Yup. Atheism is all the rage right now. Or rather, there is a raging debate about what atheism is. Which is perhaps odd, given that much of those on the internets who call themselves atheists are in wide agreement about what it means. They say atheism is the lack of belief in gods. Many of them think this is what atheism has always meant. Several argue that language is a living thing, and what people used to think atheism meant is no longer relevant, because "most atheists" agree on this new meaning, and that we should therefore consider the matter closed.
So there are differences of interpretation, which involve opposing views of the facts. Much depends on semantics - and if you think the meaning of words is unimportant, then you must consider your own thoughts similarly valuable. But semantics isn't the only issue. Whatever the meaning you wish to associate with a word might be, it's the meaning which establishes the logic inherent in the word, and when the meaning is altered, so too is the logic.
To begin, let's dispense with errors of fact.
1) The word "atheism" does not denote "lack".
Google, Microsoft, Apple, and a variety of free online dictionaries all rely on a single source for their definitions, which is the Oxford Living Dictionary service. If you Google ( or Bing ) "atheism definition" you'll find it defined as "disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods." Synonyms are helpfully provided, which include agnosticism, apostasy, skepticism, impiety, and heresy. If you replace "definition" with "etymology", you'll find that the Greek prefix "a~" means "without."
The only problem with all this is that literally none of it is true. Those are not synonyms, but words with distinct and sometimes contradictory meanings. The prefix "a~" does not mean "without". It is in fact a privative :
A privative, named from Latin privare,[1] "to deprive", is a particle that negates or inverts the value of the stem of the word.
Meanings such as "lacking" or being "without" are entailed by negation, but do not express the full meaning of it. These meanings are at best connotations. What's more, the Greeks - being reasonably clever people - actually have a prefix which means "to lack", which is δέω or "deo~".
2) Atheism means the belief that god is not.
Another fallacy often asserted is that the prefix modifies the compound of the root "theos" and the suffix "~ism", but surely those claiming this will, if they're honest, admit they have no objective basis for claiming this. The fact is affixes do not work this way. The prefix and suffix both modify the root, and thus the proper etymology of "atheism" is "not" + "god" + "belief". So that's the OED version.
3) Philosophers generally agree that atheism is the denial of gods.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( SEP ) directly addresses the issues at hand :
“Atheism” is typically defined in terms of “theism”. Theism, in turn, is best understood as a proposition—something that is either true or false. It is often defined as “the belief that God exists”, but here “belief” means “something believed”. It refers to the propositional content of belief, not to the attitude or psychological state of believing. This is why it makes sense to say that theism is true or false and to argue for or against theism. If, however, “atheism” is defined in terms of theism and theism is the proposition that God exists and not the psychological condition of believing that there is a God, then it follows that atheism is not the absence of the psychological condition of believing that God exists (more on this below). The “a-” in “atheism” must be understood as negation instead of absence, as “not” instead of “without”. Therefore, in philosophy at least, atheism should be construed as the proposition that God does not exist (or, more broadly, the proposition that there are no gods).
The author does go on to describe the fact that "atheism", like most words, has multiple meanings and that a primary alternative is as a state of mind:
Departing even more radically from the norm in philosophy, a few philosophers and quite a few non-philosophers claim that “atheism” shouldn’t be defined as a proposition at all, even if theism is a proposition. Instead, “atheism” should be defined as a psychological state: the state of not believing in the existence of God (or gods). This view was famously proposed by the philosopher Antony Flew and arguably played a role in his (1972) defense of an alleged presumption of “atheism”. The editors of the Oxford Handbook of Atheism (Bullivant & Ruse 2013) also favor this definition and one of them, Stephen Bullivant (2013), defends it on grounds of scholarly utility. His argument is that this definition can best serve as an umbrella term for a wide variety of positions that have been identified with atheism. Scholars can then use adjectives like “strong” and “weak” to develop a taxonomy that differentiates various specific atheisms. Unfortunately, this argument overlooks the fact that, if atheism is defined as a psychological state, then no proposition can count as a form of atheism because a proposition is not a psychological state. This undermines his argument in defense of Flew’s definition; for it implies that what he calls “strong atheism”—the proposition (or belief in the sense of “something believed”) that there is no God—is not really a variety of atheism at all. In short, his proposed “umbrella” term leaves strong atheism out in the rain.
Note that the failure of lackers to properly ground their claims in historical and philosophical contexts is leading theists to take the philosophical high ground. I found that Googling "atheism etymology" produced a top level excerpt from The Etymology of Atheism by Eve Keneinan, in which she points out that lackers have placed themselves in opposition to the SEP, to philosophy, and have demonstrated ignorance of recent history. So while Eve's Last Eden blog was until recently relatively obscure ( despite my best efforts :), lackers have afforded her and other apologists such as William Lane Craig the opportunity to gain prominence and draw attention to their criticism of atheism. Worse, they have made her criticism of atheists true, at least as far as lackers are concerned.
4) The author of the lacker position, Antony Flew, agrees that atheism is actually the disbelief in god, but consciously wanted to alter its meaning as a form of propaganda.
Here is Antony Flew, in his own words:
The word 'atheism', however, has in this contention to be construed unusually. Whereas nowadays the usual meaning of 'atheist' in English is 'someone who asserts that there is no such being as God', I want the word to be understood here much less positively. I want the originally Greek prefix 'a' to be read in the same way in 'atheist' as it customarily is read in such other Greco-English words as 'amoral', 'atypical', and 'asymmetrical'. In this interpretation an atheist becomes: not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God; but someone who is simply not a theist. Let us, for future ready reference, introduce the labels 'positive atheism' for the former doctrine and 'negative atheism' for the latter.
Two things stand out. First, he did not understand the Greek language or its influence on English. Second, in his own words, he knowingly wanted to conflate atheism with non-belief in god ( or with the lack of belief ). He did this for an equally deceitful purpose, which was to argue that atheism ought to be the default position of scientists. But since he has defined atheism as simply not being a theist, the question is why bother misrepresenting the term "atheism" at all?
Now let's deal with differences of interpretation.
5) There is no "default" position in science.
Antony Flew argued that atheism should be accepted uncritically by scientists, and that the only responsibility for justification lay with theists. This isn't just wrong, it is deeply disingenuous; Flew certainly knew better. There are no default positions, because there is no knowledge which is free of justification, which is self-evident. Flew - and by extension present day lackers - are demanding that scientists uncritically accept the presumption that a universe free of a divine being needs no justification. This I think suggests why Flew wanted to smuggle the label "atheist" into science, since by doing so in this manner the association of atheism with science will be implicit, despite never actually being established.
6) Flew's view of atheism amounts to empty headed nonsense. Literally.
Lackers assert that they have no position on the existence of god. Atheism in their view is the absence of belief, both belief in god's existence, and in its non-existence. They thus often argue that infants are atheists because they've yet to be exposed to religious claims. This is true too of adults who have yet to hear religious claims. In other words, atheism is indistinguishable from ignorance.
More than that, however, the lacker view of atheism makes animals atheists. Plants, too. Rocks, sofas, soft drinks, and literally everything that does not have any conception of what theism is. Oddly, those who do in fact have a conception of theism and who reject it - those who Flew himself recognized as atheists - cannot be atheists since they do in fact hold a belief about god, which is that it does not exist.
There are those who try to avoid this problem by claiming that the key is "belief in" as opposed to belief about. The distinction here is that "belief in" refers to agreement with the god-claim, and therefore those who disagree with the god-claim lack agreement, just as do those who neither agree nor disagree. The problem here is that this argument returns the context to a contest between propositions. If one wishes to maintain on one hand that "atheism" is a state of mind in which there is no belief in god, one cannot also maintain that "atheism" is a reasoned response to a proposition about a god.
7) The Law of the Excluded Middle applies.
If one is to argue for atheism as a lack of belief, then it is necessary to remove it from the context of propositions about the existence of god. That's because existence is a bivalent condition: there are only two possible conditions to which can address the claim, which is either that god exists, or it does not. Thus to commit to the truth of one condition necessarily commits one to the falsity of the other. This is the Law of the Excluded Middle.
There is thus the question of what context should the term "atheism" bear upon, and for lackers it cannot be a question of propositional logic, since this would require that they take a position for or against, and hence to justify their position, and hence to admit that there is no such thing as a "default" "not a theist" standard. The lacker project depends on rejecting any response which offers a counter-claim, or an alternative argument. That's why Flew called it "negative atheism", since it offers no positive contribution to a debate between propositions.
I asked earlier why Flew should want to conflate the word "atheism" ( which is literally a belief ) with a state of mind denying belief. I'll close here with a variation of that question, but addressing my lacker brothers and sisters: 1) what value is there in the label "atheism" when the meaning of the old word is repudiated by the new meaning?
2) Why call oneself an atheist as opposed to a deotheist?
3) What value do you find in the old word without its old meaning?
I suggest that whatever your motives, however little you might have thought of this question, that there is a very real point to using the word atheist, even if the meaning you now argue for has nothing to do with it. That point - whatever it might - is unargued, unacknowledged, and yet somehow important. That sounds a lot like propaganda to me.

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