Word Definition: Atheism

In a nutshell:
Atheism = Not God(s)

What I find particularly frustrating is how people will willfully ignore the true meaning of a word which quite literally defines itself. Atheism is not a proposition. It is not a belief. There is no “atheistic doctrine” or rules or guidelines or codes of conduct. Through a very basic observation of the word, it can be easily determined that atheism is nothing more than the rejection of theism.

The meaning of the word atheism comes to us from the Greek root theism which denotes a belief in a deity or deities. The Greek prefix a- is known as a privative a or alpha privative and indicates the negation of the root and can be interchanged with  “not” or “absent.” This coming to us from a very well-known concept which is widely in use today. You can understand a lot about a word if you understand the prefix (note that mono- and poly- are also Greek words used often as prefixes, mono meaning singular and poly meaning plural):

  • Theism = a belief in a deity or deities
  • Monotheism = a belief in a single deity
  • Polytheism = a belief in multiple deities
  • Atheism = not a belief in a deity or deities

We can also draw from examples from other words that use the privative a:

  • a-synchronous = not synchronous
  • a-typical = not typical
  • a-nomaly = not regular
  • a-political = not connected with political matters
  • a-symptomatic = not having symptoms
Originally, the word comes to us from Greek ἄθεος (atheos), which means “without god(s)” and was used to denote those who rejected the mainstream beliefs in deities (the Greeks had several). Atheism did not imply the rejection of all deities. Christians, for example, were considered to be atheists by the Romans because Christians did not recognize the popular gods of the time.  The first people to use the term to describe themselves in recent history were from the 1700s in France during the Age of Enlightenment. Since then, the word has been re-defined by theists to imply wickedness, immorality, and general bad behavior. Even Webster’s Dictionary to this day includes the Christian slant of the word. Theists perceive morality as being the product of God and make the false assumption that rejection of God is rejection of morality.

Being as the established theory of evolution via natural selection is widely accepted among atheists, theists often make the mistake of asserting that atheism is a naturalistic religion or is guided by the “religion” of science (“scientism”), this being mostly an attempt by theists to coerce atheists into defending a false position of religion: a “straw man” argument. Atheists do not share any common beliefs which are not also coincidental or simply natural conclusions borne of shared skepticism. Atheism does not lead to skepticism but rather the other way around. What skeptics share in common is the rejection of beliefs for which there is no demonstrable evidence. At some point in their lives, most skeptics are forced by religious social pressure to take a position on theism and this is when they realize they are atheists. Therefore, “atheist” is nothing more than a word people use to label themselves as a result of such religious social pressure. If theists were not so concerned over what other people’s beliefs are, having such a label would be entirely unnecessary. And the label does come with a price. Most theists are on a long-fought relentless campaign to destroy the image of atheists. They are very active in the mass media and in social media spreading falsehoods and vilifying atheists at every opportunity. Atheists are often compared to Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and are said to be without the alleged moral integrity afforded those who believe in God. Many theist philosophers go a step further and posit that atheism inevitably leads to nihilism. No such claims have ever been demonstrated to be true. In fact, atheism has become a movement in protest of the moral deficit of theism.

We are all born without theism by virtue of not ever having been introduced to it. We need language to know about deities and so we remain atheistic until language is developed and we can learn of theism. Absent an introduction to theism, we remain unchanged in respect to our original position. We remain atheists. Atheism is not a belief or a proposition and does not lead to poor behavior. U.S. prison statistics point to the contrary as atheists make up only 0.2% of those incarcerated while the general population is roughly 10% atheists. When compared to the stats for Christians, which remain constant in and out of prison, it would appear atheists are far better at staying out of prison which means they are more closely adhering to the moral standards established by society.  Using the hard facts, atheism does not imply moral inferiority.

When it really boils down to it, accepting the label of “atheist”  is the result of asking one’s self this very basic question: do I accept theism or do I reject it? There is no other criteria. Atheism is nothing more than the answer to that question if the answer is the latter.

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SC Rowland is a secularist, activist, and founder of Secular Press.

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