The “Atheist” Misnomer

Atheist. Let us problematize the term just for a moment, shall we? In classical Greek etymology, the alpha prefix denoted sheer negation, precisely equivalent to the Latin “non.” “Theos,” of course, meant “deity” or “god,” and the Greek suffix “-ismos” became applied in Latin and, as such, pulled up into early English, conveying “adherence toward” or “belief in.” So, an atheist is one who is not a theist, that is, one who does not hold a belief in the existence of any deity.

We often find in the false rhetoric of Christian apologists and of Christian pseudo-intellectuals the claim that atheism is itself a belief. I cannot count how many times and contexts I have come across this ridiculous claim, a claim akin to smokers alleging that non-smokers are also themselves smokers.. Ummm.. huh? No. By very fundamental definition, atheism entails no belief. Indeed, the term affirms nothing other than the negation. By comparison, in the phrase “The man is not a bingo player,” we affirm nothing about the man, except what he is not!

In early Christian rhetoric, as Christianity gained its place as the sole state-sanctioned religion of the Roman world, even if by force, those not yet converted came to be labelled the “pagans” (Lat. pagani, “the hicks, rednecks, or unsophisticated rural folk"). This derogatory label persists to this day in ancient history study for those who were not specifically part of the later hegemonic / dominant group, namely, the Christians. Thus, ironically, Cicero, Caesar, Sappho, Plato, Homer, Cleopatra, Zeno, and all of the host of other towering figures of classical antiquity shamefully obtain the epithet “pagan” in Western scholarship.

In like fashion, the appellation “atheist” stamped upon us has served as a rhetorical misnomer, the binary recessive determined by exclusion vis-a-vis the dominant group, to follow the parlance of Jacques Derrida. Where else do people play such a game with language? Atheism is a non-group, a namespace only by negation. We may as well call ourselves the adrogonists or the alephrechaunists, inasmuch as the very identity “atheist'' tacitly legitimates the patently ridiculous, as though a genuine rational debate exists between two opposing sides. To carry on with non-belief in fairies, leprechauns, ghouls, gods, angels, genies, or phantoms is merely to be reasonable, not to stake a position in any legitimate debate to be waged in society. The moon is not made of green cheese, and the dismissal of such a “Mother-Goose” characterization of reality does not earn one the tag “a-green-cheese-moonist,” but merely one who is “reasonable.” For, belief in mythology is and always has been a conscious, willful indulgence, not a compelling, evidence-driven conclusion; the latter we instead properly term “knowledge.” So, when it comes to the matter of deities, in a more honest world we “atheists” instead would be known merely as the reasonable (in the most literal sense of the term), that is, those compelled by a mental construction of reality determined rather exclusively by evidence and reason.