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Discussion 4 on Meditation 185
Agnosticism & Atheism

by JT

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Re: Meditation 185

Liz

I think this issue is discussed somewhere on the web site - but it's so big - I can't remember everything I (and everyone else who contributed) wrote. One of these days I'll add a site search engine.

But the idea - promoted on many atheist sites - that atheism came from "a" + "theism" is incorrect. It is a false etymology. And that leads me, as threatened in my previous reply, to get a bit pedantic in what follows.

To get the scholarly truth, you have to consult an etymological dictionary. (Unfortunately Webster's online which used to be pretty good for this has now made full etymology part of premium content - but you can get partial etymologies for some words - fortunately atheism is one of them.)

"Atheism" entered the English language in the late 16th century. "Theism" did not arrive until over a hundred years later. Both came to us from French - and if you consult a French etymological dictionary, you will find the same 100 year plus gap between "atheisme" and "theisme."

It says something for the state of philosophy that there was no perceived need for the word "theism" or even "deism" at the time there was a need for a word for "atheism." Either you believed in the accepted religion (Christianity in 16C England and France) or you denied God totally. Anyone else was just an infidel and didn't require a special word to describe their heretical beliefs.

So - in neither language was atheism created by "a" + "theism" The over hundred years between the first recorded use of the words makes it extremely improbable.

The ultimate source of "atheism was Greek - and the word "atheos" (which does come from "a" + "theos") means "without god" or "no god" or "godless."

From my ancient hard copy Websters New World College Dictionary (1960 edition) in the discussion following the definition of atheist: (a person who believes there is no God)

Agnosticism is a much later invention than atheism - Huxley actually did coin it from "a" + "gnosticism" in 1869 though it is not generally considered a true antonym for gnosticism. And he coined the word specifically to differentiate his religious views from atheism.