The Original Meaning Of Atheism

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 14 2012 @ 9:25am

Kenneth Shepherd traces how atheism's definition has evolved:

When it first entered the vernacular languages of Europe in the early modern period, the word atheism implied not simply an intellectual denial of God’s existence, but almost any non-orthodox understanding of God and any non-orthodox practices which were taken to imply a denial of God’s existence – deviants, whether religious, social, or sexual, were conveniently portrayed as inversions of Christian belief and practice. Very often atheism was a synonym for a disturbing “other”: in early modern England accusations of atheism were closely linked to anxieties about the “foreign imports” of so-called Machiavellianism (Italy) and libertinism (France).  Atheism was thus a rhetorically polemical term used in a period of intense confessional dispute.