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Encyclopedia > Atheist
For information about the band, see Atheist (band).

Atheism is the condition of being without theistic beliefs and alternatively the disbelief in the existence of deities. In antiquity, atheism was represented by Epicureanism. It disappeared from European philosophy when Christianity became dominant. During the Age of Enlightenment, atheism re-emerged as an accusation against those who questioned the religious status quo, but by the late 18th century it had become the avowed position of a growing minority. By the 20th century, atheism had become the state-supported position of countries governed by communism, as well as the dominant position amongst scientists, rationalists, and humanists.



In early Ancient Greek, the adjective atheos (from privative a- + theos "god") meant "without God, godforsaken, abandoned by the gods". The word acquired an additional meaning in the 5th century BC, expressing total lack of relations with the gods, that is, "denying the gods, godless, ungodly", with more actively atheistic connotations than asebēs "impious". Modern translations of classical texts sometimes translate atheos as "atheistic". As an abstract noun, there was also atheotēs "atheism". Cicero transcribed atheos into Latin. The discussion of atheoi was pronounced in the debate between early Christians and pagans, who each attributed atheism to the other.

In English, the term atheism is the result of the adoption of the French athŽisme around 1587. The French word is derived from athŽe "godless, atheist", which in turn is from Greek atheos. The words deist and theist entered English after atheism, being first attested in 1621 and 1662, respectively, followed by theism and deism in 1678 and 1682, respectively. Due to the influence of atheism, deism and theism exchanged meanings around 1700. Deism was originally used with a meaning comparable to today's theism, and vice-versa.

Types of atheism

Atheism is generally understood to constitute two main positions, although these two positions are themselves sometimes disputed:

  • Weak atheism, also known as implicit atheism or negative atheism, is the absence of belief concerning the existence of deities, without the positive assertion that they do not exist. A weak atheist may however claim that given sufficient lack of evidence, nonexistence is most likely. An argument commonly associated with the weak atheism position is that of rationalism: any claims and assertions, and the beliefs arising thereof, must be justified, and not taken on faith. Theists make the positive claim that a particular god and/or deities exist. Weak atheists do not assert the contrary, but merely withhold their assent from the theists' claim. Some weak atheists simply have no opinion on the issue, either because they have not considered it, or because they find the arguments and evidence more or less equally compelling on both sides. Others, having considered the arguments and evidence, may doubt the existence of deities but are unwilling to assert no deities exist. They may feel it is not possible to prove a negative; that the strong atheist has not fulfilled his burden of proof any more than the theist; and that faith is at present required to assert or deny theism, making both theism and strong atheism untenable. The epistemological position that it is not known, and possibly not knowable, whether or not deities exist is known as agnosticism. This view is not equivalent to weak atheism, as agnosticism can also be subscribed to by theists who hold their beliefs on faith. However agnosticism is often the basis for weak atheism, a position sometimes called agnostic atheism. For a discussion of agnosticism and its variants, see: agnosticism, weak agnosticism, strong agnosticism, agnostic atheism.
  • Strong atheism, also known as explicit atheism or positive atheism, is the position that no deities exist. This denial may be based on lack of evidence or sufficient grounds to justify belief in deities; or it may be based on an assertion that belief in the supernatural is not rational.

Some define atheism broadly as "lack or absence of theistic beliefs" and regard atheism as encompassing nonbelief, disbelief, doubt, and denial of the existence of deities. Others define atheism narrowly as the "denial of the existence of deities", and do not use the term 'atheist' to refer to those who simply lack theistic beliefs (the weak atheists described above), using other terms such as agnostic.

In English, the monotheistic "god" is referred to as God. In many philosophical and/or esoteric interpretations of monotheism or henotheism, God is not thought of as a supernatural being—as a deity or god—; rather, God becomes a reified philosophical category: the All, the One, the Ultimate, the Absolute Infinite, the Transcendent, the Divine Ground, Being or Existence itself, etc. For example, such views are typical of pantheism, panentheism and religious monism. Attributing anthropomorphic characteristics to God may either be regarded as idolatry, blasphemy or symbolism. Theists who conceive God may not believe in, or even deny, deities as supernatural beings, while maintaining a belief in God, and are not typically considered atheists. For example, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich described God as the 'ground of Being', the 'power of Being', or as 'Being itself', and caused controversy by making the statement "God does not exist", resulting in him occasionally being labeled an atheist. But for Tillich, God is not 'a' being that exists alongside other beings, but is Being itself. For him, God does not 'exist'; He is the basis of Being, the metaphysical "power" by which Being triumphs over non-Being. Most atheists who deny deities as supernatural beings (though not necessarily all) would probably also deny this and similar conceptions of God or consider them incomprehensible.

Historically, a person who does not believe in a certain deity may be accused of impiety, godlessness or atheism despite other theistic beliefs. For political reasons, Socrates was accused of being an 'atheos' due his studies of celestial and terrestrial objects (natural science); however, Socrates claimed inspiration by a daemon.


While "weak atheism" is universally present as a state of neutrality, "strong atheism" is directly opposed to theistic beliefs. The oldest known positive expressions of atheism are attributed to Epicurus around 300 BC. The aim of the Epicureans was mainly to attain peace of mind by exposing fear of divine wrath as irrational. The most eloquent expression of Epicurean thought, and thereby of ancient atheism, is Lucretius' On the Nature of Things (1st century BC). Epicureans were not persecuted, but their teachings were controversial, and were harshly attacked by the mainstream schools of Stoicism and Neoplatonism. The movement remained marginal, and gradually died out at the end of the Roman Empire, until it was revived by Pierre Gassendi in the 17th century.

During the late Roman Empire, atheism was a common accusation made by Christians and pagans against each other. Christians rejected all pagan gods, and pagans rejected the single Christian God.

In the European Middle Ages people were persecuted for heresy, especially in countries where the Inquisition was active. Medieval "impiety" and "godlessness" were closer to "weak atheism" than avowed "strong atheism", and hardly any expression of strong atheism is known from this period. Epicureanism, the medieval equivalent to atheism, was essentially a slur and had no active proponents. Saint Anselm's ontological argument at least seems to acknowledge the validity of the question about God's existence. During the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, criticism of the religious establishment started to become more frequent, but did not amount to actual atheism. The dissidents also turned against each other: John Calvin narrowly escaped being burned by Lutherans in 1532, and himself approved of the burning of the Unitarian Christian Michael Servetus in 1553.

The term atheism itself was coined in France in the 16th century, and was initially used as an accusation against critics of religion, scientists, materialistic philosophers, deists, and others who seemed to represent a threat to established beliefs. The charge was almost invariably denied. Thus, the concept of atheism re-emerged initially as a reaction to the intellectual and religious turmoil of the Age of Enlightenment and the Reformation — as a charge used by those who saw the denial of God and godlessness in the controversial positions being put forward by others. How dangerous it was to be accused of being an atheist at this time is illustrated by the fact that in 1766, the French nobleman Jean-Fran?ois de la Barre, was tortured, beheaded, and his body burned for alleged vandalism of a crucifix, a case that became celebrated because Voltaire tried unsuccessfully to have the sentence reversed.

Among those accused of atheism was Denis Diderot (1713–1784), one of the Enlightenment's most prominent philosophes, and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopédie, which sought to challenge religious, particularly Catholic, dogma. "Reason is to the estimation of the philosophe what grace is to the Christian," he wrote. "Grace determines the Christian's action; reason the philosophe's." [1] (http://www.pinzler.com/ushistory/diderotsupp.html) Diderot was briefly imprisoned for his writing, some of which was banned and burned.

The English materialist philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was also accused of atheism, but he denied it. Even earlier, the British playwright and poet, Christopher Marlowe (1563–1593) was accused of atheism when a tract denying the divinity of Christ was found in his home. Marlowe was murdered while defending himself from the charge.

By the 1770s, there were signs that atheism was ceasing to be a dangerous accusation that had to be denied, and was evolving into a position avowed by some. The first open denial of the existence of God and avowal of atheism since classical times may well be that of the Paul Baron d'Holbach (1723–1789), in his 1772 work, "The system of nature". D'Holbach was a prominent Parisian social figure, who conducted a famous salon widely attended by many intellectual notables of the day, including Diderot, Jean Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin. His book was still published under a pseudonym, and was banned and publicly burned by the Executioner. Matthew Turner (d. 1788?), a Liverpool physician who authored (or perhaps co-authored) the atheistic pamphlet "Answer to Dr. Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever" in 1782 is considered the first British atheist to openly declare himself, although the pamphlet was in fact issued by a pseudonymous editor and attributed to an anonymous author.

Soon after, the French Revolution of 1789 catapulted atheistic thought to political notability and opened the way for the 19th century movements of Rationalism, Freethought and Liberalism. An early atheistic influence in Germany was "The Essence of Christianity", by Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872). Other German 19th century atheistic thinkers were Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). The prominent freethinker Charles Bradlaugh (1833–1891) was repeatedly elected to the British Parliament, but was not allowed to take his seat after his request to affirm rather than take the religious oath was turned down (he offered to take the oath, but this too was denied him ). After Bradlaugh was re-elected for the fourth time, Parliament did relent, however, and he became the first avowed atheist to sit in Parliament, where he played a part in having the Oaths Act amended.

In many countries, denying God was included under the definition of the crime of Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom these laws remain on the books, as they do in such American states as Massachusetts, although they are rarely enforced, if at all.

In 1884, Karl Marx (1818–1883), an atheist, famously wrote in his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right":

"Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. [2] (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

This is often interpreted to mean that religion is irrational, causing an intellectual stupor that blinds people to the true state of affairs in a society and rendering them more amenable to social control and exploitation. It also reflects the idea that people turn to religion to dull the pain caused by the reality of their social situation. In the same essay, Marx argues that "[m]an creates religion, religion does not create man."

State support of atheism and opposition to organized religion has been the policy of most Soviet Union, although some churches that submitted to strict state control were tolerated. Consequently, religious groups such as the Catholic Church were among the staunchest opponents of communist regimes.

During the Cold War, the fact that the United States were officially atheists ("Godless Communists (http://www3.niu.edu/univ_press/books/257-5.htm)") tended to reinforce the view that atheists were unreliable and unpatriotic. In the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign, then Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush said, "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." [4] (http://www.robsherman.com/information/liberalnews/2002/0303.htm)

Contemporary atheism

Atheism is common in Western Europe, in former or present communist states, and in the United States and Canada. It is particularly prevalent among natural scientists, a tendency already quite marked at the beginning of the twentieth century, developing into a dominant one during the course of the century. In 1914, James H. Leuba found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. scientists expressed "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God". The same study, repeated in 1996, resulted in 93% expressing such disbelief or doubt. Expressions of positive disbelief rose from 52% to 72%. [5] (http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html) (See also The relationship between religion and science).

In the United States, there is widespread disapproval of atheists. For example, according to motherjones.com, 52% of Americans claim they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist for president. [6] (http://www.motherjones.com/news/exhibit/2004/09/09_200.html) Notwithstanding such attitudes, atheists are legally protected from discrimination in the United States. They have been among the strongest advocates of the legal separation of church and state. American courts have regularly, if controversially, interpreted the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state as protecting the freedoms of non-believers, as well as prohibiting the establishment of any state religion. Atheists often sum up the legal situation with the phrase: "Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion." [7] (http://www.au.org/)

In the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, Justice Souter ruled: "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion." [8] (http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/93-517.ZS.html) Everson v. Board of Education established that "neither a state nor the Federal Government can... pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another". This applies the Establishment Clause to the states as well as the federal government. [9] (http://atheism.about.com/library/decisions/religion/bl_l_BoEEverson.htm), However, several state constitutions condition the protection of persons from religious discrimination on their acknowledgement of the existence of a deity, apparently making freedom of religion in those states inapplicable to atheists. These state constitutional clauses have not been tested. Civil rights cases are typically brought in federal courts; so such state provisions are mainly of symbolic importance.

In the Newdow case, after a father challenged the phrase "under God" in the United States Pledge of Allegiance, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found the phrase unconstitutional. Although the decision was stayed pending the outcome of an appeal, there was the prospect that the pledge would cease to be legally usable without modification in schools in the western United States, over which the Ninth Circuit has jurisdiction. This resulted in a political furor, and both houses of the Congress passed resolutions condemning the decision, nearly unanimously. A very large group consisting of almost the entire Senate and House was televised standing on the steps of Congress, hands over hearts, swearing the pledge and shouting out "under God". The Supreme Court subsequently reversed the decision, ruling that Michael Newdow did not have standing to bring his case, thus disposing of the case without ruling on the constitutionality of the pledge.

In early 2004, it was announced that atheism would be taught during religious education classes in Britain.[10] (http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsPackageArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=458497&section=news) [11] (http://observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,6903,1148578,00.html) A spokesman of the 'Qualifications and Curriculum Authority' stated the following about the decision: "There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously." There is also considerable debate in the UK on the status of faith-based schools, which use religious, as well as academic, selection criteria [12] (http://www.iht.com/articles/47799.html).


Due to some societies strongly promoting atheism, and some strongly condemning it, atheism may both be overreported and underreported in different countries. There is a great deal of room for debate as to the accuracy of any method of measurement, as the opportunity for misreporting (intentional and otherwise) a belief system without an organized structure is high. Also, many surveys on religious identification ask people to identify themselves as "Agnostics" or "Atheists", which is potentially confusing, since these terms are not uniformly interpreted, with many people identifying themselves as both.

The following surveys are in chronological order, but as they are different studies with different methodologies it would be inaccurate to infer trends on the prevalence of atheism from them:

A 1995 survey [13] (http://www.zpub.com/un/pope/relig.html) attributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica indicates that non-religious are about 14.7% of the world's population, and atheists around 3.8%.

In the 2001 Australian Census [14] (http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/0/9658217eba753c2cca256cae00053fa3?OpenDocument) 15.5% of respondents ticked 'no religion' and a further 11.7% either did not state their religion or were deemed to have described it inadequately (there was a popular campaign at the time to have people describe themselves as Jedi).

A 2002 survey by Adherents.com [15] (http://adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html) estimates the proportion of the world's people who are "secular, non-religious, agnostics and atheists" as about 14%.

A 2004 survey by the BBC [16] (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/3518375.stm) in 10 countries showed the proportion of "people who don't believe in God nor in a higher power" varying between 0% and 30%, with an average close to 10% in the countries surveyed. About 8% of the respondents stated specifically that they consider themselves atheists.

A 2004 survey by the CIA in the World Factbook [17] (http://cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/xx.html#People) estimates about 12.5% of the world's population is non-religious and about 2.4% are atheists.

A 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center [18] (http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?PageID=757) showed that in the USA, 12% of people under 30 and 6% of people over 30 can be characterized as non-religious.

The state with the highest percentage of atheists is the Czech republic which, at 59%, reflects the influence of both Communism and the campaign against Hussites in the 17th century.

Views of atheism

In Judaism

In general, formulations of Jewish principles of faith require a belief in God. The rejection of this belief (represented by Judaism's paramount prayer, the Shema), is heresy of the highest form. In many modern movements in Judaism, rabbis have generally considered the behaviour of a Jew to be the determining factor in whether or not one is considered an adherent of Judaism. Within these movements it is often recognized that it is possible for a Jew to strictly practice Judaism as a faith, while at the same time being an agnostic or atheist, giving rise to the riddle: "Q: What do you call a Jew who doesn't believe in God? A: A Jew." It is also worth noting Reconstructionism does not require any belief in a deity, and certain popular Reform prayer books such as Gates of Prayer offer some services without mentions of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook [19] (http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/rk16-kook.htm)[20] (http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/rk17-kook.htm), first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in pre-state Israel, held that atheists were not actually denying God; rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that in practice one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of God, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism.

In Islam

In Islam, the concept corresponding to atheism is kufr (and an atheist is called a kafir). Usually kafir is translated as "infidel", but literally it means "denier" or "concealer" (viz., of God's existence), and although it is sometimes used to refer to any non-Muslim by radical Muslims, it is incorrectly applied to non-Islamic theists (see also shirk). The concept of kufr encompasses the concepts of Apostasy and Excommunication, in the sense that somebody can be accused of secretly being an atheist and officially declared a kafir by a Fatwa.

In Indian philosophy

Carvaka (also Charvaka) was a India, which is now known principally from fragments cited by its Hindu and Buddhist opponents. The proper aim of a Charvakan, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, productive life in this world, views reminiscent of Epicureanism. There is some evidence that the school persisted until at least 1578. Buddhism itself may be considered as originally atheistic, since it opposed the gods and rituals of Vedic religion, and early Buddhism included no notion of deity, while later Mahayana Buddhism de facto re-introduced deities in the form of Bodhisattvas.

Atheism, morality, and religion

Many world religions teach that morality is derived from, for example, the "commandments" of a particular deity, and, further, that fear of the gods is a major factor in motivating people towards moral behaviour. Consequently, atheists have frequently been accused of being amoral or immoral. For example, for many years in the United States, atheists were not allowed to testify in court because it was believed that an atheist would have no reason to tell the truth. Atheists reject this view, and assert that they are as motivated towards moral behaviour as anyone -- if only by their upbringing, a human concern for others, society's laws, a desire for a good reputation and self-esteem. Francis Bacon writes: "Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all of which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, even if religion vanished; but religious superstition dismounts all these and erects an absolute monarchy in the minds of men." [21] (http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/phil/modernwesternphilosophy/FrancisBacon/chap17.html) In addition, while atheism, as a negative position, does not entail any particular moral philosophy, many atheists are drawn towards views like Secular Humanism, which provide a moral framework that is not founded on faith in deities.

Similarly, atheism is not synonymous with irreligion. There are religious belief systems, including much of Buddhism, Taoism, and Unitarian Universalism, which do not require theistic belief. A number of atheistic "churches" have been established such as the Naturalistic Pantheists, Brianism, and the Fellowship of Reason.

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • Atheist Foundation of Australia (http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au)
  • Open Directory atheism links (http://dmoz.org/Society/Religion_and_Spirituality/Atheism/)
  • Catholic encyclopedia, entry on Atheism (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02040a.htm)
  • About.com - Agnosticism/Atheism (http://atheism.about.com/)
  • The Secular Web (http://www.infidels.org/index.shtml)
  • The Atheism Web (http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/)
  • Positive Atheism (http://www.positiveatheism.org)
  • American Atheists (http://www.atheists.org)
  • Atheism : the capital man (http://atheisme.free.fr/Atheism.htm)
  • Atheism defended (http://kenneth.moyle.com/aa/atheism1.htm)
  • The philosophy of atheism (http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/goldman/sp001502.html)
  • The Internet Infidels Discussion Forums (http://www.iidb.org/vbb/index.php)
  • The (British) National Secular Society (http://www.secularism.org.uk/nsshome.htm)
  • The Infidel Guy Radio Show (http://www.infidelguy.com/index.php)
  • Atheist Network (Internet Radio) (http://www.atheistnetwork.com/)
  • Freethinkers (NoBeliefs.com) (http://www.nobeliefs.com/)
  • Site of the Romanian association Solidarity for Freedom of Conscience - Romanian/ English (http://www.humanism.ro)
  • Ebon Musings: The Atheism Pages (http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism)
  • AllRefer atheism article (http://reference.allrefer.com/encyclopedia/A/atheism.html) - brief discussion of polemical usage
  • NewAdvent.org Catholic Encyclopedia atheism article (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02040a.htm) - for attacking established beliefs
  • Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right (http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm) - The source of the famous '[religion is] the opiate of the masses' quote, by Karl Marx


  • Baggini, J. (2003). Atheism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Buckley, M. J. (1987). At the origins of modern atheism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Cudworth, Ralph, The True Intellectual System of the Universe: the first part, wherein all the reason and philosophy of atheism is confuted and its impossibility demonstrated (1678).
  • d«Holbach, P. H. T. (1770). The system of nature. Electronic versions:
    • complete text (pdf) (http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/holbach/)
    • complete text (html) (http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~freethought/holbach/system/0syscontents.htm)
  • de Mornay, Phillipe, A woorke concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, written in French; Against Atheists, Epicures, Paynims, Iewes, Mahumetists in London, 1587.
  • Flew, Anthony. (1984). The Presumption of Atheism. New York: Prometheus.
    • complete text (html) (http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/flew01.htm)
  • Krueger, D. E. (1998). What is atheism?: A short introduction. New York: Prometheus.
  • LePoidevin, R. (1996). Arguing for atheism: An introduction to the philosophy of religion. London: Routledge.
  • Mackie, J. L. (1982). The miracle of theism: Arguments for and against the existence of God. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Martin, M. (1990). Atheism: A philosophical justification. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • Martin, M., & Monnier, R. (Eds.). (2003). The impossibility of God. New York: Prometheus.
  • Nielsen, K. (2001). Naturalism and religion. New York: Prometheus.
  • Smith, G. H. (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. New York: Prometheus.
    • Excerpt: The Scope of Atheism (html) (http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/smith.htm)
  • Smith, G. H. (1990). Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. New York: Prometheus.
    • Excerpt: Defining atheism (html) (http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/smithdef.htm)
  • Stein, G. (Ed.). (1985). The encyclopaedia of unbelief (Vols. 1_2). New York: Prometheus.

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