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Atheism, in its broadest sense, is characterized by an absence of belief in the existence of god(s), thus contrasting with theism. This definition includes both those who assert that there are no gods and those who have no beliefs at all regarding the existence of gods. However, narrower definitions often only qualify the former as atheism, the latter falling under the more general (but rarely used) term nontheism.

Although atheists often share common concerns regarding evidence and the scientific method of investigation and a large number are skeptics or humanists, there is no single ideology that all atheists share. Additionally, many atheists are not entirely without religion; there are atheists who are religious or spiritual despite their lack of belief in god(s) — though many of these would not describe themselves as atheists.


In early Ancient Greek, the adjective atheos (from privative a- + theos "god") meant "without gods" or "lack of belief in gods". The word acquired an additional meaning in the 5th century BCE, expressing a total lack of relations with the gods; that is, "denying the gods, godless, ungodly", with more active connotations than asebēs, "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 discussion of atheoi was pronounced in the debate between early Christians and pagans, who each attributed atheism to the other.

A.B. Drachmann (1922) notes:

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. (p.5)

In English, the term atheism is the result of the adoption of the French athéisme in about 1587. The term atheist in the sense of "one who denies or disbelieves" actually predates atheism, being first attested in about 1571 (the phrase 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 is from the Greek atheos. The words deist and theist entered English after atheism, being first attested in 1621 and 1662, respectively, with theism and deism following in 1678 and 1682, respectively. Deism and theism exchanged meanings around 1700 due to the influence of atheism. Deism was originally used with a meaning comparable to today's theism, and vice-versa.

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.

Types and typologies of atheism

Many people have disagreed on how best to characterize 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.

Opponents of atheism have frequently associated atheism with immorality and evil, often characterizing it as a willful and malicious rejection of god(s). This, in fact, is the original definition and sense of the word, but changing sensibilities and the normalization of nonreligious viewpoints have caused the term to lose its negative connotations in general parlance.

Among proponents of atheism and neutral parties, there are two major traditions in defining atheism and its subdivisions. The first tradition understands atheism very broadly, and is divided between those who actively reject theism for any reason (strong atheism) and those who are simply not theists (weak atheism). Antony Flew, George H. Smith and Michael Martin fall into this tradition, though they do not use the same terminology.

The second tradition, more common among laypeople, 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", lack of theism without the conscious rejection of it, may not be regarded as atheistic at all, and the umbrella term nontheism may be used in its place.

Atheism as lack of theism

Among modern atheists, the view that atheism means "without (or, polemically, "free of") theistic beliefs" has a great deal of currency. This very broad definition is justified by reference to etymology as well as consistent usage of the word by atheists, and has the polemical advantage of correcting the repressive tendency to define atheism out of existence.

However, this definition of atheism has not gone unchallenged. Although, over the last few hundred years, atheism has evolved and broadened beyond the narrow meaning of "wickedness", impiety, heresy and religious denial, as well as pantheism and similar beliefs, it is less commonly understood to include everything not explicitly theistic. Whether a writer's definition of atheism as an "absence" or "lack" of theistic belief is in fact intended to mean "not theistic" in the widest possible sense, or just refers to particular forms of the rejection of theism (see below), is often ambiguous.

However, while this definition of atheism is frequently disputed, it is not a recent invention; this use has a history spanning over 230 years. Two atheist writers who are clear in defining atheism so broadly that uninformed children are counted as atheists are d'Holbach (1772) ("All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God." [1]) and George H. Smith (1979).

According to Smith,

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 with 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. (p.14) [2]

One atheist writer who explicitly disagrees with such a broad definition is Ernest Nagel (1965):

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. (p.460-461)

For Nagel, atheism is the rejection of theism, not just the absence of theistic belief. However, this definition leaves open the question of what term can be used to describe those who lack theistic belief, but do not necessarily reject theism.

The obsolete word atheous, first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as a synonym of atheism or impiety, is sometimes used to mean "not dealing with the existence of a god" in a purely privative sense, as distinguished from the negative atheistic. This 1880 coinage captures some of what is intended by the broad definition of atheism, though it is hard to sustain the claim that the philosophical rejection of theism can be characterized in such terms.

Implicit and explicit atheism

A chart showing the relationship between the weak/strong (positive/negative) and implicit/explicit dichotomies. Strong atheism is always explicit, and implicit atheism is always weak.

The terms implicit atheism and explicit atheism were coined by George H. Smith (1979, p.13-18).

Implicit atheism is defined by Smith as "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it." Explicit atheism is defined as "the absence of theistic belief due to a conscious rejection of it", which, according to Smith, is sometimes called antitheism (see below).

For Smith, explicit atheism is subdivided further according to whether or not the rejection is on rational grounds. The term critical atheism is used to label the view that belief in god is irrational, and is itself subdivided into a) the view usually expressed by the statement "I do not believe in the existence of a god or supernatural being"; b) the view usually expressed by the statement, "god does not exist" or "the existence of god is impossible"; and c) the view which "refuses to discuss the existence or nonexistence of a god" because "the concept of a god is unintelligible" (p.17).

Although Nagel rejects Smith's definition of atheism as merely "lack of theism", acknowledging only explicit "atheism" as true atheism, his tripartite classification of rejectionist atheism (commonly found in the philosophical literature) is identical to Smith's critical atheism typology.

The difference between Nagel on the one hand and d'Holbach and Smith on the other has been attributed to the different concerns of professional philosophers and layman proponents of atheism (see Smith (1990, Chapter 3, p.51-60 [3]), for example, but also alluded to by others).

Everitt (2004) makes the point that professional philosophers are more interested in the grounds for giving or withholding assent to propositions:

We need to distinguish between a biographical or sociological enquiry into why some people have believed or disbelieved in God, and an epistemological enquiry into whether there are any good reasons for either belief or unbelief... We are interested in the question of what good reasons there are for or against God's existence, and no light is thrown on that question by discovering people who hold their beliefs without having good reasons for them. (p.10)

So, in philosophy (Flew and Martin notwithstanding), atheism is commonly defined along the lines of "rejection of theistic belief". This is often misunderstood to mean only the view that there is no God, but it is conventional to distinguish between two or three main sub-types of atheism in this sense (writers differ in their characterization of this distinction, and in the labels they use for these positions).

The terms weak atheism and strong atheism (or, alternatively, negative atheism and positive atheism) are often used as synonyms of Smith's less-well-known implicit and explicit categories. However, the original and technical meanings of implicit and explicit atheism are quite different and distinct from weak and strong atheism, having to do with conscious rejection and unconscious rejection of theism rather than with positive belief and negative belief.

People who do not use the broad definition of atheism as "lack of theism", but instead use the most common definition "disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods" [4] would not recognize mere absence of belief in deities (implicit atheism) as a type of atheism at all, and would tend to use other terms, such as "skeptic" or "agnostic" or "non-atheistic nontheism", for this position.

Atheism as immorality

The first attempts to define or develop a typology of atheism were in religious apologetics. These attempts were expressed in terminologies and in contexts which, unsurprisingly, reflected the religious assumptions and prejudices of the writers. Nevertheless, 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

Practical atheism was said to be caused by moral failure, hypocrisy, willful ignorance, and infidelity. Practical atheists behaved as though God, morals, ethics and social responsibility did not exist. Maritain's typology of atheism (1953, Chapter 8) proved influential in Catholic circles; it was followed in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (see Reid (1967)). He identified, in addition to practical atheism, pseudo-atheism and absolute atheism (and subdivided theoretical atheism in a way that anticipated Flew). For an atheist critique of Maritain, see Smith (1979, Chapter 1, Section 5) [5].

According to the French Catholic philosopher Étienne Borne (1961, p.10), "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."

According to Karen Armstrong (1999):

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word 'atheist' was still reserved exclusively for polemic... In his tract Atheism Closed and Open Anatomized (1634), John Wingfield claimed: "the hypocrite is an Atheist; the loose wicked man is an open Atheist; the secure, bold and proud transgressor is an Atheist: he that will not be taught or reformed is an Atheist". For the Welsh poet William Vaughan (1577 [sic]-1641), who helped in the colonisation of Newfoundland, those who raised rents or enclosed commons were obvious atheists. The English dramatist Thomas Nashe (1567-1601) proclaimed that the ambitious, the greedy, the gluttons, the vainglorious and prostitutes were all atheists. The term 'atheist' was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist. (p.331-332)

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. Thus, speculative atheism was collapsed into a form of practical atheism, or conceptualized as hatred of God, or a fight against God. This is why Borne finds it necessary to say, "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." (p.18)

Martin (1990, p.465-466) suggests that practical atheism would be better described as alienated theism.

Other pejorative definitions of atheism

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 alternative terms like secularist, agnostic, or bright is that atheism still has pejorative connotations arising from attempts at suppression and from its association with practical atheism (Godless is still used as an abusive epithet).

Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, the originators of the term Bright, made this explicit in an essay published in 2003:

Our personal frustration regarding labels reached culmination last fall when we were invited to join a march on Washington as "Godless Americans." The causes of the march were worthy, and the march itself well planned and conducted. However, to unite for common interests under a disparaging term like godless (it also means "wicked") seemed ludicrous! Why accept and utilize the very derogatory language that so clearly hampers our own capacity to play a positive and contributing role in our communities and in the nation and world? [6]

Gaskin (1989) abandoned the term atheism in favour 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..." (p.4)

Despite these considerations, for others atheist has always been the preferred name. Charles Bradlaugh once said (in debate with George Jacob Holyoake, 10 March 1870, cited in Bradlaugh Bonner (1908)):

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. (p.334)

For more on repressive definitions of atheism, see Berman (1982), (1983), (1990).

Weak and strong atheism

Main articles: Weak atheism, Strong atheism

Weak atheism, sometimes called soft atheism, negative atheism or neutral atheism, is the absence of belief in the existence of deities without the positive assertion that deities do not exist. Strong atheism, also known as hard atheism or positive atheism, is the belief that no deities exist.

While the terms weak and strong are relatively recent, the concepts they represent have been in use for some time. In earlier philosophical publications, the terms negative atheism and positive atheism were more common; these terms were used by Antony Flew in 1972, although Jacques Maritain (1953, Chapter 8, p.104) used the phrases in a similar, but strictly Catholic apologist, context as early as 1949 [7].

Although explicit atheists (nontheists who consciously reject theism), may subscribe to either weak or strong atheism, weak atheism also includes implicit atheists - that is, nontheists who have not consciously rejected theism, but lack theistic belief, arguably including infants.

Theists claim that a single deity or group of deities exist. Weak atheists do not assert the contrary; instead, they only refrain from assenting to theistic claims. Some weak atheists are without any opinion regarding the existence of deities, either because of a lack of thought on the matter, a lack of interest in the matter (see apatheism), or a belief that the arguments and evidence provided by both theists and strong atheists are equally unpersuasive. Others (explicit weak atheists) may doubt or dispute claims for the existence of deities, while not actively asserting that deities do not exist.

Some weak atheists feel that theism and strong atheism are equally untenable, on the grounds that faith is required both to assert and to deny the existence of deities, and as such both theism and strong atheism have the burden of proof placed on them to prove that a god does or doesn't exist. Some also base their belief on the notion that it is impossible to prove a negative.

While a weak atheist might consider the nonexistence of deities likely on the basis that there is insufficient evidence to justify belief in a deity's existence, a strong atheist would add to this the additional view that positive statements of nonexistence are merited when there is a lack of evidence for something's existence.

Strong atheism may be based on arguments that the concept of a deity is self-contradictory and therefore impossible (positive ignosticism), or on the assertion that any belief in the supernatural is not rationally justifiable. It may also be based on an appreciation of the psychological characteristics of faith and belief (see true-believer syndrome), and of a subsequent critical attitude towards any system that encourages faith and obedience, rather than critical thinking, from its adherents.

Agnosticism is distinct from weak atheism, though many implicit atheists may be agnostic.

Beliefs that theism is inherently meaningless or irrelevant


Main article: Ignosticism

Ignosticism is the view that the question of whether or not deities exist is inherently meaningless. It is a popular view among many logical positivists such as Rudolph Carnap and A. J. Ayer, who hold that talk of gods is literally nonsense. According to ignostics, "Does a god exist?" has the same logical status as "What color is Saturday?"; they are both nonsensical, and thus have no meaningful answers.

Ignostics commonly hold that statements about religious or other transcendent experiences cannot have any truth value, often because theological statements lack falsifiability, because of an epistemological view that renders the ontological argument nonsensical, or because the terminology being used has not been properly or consistently defined — the latter view is known as theological noncognitivism.

The use of the word "god" is thus solely a matter of semantics to ignostics, dealing with word use and technicalities rather than with existence and reality.

In Language, Truth and Logic, Ayer stated that theism, atheism and agnosticism were equally meaningless, insofar as they treat the question of the existence of God as a real question. However, there are varieties of atheism and agnosticism which do not necessarily agree that the question is meaningful, especially using the "lack of theism" definition of atheism. Despite Ayer's criticism of atheism (perhaps using the definition typically associated with strong atheism), Ignosticism is usually counted as a form of atheism; Ayer (1966) was clear on his position:

I do not believe in God. It seems to me that theists of all kinds have very largely failed to make their concept of a deity intelligible; and to the extent that they have made it intelligible, they have given us no reason to think that anything answers to it. (p226)

The ignostic position is mentioned (though the term ignostic is not used) as one of the three forms of "critical atheism" (in Smith) or "rejectionist atheism" (in Nagel), the other two being the view that god probably does not exist, and the view that god definitely does not exist. As critical/rejectionist atheism is a type of strong atheism (which is always explicit), this would make ignosticism a positive belief. However, some ignostics dispute whether considering a nonsensical question nonsensical is a positive statement. These ignostics prefer to categorize their view as a form of explicit weak atheism.

Ignosticism is distinct from apatheism in that while ignostics hold questions and discussions of whether deities exist to be meaningless, apatheists hold that even a hypothetical answer to such questions would be completely irrelevant to human existence.


Main article: Apatheism

Apatheism is a portmanteau of atheism and apathy, more often used in humorous contexts than in serious philosophical documents, but gaining broader acceptance as a way to describe a significant subset of nontheistic belief.

Apatheism is usually defined as the position that the existence or nonexistence of deities has no importance to the lives of humans. It is not a stance on whether or not deities exist, but rather on the relevancy and significance of any claims that deities exist or don't exist. Although it does not make any actual statements about the existence of a deity, it is commonly classified as a form of nontheism or implicit weak atheism because of its presumed lack of theistic belief.

One subset of apatheism is apathetic agnosticism, a fusion of apatheism with strong agnosticism that adds to apatheism's lack of interest in whether deities exist the claim that it is impossible to ever know whether or not deities exist.

Gnostic and agnostic atheism

Main article: Agnostic atheism

Agnostic atheism is a fusion of atheism or nontheism with agnosticism, the epistemological position that the existence or nonexistence of deities is unknown (weak agnosticism) or unknowable (strong agnosticism). Agnostic atheism is typically contrasted with agnostic theism, the belief that deities exist even though it is impossible to know that deities exist, and with gnostic atheism, the belief that there is enough information to determine that deities do not exist.

Agnostic atheism's definition varies, just as the definitions of agnosticism and atheism do. It may be a combination of lack of theism with strong agnosticism, the view that it is impossible to know whether deities exist to any reliable degree. It may also be a combination of lack of theism with weak agnosticism, the view that there is not currently enough information to decide whether or not a deity exists, but that there may be enough in the future.

Gnostic atheism is a more rarely used term, because often anyone who is not labeled as agnostic is assumed to be gnostic by default. Gnostic atheism also has varying meanings. When nontheism is combined with strong gnosticism, it denotes the belief that it is rational to be absolutely certain that deities do not, and perhaps cannot, exist. When it is with weak gnosticism, it denotes the belief that there is enough information to be reasonably sure that deities do not exist, but not absolutely certain.

Gnostic atheism is also sometimes used as a synonym of strong atheism, and thus agnostic atheism is occasionally a synonym for weak atheism. This is similar to the more common confusion of the terms implicit atheism and explicit atheism with strong and weak atheism.

Apatheism often overlaps with agnostic atheism, such as with apathetic agnosticism, a fusion of apatheism with strong agnostic atheism.

Atheism in philosophical naturalism

Many, if not most, atheists have preferred to say that atheism is a lack of a belief, rather than a belief in its own right (see, for example, Krueger (1998, p.22-24); Smith (1979, p.15-16)). This keeps the burden of proof on the theist (see Flew (1984b)), as the only one making any positive assertions. "Belief" also has other connotations that many atheists may wish to avoid.

Nevertheless, some atheist writers identify atheism with the naturalistic world view, and defend it on that basis. The case for naturalism is used as a positive argument for atheism. See, for example, Thrower (1971), Harbour (2001), Nielsen (2001) and Baggini (2003). See also Everitt's discussion of an anti-atheist argument against naturalism (2004, Chapter 9, p.178-190).

According to Thrower,

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. (p.3-4)

Julian Baggini argues that, "atheism can be understood not simply as a denial of religion, but as a self-contained belief system, if it is seen as a commitment to the view that there is only one world and this is the world of nature" (p.74). For Baggini, therefore,

the evidence for atheism is to be found in the fact that there is a plethora of evidence for the truth of naturalism and an absence of evidence for anything else. 'Anything else' of course includes God, but it also includes goblins, hobbits, and truly everlasting gobstoppers. There is nothing special about God in this sense. God is just one of the things that atheists don't believe in, it just happens to be the thing that, for historical reasons, gave them their name. (p.17)

Baggini's position is that "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" (p.3-4).

Michael Martin (1990, p.470) 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".


Main article: Antitheism

Antitheism (sometimes hyphenated) typically refers to a direct opposition to theism. In this use, it is a form of critical strong atheism. Antitheism may sometimes overlap with ignosticism, the view that theism is inherently meaningless, and may directly contradict apatheism, the view that theism is irrelevant rather than dangerous.

However, antitheism is also sometimes used, particularly in religious contexts, to refer to opposition to God or divine things, rather than to the belief in God. Using the latter definition, it may be possible — or perhaps even necessary — to be an antitheist without being an atheist or nontheist.

Antitheists may believe that theism is actually harmful, or may simply be atheists who have little tolerance for views they perceive as irrational. Strong atheists who are not antitheists may believe positively that deities do not exist, but not believe that theism is directly harmful or necessitates antagonistic opposition.

Spiritual and religious atheism

Although atheistic beliefs are often accompanied by a total lack of supernatural beliefs, this is not an aspect, or even a necessary consequence, of atheism. Indeed, there are many atheists who are not irreligious or secular. These are most common in spiritualities like Buddhism and Taoism, but they also exist in sects of religions that are usually very theistic by nature, such as Christianity, especially in some Liberal Quaker groups.

A number of atheistic churches have been established, such as the Thomasine Church, Naturalistic Pantheists, Brianism, the Church of Reality and the Fellowship of Reason. There is also a significant atheist presence in Unitarian Universalism, an extremely inclusivist religion.

Belief in God as a non-being

In English, believers usually refer to the monotheistic Abrahamic god as "God". In many abstract or esoteric interpretations of monotheism or henotheism, God is not thought of as a supernatural being, as a deity or god. Rather, God becomes a philosophical category: the All, the One, the Ultimate, the Absolute Infinite, the Transcendent, the Divine Ground, Being or Existence itself, etc. For example, such views are typical of pantheism, panentheism, and religious monism. Attributing anthropomorphic characteristics to God may be regarded as idolatry, blasphemy, or symbolism by some. Some theists may not believe in, or may even deny, the existence of deities as supernatural beings, while maintaining a belief in god as so conceived.

For example, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich described God as the "ground of Being", the "power of Being", or as "Being itself", and caused controversy by making the statement that "God does not exist", resulting in him occasionally being labelled as an atheist. Nevertheless, for Tillich, God is not "a" being that exists among other beings, but is Being itself. For him, God does not "exist" except as a concept or principle; God is the basis of Being, the metaphysical power by which Being triumphs over non-Being.

However, most atheists who deny the existence of deities as supernatural beings would also deny this and similar conceptions of God, or simply consider them incomprehensible. Even the broadest definitions of atheism often do not include belief in a conceptual or metaphysical God, categorizing this under theism instead.

Christian atheism

A famous but idiosyncratic atheistic belief is that of Thomas Altizer. His book The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1967) proclaims the highly unusual view that God has literally died, or self-annihilated. According to Altizer, this is nevertheless "a Christian confession of faith" (p.102). Making clear the difference between his position and that of both Nietzsche's notion of the death of God and the stance of theological non-realists, Altizer says:

To confess the death of God is to speak of an actual and real event, not perhaps an event occurring in a single moment of time or history, but notwithstanding this reservation an event that has actually happened both in a cosmic and in a historical sense.(p.103)

However, many would dispute that this is an atheist position at all, as belief in a dead God implies belief that God once existed and was alive. Atheism typically entails a lack of belief that any gods ever existed, rather than merely the belief that they do not exist now. For further discussion, see Lyas (1970).

Other, unrelated practitioners of Christian atheism may include Liberal Christian atheists who follow the teaching of Jesus, but who may not believe in the literal existence of god. In this case, however, many would dispute whether the atheists in question are truly Christians, though they certainly are by some of the looser definitions of the word.


Main article: History of atheism

Although the actual term atheism originated in 16th Century France, ideas that would be recognized as atheistic today existed even before Classical Antiquity. Epicurus proposed theories that can be classified as atheistic, such as a lack of belief in an afterlife, though he remained ambiguous concerning the actual existence of deities. Before him, Socrates was sentenced to death partly on the grounds that he was an atheist, although he did express belief in several forms of divinity, as recorded in Plato's Apology. This criminal connotation attached to atheistic ideas (heresy) would remain, at varying levels of severity, until the Renaissance, when criticism of the Church became more popular and accepted.

Atheism disappeared from the philosophy of the Greek and Roman traditions as Christianity gained influence. During the Age of Enlightenment, the concept of atheism re-emerged as an accusation against those who questioned the religious status quo, but by the late 18th century it had become the philosophical position of a growing minority. By the 20th century, along with the spread of rationalism and secular humanism, atheism had become common, particularly among scientists (see international survey of contemporary atheism). In the 20th Century, atheism also became a staple of the various Communist regimes, helping return some of the negative connotations of atheism, especially in the United States, where the term became synonymous with being unpatriotic during the Cold War.

Distribution of atheists

Atheism is common in Western Europe, Australia, Canada, in former and present communist states, and, to a lesser extent, in the United States.

It is particularly prevalent among scientists, a tendency already quite marked at the beginning of the 20th century, developing into a dominant one during the course of the century. In 1914, James H. Leuba found that 58% of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. natural scientists expressed "disbelief or doubt in the existence of God". The same study, repeated in 1996, gave a similar percentage of 60.7%; this number is 93% among the members of the National Academy of Sciences. Expressions of positive disbelief rose from 52% to 72%. [8] (See also The relationship between religion and science).

Atheism in the United Kingdom

In early 2004, it was announced that atheism would be taught during religious education classes in Britain. [9] A spokesman for the "Qualifications and Curriculum Authority" stated: "There are many children in England who have no religious affiliation and their beliefs and ideas, whatever they are, should be taken very seriously." There is also considerable debate in the U.K. on the status of faith-based schools, which use religious as well as academic selection criteria. [10]

Atheism in the United States

In the United States, disapproval of atheists is common. For example, according to one recent poll, 52% of Americans claim that they would not vote for a well-qualified atheist for president. [11] Notwithstanding such attitudes, there are more atheists in the U.S. than members of any one religion except Christianity. Atheists are also legally protected from discrimination in the United States. They have been among the strongest advocates of the legal separation of church and state. American courts have regularly, if controversially, interpreted the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state as protecting the freedoms of non-believers, as well as prohibiting the establishment of any state religion. Atheists often sum up the legal situation with the phrase: "Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion." [12]

In Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet[13], Justice Souter wrote in the opinion for the Court that: "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion." [14] Everson v. Board of Education established that "neither a state nor the Federal Government can... pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another". This applies the Establishment Clause to the states as well as the federal government. [15] However, several state constitutions make the protection of persons from religious discrimination conditional on their acknowledgement of the existence of a deity, apparently making freedom of religion in those states inapplicable to atheists. These state constitutional clauses have not been tested. Additionally, some state constitutions (namely, Arkansas and South Carolina) disallow atheists to hold public office, although most agree that, if challenged, these requirements would be ruled unconstitutional under Article Six of the United States Constitution which bans such qualifications. Civil rights cases are typically brought in federal courts; so such state provisions are mainly of symbolic importance.

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

Atheism studies and statistics

As some governments have strongly promoted atheism, whilst others have strongly condemned it, atheism may be either over-reported or under-reported for different countries. There is a great deal of room for debate as to the accuracy of any method of measurement, as the opportunity for misreporting (intentionally or not) a belief system without an organized structure is high. Also, many surveys on religious identification ask people to identify themselves as "agnostics" or "atheists", which is potentially confusing, since these terms are interpreted differently by many different people, with some identifying themselves as being both atheist and agnostic. Additionally, many of these surveys only gauge the number of irreligious people, not the number of actual atheists, or group the two together.

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

  • A 1995 survey [16] attributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica indicates that the non-religious are about 14.7% of the world's population, and atheists around 3.8%.
  • The 2001 ARIS report found that while 29.5 million U.S. Americans (14.1%) describe themselves as "without religion", only 902,000 (0.4%) positively claim to be atheist, with another 991,000 (0.5%) professing agnosticism.
  • In the 2001 Australian Census [17] 15.5% of respondents ticked "no religion", and a further 11.7% either did not state their religion or were deemed to have described it inadequately (there was a popular and successful campaign at the time to have people describe themselves as Jedi).
  • In 2001, the Czech Statistical Office provided census information on the ten million people in the Czech Republic. 59% had no religion, 32.2% were religious, and 8.8% did not answer. This suggests that the Czech Republic is probably the most atheistic country in the world.
  • In 2002 survey in Russia, 32% self-described as atheist. Of the 58% self-describing as Russian Orthodox Christian, 42% said they had never been in a church.
  • A 2002 survey by [19] estimates the proportion of the world's people who are "secular, non-religious, agnostics and atheists" as about 14%.
  • In a 2003 poll in France, 54% of those polled identified themselves as "faithful", 33% as atheist, 14% as agnostic, and 26% as "indifferent". [20]
  • A 2004 survey by the BBC [21] in 10 countries showed the proportion of the population "who don't believe in God nor in a higher power" varying between 0% and 30%, with an average close to 10% in the countries surveyed. About 8% of the respondents stated specifically that they consider themselves to be atheists.
  • A 2004 survey by the CIA in the World Factbook [22] estimates about 12.5% of the world's population are non-religious, and about 2.4% are atheists.
  • A 2004 survey by the Pew Research Center [23] showed that in the United States, 12% of people under 30 and 6% of people over 30 could be characterized as non-religious.
  • A 2005 poll by AP/Ipsos [24] surveyed ten countries. Of the developed nations, people in the United States had most certainty about the existence of god or a higher power (2% atheist, 4% agnostic), while France had the most skeptics (19% atheist, 16% agnostic). On the religion question, South Korea had the greatest percentage without a religion (41%) while Italy had the smallest (5%).

Statistical problems

Statistics on atheism are often difficult to accurately represent for a variety of reasons.

Atheism is nonexclusive

Atheism is a position compatible with other forms of identity. Some atheists also consider themselves Agnostic, Buddhist, or hold other related philosophical beliefs. Therefore, given limited poll options, some may use other terms to describe their identity.


Some politically motivated organizations that report or gather population statistics may, intentionally or unintentionally, misrepresent atheists. Also, many atheists, particularly former Catholics, are still counted as Christians in church rosters. Many Christians believe that "once a person is Christian, that person is always a Christian" [25].

Misunderstanding and external pressure

A negative perception of atheists and pressure from family and peers may also cause some atheists to disassociate themselves from atheism. Misunderstanding of the term may also be a reason some label themselves differently.


Legal and social discrimination against atheists in some places may lead some to deny or conceal their atheism due to fears of persecution.

Religious and spiritual views of atheism


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

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook [26][27], first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in pre-state Israel, held that atheists were not actually denying God: rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of god, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism.

Some Jewish atheists reject Judaism, but wish to continue identifying themselves with the Jewish people and culture. See, for example, Levin (1995).


By necessity, Christianity, as a theistic and proselytising religion views atheism as wrongful. According to Psalm 14:1, "The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God." According to John 3:18-19, all who reject Christianity (and presumably its attendant theism) do so "because their deeds are evil".



In Islam, atheists are categorized as kafir, a term that is also used to describe polytheists, and that translates roughly as "denier" or "concealer". The noun kafir carries connotations of blasphemy and disconnection from the Islamic community, and is widely used to describe non-Muslims in general. In Arabic, "atheism" is generally translated ilhad (إلحاد), although this also means "heresy". As the Sharia punishment for apostasy in Islam is death and such apostasy is also widely socially disapproved of, atheists (as well as converts from Islam to other religions) in Islamic countries and communities frequently conceal their non-belief. The surveys mentioned above that indicate 100% religious belief in certain Islamic countries should be interpreted in light of this fact.

Asian spirituality

It is difficult to categorize the Eastern thought systems in distinct terms of theism or atheism. Therefore, it should be noted that even the thoughts that would be characterized as atheistic in the western sense, often have some theistic tendencies, and vice versa.

Carvaka (also Charvaka) was a materialist and atheist school of thought in India, which is now known principally from fragments cited by its Hindu and Buddhist opponents. The proper aim of a Carvakan, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, productive life in this world (cf Epicureanism). There is some evidence that the school persisted until at least 1578. Buddhism is often believed to be atheistic, since it opposed the gods and rituals of Vedic religion. However, Buddhist documents, such as Asvagosha's Buddhacarita, suggest a strong polytheistic tendency in Buddhism. Later expressions of Buddhism, especially among the Mahayana schools, also display many theistic characteristics in their descriptions of the cosmic Buddha, and the nature of the world. Other schools continue to consider themselves as fundamentally atheistic, in the strong sense of the term.

Confucianism and Taoism are arguably atheistic in the sense that they do not explicitly affirm, nor are they founded upon a faith in, a higher being or beings. However, Confucian writings do have numerous references to 'Heaven,' which denotes a transcendent power, with a personal connotation. Neo-Confucian writings, such as that of Chu Hsi, are vague on whether their conception of the Great Ultimate is like a personal deity or not. Also, although the Western translation of the Tao as 'god' in some editions of the Tao te Ching is highly misleading, it is still a matter of debate whether the actual descriptions of the Tao by Lao Zi has theistic or atheistic undertones.

Reasons for atheism

Although not all atheists have a rational justification for their stance, a majority do attempt to explain and justify their lack of a belief in gods, and there are some especially common reasons among explicit atheists given for why they do not accept theism.

Philosophical reasons

A majority of explicit atheists base their stance on rational or philosophical grounds, arguing that their position is based on logical analysis, and subsequent rejection, of theistic claims. These arguments against the existence of deities consist of a number of different problems with theism. Chief among these problems is a perceived lack of evidence supporting theistic claims.

"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." [28]

Many atheists hold that as their view is merely the absence of a certain belief, the only defense that atheism needs is a good offense. If theism's arguments are refuted, nontheism, as the only alternative, becomes the default position. As such, many atheists have argued against the most famous "proofs" of God's existence for centuries. Whether these arguments have refuted all of the arguments for God is a matter of dispute.

"Throughout the centuries, theistic philosophers have offered logical arguments in support of God's existence. Most of these can be divided into four major classes - ontological, cosmological, teleological, and moral" [29]

In general, atheists contend that these have been refuted.

There are also many atheists who attack specific forms of theism as being self-contradictory. One of the most common arguments against the existence of a specific God is the problem of evil.

"The problem of evil is probably the most enduring and the most potent argument atheism has to offer against many varieties of theism. Christian apologist William Lane Craig aptly styled it atheism's killer argument. In brief, it seeks to establish that the existence of evil in the world is logically incompatible with the existence of a benevolent God, and that it is more reasonable to conclude that God does not exist than that he does exist but does nothing to stop evil." [30]

Other well-known positive arguments include theological noncognitivism, incoherency arguments (which seek to prove contradictions within the nature of "god"), atheistic teleological arguments, and the Transcendental argument for the non-existence of God.

Personal and social reasons

As well as atheists with philosophical reasons, there are explicit atheists who cite social, psychological, practical, and other reasons for their beliefs.

Some people hold atheistic beliefs on the grounds that it is conducive towards living a better life, such as the belief that atheism is more ethical or useful than theism. Such atheists may hold that searching for explanations through natural science is more beneficial than doing it through faith.

Moral reasons for atheism include "cases where the requirement to do what is right favors being an atheist, or at the very least, not supporting certain sects or practices of theism.... Those who cannot accept the notion of an evil god must conclude that any immoral religion is necessarily false." Practical reasons for atheism include "reasons why accepting atheism over theism produces positive overall effects on a person's life." [31]

Arguments that theism promotes immorality often center around the contention that a great deal of violence, including war, has been brought about by religious beliefs and practices.

Some people are atheists at least partly because of growing up in an environment where atheism is relatively common, such as being raised by atheist parents.

"Many people are atheists not because they've reasoned things out like that, but because of the way they were brought up or educated, or because they have simply adopted the beliefs of the culture in which they grew up." BBC.

Most atheists contend that the same is true for many believers. For instance, most of the population in predominantly Jewish, Muslim, or Christian countries follow the religion that is more prevalent without much questioning.

Christian psychologist Paul Vitz (1999) argues that, "Many people have psychological reasons for atheism" [32] and "neurotic psychological barriers to belief in God are of great importance" [33]. See Vitz (1999) and, for a similar view, Rizzuto (1998).

While it is common to point out the psychological reasons for not being an atheist, it is important to note that emotion and "feelings" play an important role for many people, not just theists. However, an understanding of the psychological origins for belief in a god may contribute to some atheists' lack of religious belief; see true believer syndrome and psychology of religion.

Criticisms of atheism

Atheists and atheism have received much criticism and opposition throughout human history, chiefly from theistic sources who consider lack of belief in their god sinful, misguided, or immoral. There has also been some criticism from nontheistic sources, at least of various forms of atheism. It is possible from the standpoint of religious philosophy to assess the arguments without necessarily taking a position on the issue.

The most direct arguments against atheism are those in favor of the existence of deities, which would imply that atheism is simply untrue. For examples of this type of argument, see Existence of God.

Other popular critiques of atheism, and their corresponding common atheist responses, include:

Atheism is incoherent

Some hold the view that atheism is meaningless, a belief that can either be the polar opposite of ignosticism (the view that theism is incoherent), or an actual aspect of ignosticism, as many ignostics reject the label atheist on the basis that it is just as nonsensical as theist is.

Others consider atheism incoherent when accompanied by other beliefs, due to logical contradiction. Alvin Plantinga, a contemporary Christian apologist, argued that atheism is incompatible with belief in evolution, on the basis that evolution, combined with naturalism, implies that our epistemological systems will simply be "designed" to keep us alive. In other words, evolution would have no reason to "assign" us true beliefs if other beliefs would keep us alive. He concludes that we can either accept evolution as true, or accept naturalism as true, and that the acceptance of both leads to incoherence and self-contradiction. His arguments closely resemble Edmund Husserl's arguments against psychologism in logic. This argument ignores the fact that things have capabilities other than their primary "designed" capabilities: feathers meant for warmth proved capable of flight, human minds that in general are sufficient for survival though generalized capabilities have numerous capabilities not necessarily designed for. Further, mate selection preferences can produce nonsurvival characteristics, such as colorful peacock tails, or (in the case of humans) mental abilities.

Atheism doesn't exist

One popular claim among some theists in the past has been that all people must naturally, inherently believe in a deity. Thus, atheism cannot be a true statement of belief, but is simply a form of denial. With atheism defined out of existence, atheists must necessarily be deluding themselves rather than honestly disbelieving.

The typical response to this has been to demand evidence that people who claim not to be theists are secretly theists, as anyone could make such a claim about anything, attempting to support a point by arguing that everyone already agrees with you without knowing it.

Atheism leads to poor morals and ethics

Many world religions teach that morality is derived from the dictates or commandments of a particular deity, and that acknowledgment of God or the gods is a major factor in motivating people towards moral behavior. Consequently, atheists have frequently been accused of being amoral or immoral. For example, for many years in the United States, atheists were not allowed to testify in court because it was believed that an atheist would have no reason to tell the truth.

Atheists reject this view and assert that they are as motivated towards moral behavior as anyone, citing possible non-theistic sources of moral behavior such as: their upbringing; natural empathy, compassion and a human concern for others; respect for order, society, and law; and a desire for a good reputation and self-esteem. In addition, while atheism does not entail any particular moral philosophy, many atheists are drawn towards views like secular humanism and utilitarianism, which provide a moral framework that is not founded on faith in deities.

Atheists have also argued that no religious basis is necessary for one to live an ethical life. [34] They assert that truly ethical behavior would come from altruistic motivation, not from fear of punishment or hope of reward after death. Further, they cite the fact that within many religions the concept of morality is presented as a list of prohibitions; thou shall not statements, compiled as a check against one's actions. They assert that abiding by a list of prohibitions is not sufficient for genuinely ethical behavior, and that morality should be positive rather than negative; What should I do? rather than What shouldn't I do?. They consider that reason guided by humanism and rational thought can lead to a fully expressed ethical life.

Some atheists counter that religion, rather than atheism, is a source of immorality. Francis Bacon writes: "Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all of which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, even if religion vanished; but religious superstition dismounts all these and erects an absolute monarchy in the minds of men." [35] Many other atheists, however — and some theists — do not believe that theism, or lack of it, has any pronounced effect on whether a person behaves morally or not.

Some theists have also argued that atheism promotes immorality based on examples of atheists who are widely considered to be oppressive and brutal rulers, particularly Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. However, atheists have countered that the existence of unethical people who have a certain belief system (or a lack of a certain belief system) does not indicate that the belief system itself is unethical. Furthermore, logicians may point out that this could be an example of the Genetic fallacy. Otherwise, Adolf Hitler's Christian beliefs, for example, might incriminate all of Christianity. Without any cause-and-effect connection, such associations remain mere rhetoric.

In addition, an argument that alleges atheism is false because it leads to poor morals would be a form of appeal to consequences, a logical fallacy – even if atheism was indeed related to immorality (a controversial position), it would not imply that an atheist belief system is logically incorrect.

Atheism is a belief as much as theism is

The claim that atheism requires as much faith or as many unmerited assumptions as theism does is commonly used as an argument against strong atheism by weak atheists and agnostics, as well as against atheism in general.

At times, this argument consists of laying the burden of proof on atheism, or on both atheism and theism. However, laying the burden of proof on atheism may be unrealistic, as, while it might be theoretically possible to one day find reasonably persuasive evidence of the existence of a deity (though strong agnostics disagree), it seems unlikely that atheism could ever find evidence of a "not-god" anywhere. As such, arguments for atheism consist primarily of arguments against theism, which is in keeping with claims that atheism is only the lack of a belief rather than a belief itself. Conversely, some atheists argue that they are under no obligation to prove their claims, rather, that the burden of proof lies upon theists to prove their beliefs by with strong evidence and reasoning.

See also

External links


Web sites



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