Friday, March 1, 2013

Roman Atheism

In a recent debate, I was thrown an interesting curveball, an argument I had never heard before and had to look into. I was accused of using a "fake" definition of Atheism, the definition I've been giving on this blog, and that my definition could be used to define anyone. Here is, generally, how the accusation was phrased.

"The Romans called Christians "atheists" because they didn't believe in their gods. Doesn't this prove your definition is fake?"

So, after that was lobbed at me, I had to look it up. Turns out, the first sentence is accurate. The Romans did call Christians Atheists because they didn't believe in their gods. During their persecution of opposing religions, they mistakenly believed that Theism only accounted for "true" religion. And since their religion was the "true" religion, they were the only Theists and all others were Atheists.

Shortly after this time, everyone, including the Romans, agreed that Theism didn't account for which, if any, religion was correct, only belief in one or more deities. As such, their understanding of Atheism also changed to match the original definition, not belief in deities.

Since I wasn't using that definition of Atheism, and it's be proven wrong anyway, this would seem to settle the question, as the Romans even admitted to their mistake. However, for the sake of argument, let's assume the Romans were the inventors of the word and they decided that Atheist meant "one who does not believe in the correct gods." There would certainly be a conflict. Not only would this definition assume Roman gods to be the "correct" gods because of them creating the term, but any who did not believe in "particular" gods could be labeled as those without any belief. This would indeed include Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and true Atheists.

This new definition would also destroy the label itself, as it was built in original latin. A-The-Ist is a combination of "A-" (negative form) "The-" (theos, gods) and "Ist" (personal belief) and cannot be defined any other way. The negative form of a personal belief in gods is simply "Not a personal belief in gods." As such, the Romans would have been wrong, even if they created the term. They would either be wrong about the definition or wrong about the word itself. One of those two would have to change simply for the sake of consistency.

To use a more modern example of how this misnomer would and should be avoided, let's say someone hates a chair. They love the chairs they use, but hate this one specific chair for some reason. It's gotten to the point that they don't even consider it a chair, more like a torture device. There are other people who love this chair and don't consider the chairs that person likes to be a chair at all, more like a table with a back on it. So, this group of people decide that this person must not believe chairs exist and they call him an anti-chair person. In truth, he is not an anti-chair person, as he loves chairs, just not those chairs. And they are also using the term "anti-chair person" incorrectly, as an anti-chair person would be someone who hates all chairs, not someone who doesn't believe in chairs.

So, hopefully I have properly explained how the above argument simply doesn't work. The Romans had no idea what a Theist was, let alone an Atheist, and even if they had made the definition it wouldn't apply to the words used for the term. There is no possible way it makes the definition most commonly used today, the original definition, fake or fraudulent.

All dictionaries agree, there is also no definition of Atheism that can be applied to anyone who has any belief in any deities.