David Gleeson over at exchristian.net wants to correct common misconceptions about atheism. Unfortunately he ends up perpetuating a major misconception of his own, and also messes up a little Greek. Commenting on the very first alleged misconception, he says:
1. Atheism is the belief that no gods exist.
This statement’s ubiquity is exceeded only by its utter falseness; not only is it misleading, but it is the complete opposite of the truth.
The word ‘atheism’ comes from the Greek prefix ‘a’, meaning without, and ‘theist’, meaning having a belief in a supernatural deity. Atheism, therefore, literally means “without theistic belief”. Atheism does not positively assert anything; rather, it is a statement of withheld belief.
Atheists, therefore, do not positively assert that gods do not exist. Atheists simply withhold belief in said gods because the evidence is not sufficient to warrant the belief. This is not to say that there isn’t sufficient reason to believe that certain gods do not exist. There is. But to categorically deny the existence of all gods would require a leap of faith that is anathema to a true atheist. Atheism requires no such leap.
I’ll start with the way that the writer gets his Greek wrong. “Theist” is an English word. It is a word derived from the Greek word theos, which means god. A theist is a person who believes that there is a god (i.e. they believe there is a theos) – not a person who believes that there is a theist (i.e. who believes that theism exists). Similarly, polytheist is an english word made from two Greek roots: polu means “many,” and theos, “god.” so a polytheist believes that there are many gods – not that there are many theists or many theisms (this would be to confuse Greek and English, since theist and theism are English words). The Greek prefix a means “no” or “not.” When affixed to Greek nouns, it generally indicates a denial of that noun. For example, something is amorphous if it has no shape (morphe is the Greek word for shape). Ablepsia is another name for blindness, and it means no sight (a means “no” and blepsis means “sight”). Nobody versed in Greek would ever doubt this, so Mr Gleeson has simply made a mistake. The English word Atheism, based on its Greek derivation, if we rely on derivation / etymology (as Mr Gleeson, for better or worse, does), does not mean “no theism” or “not theism.” Like theism and polytheism, atheism refers to a belief, namely the belief that there is no (a) God (theos).
So he has his Greek wrong when he tries to show what atheism means based on etymology.
Secondly however, Mr Gleeson quite misleads his readers by implying that the claim that atheists deny the existence of God is the opposite of the truth. There’s a good reason that the claim is “ubiquitous” as Mr Gleeson complains. It’s a common claim because it represents an historical fact. The claim is pretty simple to document, as I have done before, but a timely reminder is always, well, timely. Here’s what the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy says in it’s entry for atheism:
Atheism (from Greek a-, ‘not’, and theos, ‘god’), the view that there are no gods. A widely used sense denotes merely not believing in God and is consistent with agnosticism. A stricter sense denotes a belief that there is no God; this use has become the standard one.
Mr Gleeson might like the “widely used sense,” because it is epistemically weaker (i.e. it means he doesn’t have to defend anything) and because it’s common among sceptical bloggers for that reason. But the fact remains, it’s not what the word strictly means (notice too how the Greek derivation is explained in the above quote).
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says in its entry for atheism and agnosticism that “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.” The more general resource Encyclopedia Britannica says:
Atheism, the critique or denial of metaphysical beliefs in God or spiritual beings. As such, it is the opposite of theism, which affirms the reality of the divine and seeks to demonstrate its existence. Atheism is to be distinguished from agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a god or not, professing to find the question unanswered or unanswerable; for the atheist, the nonexistence of God is a certainty.
The entry for “Atheism” in the Routledge Enclyclopedia of Philosophy says: “Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief.” When Antony Flew, back in his non-theist days, argued for “weak atheism,” namely the belief that theism ought not be affirmed, he did so while quite honestly and openly admitting that “weak atheism” is not the regular meaning of “atheism,” hence the need to add the qualifier “weak.”
So like David Gleeson, I wish people would stop perpetuating misconceptions about what atheism is and is not. Unlike Mr Gleeson however, I’m aware that he is one of the guilty parties.