The Meaning of Atheism
By: The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal

On the Internet it has become very common for self-professed Atheists to define their position as being a simple lack of a god-belief and not as a denial of the existence of God. By claiming to affirm only a passive lack of a god-postulate, and by denying that they actively assert the nonexistence of deity, such Atheists conveniently absolve themselves from having to defend their position. In other words, they claim that there is a big difference between asserting: "I do not believe a deity exists" and "I believe a deity does not exist." The difference is supposed to be one of an active as opposed to a passive postulate: are they asserting that God does not exist, or are they claiming that they simply don't make a god-postulate? While this is obviously a major splitting of tiny little hairs, it is nevertheless the kind of argument that many Christians are encountering from Atheists on the Internet. Unfortunately, it is also an argument to which most simply do not have an adequate response. This article will offer a response based upon the etymological and contextual meaning of the word "Atheism." The focus will not be upon English definitions, but on the original word in its original language.

One usually finds the idea of "passive Atheism" articulated as if it were based upon the linguistic roots of the word "atheism." It is sometimes broken down like this:

"a" = no/not/without
"theism" = god-belief
"atheism" = without god-belief.

This kind of linguistic argument is certainly one possible way of arriving at a definition for a word which has been derived from another language. One sees this kind of thing, from time to time, regarding lots of derived words (like "theology" and "archeology" and "anthropology.") Sometimes such derivations are accurate, but other times they are quite erroneous and reflect an unfortunate misunderstanding of the source-language. In this case those who have made the above argument regarding the meaning of "atheism" are, in effect, misunderstanding the use of such a process and, as a result, are producing an argument which is neither linguistically sound nor historically accurate.

It should be noted that the above method of determining a word's meaning works rather well when that word has been created by using roots and/or particles from another language (usually Latin or Greek). When and where there are no direct cognates in the primary language, the meaning of the new word in the secondary language is open to interpretation based upon this kind of morphological analysis. However, when the word has a direct cognate in, or is a pure transliteration from, the primary language it is that primary language's usage which always takes precedence in determining its meaning in the secondary language. As matter of lexicography, that is the case here.

The word "atheism" is a direct cognate -- in fact, it is a transliteration -- of the Classical Greek word atheos (here, written with English letters). Its meaning, as demonstrated in the writings of Aeschylus and Diogenese Laertius, is best expressed as: "one who disdains or denies God or the gods and their laws." (See Bauer, Walter. Greek-English Lexicon. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. p.20).

In Greek the particle "a" can certainly mean "without" or "lacking" in the passive sense and when related to passive verbs, but in the case of the Greek noun atheos "a" conveys the active sense of "reversal of essence" or "opposite of condition" or "inversion of meaning." Hence, in this case, it means the bipolar opposite of its root-word theos. If "theism" is the belief that deities exist, then "atheism" is the belief that no-deities exist. Please note the place of the negation particle: when applied to nouns it should always be linked with the object, not an implied predicate; that which is believed IN is being negated, not the act of believing which is implied in the noun. In other words, and as a matter of simple Greek grammar, an atheos is one who denies the existence of a specific deity or of deities in general. Since "atheism" and "atheist" are derived from this noun, their meaning in English should follow suit. It is, hence, a misunderstanding of Greek morphology for t
he act of believing to be negated by the linguistic particle "a."

This analysis is supported by the word's usage in Greek literature. Essentially, it is rarely (if ever) used of a simple failure to acknowledge deities; rather, it is almost always found in the active sense of direct opposition to such beliefs, or (most often) a particular expression of such beliefs. For example, when used of Christians by Roman authorities and other Greek writers (and it was) it generally referenced their active denial of the deities of other religions ... a practice for which early Christians were labeled "atheists" by their political and religious opponents. It didn't matter that such Christians held theistic beliefs regarding their own deity, what mattered was their refusal to be ecumenical and at least passively accept the existence of other deities. Their refusal to do this -- their active denial of the existence of other gods and, particularly, their refusal to at least offer the nominal sacrifice to the deity of the Roman Emperor -- got them branded as "atheists." As a penalty for such a serious breach of cultural and political etiquette, these early Christians were sometimes severely persecuted.

While atheists will assert their identity however they wish, their analysis of the construction of the word "atheism" as being simply a passive "without god-belief" is linguistically invalid. True, the sense of passive negation is, indeed, one which the particle "a" can convey; however, that particular sense is foreign to the grammar and historical usage of the noun atheos. In summary,

As a result, it is inadvisable to use the word "atheism" to reflect a passive position. This observation need not govern how such atheists understand themselves: if they wish to affirm that they do not deny God's existence but, rather, simply make no assertion on the subject, that is all well and good. However, their continued use and re-interpretation of a word which linguistically means "active denial of the theistic postulate" is confusing. They should change the term which they use for their position, rather than attempt to change the lexical meaning of an ancient, long-established word.

The above should shed some illumination on the semantic argument which was cited in the beginning of this article. Their claim is that there is a big difference between asserting "I do not believe a deity exists" and "I believe a deity does not exist." Fundamentally, this argument is nothing but semantic nonsense. It is not just the splitting of thin hairs, it is the splitting of thin air. To demonstrate this, all one needs to do is just invert the argument; is the assertion
"I believe a deity exists" any different from the assertion "I believe a deity does exist"? Clearly, the semantic value of such a distinction is zero ... and such is also the case for the Atheistic postulate. That they make their claim in order to avoid having to shoulder the burden of proof for their anti-theistic position is understandable: they desire to deny that God exists while, at the same time, denying that they have a burden of proof. They want Christians to prove their belief in God, but they don't want to have to prove their belief in the non-existence of God. In other words, they refuse to provide the evidence for their belief while severely criticizing Theists for failing to do the same. This is usually called "hypocrisy."

2003 Update to The Meaning of Atheism:
The Atheists Respond... and they're angry!

© 2002, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved