“Original and Unchanged“…Nope
Faithless Pheasant (Guest writer)
I spend a fair amount of time in my corner that is atheist/agnostic Twitter. There is a pretty wide, and occasionally, nice community there. However, there is a ton of bad history and philosophy as well. I am by no means an expert, but I’ve studied enough to realize how much there is that I don’t know. I just try to skim that down a little everyday. I also try to put the brakes on Twitter threads on my feed that are spreading bad information. A thread recently doing just that was focused on the definition of atheist and its historical usage.
I got into it a bit with Aron Ra. He is a full time atheist activist and regional director of American Atheists with a YouTube channel that has 247k subscribers. He is also the creator of the Phylogeny Explorer Project, a free, volunteer run, online encyclopedia of the entire phylogenetic tree of life that is currently in production. When it comes to biology and evolution the man is a true beast. But when he dips into philosophy…let’s just say he shouldn’t dip into philosophy. The sad thing is that there are a ton of people who, ironically, take his word as gospel.
This certain thread started when a buddy posted a list of 10 dumb things to stop saying. One of the dumb things he mentioned was saying rocks are atheist. Aron comes in saying but “rocks are atheist“. They lack a belief in god, and that’s what atheist means now and it’s what atheist has always meant according to Mr. Ra. This really was the hill he wanted to fight for. There are videos on YouTube with Aron getting schooled by philosophers on atheism and agnosticism (which he insists isn’t a thing because he declares all agnostics are really atheists they just don’t realize or like it) so he is aware that this isn’t the case. As far as I’m concerned he is now making these statements dishonestly. I’m saying that using his own standard that he used towards Kent Hovind, that since Kent has been corrected so many times about evolution, when he spouts his drivel now, it is completely dishonest.
During some back and forth in the thread I asked Aron how old he thought the word atheos was. He thought the word atheos was first used in the first century AD to refer to Christians. I corrected that bit of the history letting him know he was off by 500 years and recommended the book “Battling the Gods – Atheism In the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh. (And I recommend it to everyone here.) I went through the various usages of atheos and provided other sources as well. He said thanks, and proceeded to ignore it a little later when he repeated to another that the “original definition” was a lack of belief. That’s when I called him out for being dishonest. He really didn’t like that, but too bad. If he didn’t know that atheos was being used at a certain point in time, he sure as heck didn’t know how it was being used. And he doubly didn’t know which variant usage was used first. Yet that’s what he implies by calling his preferred definition “the original.”
This led him to write a blog post on the matter. It gets pretty cringey. https://leagueofreason.org.uk/index.php?threads/what-is-atheism.16590/
So it all really made me want to pin down which variant definition can be shown to be the oldest. Because if you can’t show it, you don’t know it. Aron certainly couldn’t show it, but in true Hovindian fashion kept asserting what he wished to be true as fact instead.
I knew I needed to dig into the work of an actual expert, and I knew right where to go. Tim Whitmarsh is a British classicist. He is best known for his work on the Greek literary culture of the Roman Empire, especially the Second Sophistic and the ancient Greek novel. From 2001 to 2007 he taught in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter where he remains an honorary fellow. He then served as E. P. Warren Praelector, Fellow and Tutor in Greek at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and Professor of Ancient Literatures at the University of Oxford. In October 2014, he succeeded Paul Cartledge as the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.
His book Battling the Gods – Atheism in the Ancient World asks how new is atheism. Although adherents and opponents alike today present it as an invention of the European Enlightenment, when the forces of science and secularism broadly challenged those of faith, disbelief in the gods, in fact, originated in a far more remote past. In Battling the Gods, he journeys into the ancient Mediterranean, a world almost unimaginably different from our own, to recover the stories and voices of those who first refused the divinities. Whitmarsh provides a bracing antidote to our assumptions about the roots of freethinking. By shining a light on atheism’s first thousand years, Battling the Gods offers a timely reminder that nonbelief has a wealth of tradition of its own, and, indeed, its own heroes.
I contacted Mr. Whitmarsh and cut straight to asking about chapter 8 where he writes,
“The invention of atheism was both etymologically and historically the creation of a negative. The Greek word atheos which first appears in the 5th century bc implies the absence of a god, Theos. The older meaning implies someone who has lost support of the gods. Someone who is god less or god forsaken in the archaic English sense.”
I questioned him about the older meaning. He confirmed atheos originally meant ‘abandoned by the gods’, ‘godforsaken’ and that the atheos here may still believe in the existence of a god, but either he or whoever labeled him atheos have asserted that he has fallen out of that god’s favor. I asked what sources exist that use atheos this way before the other meanings came along, and what was the first use of atheos as someone who lacked a belief in a god? Yep, he had that info for me as well.
However, I didn’t just accept what he told me outright. I spent the next few days online reading on more websites about more ancient Greek writings, plays, and poems then I would have ever figured I would have. I searched high and low for earlier sources but to no surprise the man who has devoted much of his life to this area of study knows his stuff.
During these few days that I was fact checking, Aron put out one of his standard response videos taking on some pastor’s hate boner for atheists. During this video he again repeated that his preferred definition of atheist was the “original and unchanged” usage. This left me no choice but to bring a bit of actual history to Twitter.
I tagged Aron and wrote: “You can continue to say (and after this, lie) that your preferred lack of belief definition is “original and unchanged”, but all your bluster will never make you historically accurate. The fact is the earliest known usage meaning “someone who lacks belief in the gods” is in Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria from 411BCE. It [atheos] was used previously for several decades only to mean abandoned by the gods/godforsaken by poets and playwrights including Aeschylus, Pindar, and others. For example in Aeschylus’s play Eumenides (first performed more than a lifetime before WaoT) the character Orestes was forsaken by gods after committing matricide and was called atheos even though he still affirmed the existence of gods and even had conversations with Apollo. If you know of any works older then this using atheos please let the world know of them. The head of Ancient Greek studies at the University of Cambridge doesn’t know of any, I’m sure he would be interested. So no, your usage wasn’t the original and as logically follows, has changed from what actually was the original usage ‘abandoned by the gods’, ‘godforsaken’.”
His response (which I found top notch hilarious) was “I don’t lie and I’m not wrong. Your data doesn’t even challenge anything I actually said. I’m surprised that you think it does. As I already explained, atheISM began in the late 17th century.”
The fuck it doesn’t challenge it. If yours is original it is first. I just pulled a rabbit out of your Precambrian and it’s name was Aeschylus.
I continued, “That is one helluva weak ass thought process going on there. You’re worried about the spellING and not what the idea is that the word represents. Thanks for the news flash, words are spelled differently in different languages including Ancient Greek. Even if I were to accept your preferred definition that atheism is just a lack of belief in god, you are now saying a lack of belief in god began in the 17th century??? What were the rocks before that? No, atheism didn’t begin in the 17th century. That’s fucking dumb. The best you have is that there was a spelling change in the 17th century. That tends to happen in the evolution of language. Focusing on the spellING is a red herring whose premise you don’t even buy. And you don’t actually care when the same word is used in another language. If you did you wouldn’t have said early Christians were called atheists when no, they were never labeled in English at the time.”
Aron continues, “So ‘godforsaken’ still means ‘godless’, and was pejorative, just like I said? Then when it was voluntarily adopted by the first self-identifying atheists, atheISM still meant ‘godless’, but in the sense of disbelief, again just like I said. Yet you falsely accuse me of lying.”
Me again, “Oh for fuck sake. No godforsaken doesn’t mean godless. Godforsaken meant the god’s FAVOR was removed. The gods didn’t poof into nonexistence. And neither did Orestes’ belief in the gods whom he was standing in the presence of just poof away. Yeah, I have to go with you’re lying. You are too smart to throw out such smooth brained takes on accident. And you are millennia off with who you think the first professing atheists were. Many were voluntarily surnamed “The Atheos” long before that, including the pre-Socratic Hippo of Samos, Diagoras of Melos, and Theodorus of Cyrene. Or is it again a totes different idea because it is spelled differently in another language?”
Aron’s last one, “OK, so you’re just gonna falsely accuse me of lying while lying about me? Fine. Fuck off.
Andddddd blocked, what a shame. Wherever shall I get bad history made up on the spot now? The difference between Aron and I is that I actually did my homework. I didn’t just assert boldly without evidence what would allow me to look like some knowledgeable authority. I put my head in books, Aron put his in the sand. And he did so before I could add that he was demonstrably wrong about godforsaken equating to godless by using the book I recommended to him earlier.
Aristophanes’s comedy Knights, his fourth play (produced 424BCE) is a complex, allegorical satire on Aristophanes’s nemesis, the politician Cleon, who is played as one of the slaves in the household of Demos (“People,” or “State”) The play opens with two other slaves complaining about the new slave and engaging in some banter about how to evade him:
Second Slave: The best option open to us is to go to some god’s statue and prostrate ourselves before it.
First Slave: What do you mean (the slave acts as if he cannot even pronounce the words) Do you really believe in gods?
Second Slave: Of course.
First Slave: What’s your proof?
Second Slave: The fact that I’m cursed by them. Won’t that do?
First Slave: Well, it’s good enough for me.
It’s a nice joke: being godforsaken is offered as evidence that the gods must exist.
That’s it. I’m done with this. Aron’s preferred definition is definitely not “original and unchanged”. It was originally “abandoned by the gods”/”godforsaken”. And it’s been changing ever since. He’s been told. He knows, but he’s going to keep saying what he prefers because on this subject he is just another Hovind.
|Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World: Whitmarsh, Tim: 9780307948779: Amazon.com: Books|
“Sweeping and stimulating . . . as learned as it is intellectually thrilling. . . . Battling the Gods fills a gap that probably few of us had even been aware of, and does so comprehensively.” —Tom Holland, New Statesman “Illuminating, lively, learned and cliché-busting . . . a work of openly committed scholarship. . . .Whitmarsh aims to rescue ancient doubt and disbelief from a long …
Etymology vs Use/Definition: Atheism | Answers In Reason
[…] Special thanks to Faithless Pheasant for informing me of the archaic use of atheos before the use most of us know, not believing in the gods of the state. He has a guest article on the GDC which you can find by clicking here. […]