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On the Definition of the Words Atheism and Atheist

(Page 2 - Stupid Arguments)


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Some of people who want to redefine the words "atheism" and "atheist" to mean "a lack of belief in the existence of gods" have used some incredibly stupid arguments to support their position.  I will list some of these arguments and examine them in detail.


  Clickable Index to Stupid Arguments:

1) The etymology of the word "atheism" means "a lack of belief".

2) Most dictionaries define "atheism" as a "lack of belief".

3) Most dictionary definitions of "atheism" are wrong because they are written by biased Christians.

4) Only atheists get to define what the word "atheist" means.

5) Most atheists want a "lack of belief" definition.

6) The phrase "Tom does not believe in the existence of God" does not mean "Tom believes that God does not exist."

7) A "lack of belief" definition is useful in debates.

8) All atheists lack a belief in gods so anyone who lacks a belief in gods is an atheist.


Stupid Argument #1:  The etymology of the word "atheism" means "a lack of belief".


A commonly repeated error is that the word "atheism" was derived from the prefix "a-", meaning "without", and the word "theism", meaning a belief in God.  Therefore they claim that "atheism" means "without a belief in God".  This is incorrect because the etymology of the word "atheism" derives from the Greek word "atheos" meaning "godless".  The "-ism" suffix, which can be roughly mean "belief", was added later.  The etymology of the word means "godless belief" not "without a belief in gods".


A couple of etymologies from respected dictionaries are shown below:


From Merriam-Webster Online:

Etymology of "atheism": Middle French athéisme, from athée atheist, from Greek atheos godless, from a- + theos god


From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.:

Etymology of "atheism": French athéisme, from athée, atheist, from Greek atheos, godless : a-, without; see a–1 + theos, god

Stupid Argument #2:  Most Dictionaries Define "Atheism" as a "Lack of Belief".


I see this lie quite often on the internet.  The truth of the matter is that no reputable dictionary has a "lack of belief" definition.  See page 3 for more on this subject.

Stupid Argument #3:  Most Dictionary Definitions of "Atheism" are Wrong Because They are Written by Biased Christians.


This absurd claim is totally unsupported by any facts, much like the gigantic government conspiracy to cover-up UFO landings. 

Stupid Argument #4: Only Atheists get to Define What the Word "Atheist" Means.


This argument is absurd for two reasons.  First of all, words are defined by common usage, not by the people who fit that definition.  For example the word "handicapped" is defined by common usage not just by handicapped people.


Secondly, a "lack of belief" definition for the word "atheist" would include so many agnostics, babies, infants, and the undecided that the self-identified atheists would be a very small minority.  Babies and infants would make up a majority of the "lack of belief" atheists and I haven't heard of any of them who could express a coherent definition.

Stupid Argument #5:  Most Atheists Want a "Lack of Belief" Definition.

This argument is usually presented as fact without any actual surveys to back it up.  The first problem with this is the "babies and infants" problem described above.  The second problem is that most scientific surveys of religious beliefs show that only a minority of the non-religious people self-identify as atheists.  For example the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) shows that 13.2% of the US population self-identified as "no religion" while 0.4% self-identified as atheists and 0.5% self-identified as agnostics.  The 2000 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year also shows similar numbers.

Stupid Argument #6:  The Phrase "Tom does not believe in the existence of God" does not mean "Tom believes that God does not exist."


This idiotic argument is sometimes presented by brain dead morons who don't understand basic English grammar.  I really don't expect most people to know that "raising" is the technical name for the location of the negative in the first sentence, or that raising simply shifts the negative from the subordinate clause where it logically belongs to the main clause, especially when the main clause’s verb is suppose, think, believe, seem, or the like.  (Here are two links from The Columbia Guide to Standard American English that explain it: Link 1, Link 2)


However, I find it impossible to believe that anyone with half a brain would use this argument.  The English language is literally filled with many common examples of raising.  I'll post a few for clarity:


A) "I don't believe the mail has arrived" means "I believe the mail has not arrived".  It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about the mail arriving.


B) "I do not believe we missed the last bus" means "I believe we did not miss the last bus".  It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about missing the last bus.


C) "I don't think the kicker can make a 55 yard field goal" means "I think that the kicker can not make a 55 yard field goal".  It does not mean that I did not think about the kicker making a field goal.


D) "I don't believe in the existence of  deities" means "I believe that deities do not exist".  It does not mean that I don't have any beliefs about the existence of deities.

Stupid Argument #7:  A "Lack of Belief" Definition is Useful in Debates.


Some people think that a "lack of belief" definition of atheist shifts the burden of proof to the theist and requires them to prove the existence of their god.  The truth of the matter is that the theist's claim of a supernatural god with magical powers is an extraordinary claim and requires substantial evidence if it is to be logically believed.  The burden of proof is on the theist regardless of the definition of the word "atheist".


As an analogy, if someone claimed that flying pigs existed, then they would have the burden of proof to prove this regardless of whether I told them I "lacked belief" in the existence of flying pigs or if I told them that I believed that flying pigs did not exist.

Stupid Argument #8:  All Atheists Lack a Belief in Gods so Anyone who Lacks a Belief in Gods is an Atheist.


This argument is so damn stupid that it is rarely expressed explicitly.  Usually it is only vaguely implied by statements such as "the only thing atheists have in common is a lack of belief in gods".


The logical mistake here should be self-evident to any adult with half a brain, so I won't explain it.  But if you are in a child in elementary school, try to figure it out with this analogy:  All dogs have fur so anything with fur is a dog.



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