A History of the Word “Atheism” and the Politics of Dictionaries

In this post, Nathan G. Alexander details a history of the ways “atheism” has been defined in English dictionaries, as well as the ways that atheists have pushed back against negative definitions of atheism and influenced these definitions over time. 58461844_2520540891323727_126561871485468672_o

How does one define “atheism”? For many, the answer might be to simply look it up in the dictionary. But then, how do dictionary-makers know the definition of a word? And what makes them qualified to define words?

In fact, dictionary-makers are not godly beings who descend from the sky to instruct mere mortals like ourselves about the correct meaning of words. Rather, they are human beings with their own biases and commitments that inevitably inform their work. Even if this fact is uncontroversial, the authority of “The Dictionary” still looms over contemporary discussions about the meaning of words. This makes it important to look at the historical process by which these meanings were formed.

A recent article of mine does this by examining the historical treatment of “atheism” in English-language dictionaries.[1] I looked at examples from the first dictionaries in the 1600s up to the present. For much of this history, the authors and editors of dictionaries mostly came from the elite ranks of their societies and reflected the general Christian view of atheism: that it was an undesirable system maintained on irrational grounds that led to immoral consequences. Self-proclaimed atheists were few and far between until the nineteenth century. However, I show how they often attempted to push back against the way “atheism” was portrayed in the dictionaries. They argued that these dictionaries did not take into account how atheists themselves defined their position. For the most part, their efforts were in vain, but in recent decades, more and more dictionaries have defined “atheism” in a way that atheists themselves would accept.

The earliest dictionaries explicitly condemned “atheism” within their definitions. Henry Cockeram in his English Dictionarie (1623) called atheism a “damnable opinion,” while Thomas Blount in Glossographia (1656) described it as a “damnable doctrine.” Edward Phillips meanwhile included “Miscreant” among the adjectives to describe an atheist in The New World of English Words (1658).

Another way “atheism” was portrayed negatively was through the quotations that dictionary-makers chose to show how the word was used. Samuel Johnson’s famous A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which was for decades the standard English dictionary, pioneered the use of such quotations. In general, Johnson chose quotations that suited his own political and religious commitments. He selected usage examples that portrayed atheism as irrational and immoral. One example came from John Tillotson, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the late seventeenth century: “It is the common interest of mankind, to punish all those who would seduce men to atheism.”

Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) likewise portrayed atheism negatively. The lone quotation Webster featured for “atheism” was by the Baptist minister, Reverend Robert Hall, which aimed to discourage would-be atheists: “Atheism is a ferocious system that leaves nothing above us to excite awe, nor around us to awaken tenderness.” If not openly critical of “atheism,” most dictionaries nonetheless defined the word in such a way as to make it seem as if it would be irrational to hold such a view. Nearly every dictionary from the 1600s up to the present defined atheism as a “denial” of God’s existence or the proclamation that there is no God.

What’s wrong with this? The problem is that it puts the burden of proof on atheists to give a positive argument for why God did not exist. But proving that something does not exist is extremely difficult, perhaps impossibly so. This is why atheists sought to deny that they “denied” God’s existence. This was done most clearly by Charles Bradlaugh, a well-known British atheist in the nineteenth century. In his pamphlet, A Plea for Atheism (1864), Bradlaugh proposed an alternative approach:

The Atheist does not say “There is no God,” but he says, “I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word ‘God’ is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me.”

Bradlaugh, in other words, suggested that a shared understanding of “God” was being assumed in these definitions. But, to him, the concept of God was incoherent. It was not reasonable, therefore, to deny a concept that he could not even make sense of. He believed it was not up to him to offer positive proof of the non-existence of an nonsensical concept. Bradlaugh’s definition proved popular among other atheists in the nineteenth century. Indeed, one author, William D. Rolley, writing in the British freethought newspaper, the Freethinker, cited Bradlaugh’s definition as a counter to the common dictionary definitions of “atheism” as a “denial” of God. He complained that dictionary-makers did not take into account how atheists themselves defined the term:

’Tis true that dictionaries define Atheism as being “a denial of the existence of God”; but if we want to know what is meant by Christianity we do not go to dictionaries – we are bound by honesty to find out what Christians mean by the term. The same applies to Buddhism or any religion – we must have the term explained by the devotee. And so with Atheism; if we want to know what Atheism is, we must find out what Atheists mean by the term.

Despite Rolley’s hopes, dictionaries and encyclopedias continued to ignore Bradlaugh’s definition for the most part. They were still written largely by Christians and they absorbed the biases from earlier versions, even though the explicit condemnations of “atheism” had mostly disappeared.

Atheists continued to object to how dictionaries and encyclopedias treated them in the 20th century. For example, Joseph McCabe’s The Lies and Fallacies of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1947), about the 14th edition of the encyclopedia from 1929, called the entry for “atheism” “quite worthless.” He called for dictionaries and encyclopedias to incorporate the perspectives of the people they were writing about:

[Since] in a thousand signed articles or short notices in the Britannica Christian writers are permitted to express their peculiar opinions and convictions freely, it would hardly be an outrage to expect the editors to allow Rationalists to provide the accounts of Rationalism, Skepticism, Naturalism, Atheism, Agnosticism and scores of similar articles which bear upon their position.

McCabe followed his own advice with the publication of A Rationalist Encyclopædia (1948). There McCabe defined “atheism” as “[t]he absence of belief in God.” This was explicitly in contrast to other dictionaries who talked about atheists “denying” God; indeed, McCabe said, “it would be difficult to quote more than one or two Atheist writers in all literature who deny such existence.”

By the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, we see that dictionaries and encyclopedias have begun offering broader definitions of “atheism” that move beyond talk of the “denial” of God. For example, Stephen Bullivant and Lois Lee’s Oxford Dictionary of Atheism (2016) defines “atheism” as “a belief in the non-existence of a God or gods, or (more broadly) an absence of belief in their existence.” This broader definition has the advantage of encompassing what someone like Bradlaugh meant by the word.

The shift in the portrayal of “atheism” in dictionaries reveals the effects of secularization, as upper-class Christians no longer hold a monopoly on dictionary writing. Indeed, more and more, dictionary writing has become democratic, taking a greater range of perspectives (religion, gender, race, etc.) into account. Still, issues surrounding which words are included, which are excluded, and which quotations are used as examples, remain critically important today since dictionaries continue to be seen as authorities for the correct use of language.

My goal is not to suggest that dictionaries are useless, nor should they be accepted uncritically. Since language is created by humans, it is impossible to expect a “true” definition of a word. Probably the most we can do is to debate and argue with each other about how we should use a word. This process will be messy as people with different interests clamour to get their preferred definitions into the public consciousness. Dictionaries often present the issue as neatly settled, but it’s important to keep this messy process in mind whenever we think about the meaning of a word.

[1] Nathan G. Alexander, “Defining and Redefining Atheism: Dictionary and Encyclopedia Entries for ‘Atheism’ and Their Critics from the Early Modern Period to the Present,” Intellectual History Review, September 4, 2019.

Nathan G. Alexander is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany. He is the author of Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 (Manchester University Press and NYU Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @NathGAlexander.

2 thoughts on “A History of the Word “Atheism” and the Politics of Dictionaries

  1. The increase in secularism, and the growing number of “nones”, are likely a part of this more inclusive definition. If history is written by the winners, perhaps so are dictionaries.

  2. This is only adjacently related, but I noted a while back that the definition of ‘nihilist’ from a google top result included “cynic” as a descriptor. While I personally find typical nihilism to be cynical, it seems unfair to include it as the definition. It is an opinionated judgement – not inherent to the ideology. Though, that is much less egregious than what has been done to the definition of atheism, as you’ve taught here. Thank you for this informative post.

    It also reminds me of the concept of ‘steel-manning’ your opponent: Describe them and their motivations/arguments in a way *that they would agree with*.

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