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The Cambridge Companion to Atheism

The concept of atheism was developed historically in the context of Western monotheistic religions, and it still has its clearest application in this area. Applied, for example, to premodern non-Western contexts, the concept may be misleading. Moreover, even in the modern Western context “atheism” has meant different things depending on changing conceptions of God. Nevertheless, it will be assumed in this volume that, if applied cautiously outside its clearest historical context, the concept of atheism can be illuminating for contemporary Western readers.

If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand “atheism” in this way. Yet this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek “a” means “without” or “not,” and “theos” means “god.” From this standpoint, an atheist is someone without a belief in God; he or she need not be
someone who believes that God does not exist. Still, there is a popular dictionary meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist is not simply one who holds no belief in the existence of a God or gods but is one who believes that there is no God or gods. This dictionary use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call it positive atheism and let us call the type of atheism derived from the original Greek roots negative atheism.

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