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Definition of atheism

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What is the origin of the word "atheism" or "atheist?"

Many people believe the term "atheist" indicates someone who says "God does not exist" or "There is no God". This is not true. This is a common misconception among theists, that the term "atheist" implies a person has a belief in the non-existence of God.

Let's look at the source of the word:

"Atheism", from the Greek:

  • atheismos : noun, from
  • a- : lacking, without, or not having something; akin to the English suffix "-less"
  • theos : a god, deity, mighty magic entity
  • -ismos : a state, quality, or condition; an "-ism"

Therefore, "atheism" is "the state, quality, or condition of being without a god or deity". "Atheos" would literally mean "godless", and "atheismos" ("atheism") would literally mean "godlessness".

Notice that the prefix "a-" does not mean "not" or "against". It's a common mistake to think so. That would require the use of the Greek prefix "anti-", such as in the term antikhristos ("antichrist").

Now, let's change that suffix. "Atheist", from the Greek:

  • atheistês : noun, from atheismos +
  • -istês : one who supports, subscribes to, or performs something

An "atheist", then, would be "a person who supports or subscribes to a godless state, quality, or condition".

This does not necessarily mean that atheists positively believe that there is no god. It simply means that they advocate a lifestyle that is devoid of one. They live their lives as if there were no god.

Common dictionary definitions of atheism

Many popular dictionaries imply the strong definition of atheism as the default, even though strong atheists (people who claim there are no god(s)) are a minority among those calling themselves atheist.

One reason why a misleading definition of atheism exists in popular traditional publications can be traced back to the religious roots of those in the dictionary publishing business. For example, Noah Webster:

Webster, founder of the dictionary company, was a devout Christian. His speller was grounded in Scripture, and his first lesson began "Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink ; nor for your body, what ye shall put on ; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of these things."

His 1828 American Dictionary contained the greatest number of Biblical definitions given in any reference volume. Webster considered education "useless without the Bible". Webster claimed to have learned 20 different languages in finding definitions for which a particular word is used. From the preface to the 1828 edition of Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language:

In my view, the Christian religion is the most important and one of the first things in which all children, under a free government ought to be instructed... . No truth is more evident to my mind than that the Christian religion must be the basis of any government intended to secure the rights and privileges of a free people.

Webster released his own edition of the Bible in 1833, called the Common Version. He used the King James Version (KJV) as a base and consulted the Hebrew and Greek along with various other versions and commentaries. Webster molded the KJV to correct grammar, replaced words that were no longer used, and did away with words and phrases that could be seen as offensive.

All editions of Webster's Dictionary published in 1913 and earlier, along with the Webster Bible and Dissertation on the English Language are available in the public domain.

See also


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