Atheism entails the absence of belief in the existence of God or other deities. It is contrasted with theism, the belief in one or more gods. Definitions of atheism vary in range (from disbelief in specific conceptions of God to disbelief in anything supernatural), in degree (from a mere absence of belief — often called agnostic or 'weak' atheism — to a positive belief that gods do not exist, gnostic or 'strong' atheism), and in recognition (from the implicit unbelief of an infant to an explicit statement of non-belief).
Early usage of the term was as a pejorative descriptor applied to beliefs, groups or individuals thought to be "godless," or which were perceived to involve false gods, or which evinced a cosmological perspective that differed from that of the person, group, or institution making the accusation. Those described as atheists included groups or individuals having beliefs or ideas that stood in conflict with, or merely apart from, established religions. Monotheistic views were deemed atheistic by polytheists. Early Christians were persecuted as atheists by authorities of the Roman Empire. Today, the term "atheist" is less often used to disparage and is applied to others with a more limited scope.
Atheists are distinct from, and should not be confused or conflated with, heretics who are typically identified as such by the leaders of an established sect based on the making of forbidden or radical claims from within a system of belief or community of believers.
In Western culture, atheists are frequently assumed to be irreligious or non-spiritual. However, religious and spiritual belief systems such as forms of Buddhism that deny a creator God and other gods, have been described by outside observers as conforming to the broader, negative definition of atheism. Hinduism includes both theistic and atheistic forms.
In early Ancient Greek, the adjective ἄθεος (atheos; from the privative ἀ- + θεός "god") meant "godless". The word acquired an additional meaning in the 5th Century BCE, severing relations with the gods; that is, "denying the gods, ungodly", with more active connotations than ασεβης (asebēs), or "impious". Modern translations of classical texts sometimes translate atheos as "atheistic", such as in Plato's Apology (26c). As an abstract noun, there was also ἀθεότης (atheotēs), "atheism". Cicero transliterated the Greek word into the Latin atheos (De Natura Deorum, I, 23). The term found frequent use in the debate between early Christians and pagans, with each side attributing it, in the pejorative sense, to the other.
In English, the term atheism stemmed from the French athéisme in about 1587. The term atheist, in the sense of "one who denies or disbelieves", predates atheism in English, being first attested in about 1571; the Italian atheoi is recorded as early as 1568. Atheist in the sense of practical godlessness was first asserted in 1577. The French word developed from athée ("godless, atheist"), which in turn comes from the Greek atheos. The words deist and theist entered English after atheism, being first attested in 1621 and 1662, respectively, and followed by theism and deism in 1678 and 1682, respectively. Deism and theism changed meanings slightly around 1700, due to the influence of atheism. Deism was originally used as a synonym for today's theism, but came to denote a separate philosophical doctrine.
Originally used as a slur for "godlessness", atheism was first used to describe a self-avowed belief in late 18th-century Europe, specifically denoting disbelief in the monotheistic Judeo-Christian God. In the 20th century, globalization contributed to the expansion of the term to refer to disbelief in all deities. Atheism has also been defined in a negative sense, as the "absence of belief in deities" rather than as a belief in its own right; this has been termed weak atheism.
Types and typologies of atheism
Writers have disagreed on how best to define atheism, and much of the literature on the subject is incompatible. There are many terminological discrepancies in discussions of atheism. Disagreement continues about the scope and applicability of atheism, including to those who make no positive assertion, those who have not consciously rejected theism, and those who do not reject all supernatural phenomena. Part of this ambiguity arises from the related difficulty in defining words like theism, deity, and God. The various conceptions of God and deities lead to differing ideas regarding the scope of atheism.
The term atheism was originally used exclusively in a pejorative sense, against individuals considered impious, godless, or to believe in false gods. These disparaging connotations have been maintained, as atheists may still be seen as immoral and willfully and maliciously repudiating God. But, changing sensibilities and the normalization of non-religious viewpoints have caused the term to lose most of its derogatory undertones.
The first attempts to define a typology of atheism were in religious apologetics. A diversity of atheist opinion has been documented since Plato, and common distinctions have been established between practical atheism and speculative or contemplative atheism. Practical atheism was associated with moral failure, hypocrisy, willful ignorance and infidelity. Those considered practical atheists were said to behave as though God, morals, ethics and social responsibility did not exist; they abandoned duty and embraced hedonism. Jacques Maritain's 1953 typology of atheism proved influential in Catholic circles; it was followed in the New Catholic Encyclopedia. He identified, in addition to practical atheism, pseudo-atheism and absolute atheism, and subdivided theoretical atheism in a way that anticipated Antony Flew.
According to the French Catholic philosopher Étienne Borne, "Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law." Karen Armstrong states that "During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word 'atheist' was still reserved exclusively for polemic.... The term 'atheist' was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist."
On the other hand, the existence of serious, speculative atheism was often denied. It was thought impossible to reason one's way to atheism. The existence of God was considered self-evident; this is why Borne finds it necessary to respond that "to put forward the idea, as some apologists rashly do, that there are no atheists except in name but only practical atheists who through pride or idleness disregard the Divine law, would be, at least at the beginning of the argument, a rhetorical convenience or an emotional prejudice evading the real question".
Nevertheless, when denial of the existence of speculative atheism became unsustainable, atheism was continually repressed and criticized by narrowing definitions, applying charges of dogmatism, and otherwise misrepresenting atheist positions. One of the reasons for the popularity of euphemistic alternative terms like secularist, empiricist, agnostic, or Bright is that atheism still has pejorative connotations arising from attempts at suppression and from its association with practical atheism; as with the word godless, the term may still be used as an invective epithet today. J.C.A. Gaskin abandoned the term atheism in favor of unbelief, citing "the pejorative associations of the term, its vagueness, and later the tendency of religious apologists to define atheism so that no one could be an atheist". However, adherents such as Charles Bradlaugh persist in using the term and seek to change its connotations.
Implicit, explicit, positive and negative definitions
There are distinctions with respect to the range and degree with which the term atheism is applied. With regard to range, atheism in the strictest sense is regarded as counter to all theism, including monotheism and polytheism. Such a proponent would not accept belief in the existence of a God or gods. In the broadest sense, atheism may be counter to all supernatural or transcendental phenomena, including spiritualism, animism, mysticism, magic, etc.
Concerning the degree of refusal of theism, there are various subdivisions. Minimally, atheism may be seen as the absence of belief in one or more gods. It has been contended that this broad definition includes even individuals who have not been exposed to nor thought about theistic ideas, such as newborns. As far back as 1772, d'Holbach said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God". More recently, science fiction author George H. Smith (1979) put forth a similar view:
"The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child without the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist."
Smith coined the terms implicit atheism and explicit atheism to avoid confusing these two varieties of atheism. Implicit atheism is defined by Smith as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it", while explicit atheism is an absence of theistic belief due to conscious rejection.
Similar dichotomies have since been created to subcategorize the broader definition of atheism. Strong, or positive, atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist. A strong atheist may even argue that certain deities logically cannot exist, although strong atheists rarely claim to have certain knowledge that no deities exist. Weak, or negative, atheism includes all other forms of non-theism. That is, it consists of an absence of belief in one or more gods, without the positive affirmation of belief in no gods. This can include both the the absence of the belief that gods exist (in which case anyone who is not a theist is a weak atheist), or of both the belief that gods exist and the belief that they do not exist (in which case anyone who is neither a theist nor a strong atheist is a weak atheist). While the terms weak and strong are relatively recent, the concepts they represent have existed for some time. The terms negative atheism and positive atheism have been used in the philosophical literature and (in a slightly different sense) in Catholic apologetics. Contrary to the common view of theological agnosticism as a midpoint between theism and atheism, under this understanding of atheism, many agnostics may qualify as weak atheists. Such individuals are critical of strong atheism, seeing it as a position that is no more justified than theism, or as one that requires equal conviction.
Early Indic Religion
Prior to the development of Hinduism as we know it today, early Vedic religion in India was based on theism as is explained by Gavin Flood:
"The central religious practice of the vedic Aryans was sacrifice and sharing of the sacrificial meal with each other and with the many supernatural beings or devas. In sacrifice the gods could be propitiated...."
The hymns to these deities were eventually written down as the Rig Veda (ca 1700-1100 BCE). Almost all of the 1,028 hymns in the Rig Veda are addressed to specific deities, but one in particular, sometimes called the Creation Hymn, has been noted by many commentators:
- Darkness there was at first by darkness hidden; Without distinctive marks, this all was water.
- That which, becoming, 'by the void was covered, That one by force of heat came into being.
- Desire entered the one in the beginning: It was the earliest seed, of thought the product.
- The sages searching in their hearts with wisdom. Found out the bond of being in non-being.
- Their way extended light across the darkness: But was the one above or was it under?
- Creative force was there, and fertile power: Below was energy, above was. impulse:
- Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it? Whence was it born, and whence came this creation?
- The gods were born after this world's creation: Then who can know from whence it has arisen?
- None knoweth whence creation has arisen: And whether he has or has not produced it:
- He who surveys it in the highest heaven, He only knows, or haply he may know not.
- (Ṛg Veda 10:129:3-7)
This hymn have been interpreted by Umesh Patri and Prativa Devi as one of the earliest accounts of skeptical inquiry and agnosticism. But while these verses have been cited as evidence of agnosticism in the Rig Veda, Ravi Prakash Arya and K. L. Joshi note that:
"Although, no doubt, of high antiquity, the hymn appears to be less of a primary than of a secondary origin, being in fact a controversial composition levelled especially against the Sāṃkhya theory."
The hymn (10:130) that immediately follows is dedicated to Prajāpati, the Creator, by the major Hindu commentator Sāyana.
The thoroughly materialistic and anti-religious philosophical Carvaka school that originated in India around 6th century BCE is probably the most explicitly atheistic school of philosophy in India. This branch of Indian philosophy is classified as a heterodox system and is not considered to be part of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism, but it is noteworthy as evidence of a materialistic movement within Hinduism. Chatterjee and Datta explain that our understanding of Carvaka philosophy is fragmentary, based largely on criticism of the ideas by other schools, and that it is not a living tradition:
"Though materialism in some form or other has always been present in India, and occasional references are found in the Vedas, the Buddhistic literature, the Epics, as well as in the later philosophical works we do not find any systematic work on materialism, nor any organised school of followers as the other philosophical schools possess. But almost every work of the other schools states, for reputation, the materialistic views. Our knowledge of Indian materialism is chiefly based on these."
Western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, but did not emerge as a distinct world-view until the late Enlightenment. The 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher Diagoras is known as the "first atheist", and strongly criticized religion and mysticism. Critias viewed religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. Atomists such as Leucippus and Democritus explained the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Another atomic materialist, Epicurus, disputed many religious beliefs, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity; he considered the soul purely material and mortal. While Epicurus asserted strongly the existence of gods, he believed that they were unconcerned with humanity, leading to charges of de facto atheism (see also Epicureanism). Other pre-Socratic philosophers with atheistic views included Prodicus, Protagoras, and Theodorus.
Following in the footsteps of pre-Socratic materialist predecessors, the Epicurean Roman poet Lucretius agreed that, though there are gods, they are unconcerned with humanity, and unable to affect the natural world. For this reason, he believed humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. In De rerum natura ("On the nature of things"), he expounds his Epicurean views of the cosmos, atoms, the soul, mortality, and religion:
- Of course such terror holds all mortals
- Because they see many things happen on land and sea
- The causes of which they are not able to see through reason
- And so they assume they happen through divine power.
- Because of this, when we see that nothing is created
- from nothing, we will ascertain straight away what it is we seek:
- Both from whence each thing can be created
- And in what way each thing happens without divine work.
One of the greatest Roman philosophers to affirm skeptical inquiry was Sextus Empiricus. He held that one should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs - a form of skepticism known as Pyrrhonism. He held the view that nothing was inherently evil, and that ataraxia ("peace of mind") is attainable by withholding one's judgment. His relatively large volume of surviving works had a lasting influence on later philosophers.
The Romans tended to label anyone an atheist who held contrary beliefs. Despite having expressed belief in various divinities, Socrates was called an atheist, and ultimately sentenced to death for impiety on the basis that he inspired questioning of the state gods. During the Roman Empire, Jews and Christians were labeled atheists, and executed for their rejection of the Roman gods. Heresy and godlessness were serious capital offenses following the rise of Christianity.
From the Dark Ages to the Reformation
Atheism and freethought were virtually unknown in Europe during the Dark and Middle Ages. The Church had complete control over universities, significantly hindering relevant pursuits. Outside of Europe, freethought was still expounded in the Muslim world by such individuals as Averroes (see: Averroism). Heretical individuals and pantheistic groups such as the Brethren of the Free Spirit held beliefs contrary to accepted religious teachings, maintaining the idea of "alternative viewpoints". With the influence of philosophers like Peter Abelard, William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, and Chaucer, academic institutions in the 13th and 14th centuries gradually broke away from the Church's control.
The Renaissance did much to expand the scope of freethought and skeptical inquiry. Individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci sought experimentation as a means of explanation, and opposed arguments from religious authority. Other critics of religion and the Church during this time included Niccolò Machiavelli, Bonaventure des Périers, and François Rabelais.
Criticism of religion became increasingly frequent in the 16th century, and the word athéisme originated as a slur—invariably denied by the accused—used against such critics, as well as against deists, scientists, and materialists. The first openly atheistic thinkers, such as Baron d'Holbach, appeared in the late 18th century, when expressing disbelief in God became a less dangerous position. Following the French Revolution, atheism rose to prominence under the influence of rationalistic and freethinking philosophies, and many prominent 19th-century German philosophers denied the existence of deities and were critical of religion, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
In the 20th century, atheism, though still a minority view, became increasingly common in many parts of the world, often included as an aspect of a wide variety of other, broader philosophies, such as existentialism, Objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, relativism, logical positivism, Marxism, feminism, and the general scientific and rationalist movement. In some cases, these philosophies became associated with atheism to the extent that atheists were vilified for the broader view, such as when the word atheist entered popular parlance in the United States as synonymous with being unpatriotic (cf. "godless commie") during the Cold War. Some "Communist states", such as the Soviet Union, promoted state atheism and opposed religion, often by violent means; Enver Hoxha went further than most and officially banned religion, declaring Albania the world's first Atheist state. These policies helped reinforce the negative associations of atheism, especially where anti-communist sentiment was strong, despite the fact that many prominent atheists, such as Ayn Rand, were anti-communist.
It is difficult to quantify the number of atheists in the world. Different people interpret "atheist" and related terms differently, and it can be hard to draw boundaries between atheism, non-religious beliefs, and non-theistic religious and spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, atheists may not report themselves as such, to prevent suffering from social stigma, discrimination, and persecution in certain regions.
Despite these problems, atheism is relatively common in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, former and present Communist states, and to a lesser extent, the United States of America. A 1995 survey attributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica indicates that the non-religious make up about 14.7% of the world's population, and explicit atheists around 3.8%. This figure does not include those who follow atheistic religions such as some forms of Buddhism.
According to a study by Paul Bell, published in the Mensa Magazine in 2002, there is an inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence. Analyzing 43 studies carried out since 1927, Bell finds that all but four reported such a connection, and concludes that "the higher one's intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold 'beliefs' of any kind." A survey published in Nature confirms that belief in a personal god or afterlife is at an all time low among the members of the National Academy of Science, only 7.0% of which believed in a personal god as compared to more than 85% of the US general population.
A recent poll (November–December 2006) published in the Financial Times gives more recent rates for the USA and five European countries; this poll shows that Americans are more likely than Europeans to believe in any form of God or Supreme Being (73%). Of the European adults surveyed, Italians are the most likely to express this belief (62%) and, in contrast, the French are the least likely (27%). In France, 32% declared themselves to be atheists, with an additional 32% declaring themselves agnostic.
Atheism, religion and morality
Although people who self-identify as atheists are usually assumed to be irreligious, some sects within major religions have atheistic beliefs, and even reject the existence of a personal, creator God. but in recent years certain religious denominations have accumulated a number of openly atheistic followers, such as Jewish atheists (cf. humanistic Judaism) and Christian atheists (cf. Unitarian Universalism).
As the strictest sense of positive atheism does not entail any specific beliefs outside of disbelief in God, atheists can hold any number of spiritual beliefs. For the same reason, atheists can hold a wide variety of ethical beliefs, ranging from the moral universalism of humanism, which holds that a moral code (such as utilitarianism) should be applied consistently to all humans (cf. human rights), to moral nihilism, which holds that morality is meaningless.
However, throughout its history, atheism has commonly been equated with immorality, based on the belief that morality is directly derived from God, and thus cannot be attained without appealing to God. Moral precepts such as "murder is wrong" are seen as divine laws, requiring a divine lawmaker and judge. However, many atheists argue that treating morality legalistically involves a false analogy, and that morality does not depend upon a lawmaker in the same way that laws do, based on the Euthyphro dilemma, which either renders God unnecessary or morality arbitrary.
Philosopher Julian Baggini asserts that behaving ethically only because of divine mandate is not true ethical behavior, merely blind obedience. He argues that atheism is a superior basis for ethics than theism. It is argued that a moral basis external to religious imperatives is necessary in order to evaluate the morality of the imperatives themselves—to be able to discern, for example, that "thou shalt steal" is immoral even if one's religion instructs it—and that therefore atheists have the advantage of being more inclined to make such evaluations.
Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have argued that Western religions' reliance on divine authority lends itself to authoritarianism and dogmatism. This argument, combined with historical events that are argued to demonstrate the dangers of religion, such as the Crusades, inquisitions, and witch trials, are often used by antireligious atheists to justify their views; however, theists have made very similar arguments against atheists based on the state atheism of communist states. In both cases, critics argue that the connection is a weak one based on the correlation implies causation and guilt by association fallacies.
Other individuals from within the atheist community have criticized the movement's inability to find a secular basis of morality outside of the supernatural and hypothetical. Friedrich Nietzsche sums this failure in his famous God is dead quote. He complains that one arbitrary basis of morality (divine mandate) is replaced by another arbitrary basis. In essence, all moral philosophies share the same strengths and failures.
Reasons for atheism
Proponents of atheism assert various reasons for their position, including a lack of empirical evidence for deities, or the conviction that the non-existence of deities (in general or particular) is better supported rationally.
Scientific and historical reasons
Science is based on the observation that the universe is governed by natural laws that can be discerned through repeatable experiments. Science serves as a reliable, rational basis for predictions and engineering (cf. faith and rationality, science and religion). Like scientists, scientific skeptics use critical thinking (cf. the true-believer syndrome) to decide claims, and do not base claims on faith or other unfalsifiable categories. Some philosophers and academics, such as philosopher Jurgen Habermas, adhere to "methodological atheism", a more specific form of science's methodological naturalism, to indicate that whatever their personal beliefs, they do not include theistic presuppositions in their methods for learning about or explaining the world.
Most theistic religions teach that mankind and the universe were created by one or more deities and that this deity continues to act in the universe. Many people—theists and atheists alike—feel that this view conflicts with the discoveries of modern science (especially in cosmology, astronomy, biology and quantum physics). Many believers of the validity of science, seeing such a contradiction, do not believe in the existence of a deity or deities actively involved in the universe.
Science presents a vastly different view of humankind's place in the universe from theistic religions. Scientific progress has continually eroded the basis for religion. Historically, religions have involved supernatural entities and forces linked to unexplained physical phenomena. In ancient Greece, for instance, Helios was the god of the sun, Zeus the god of thunder, and Poseidon the god of earthquakes and the sea. In the absence of a credible scientific theory explaining phenomena, people attributed them to supernatural forces. Science has since eliminated the need for appealing to supernatural explanations. The idea that the role of deities is to fill in the remaining "gaps" in scientific understanding has come to be known as the God of the gaps.
Anthropologists consider religions to be social constructs (see development of religion) that should be analyzed with an unbiased, historical viewpoint. Atheists often argue that nearly all cultures have their own creation myths and gods, and there is no apparent reason to believe that a certain god (e.g., Yahweh) has a special status above gods otherwise not believed to be real (e.g., Zeus), or that one culture's god is more correct than another's. In the same way, all cultures have different, and often incompatible, religious beliefs, none any more likely to be true than another, making the selection of a single specific religion seemingly arbitrary.
However, when theological claims move from the specific and observable to the general and metaphysical, atheistic objections tend to shift from the scientific to the philosophical:
"Within the framework of scientific rationalism one arrives at the belief in the nonexistence of God, not because of certain knowledge, but because of a sliding scale of methods. At one extreme, we can confidently rebut the personal Gods of creationists on firm empirical grounds: science is sufficient to conclude beyond reasonable doubt that there never was a worldwide flood and that the evolutionary sequence of the Cosmos does not follow either of the two versions of Genesis. The more we move toward a deistic and fuzzily defined God, however, the more scientific rationalism reaches into its toolbox and shifts from empirical science to logical philosophy informed by science. Ultimately, the most convincing arguments against a deistic God are Hume's dictum and Occam's razor. These are philosophical arguments, but they also constitute the bedrock of all of science, and cannot therefore be dismissed as non-scientific. The reason we put our trust in these two principles is because their application in the empirical sciences has led to such spectacular successes throughout the last three centuries."
Philosophical and logical reasons
Many atheists will point out that in philosophy and science, the default position on any matter is a lack of belief. If reliable evidence or sound arguments are not presented in support of a belief, then the "burden of proof" remains upon believers, not nonbelievers, to justify their view. Consequently, many atheists assert that they are not theists simply because they remain unconvinced by theistic arguments and evidence. As such, many atheists have argued against the most famous proposed proofs of God's existence, including the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments.
Other atheists base their position on a more active logical analysis, and subsequent rejection, of theistic claims. The arguments against the existence of God aim at showing that the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God either is inherently meaningless, is internally inconsistent, or contradicts known scientific or historical facts, and that therefore a god thus described does not exist.
The most common of these arguments is the problem of evil, generally credited to Epicurus. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has called this "atheism's killer argument." The argument is that the presence of evil in the world disproves the existence of any god that is simultaneously benevolent and omnipotent, because any benevolent god would want to eliminate evil, and any omnipotent god would be able to do so. Theists commonly respond by invoking free will to justify evil (cf. argument from free will). However, this leaves unresolved the related argument from nonbelief, also known as the argument from divine hiddenness, which states that if an omnipotent God existed and wanted to be believed in by all, it would prove its existence to all because it would invariably be able to do so. Since there are unbelievers, either there is no omnipotent God or God does not want to be believed in.
Another such argument is theological noncognitivism, which holds that religious language, and specifically words like God, is not cognitively meaningful. This argument was popular in the early 20th century among logical positivists such as Rudolph Carnap and A.J. Ayer, who held that talk of deities is literally nonsense. Such arguments have since fallen into disfavor among philosophers, but continue to see use among ignostics, who view the question of whether deities exist as meaningless or unanswerable, and apatheists, who view it as entirely irrelevant. Similarly, the transcendental argument for the non-existence of God (TANG), a reversal of the more well-known theistic argument, argues that logic, science, and morality can only be justified by appealing to a non-theistic worldview.
Some atheists have found social, psychological, practical, and other personal reasons for their disbelief. Some believe that it is more conducive to living well, or that it is more ethical and has more utility than theism. Such atheists may hold that searching for explanations in natural science is more beneficial than seeking to explain phenomena supernaturally. Some atheists also assert that atheism allows—or perhaps even requires—people to take personal responsibility for their actions. In contrast, they feel that many religions blame bad deeds on extrinsic factors and require threats of punishment and promises of reward to keep a person morally and socially acceptable.
Some atheists dislike the restrictions religious codes of conduct place on their personal freedoms. From their point of view, such morality is subjective and arbitrary. Some atheists even argue that theism can promote immorality. Much violence—e.g., warfare, executions, murders, and terrorism—has been brought about, condoned, or justified by religious beliefs and practices.
In areas dominated by certain Christian denominations, many atheists find it difficult to accept that faith could be more important than good works: While a murderer can go to heaven simply by accepting Jesus in some Christian sects, a farmer in a remote Asian countryside will go to hell for not hearing the "good news". Furthermore, some find Hell to be the epitome of cruel and unusual punishment, making it impossible that a good God would permit such a place's existence.
Just as some people of faith come to their faith based upon perceived spiritual or religious experiences, some atheists base their view on an absence of such an experience (or on explaining such experiences through natural causes). Although they may not foreclose the possibility of a supernatural world, unless they believe through experience that such a world exists, they generally refuse to accept a metaphysical belief system based upon faith.
Some atheists argue that religion's emphasis on "faith" can undermine the desire to continually seek new knowledge and explanations. For example, if it is accepted that God created life, then there is no need to research how life arose. Stephen Hawking noted in his book A Brief History of Time that the Pope urged him and other scientists not to delve into the origin of the universe because that area belonged to God.
Additionally, some atheists grow up in environments where atheism is relatively common, just as people who grow up in a predominantly Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Christian cultures tend to adopt the prevalent religion there. However, because of the relative uncommonness of atheism, a majority of atheists were not brought up in atheist households or communities.
Criticism of atheism
The most direct criticisms made against atheism are claims that a god exists and thus are considered arguments against atheism. However, many theists dismiss or object to atheism on other grounds.
Until recently, most theologians considered the existence of God so self-evident and universally-accepted that whether or not true atheism even existed was frequently questioned. This view is based on theistic innatism, the belief that all people believe in God from birth and that atheists are simply in denial. It is also asserted that atheists are quick to believe in God in times of crisis—that atheists will readily make deathbed conversions or that "there are no atheists in foxholes". This view has fallen into disfavor among most philosophers of religion.
When the existence of atheism is accepted, it is often criticized by agnostics, and some theists, on the grounds that atheism requires just as much faith as religious positions, making it no more likely to be true than theism. This is based on the view that because the existence of deities cannot be proved or disproved with certainty, it requires a leap of faith to conclude that deities do or do not exist. Common atheist responses to this argument include that it is equivocation to conflate religious faith with all unproven propositions; that weak atheism is not a positive claim, and thus requires no more faith than not accepting the existence of Santa Claus or an Invisible Pink Unicorn or Flying Spaghetti Monster; and that the fact that God's existence cannot be proved or disproved with complete certainty does not make it equally likely that God does or doesn't exist.
Lastly, it is commonly argued that the lack of belief in a deity who administers justice may lead to poor morals or ethics (cf. secular ethics). It is also argued that atheism makes life meaningless and miserable; Blaise Pascal made this argument in 1669. Atheists generally dismiss these arguments as appeals to consequences with no bearing on whether God actually exists, and many disagree that atheism leads to amorality or misery, or argue that in fact the opposite is the case.
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Footnotes and citations
- Some dictionary definitions:
- "1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God. 2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings." (Random House 2006)
- "1. a. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods. Including the existence of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim God. b. The doctrine that there is no God or gods. 2. Godlessness; immorality." (American Heritage Dictionary 2000)
- "1 archaic : UNGODLINESS, WICKEDNESS 2 a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity" (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 2003)
- Absence of belief:
- "Atheists are people who do not believe in a god or gods (or other immaterial beings), or who believe that these concepts are not meaningful. Some atheists put it more firmly and believe that god or gods do not exist." (BBC 2006)
- "The broader, and more common, understanding of atheism among atheists is quite simply 'not believing in any gods.' No claims or denials are made—an atheist is just a person who does not happen to be a theist." (Cline 2006a)
- "The average theologian (there are exceptions, of course) uses 'atheist' to mean a person who denies the existence of a God. Even an atheist would agree that some atheists (a small minority) would fit this definition. However, most atheists would strongly dispute the adequacy of this definition. Rather, they would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distinction is small but important. Denying something means that you have knowledge of what it is that you are being asked to affirm, but that you have rejected that particular concept. To be without a belief in God merely means that the term 'god' has no importance or possibly no meaning to you. Belief in God is not a factor in your life. Surely this is quite different from denying the existence of God. Atheism is not a belief as such. It is the lack of belief." (Stein 1980, p. 3)
- Range of atheism:
- "Atheism, however, casts a wider net and rejects all belief in 'spiritual beings,' and to the extent that belief in spiritual beings is definitive of what it means for a system to be religious, atheism rejects religion. So atheism is not only a rejection of the central conceptions of Judeo-Christianity and Islam, it is, as well, a rejection of the religious beliefs of such African religions as that of the Dinka and the Nuer, of the anthropomorphic gods of classical Greece and Rome, and of the transcendental conceptions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Generally atheism is a denial of God or of the gods, and if religion is defined in terms of belief in spiritual beings, then atheism is the rejection of all religious belief." (Encyclopædia Britannica 1992)
- "Atheism is ostensibly the doctrine that there is no God. Some atheists support this claim by arguments. But these arguments are usually directed against the Christian concept of God, and are largely irrelevant to other possible gods. Thus much Western atheism may be better understood as the doctrine that the Christian God does not exist." (Honderich 2005)
- Strong vs. Weak Atheism:
- "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 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." (Martin 2007, p. 1)
- (Cline 2006b)
- "Atheism is commonly divided into 'weak' and 'strong.' Weak atheists have no faith, simply because the feeling is not there. Strong atheists conclude, from existing evidence and arguments, that gods do not exist." (Winston 2004, p. 299)
- Rejection of theism:
- "Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a God, atheism is a positive denial." (Britannica Concise Encyclopædia 2002)
- "Atheism is the position that affirms the nonexistence of God. It proposes positive belief rather than mere suspension of disbelief." (Routledge 1998)
- "Atheism is fundamentally a rejection of belief in any God. It is more than a simple lack of belief, as children and some members of tribal societies may not believe out of ignorance." (Lyngzeidetson 2003)
- "Nonbelief has existed for centuries. For example, Buddhism and Jainism have been called atheistic religions because they do not advocate belief in gods." (Winston 2004, p. 299)
- "Lots of people in the West misunderstand Buddhism, especially it's [sic] general lack of any divine figures. They don't realize that, for many, Buddhism is essentially an atheistic religion. People in the West are accustomed to religions all being theistic, so the idea of an atheistic religion is almost incomprehensible." (Cline 2005)
- The Cārvāka school of Hindu philosophy is generally cited as an example of an atheistic branch of Hinduism, as in this passage: "In modern Indian languages, 'āstika' and 'nāstika' generally mean 'theist' and 'atheist', respectively. But in Sanskrit philosophical literature, 'āstika' means 'one who believes in the authority of the Vedas' or 'one who believes in life after death'. ('nāstika' means the opposite of these). The word is used here in the first sense. In the second sense, even the Jaina and Bauddha schools are 'āstika', as they believe in life after death. The six orthodox schools are 'āstika', and the Cārvāka is 'nāstika' in both the senses." Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Eighth Reprint Edition. (University of Calcutta: 1984). p. 5, footnote 1.
- No one atheist ideology:
- (Martin 2007, pp. 122–131)
- "The atheist's rejection of belief in God is usually accompanied by a broader rejection of any supernatural or transcendental reality. For example, an atheist does not usually believe in the existence of immortal souls, life after death, ghosts, or supernatural powers. Although strictly speaking an atheist could believe in any of these things and still remain an atheist... the arguments and ideas that sustain atheism tend naturally to rule out other beliefs in the supernatural or transcendental." (Baggini 2003, pp. 3–4)
- "Neither atheism nor agnosticism is a full belief system, because they have no fundamental philosophy or lifestyle requirements. These forms of thought are simply the absence of belief in, or denial of, the existence of deities." (Winston 2004, p. 299)
- Robertson, A.T. "Ephesians: Chapter 2". Word Pictures in the New Testament. URL accessed 2007-03-30].
- "Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotes; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed." (Drachmann 1922, pg. 5)
- The Oxford English Dictionary also records an earlier, irregular formation, atheonism, dated from about 1534. The later and now obsolete words athean and atheal are dated to 1611 and 1612, respectively. (Oxford English Dictionary 1989)
- (Armstrong 1999)
- In part because of its wide use in monotheistic Western society, atheism is usually described as "disbelief in God", rather than more generally as "disbelief in deities". A clear distinction is rarely drawn in modern writings between these two definitions, but some archaic uses of atheism encompassed only disbelief in the singular God, not in polytheistic deities. It is on this basis that the obsolete term adevism was coined in the late 19th century to describe an absence of belief in plural deities. (Encyclopædia Britannica 1910)
- "There is, unfortunately, some disagreement about the definition of atheism. It is interesting to note that most of that disagreement comes from theists—atheists themselves tend to agree on what atheism means."(Cline 2006a)
- (Maritain 1953)
- (Reid 1967)
- (Smith 1979)
- (Borne 1961, p. 10)
- (Armstrong 1999)
- (Borne 1961, p. 18)
- (Berman 1982)
- (Berman 1983)
- (Berman 1990)
- (Gaskin 1989, p. 4)
- Charles Bradlaugh once said, in debate with George Holyoake on March 10, 1870, "I maintain that the opprobrium cast upon the word Atheism is a lie. I believe Atheists as a body to be men deserving respect... I do not care what kind of character religious men may put round the word Atheist, I would fight until men respect it." (Bradlaugh Bonner 1908, p. 334)
- (d'Holbach 1772)
- (Smith 1979, p. 14)
- Although most strong atheists rarely do not claim certainty of the nonexistence of deities or the supernatural, gnostic atheists such as Paul Keller do exist. Gnostic atheism is the position that it is known by facts and reason alone that there is no god and no supernatural.
- (Cline 2006a)
- (Flew 1972)
- Maritain, Jacques (July 1949). "On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism". The Review of Politics 11 (3): 267–280.
- "When people say that atheism is a faith position, what they tend to think is that, since there is no proof for atheism, something extra—faith—is required to justify belief in it. But this is simply to misunderstand the role of proof in the justification for belief.... A lack of proof is no grounds for the suspension of belief. This is because when we have a lack of absolute proof we can still have overwhelming evidence or one explanation which is far superior to the alternatives." (Baggini 2003, pp. 30–34)
- Smart, J.C.C. (2004). Atheism and Agnosticism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hindusim. (Cambridge University Press: 1996). ISBN 0-521-43878-0. p. 40.
- Wendy Doniger says of this hymn (10.129) "This short hymn, though linguistically simple... is conceptually extremely provocative and has, indeed, provoked hundreds of complex commentaries among Indian theologians and Western scholars. In many ways, it is meant to puzzle and challenge, to raise unanswerable questions, to pile up paradoxes." The Rig Veda. (Penguin Books: 1981) p. 25. ISBN 0-140-44989-2.
- Translation by Macdonell, quoted in: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. (Princeton University Press: 1957, Twelfth Princeton Paperback printing 1989) pp. 23-24. ISBN 0-691-01958-4.
- Patri, Umesh and Prativa Devi. "Progress of Atheism in India: A Historical Perspective". Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee. Vijayawada, February 1990. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
- Volume 4, p. 519. Ravi Prakash Arya and K. L. Joshi. Ṛgveda Saṃhitā: Sanskrit Text, English Translation, Notes & Index of Verses. (Parimal Publications: Delhi, 2001) ISBN 81-7110-138-7 (Set of four volumes). Parimal Sanskrit Series No. 45; 2003 reprint: 81-7020-070-9
- "As the subject of the hymn is creation typified and originated by the mysterious primeval sacrifice (cp. X.90), Prajāpati the Creator is said by Sāyana to be the deity. The Rṣi is Yajña (Sacrifice), Prajāpati's son." Ralph T. H. Griffith. The Hymns of the Ŗgveda. (Motilal Banarsidass: Delhi: 1973 New Revised Edition, Reprint 1995) p. 634, note. ISBN 81-208-0046-x.
- Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore. A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy. (Princeton University Press: 1957, Twelfth Princeton Paperback printing 1989) pp. 227-49. ISBN 0-691-01958-4.
- Satischandra Chatterjee and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Eighth Reprint Edition. (University of Calcutta: 1984). p. 55.
- Joshi, L.R. "A New Interpretation of Indian Atheism". Philosophy East and West, Vol. 16, No. 3/4 (Jul. - Oct., 1966), pp. 189-206.
- "Atheism had its origins in Ancient Greece but did not emerge as an overt and avowed belief system until late in the Enlightenment." (Baggini 2003, pp. 73–74)
- "religion, study of". (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 2, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
- "Atheism". BBC Religion & Ethics. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
- Obbink, Dirk. "The Atheism of Epicurus". Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies. 30(1989) 187-223.
- Lucretius. De Rerum Natura. I.151-58. Translated by James A. Flippin
- Stein, Gordon. "The History of Freethought and Atheism". An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. Retrieved 2007-04-03.
- Plato. Apology.
- Atheism (Philosophy, Terms and Concepts). AllRefer.com. Retrieved on 2006-10-26.
- (Armstrong 1999)
- (d'Holbach 1770)
- Price, Geoff (2005). A Historical Outline of Modern Religious Criticism in Western Civilization. Retrieved on 2006-10-26.
- "Western atheism, as a movement opposing religion, developed in the 19th century, and became widely accepted by intellectuals." (Winston 2004, p. 299)
- (Martin 2007, pp. 233–246)
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I.. The Gulag Archipelago. Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 0-06-000776-1.
- Rafford, R.L. (1987). "Atheophobia—an introduction". Religious Humanism 21 (1): 32–37.
- Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas, Mid-1995. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved on 2006-03-05.
- Leading scientists still reject God. Nature. Retrieved on 2006-12-17.
- Religious Views and Beliefs Vary Greatly by Country, According to the Latest Financial Times/Harris Poll. Financial Times. Retrieved on 2007-01-17.
- "Traditional Buddhism has taught that either there are no gods or, if there are, they aren't worth bothering with—but people being people, gods have been added to Buddhist practice over the centuries. They aren't creator gods like we find in western religion, but they are gods nonetheless. Not all Buddhists are atheists, but there are quite a few." (Cline 2005)
- Humanistic Judaism. BBC. Retrieved on 2006-10-25.
- (Levin 1995)
- Christian Atheism. BBC. Retrieved on 2006-10-25.
- (Altizer 1996, pp. 102–103)
- (Lyas 1970)
- "To view atheism as a way of life, whether beneficial or harmful, is false and misleading. Just as the failure to believe in magic elves does not entail a code of living or a set of principles, so the failure to believe in a god does not imply any specific philosophical system. From the mere fact that a person is an atheist, one cannot infer that this person subscribes to any particular positive beliefs. One's positive convictions are quite distinct from the subject of atheism. While one may begin with a basic philosophical position and infer atheism as a consequence of it, this process cannot be reversed." (Smith 1979, pp. 21–22)
- "One cannot criticize religious dogmatism for long without encountering the following claim, advanced as though it were a self-evident fact of nature: there is no secular basis for morality." (Harris 2006a)
- "Among the many myths associated with religion, none is more widespread—or more disastrous in its effects—than the myth that moral values cannot be divorced from the belief in a god." (Smith 1979, p. 275)
- "One can have immoral laws as well as moral ones. What is required for just laws is for the legislature and judiciary to act within the confines of morality. Morality is thus... the basis upon which just laws are enacted and enforced; it is not constituted by the laws themselves." (Baggini 2003, p. 38)
- "The Euthypryo dilemma is a very powerful argument against the idea that God is required for morality. Indeed, it goes further and shows that God cannot be the source of morality without morality becoming something arbitrary." (Baggini 2003, p. 39)
- "More profoundly, it is an odd morality that thinks that one can only behave ethically if one does so out of fear of punishment or promise of reward. The person who doesn't steal only because they fear they will be caught is not a moral person, merely a prudent one. The truly moral person is the one who has the opportunity to steal without being caught but still does not do so." (Baggini 2003, p. 40)
- "It is easy for the religious believer to think that they can avoid choice just by listening to the advice of their holy men (it is usually men) and sacred texts. But since adopting this attitude can lead to suicide bombings, bigotry, and other moral wrongs, it should be obvious that it does not absolve one of moral responsibility. So although the idea of individuals making moral choices for themselves may sound unpalatable to those used to thinking about morality deriving from a single authority, none of us can avoid making such choices." (Baggini 2003, p. 43)
- (Harris 2006a)
- "In a world riven by ignorance, only the atheist refuses to deny the obvious: Religious faith promotes human violence to an astonishing degree." (Harris 2005)
- (McGrath 2005)
- Richard John Neuhaus (April 2005). "The Public Square". First Things (152): 57–72. Retrieved on 2006-12-03.
- Thomas, Mark. Why Atheism?. Atheists of Silicon Valley.
- "Atheism also has great explanatory power when it comes to the existence of divergent religious beliefs. The best explanation for the fact that different religious people believe different things about God and the universe throughout the world is that religion is a human construct that does not correspond to any metaphysical reality. The alternative is that many religions exist but only one (or a few) are true." (Baggini 2003, p. 29)
- Personal Gods, Deism, & the Limits of Skepticism. Retrieved on 2006-03-05.
- (Flew 1984b)
- Cline, Austin (2006). What is Atheism?: Narrow vs. Broad Definitions of Atheism. about.com. Retrieved on 2006-10-21.
- Perhaps most memorably stated by Bertrand Russell, when asked what he would say when facing God on judgment day, he famously replied "Not enough evidence, God! Not enough evidence!"
- A classic work is (Mackie 1982). For a discussion of more recent arguments, see (Oppy 2006).
- Craig, William Lane; Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2003). God?. Oxford University Press, p. 112. ISBN 0195165993.
- To be precise, one should distinguish between, first, the existential problem of divine hiddenness, second, Schellenberg's argument from reasonable non-belief, which is often called the argument from divine hiddenness, and third, Theodore Drange's argument from non-belief.
- (Ayer 1966, pp. 226–228)
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
- (Cudworth 1678)
- (Lowder 1997)
- Gleeson, David (2006). Common Misconceptions About Atheists and Atheism. American Chronicle. Retrieved on 2006-10-21.
- "People say that, since the atheist can never know for sure that there is no life after death, for example, it is foolish for them to not believe in it. At best they should suspend belief and be agnostic.... But this policy would be reckless, since to apply it consistently you would also have to be agnostic about any issue on which there was a possibility that you could be wrong, because there is no absolute certainty and it is possible that evidence might arise to show you are wrong. But who seriously claims we should say 'I neither believe nor disbelieve that the Pope is a robot', or 'As to whether or not eating this piece of chocolate will turn me into an elephant I am completely agnostic'. In the absence of any good reasons to believe these outlandish claims, we rightly disbelieve them, we don't just suspend judgement." (Baggini 2003, p. 22)
- "Perhaps the most common criticism of atheism is the claim that it leads inevitably to moral bankruptcy." (Smith 1979, p. 275)
- Pascal, Blaise (1669). Pensées.
- "Many people think that atheists believe there is no God and no morality; or no God and no meaning to life; or again no God and no human goodness." (Baggini 2003, p. 3)
- The Atheism Web: An Introduction to Atheism. Retrieved on 2006-03-05.