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Atheism is the state of disbelief or non-belief in the existence of a deity or deities. It is commonly defined as the positive denial of theism (i.e., the assertion that deities do not exist), or the deliberate rejection of theism (i.e., the refusal to believe in the existence of deities). However, others—including most atheistic philosophers and groups—define atheism as the simple absence of belief in deities (cf. nontheism), thereby designating many agnostics, and people who have never heard of gods, such as the unchurched or newborn children, as atheists as well. In recent years, some atheists have adopted the terms strong and weak atheism to clarify whether they consider their stance one of positive belief that no gods exist (strong atheism), or of mere absense of belief that gods exist (weak atheism).
Many self-described atheists share common skeptical concerns regarding empirical evidence for supernatural claims. They cite a lack of evidence for the existence of deities. Other rationales for atheism range from the personal to the philosophical to the social to the historical. Additionally, while atheists tend to accept secular philosophies such as humanism, naturalism and materialism, they do not necessarily adhere to any one particular ideology, nor does atheism have any institutionalized rituals or behaviors.
Atheism is very often equated with irreligion or non-spirituality in Western culture, but they are not the same. Some religious and spiritual beliefs, such as several forms of Buddhism, have been described by outside observers as conforming to the broader, negative definition of atheism due to their lack of any participating deities. Atheism is also sometimes equated with antitheism (opposition to theism) or antireligion (opposition to religion). Some philosophers and academics, such as philosopher Jurgen Habermas call themselves "methodological atheists" (also known as or methodological naturalism) to denote that whatever their personal beliefs, they do not include theistic presuppositions in their method.
In early Ancient Greek, the adjective atheos (from privative α- + θεος "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 asebēs, or "impious". Modern translations of classical texts sometimes translate atheos as "atheistic". As an abstract noun, there was also atheotēs ("atheism"). Cicero transliterated atheos into Latin. 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 was adopted 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 attested in 1577. The French word is derived 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 simply 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, though it remains common in Western society to describe atheism as simply "disbelief in God". Additionally, in recent decades there has increasingly been a push in certain philosophical circles to redefine atheism negatively, as "absence of belief in deities" rather than as a belief in its own right; this definition has become popular in atheist communities, though it has not attained mainstream usage.
Types and typologies of atheism
Many writers have disagreed on how best to define atheism, and much of the literature on the subject is erroneous or confusing. There are many discrepancies in the use of terminology between proponents and opponents of atheism, and even divergent definitions among those who share near-identical beliefs.
Throughout its history, opponents of atheism have frequently associated atheism with immorality and evil, often characterizing it as a willful and malicious repudiation of God or gods. This, in fact, is the original definition and sense of the word, but changing sensibilities and the normalization of non-religious viewpoints have caused the term to lose most of its pejorative connotations in general parlance.
Among proponents of atheism and neutral parties, there are three major traditions in defining atheism and its subdivisions. The first tradition understands atheism very broadly, as including both those who believe that gods don't exist (strong atheism) and those who are simply not theists (weak atheism). George H. Smith, Michael Martin, and Antony Flew fall into this tradition, though they do not use the same terminology. The second tradition understands atheism more narrowly, as the conscious rejection of theism, and does not consider absence of theistic belief or suspension of judgment concerning theism to be forms of atheism. Ernest Nagel, Paul Edwards and Kai Nielsen are prominent members of this camp. Using this definition of atheism, "implicit atheism", an absence of theism without the conscious rejection of it, may not be regarded as atheistic at all, and the umbrella term non-theism may be used in its place.
A third tradition, more common among people who are not atheists themselves, understands atheism even more narrowly than that. Here, atheism is defined in the strongest possible terms, as the positive belief that there are no deities. Under this definition, all weak atheism, whether implicit or explicit, may be considered non-atheistic. However, this definition is used by some atheists, such as philosopher Theodore Drange.
Pejorative definition: immorality
- Further information: Discrimination against atheists
The first attempts to define a typology of atheism were in religious apologetics. A diversity of atheist opinion has been recognized at least since Plato, and common distinctions have been established between practical atheism and speculative or contemplative atheism. Practical atheism was said to be caused by moral failure, hypocrisy, willful ignorance and infidelity. 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 typology of atheism (1953, Chapter 8) 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 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 notes 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. That anyone might reason their way to atheism was thought to be impossible. 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".
When denial of the existence of "speculative" atheism became unsustainable, atheism was nevertheless often 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; like the word godless, it is sometimes still used as an abusive 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, many atheists persist in using the term and seek to change its connotations.
In modern times, atheism continues to be conflated with such beliefs as nihilism, irreligion, and antitheism. Antitheism typically refers to a direct opposition to theism; however, antitheism is also sometimes used, particularly in religious contexts, to refer to opposition to God or divinity, rather than to the belief in God. Under the latter definition, it may actually be necessary to be a theist in order to be an antitheist, to oppose God itself and not the idea of God. This position is seldom expressed, though opponents of atheism often claim that atheists hate God. Under the former definition, antitheists may be atheists who believe that theism is harmful to human progression, or simply ones who have little tolerance for views they perceive as irrational (cf. faith and rationality). A related stance is militant atheism, which is generally characterized by antireligious views.
Positive definition: the belief that no deities exist
Numerous dictionaries recognize the positive definition of atheism, as a "belief" or "doctrine". This reflects a view of atheism as a specific ideological stance, as opposed to the rejection or simple absence of a belief.
In philosophical and atheist circles, however, this common definition is often disputed and even rejected. The broader, negative has become increasingly popular in recent decades, with many specialized textbooks dealing with atheism favoring it. One prominent atheist writer who disagrees with the broader definition of atheism, however, is Ernest Nagel, who considers atheism to be the rejection of theism (which George H. Smith labelled as explicit atheism, or anti-theism): "Atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief... Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist—for he is not denying any theistic claims."
Some atheists argue for a positive definition of atheism on the grounds that defining atheism negatively, as "the negation of theistic belief", makes it "parasitic on religion" and not an ideology in its own right. While most atheists welcome having atheism cast as non-ideological, in order to avoid potentially framing their view as one requiring "faith", writers such as Julian Baggini prefers to analyze atheism as part of a general philosophical movement towards naturalism in order to emphasize the explanatory power of a non-supernatural worldview. Baggini rejects the negative definition based on his view that it implies that atheism is dependent on theism for its existence: "atheism no more needs religion than atheists do". Harbour, Thrower, and Nielsen, similarly, have used philosophical naturalism to make a positive argument for atheism. Michael Martin notes that the view that "naturalism is compatible with nonatheism is true only if 'god' is understood in a most peculiar and misleading way", but he also points out that "atheism does not entail naturalism".
Negative definition: the absence of belief in deities
- Further information: Nontheism, Implicit and explicit atheism, Weak and strong atheism
Among modern atheists, the view that atheism simply means "without theistic beliefs" has a great deal of currency. This very broad definition is often justified by reference to the etymology (cf. privative a), as well as to the consistent usage of the word by atheists. However, others have dismissed the former justification as an etymological fallacy and the latter on the grounds that majority usage outweighs minority usage.
Although this definition of atheism is frequently disputed, it is not a recent invention; as far back as the eighteenth century, d'Holbach (1772) said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God". More recently, George H. Smith (1979) put 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—the form commonly held to be the only true form of atheism—is an absence of theistic belief due to conscious rejection.
Many similar dichotomies have since sprung up to subcategorize the broader definition of atheism. Strong, or positive, atheism is the belief that gods do not exist. It is a form of explicit atheism. A strong atheist consciously rejects theism, and may even argue that certain deities logically cannot exist. Weak, or negative, atheism is either 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—the denial of knowledge or certainty of the existence of deities—as a "midway point" between theism and atheism, under this understanding of atheism, many agnostics may qualify as weak atheists (cf. agnostic atheism). However, others may be agnostic theists. Many agnostics and/or weak atheists are critical of strong atheism, seeing it as a position that is no more justified than theism, or as one that requires equal "faith".
- Main article: History of atheism
Although the term atheism originated in 16th-century France, ideas that would be recognized today as atheistic existed before the advent of Classical antiquity. Eastern philosophy has a long history of nontheistic belief, starting with Laozi and Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th Century BCE. Western atheism has its roots in ancient 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. Epicurus was an early philosopher to dispute many religious beliefs, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity.
Atheists have been subject to significant persecution and discrimination throughout history. Atheism has been a criminal offense in many parts of the world, and in some cases a "wrong belief" was equated with "unbelief" in order to condemn someone with differing beliefs as an "atheist". For example, despite having expressed belief in various divinities, Socrates was called an atheos and ultimately sentenced to death for impiety on the grounds that he inspired questioning of the state gods. During the late Roman Empire, many Christians were executed for "atheism" because of their rejection of the Roman gods, and "heresy" and "godlessness" were serious capital offenses following the rise of Christianity.
Atheistic sentiment was virtually unknown in medieval Europe, but flourished in the empirical Carvaka school of India. 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 (see "God is dead").
In the 20th century, atheism, though still a minority view, became increasingly common in many parts of the world, often being spread as aspects of a wide variety of other, broader philosophies, such as existentialism, Objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, relativism, logical positivism, Marxism, 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 parliance 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 in Albania. 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.
Other prominent atheists in recent times have included comedians Woody Allen and Ricky Gervais, biologist Richard Dawkins, actress Katharine Hepburn, author Douglas Adams, philosopher Bertrand Russell, dictator Joseph Stalin, and activist Margaret Sanger.
- Main article: Demographics of atheism
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 known to be relatively common in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, former and present Communist states, and to a lesser extent, the United States. A 1995 survey attributed to the Encyclopædia Britannica indicates that the non-religious make up about 14.7% of the world's population, and atheists around 3.8%.
Today, and in the recent past, several nations have mandated state atheism, including the former governments of the Soviet Union, Albania, and currently, China, North Korea, and Cuba.
Atheism and intelligence
According to a study by Paul Bell, published in the Mensa Magazine in 2002, there seems to be an inverse correlation between intelligence and religious belief. Analyzing 43 studies carried out since 1927, Bell finds that all but four reported such a connection, concluding 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. However, an article published by The University of Chicago Chronicle that discussed this study, stated that 76 percent of physicians believe in God while being highly educated. Moreover, another study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that 90 percent of doctors in the United States attend religious services at least occasionally as compared with 81% of the general U.S. population.
Atheist organizations and gatherings
Noteworthy organizations that are atheistic or have atheistic sympathies include:
Many organizations that promote skepticism of paranormal claims have strong atheistic leanings but remain offically neutral on the existence of God. Examples include Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), The Skeptics Society, and the James Randi Educational Foundation. Martin Gardner, a noted member of the first two of these organizations, is a deist.
In 2002, a group of people organized the "Godless Americans March on Washington". Though it was broadcast on C-SPAN, the march was not well attended and received little or no press coverage.
The James Randi Educational Foundation holds an annual conference, The Amaz!ng Meeting, typically in Las Vegas, casting a critical eye on various forms of supernatural phenomena, including religious ones.
The Skeptics Society holds an annual conference at Caltech (California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena, California. Subjects of skepticism, including religion, are often discussed.
The CSER (Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion) questions the validity of religion at its annual conference.
Atheism, religion and morality
- Main article: Atheism and religion
Although people who self-identify as being atheists are almost invariably assumed to be irreligious, there are many atheists who describe themselves as adhering to a certain religion, and even major religions that have been described as having atheistic leanings, particularly under the negative definition. Atheism in Hinduism, in Buddhism, and in other Eastern religions has an especially long history, but in recent years certain liberal religious denominations have accumulated a number of openly atheistic followers, such as Jewish atheists (cf. humanistic Judaism) and Christian atheists (cf. Unitarian Universalism).
As 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 intelligibly 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. Atheists also assert that behaving ethically only because of divine mandate is not true ethical behavior, merely blind obedience. see Christian morality.
Some atheists, in fact, have argued 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 which are argued to demonstrate the dangers of religion, such as the inquisitions and witch trials, is often used by atheists to justify their antireligious 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.
A comprehensive study by The Barna Group found that "no-faith" individuals (defined as anyone who openly identified themselves as an atheist, an agnostic, or who specifically said they have "no faith") are less likely than "active faith" individuals (defined as simply having gone to church, read the Bible and prayed during the week preceding the survey) to volunteer to help a non-church-related non-profit (20% versus 30%), to describe themselves as "active in the community" (41% versus 68%), and to personally help or serve a homeless or poor person (41% versus 61%). Those in the "no-faith" group were also found to be more focused on living a comfortable, balanced lifestyle (12% versus 4%) or acquiring wealth (10% versus 2%).
According to the World Health Organization's report on international male suicide rates, nine of ten of the nations with the highest male suicide rates are strongly irreligious nations with the highest levels of atheism, while countries with the lowest male suicide rates are highly religious nations with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.Cite error: Invalid
<ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many Sociologist Phil Zuckerman also published these same results concerning male suicide rates and atheism.
Reasons for atheism
Atheists 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 tested and replicated 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.
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 in 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.
Religions have been socially constructed (see development of religion) and 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 (indeed, it is apparent that most cultures 'pick and mix' the parts of their chosen religion they like, conveniently ignoring parts they disagree with). 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, which Christian apologist William Lane Craig has called "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), but 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) is a rebuttal to the transcendental argument for the existence of God, which argues that logic, science and morality can only be justified by appealing to the theistic worldview, that argues that the reverse is true.
Some atheists have found social, psychological, practical, and other personal reasons for their beliefs. 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 moral 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. Although they may not foreclose the possibility of a supernatural world, unless and until they believe through experience that such a world exists, they refuse to accept a metaphysical belief system based upon blind faith.
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
- Main article: Criticism of Atheism
The most direct criticisms made against atheism are that it is simply untrue: arguments for the existence of God are thus 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 the question of whether or not true atheism even existed was frequently disputed. This view is based on theistic innatism, the belief that all people believe in God from birth and that atheists are simply in denial. According to proponents of this view, 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". 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 proven or disproven 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 the flying spaghetti monster; and that the fact that God's existence cannot be proven or disproven 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 1670. 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.
Footnotes and citations
- Various dictionaries give a range of definitions for disbelief, from "lack of belief" to "doubt" and "withholding of belief" to "rejection of belief", "refusal to believe", and "denial". (Oxford English Dictionary 1989)
- 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. b. The doctrine that there is no God or gods. 2. Godlessness; immorality." (American Heritage Dictionary 2000)
- "Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question of whether there is a God, atheism is a positive denial." (Britannica Concise Encyclopædia 2002)
- "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)
- "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 stongly dispute the adequacy of this definition. Rather, they would hold that an atheist is a person without a belief in God. The distiniction 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 yhe 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)
- (d'Holbach 1772)
- (Smith 1979, pp. 13–18)
- (Cline 2006b)
- "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)
- "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)
- "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)
- Richard John Neuhaus (April 2005). The Public Square. First Things (152): 57-72.
- "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 often 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)
- (Cline 2006a)
- "Some writers on this topic take the term 'atheism' to refer merely to a lack of theistic belief. That would be a kind of catch-all use of the term. Atheism would then include not only the view that "God exists" expresses a false proposition, but also noncognitivism, general agnosticism, and cognitivist agnosticism. Not only would such a definition blur and neglect all those distinctions, but it would also be a departure from the most common use of the term 'atheism' in English. For these reasons, it is an inferior definition. For a word to represent the lack of theistic belief, I recommend 'nontheism' for that purpose. It is a word that does not already have some other use in ordinary language." (Drange 2005)
- (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)
- (Chambers Dictionary 2003)
- "I'm not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful." (Hitchens 2001)
- "Atheism which is actively hostile to religion I would call militant. To be hostile in this sense requires more than just strong disagreement with religion—it requires something verging on hatred and is characterized by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious belief. Militant atheists tend to make one or both of two claims that moderate atheists do not. The first is that religion is demonstrably false or nonsense, and the second is that it is usually or always harmful." (Baggini 2003, pp. 101–104)
- (Cline 2006a)
- "The works cited below are all specialized reference materials, designed not to provide general information for a general audience but, rather, information on specific topics like religion, sociology, or other social sciences. Their value here is in the fact that they provide some insight into what scholars from different specialized fields think of when it comes to the concept of atheism. As you will see, very often they use the broader understanding of atheism rather than the narrower one we sometimes encounter." (Cline 2006a)
- (Nagel 1965, pp. 460–461)
- "The strength of modern atheism is that it is founded more upon positive atheism than negative; rather than just a rejection of contemporary religious beliefs, modern atheism offers a seemingly complete philosophy of the world around us. The contemporary atheist not only sees much that is dubious in Christianity, but sees much that is redundant and just less satisfying than what is provided by modern education, science, anthropology and material culture." (Moyle 1996)
- (Baggini 2003, pp. 7–10)
- (Harbour 2001)
- "Much atheism... can be understood only in the light of the current theism which it was concerned to reject. Such atheism is relative. There is, however, a way of looking at and interpreting events in the world, whose origins... can be seen as early as the beginnings of speculative thought itself, and which I shall call naturalistic, that is atheistic per se, in the sense that it is incompatible with any and every form of supernaturalism... naturalistic or absolute atheism is both fundamentally more important, and more interesting, representing as it does one polarity in the development of the human spirit." (Thrower 1971, pp. 3–4)
- (Martin 1990, p. 470)
- (Krueger 1998)
- "If you look up 'atheism' in the dictionary, you will probably find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly many people understand atheism in this way. Yet many atheists do not, and 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 would simply be someone without a belief in God, not necessarily someone who believes that God does not exist. According to its Greek roots, then, atheism is a negative view, characterized by the absence of belief in God." (Martin 1990, p. 463)
- (Cline 2006a)
- "This is evident in its very name—atheism is a-theism: the negation of theistic belief.... I think this view is profoundly mistaken. Its initial plausibility is based on a very crude piece of flawed reasoning we can call the etymological fallacy. This is the mistake of thinking that one can best understand what a word means by understanding its origin." (Baggini 2003, p. 7)
- (d'Holbach 1772)
- (Smith 1979, p. 14)
- (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.
- "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)
- Plato. Apology.
- Atheism (Philosophy, Terms and Concepts). AllRefer.com. URL accessed on 2006-10-26.
- (Armstrong 1999)
- (d'Holbach 1770)
- Price, Geoff (2005). A Historical Outline of Modern Religious Criticism in Western Civilization. URL accessed on 2006-10-26.
- 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.
- Haught, James A. (1996). 2,000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-067-3.
- Dawkins, Richard (2002). "Positiveatheism.org A Challenge To Atheists: Come Out of the Closet", in Free Inquiry.
- Ladies' Home Journal, October 1991.
- Silverman, David. "Life, the Universe, and Everything: An Interview with Douglas Adams", in The American Atheist Volume 37 No. 1.
- Russell, Bertrand (1967). Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. ISBN 0-671-20323-1.
- Yaroslavsky, E. (1940). Landmarks in the Life of Stalin. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
- Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas, Mid-1995. Encyclopædia Britannica. URL accessed on 2006-03-05.
- Tʻinatʻin Bočorišvili, William Sweet, Daniel R. Ahern. Politics, ethics and challenges to democracy in 'new independent states'. Berghahn Books. URL accessed on 2011-03-05.
- Russian postmodernism: new perspectives on post-Soviet culture. Berghahn Books. URL accessed on 2011-03-05.
- William B. Simons, Rijksuniversiteit te Leiden. The Constitutions of the Communist World, Springer. URL accessed 2011-03-05. "Article 37. The State recognizes no religion and supports and carries out atheist propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialist world outlook in people."
- Robert Elsie. A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk culture, New York University Press. URL accessed 2011-03-05. "Article 37 of the Albanian constitution of 1976 stipulated, "The State recognizes no religion and supports and carries out atheist propaganda in order to implant a scientific materialist world outlook in people.""
- Richard Felix Staar. Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe, The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University. URL accessed 2011-03-05. "By 1976 all places of worship had been closed. However, the regime has had to admit that religion still maintains a following among Albanians. In order to suppress religious life, the following article has been included in the 1976 constitution: "The state recognizes no religion and supports and carries out atheistic propoganda to implant the scientific materialistic world outlook in people" (Article 37). In its antireligious moves, the regime has gone so far as to order persons to change their names if they are of a religious origin."
- China in the 21st century. Oxford University Press. URL accessed on 2011-03-05.
- The State of Religion Atlas. Simon & Schuster. URL accessed on 2011-03-05.
- World and Its Peoples: Eastern and Southern Asia. Marshall Cavendish. URL accessed on 2011-03-05.
- Freeing God's Children: The Unlikely Alliance for Global Human Rights. Rowman & Littlefield. URL accessed on 2011-03-05.
- Survey on physicians’ religious beliefs shows majority faithful. The University of Chicago. URL accessed on 2007–10–18.
- "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. URL accessed on 2006-10-25.
- (Levin 1995)
- Christian Atheism. BBC. URL accessed 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 2006)
- "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 2006)
- "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)
- Atheists and Agnostics Take Aim at Christians. The Barna Group. URL accessed on 2011–03–15.
- Why Faith Matters. David J. Wolpe. URL accessed on 2011–03–15.
- includeonly>K. Connie Kang. "Survey illuminates views of atheists and believers". Retrieved on 2011–03–15. “The independent marketing firm, which has tracked trends relating to beliefs, values and behaviors since 1984, looked at the beliefs of agnostics and atheists and compared them to believers over a two-year period. Researchers found that people without faith are less likely to be registered to vote than believers (78% versus 89%), and less likely to help a poor or homeless person (41% versus 61%) even though they are more likely to be college graduates and make more money than believers. The survey also found that "no-faith" Americans typically donated $200 to charities in 2006, far less than the amount given by "active-faith" adults, who typically contributed $1,500. "Even when church-based giving is subtracted from the equation, active-faith adults donated twice as many dollars last year as did atheists and agnostics," the study said.”
- Phil Zuckerman. Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns. Pitzer College. URL accessed on 13 November 2010.
- 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. URL accessed on 2006-03-05.
- (Flew 1984b)
- Cline, Austin (2006). What is Atheism?: Narrow vs. Broad Definitions of Atheism. about.com. URL accessed on 2006-10-21.
- Ebon Musings: The Atheism Pages. URL accessed on 2006-03-05.
- (Ayer 1966, pp. 226–228)
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- Gleeson, David (2006). Common Misconceptions About Atheists and Atheism. American Chronicle. URL accessed 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 (1670). 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. URL accessed on 2006-03-05.
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- Articles and essays
- Atheism at Religious Tolerance.org
- Atheism at Catholic Encyclopedia
- Theism and Secularism at Bane of Monotheism
- Atheism: The Capital Man
- Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns by Phil Zuckerman
- Religion & Ethics - Atheism at bbc.co.uk
- Atheism at AllAboutPhilosophy.org
- Lecture on Atheism by Erkki Hartikainen
- God: new evidence
- The Philosophy of Atheism by Emma Goldman
- The Psychology of Atheism by Paul C. Vitz, New York University
- Population Statistics of Religions, Atheists and Non-Believers at Atheist Empire
- Theism, Atheism, and Rationality by Alvin Plantinga
- Types of Atheistic Belief at UberKuh
- General Introduction for Non-Believers by Rich Deem
- A Guide for the Godless: The Secular Path to Meaning
- Atheist associations and communities
- Atheist Nation
- American Atheists
- Atheist Foundation of Australia
- Atheists of Silicon Valley
- The Brights
- Church of Reality
- The Ethical Atheist
- Freedom From Religion Foundation
- National Secular Society (UK)
- Positive Atheism
- Rational Response Squad
- Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
- Secular Coalition for America
- The Secular Web
- Internet radio
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|References: Philosophy primer | Internet Encyclo. of Philosophy | Philosophical dictionary | Stanford Encyclo. of Philosophy | Internet philosophy guide|
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