Atheism means “lack of a belief in gods” or “a belief that there is no god.” But, atheists are not necessarily anti-spiritual, anti-religion, or immoral; many atheists believe that atheism can provide a better foundation for morality and a meaningful life than theism (belief in a god or gods)
Originally, in ancient Greek, atheism meant “without god” (a-theos) in the sense of impious, or irreligious people. But since the 17th century it has referred to a lack of belief in, or belief that there are no gods. But whether an atheist is a person who has never heard of gods, doesn’t care about gods, doubts their existence, or absolutely denies their existence . . . well that’s a matter of some debate among the many kinds of atheists! We’ll look at varieties of atheism more in Section III.
Atheism is pronounced ‘A-thee-ism,’ with the “A” sound in “day” and the “th” sound in “think”.
II. Types of Atheism
- Practical Atheism, also known as apatheism, means simply living as if there are no gods, and explaining the world in terms of nature, but without actively denying the existence of gods. It can be accidental, such as in a person who has never thought about gods, due to indifference, or a purposely adopted methodology, such as in scientific work.
- Theoretical Atheism is what most people think of as atheism—a principled denial of the existence of gods. It includes many sub-types such as:
- Epistemological atheism argues that it is impossible to know that god exists.
- Metaphysical atheism argues that there is no place for gods in a certain metaphysics of reality, such as in materialism
- Logical atheism argues that the existence of gods is illogical, such as because omnipotence is self-contradictory.
- Religious atheism includes many religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. These religions often identify something else as the highest power and source of all things in the universe, such as nature in Taoism and consciousness in Buddhism.
- Axiological Atheism, which may overlap with any of the kinds listed above, is the rejection of belief in God in favor of another “higher absolute” such as humanity, as a source of morality and life-meaning; secular humanism is perhaps the most well-known form of axiological atheism.
III. Famous Quotes about Atheism
“Small amounts of philosophy lead to atheism, but larger amounts bring us back to God.”
— Francis Bacon
This quotation of Francis Bacon probably speaks for a great many rationalists and scientists. Bacon was one of the first and most influential rationalist philosophers of the 16th and 17th century; one of the founders of modern science. In this quote, he perhaps agrees with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein who felt that science (which was still a branch of philosophy in his day) eventually leads towards a belief in God rather than away from it. Bacon’s quote is also probably referring to the spread of rationalist atheism in European philosophy in his time, and suggesting that extensive investigation would make a philosopher see the intelligence in nature which motivates many scientists to believe in God.
“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
— George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw, a playwright, literary critic, and famously opinionated writer, here echoes a belief shared by many atheists—that people believe in God because it makes them happier, and that this isn’t a rational justification for belief in God, but rather an admission that belief in God is irrational and merely based on a need for psychological comfort—like drugs and alcohol.
IV. The History of Atheism
In a sense, atheism is older than humanity, since according to some definitions, atheism includes people who have never heard about gods, such as our distant ancestors. And several ancient major religions—varieties of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism—did not believe in gods, although they did not oppose the belief in gods; they just thought of spirituality in different terms; and some would say that they believed in things, such as the Tao and the Buddha, who play the role of god in those religions.
The strongest form of atheism—the active rejection of belief in gods—has only become popular enough to have a name since the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason in Europe (17-18th centuries). And only in the 20th century has atheism become widely accepted–even enforced by certain governments!
The earliest recorded atheism appears in the oldest Hindu scriptures, the Vedas (approx. 2000 B.C. although not written down until much later), some of which are theist, while others are more mystical, describing religious experience as a form of consciousness expansion, rather than a relationship with gods. Atheistic Buddhism was born out of the mystical side of Hinduism around 500 B.C. and eventually became the most popular religion in East Asia.
Some kinds of Buddhism recognize god-like supernatural or enlightened beings, but nothing like an omniscient creator god, and for the most part, the gods of Buddhism are understood to represent natural and psychological forces; in fact, some say that Buddhism is about how humans can become gods, but not in the same sense as the gods of Western religions.
The two native religions of China, Taoism and Confucianism, also have no gods, technically, but many of their believers also believe in the gods of some other religion, or simply the gods of Chinese folklore. But the actual teachings of these “religions” definitely lack gods, defining spirituality fully in terms of nature and humanity.
Atheism in the Western world grew out of the seeds of reason and science promoted first by the ancient Greeks, although some of them, such as Socrates, strongly denied accusations of atheism. Democritus and the atomists promoted the belief that the world was entirely material and understandable in terms of natural law. And several other Greek philosophers, such as Prodicus and Critias, also declared themselves atheists.
But atheism did not make a major appearance in the West again until the 17th Century, when materialist, rationalist, and scientific views began to come to the fore in Western philosophy. Although most philosophers and scientists at that time also claimed to believe in God, it was their materialism and rationalism which opened the philosophical door to serious arguments against the existence of God. Moreover, scientists realized that the existence of God was unprovable, and so considered him irrelevant to science. Meanwhile, rationalists could also argue that the idea of God contradicted itself (can God make a rock so big that he can’t move it?).
Some of the first vocal atheists were rationalists associated with the French Revolution, such as Voltaire, in the late 18th century, but still it wasn’t until the later 19th century that atheism came forward in a big way with German philosophers such as Karl Marx, Max Stirner, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Atheism has continued to become increasingly popular world-wide since around the year 1900 (with many exceptions of course). Probably three things have made atheism appeal to more and more people since then:
- Science and education in general
- Global cultural exchange
The popularity of atheism is strongly correlated with the level of education and economic well-being in a nation. In general, educated well-off nations have more atheists. The horrors of the world wars caused many philosophers to reject god. And increased communication between different cultures made people realize that their own religion might not be correct. Atheism was also strongly promoted by the spread of communism, with both the Soviet Union at China actually enforcing atheism during their early years—although both became somewhat more tolerant later.The latest chapter in the history of atheism has been the rise of scientists, philosophers, and artists who believe in and actively promote strong atheism—the total denial of both God and organized religion—and who try to stop religious beliefs from dictating the content of public education. World-leading philosopher Daniel Dennett and biologist Richard Dawkins, have written books and given lecture tours speaking strongly against the belief in gods and associated beliefs, such as creationism.
Atheism versus Amorality
At least since the 18th century, theists have feared that spreading atheism would promote immorality — and some religious leaders today blame atheism and science for the spread of immorality and crime in the world. And it is true that certain things considered “immoral” by some religious people has been promoted by the rejection of traditional religions in other words things which are discouraged by certain religions.
Atheists argue that atheism does not promote immorality, but in fact, the opposite. Atheists often have non-theistic spiritual beliefs, such as in the sacredness of human life, or nature. They have morality based on positive reasons, such as compassion and respect for all people, and love of nature.
VI. Atheism versus agnosticism
Have you ever heard people say something like “nothing can stop someone who believes in something”? Well, a joke criticizing agnosticism is “nothing can stop an agnostic who really doesn’t know whether they believe in anything or not.”
Agnosticism means “not knowing”; weak agnosticism means simply recognizing that you don’t know whether any gods exist. Strong agnosticism means believing that nobody can know, and that it is wrong to believe or disbelieve. Agnosticism and atheism can overlap, depending on how you define each of them, or a person can even be an agnostic at the same time that they’re an atheist or a theist, depending on your definitions.
Many atheists and theists would say that they don’t really know whether God exists, but they choose to believe or disbelieve for various reasons—such as to give meaning to their lives.
Therefore, although people usually think that agnosticism is opposed to both atheism and theism, in fact, it addresses a different question. Atheism and theism are beliefs about the existence of deities, while agnosticism is about what we can know, and whether we should believe in things that we can’t know. In fact, some people believe in pan-agnosticism, being agnostic about everything, not just God!
But agnosticism raises an important accusation and debate about atheism—whether atheism is a kind of faith. Many atheists have responded by pointing out that it is normal to assume that something extra-ordinary does not exist unless given extra-ordinary proof. Thus atheists may say that agnosticism is not really a rational position, because it is irrational to even take the belief in gods seriously; it’s like feeling as if you’re obligated to admit that Santa Claus might really exist.
VII. Atheism in Popular Culture
Example 1: The song “Dear God” by XTC:
This song, by a major British New Wave band, sparked controversy when it came out in the 1980’s—not least because it featured a child-singer. Although presented as a letter to God, the song passionately rejects Christianity and belief in God, based on the common argument that no God worth believing in would allow the amount of meaningless suffering which exists in the world.
Example 2: comedian, George Carlin (warning – Carlin uses “adult” language)
This routine by the popular and often controversial comedian George Carlin rather speaks for itself. Carlin gives many reasons to reject (at least Christian) beliefs in God, including the violence which has been committed in the name of God. And Carlin goes further, pointing out many inconsistencies, irrationalities, and hypocrisies of Christian belief.