The words "atheism" and "atheist" originated from the Ancient Greek word "ἄθεος"4 ("átheos") meaning "without deities" without any direct or implied anti-theistic (or anti-religious) connotation, for it was impartial in its initially intended use. Philosophical atheist thought is also believed to have begun in Asia and Europe as early as 600 BCE.
Although "atheism" is sometimes assumed to be derived from the word "theism," it actually predates12 it. Originally the concept of "atheism" was contributed by the Greeks in 5th Century BCE, and then the words "atheist" and "atheism" were later introduced in the mid-to-late 1580s CE (adapted from the French words "athée" and "athéisme"), almost one century before the words "theist" and "theism" were added to the English language in the 1660s and 1670s CE.
An extended usage was applied just prior to c. 500 BCE to characterize "atheism" as a position that specifically opposed the existence of deities. This was most likely due to its popularized use in debates about religion, primarily between Christians and Hellenic Polytheists, where some adversaries accused each other of being atheists as if it was something unacceptable (perhaps in the absence of other more suitable vocabulary like "anti-theist," hence atheism may have been used as a generalized stand-in amidst a less evolved language from ancient times).
Roughly 2,000 years later during the 1570s and 1580s, the word "athéisme" was introduced to the French language. After that, the word "atheism" became a part of the English language over the next 5 to 15 years, and long before "theism" was added to the vocabulary (which brings into question the seemingly logical assumption that the word "atheism" is dependent on the word "theism").
Just a few centuries later, throughout the 1700s and 1800s when Christianity was enjoying tremendous popularity, the word "atheism" was more commonly used as an insult. This attitude of disdain for non-believers may have been encouraged by The Holy Bible's advocacy for the killing of infidels (which is found in 2 Chronicles, chapter 15, verse 13).
Returning to our roots
In the 1900s people gradually began to identify themselves as "atheists" to indicate that they were non-believers. As the onset of an increasingly literate and better-educated populace permeated in tandem with the advancements and growth of modern civilization (in part due to the Guttenberg Press), the wider acceptance of the distinction between "atheism" and "anti-theism" was necessitated.
Although conflict due to much variation of these two words still persists between dictionaries, glossaries, and encyclopedias, it's reasonable to therefore consider the origins of the words in question. In the case of "atheism"13 and "atheist,"14 it appears that the meanings began to deviate from its naturally impartial classification to an anti-theistic position, but now that the meaning of the word "anti-theism" is so widely understood, this deviation can be rectified...
The words "atheism" and "atheist" presently appear to be on course for a full recovery, albeit slowly because it can often be difficult to "see the forest for the trees" while in the throws of the gradual evolution of anything, particularly language. With the advent of the internet, access to information, along with the profound freedom to publish literally any ideas, has lead to more meaningful - yet also very uncomfortable at times - forms of truly open and honest discourse that are the driving pinnacle of progress.
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