gods. They have seemingly unknowingly used two definitions (don’t and lack) in their opening statement. There is a distinct difference.
As you can see, they are prescriptive with their definition here, claiming it is only one thing and even ignore common dictionary definitions. For me, I lose trust in any organisation quite so dogmatic, prescriptive and dishonest.
As to why they do this? I can only speculate based on conversations with Aron Ra, they want more members and more voting power. It is still a valid use, but rife with a number of issues.
- Definitional Problems with Lacking Belief
- Ontology and the things we lack…
- In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
- Agnostic Atheism
Whilst I cannot find the exact moment the lack of belief definition of atheism entered our language, we can see a couple of uses of the word ‘absent’ from 1948 but use of ‘lack’ is incredibly new. There is a semantic difference between lack and does not believe, and I tend to think many who use lack are doing so synonymously with don’t. Either that, or they really don’t understand the difference between Belief: Don’t Believe, Lack of Belief, Absent of Belief.
We can see how etymology and use are different things, and how one can make errors when one assumes they are the same. These errors are largely due to tapping into google and accepting the first suggestion that comes up, having it confirm your bias and thinking on it no more.
Hopefully, we can all now understand that the “lack of belief in gods” definition is not the only use, nor is the original use in any language. You are, of course, free to have it as your preferred use. At the end of the day, it is your identity. This article was not set out to tell you a particular use was better than another, just to draw your attention to the changes in the language and the similarity with other terms.
It was also to show that defining atheism isn’t as simple as looking at a dictionary, or a quick google to the etymology, putting your own inferences on what the words mean. Perhaps, this can be taken into account by everyone having a conversation about what it means to be an atheist, and we can start having more productive conversations.
We can even acknowledge that this lack of belief in gods is similar to a direct translation of the etymological root of atheism (atheos), even if that wasn’t the way it was actually used. That doesn’t make it the same as the original use, it doesn’t mean that is how we ought to use the term today either but can perhaps give more understanding to those that are conflating the two.
I will admit to having a preferred definition myself, of course, and I have provided links both above and below that describe why I prefer one over another. I honestly do not care how you describe yourself though, I just want to clear up some of the misconceptions around the difference between etymology and use, and the misinformation about “atheism is only one thing”.
Having written this article, I do have more compassion for the general conflation of all forms of non-theist as an atheist. I think it [non-theism = atheism] is sloppy language that doesn’t provide us with a precise ontological position and is generally used today to further some ideology or to ‘hide the ball’ with one’s need to justify their position for it to be rational.
I think, whatever one’s preferred label, we should just allow people to run with it. I prefer concise and precise language. I find it useful in discussion as it allows me to accurately infer what they do and don’t believe so we can move further into the conversation but the important part is just that; what they do and don’t believe and their justifications for doing so.
To that end, the organisations that are trying to force the atheist label on to people would do well to stop and instead focus on secular issues. Instead of turning people off with their prescriptivism, allow people to identify how they like and be more accepting.
Thanks to everyone that has read this article. I hope it has helped you understand the difference between etymology and use, as well as the etymological fallacy. I also hope that it shows you that atheism isn’t “only a lack of belief in gods” from a definitional point of view. There is also more to atheism when you take a look at it from a philosophy of religion perspective, but I feel I have kept you long enough.
If anyone does have any information like the first use of the ‘lack of belief’ definition of atheism, or any other changes in use over the years, please let me know and I will add them to the article!
Special thanks to Faithless Pheasant for informing me of the archaic use of atheos before the use most of us know, not believing in the gods of the state. He has a guest article on the GDC which you can find by clicking here.
Posts About Atheism
- Rockin’ Atheism Part 3: Atheism in Greek Antiquity
- Rockin’ Atheism Pt 2: Defining Atheism
- New Atheism and New Atheists w/ Ozymandias Ramses II [Video]
- “If atheism is true…”
- Atheists, Atheism, and Ambiguity
- In response to Ra’s ‘What is Atheism?’
- Pitfalls of ‘New Atheism’
- Has Atheism Become an Ideology?
- Conflated and Misunderstood Terms – Volume 2: Theism, Atheism, Agnosticism
- Do we Atheists have a Burden of Proof?
- Are we Born Atheist?
- Ontology and the things we lack… (lacktheism or rocktheism?)
- Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism
- Presumption of Atheism – Anthony Flew – https://amzn.to/2Rxqmhp
- Agnosticism – Robert Flint – https://amzn.to/3wTqyYk
- Defining and redefining atheism: dictionary and encyclopedia entries for “atheism” and their critics in the anglophone world from the early modern period to the present – Nathan G Alexander – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17496977.2019.1642582
- A plea for Atheism – Bradlaugh – https://amzn.to/3uFNsk
- BATTLING THE GODS: ATHEISM IN THE ANCIENT WORLD – TIM WHITMARSH – HTTPS://AMZN.TO/3T8I7BY
- American Atheists – https://www.atheists.org/activism/resources/about-atheism/
- Atheism – Wikipedia – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism
- Etymology Online – https://www.etymonline.com