The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Atheism’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

Where does the word ‘atheism’ come from, and what does it mean? The origins of the term atheism are at once straightforward and complex, and the meaning of the word is often misconstrued – or, in some cases, only half-construed.

So let’s take a closer look at the etymology of the word, as well as what it means.

‘Atheism’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as ‘disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a God.’ An atheist does not believe in a God or in gods of any kind, whether we’re talking about the Christian God, the Hindu pantheon, or the dozens of gods and goddesses found in Norse or Greek myth.

The term atheism is from the ancient Greek ἄθεος meaning ‘without God’. The OED’s earliest citation for atheism is from Arthur Golding and Sir Philip Sidney’s English translation (published in 1587 though composed earlier) of Philippe De Mornay’s A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion: ‘Athisme, that is to say, vtter Godlesnes.’

Curiously, the word atheism won out over several other proposed terms which mean the same thing. Here, the OED offers a historical window onto the Renaissance language and how atheism was described using a number of other (eventually discarded) terms.

So atheal (also meaning ‘without God’, from the same Greek root) was used in the early seventeenth century, and the Tudor historian Polydore Vergil, in the sixteenth century, had even used the term atheonism: ‘Godd would not longe suffer this impietie, or rather atheonisme.’

Both atheal and atheonism went the way of the proverbial dodo, leaving atheist and atheism as the preferred terms to describe someone who does not believe in God.

The key thing here is that an atheist does not believe. And there is a curious but important distinction to be observed between these two similar, but subtly different statements:

1. An atheist does not believe in God.
2. An atheist believes there is no God.

The first conforms with what we understand by the term atheism. But the second changes the focus, and makes atheism a belief system, when it is nothing of the sort. A Christian (who might also be called a theist) believes there is a God, even though there is no concrete evidence for such a belief. An atheist simply rejects that belief. Being an atheist doesn’t, in fact, require a ‘belief’ in anything.

Confused? You can easily see how this distinction works if we posit a different scenario: a hypothetical (and ridiculous) example.

Let’s say I become convinced there’s a teapot orbiting the Sun, somewhere out there in the sky. We can’t see it with the naked eye, nor even with a telescope. So I can’t prove to you it’s there. But I insist that it is there, because it’s what I (in my eccentricity) believe to be true.

Because I can’t prove this rather outlandish claim, you reject my belief and refuse to join me in my teapot-belief. You simply do not believe it’s out there, because I can’t produce a compelling argument, nor any firm evidence, that it is out there.

You do not believe in my teapot. But would it be fair to describe your position as a belief that the teapot is not out there? Not really. This is semantically not quite accurate, since you’re not believing anything: you’re simply rejecting my belief.

So it is with atheism. Atheism is, in the last analysis, the rejection of the belief that there is a God (or gods of any kind). It is not a positive belief in itself, but rather a rejection of a belief.

Despite this – what you would think was a rather uncontroversial position – being an atheist could get you into a lot of hot water (or worse) throughout much of history. Even as recently as 1811, when the young Romantic poet Percy Shelley co-authored a pamphlet at the University of Oxford called The Necessity of Atheism, he was expelled from the university for daring to go against the idea of Christian belief.

But of course, those who sent him down were a tad hypocritical, because technically speaking they, too, were atheists: at least, they were atheists when it came to Shiva, or Thor, or Zeus, or any number of other gods and goddesses worshipped down the ages and around the world. Shelley, as the old line has it, just went one god further than they did.