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Discussion 3 to Talk Back 73
Re: Agnosticism vs. Atheism

by: JT

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Long ago, when I determined I was an agnostic, there was a clear difference in common usage between agnosticism and atheism.

Atheism meant what it meant in Greek - which is where we got the word in English via French. It meant a belief in no god(s) and not as many self-proclaimed atheist would have it today no belief in god.

When someone like Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass) can call himself an atheist and yet state "I don't know whether there's a God or not," and "there may well be a God somewhere, hiding away," then I think the word "atheist" is fast losing meaning. It has become a wishy-washy word; if someone claims to be an atheist, you still do not know where that person stands.

We are better served with the old definition. If you want one word to cover both atheists and agnostics, then non-believer seems good enough to me. For myself, I reject the idea that agnosticism is a subset of atheism. However, I don't worry that others, given the current common usage, may see an overlap and even call themselves both atheist and agnostic.

But one issue I do object to strongly is the idea that atheism comes from putting an "a" in front of theism so as to negate it. (See Sandy MacFadzean's second paragraph.) This idea, which comes up repeatedly from atheists, is provably wrong. The evidence can be found in any decent etymological dictionary. Atheism entered the English language a full century before theism. Please refer to Discussion 4 of Meditation 185 for a fuller explanation. If you find my argument there unconvincing, research it yourself in a major dictionary at your local library. I am quite confident you will not find me wrong

The "a" in atheism modifies the "the" not the "ism" nor "theism." And that's what the Greeks, the "inventors" of atheism intended - belief in no gods.

Of course, many words in English have lost contact with their origins. The etymological roots do not lock in meaning for eternity. I'm not claiming that the true etymology of atheism requires the word to retain its earlier meaning. I'm just stating that a false etymology should not be used to support the current meaning, and nor is it necessary to do so.