Skip to main content
Select Source:

Atheism

ATHEISM

ATHEISM. The early modern period in Europe has been called an age of unbelief, with its materialist and mechanistic view of the world in natural philosophy, increased liberalism and toleration in political thought, and advances in the secularization of culture. Early modern atheistic thinkers are supposed to have laid the philosophical groundwork for much of later irreligion.

Early modern Christian writers often failed to distinguish between non-belief in "the true God" and non-belief in a supreme being per se, and atheism usually meant the assertion of the non-existence of the Judeo-Christian God. Strictly speaking, however, atheism is the denial of the existence of a divinity. As such, it is different from agnosticism (a suspension of belief on the question of God's existence) or simple theological heterodoxy. In the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, however, the term atheist was used without great precision, even carelessly. The epithet was applied to religious dissidents, political enemies, and debauched libertines, usually with little concern for a person's real beliefs on the question of God's existence. Thus, when the sixteenth-century French cleric and writer François Rabelais (c. 14941553) was accused of being an atheist because of the fun had at religion's expense in his comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, he lost no time in returning the charge at his sectarian opponents. Agnostics and religious skeptics; rationalists, deists, pantheists, materialists, members of dissenting religious sects, or those belonging to no recognized confessional religion; moral, religious, and political subversives; and general non-conformists as well as true unbelievers were all called atheists. In this respect, the early modern period was no different from earlier historical eras. As Socrates himself had discovered, "atheist" was a convenient label for any person who did not believe what everyone else believed and who showed independent, critical, and iconoclastic tendencies.

It is thus difficult to determine who in this (or any) period was, in fact, an atheist and who was simply unorthodox or annoying. Few individuals actually proclaimed themselves atheists or argued explicitly against the belief in God, and many people caught in the dragnet were undoubtedly innocent of the charge. On the other hand, despite this rhetorical laxity and consequent confusion in the use of the term, the historian Lucien Febvre's claim that before the end of the seventeenth century a true systematic atheism was impossible, and that "atheist" was nothing more than a widely used but nearly meaningless insult, cannot be accepted.

Early modern thinkers distinguished between theoretical or speculative atheism and practical atheism. The theoretical atheist was someone who claimed to believe that there was no God, but for whom this belief had no real pragmatic consequences. It was a philosophical position, not a moral, social, or devotional one, and it had little effect on his behavior. The practical atheist, on the other hand, was someone who, while probably not really denying "in his heart" the existence of God, nevertheless led a dissolute and immoral life and engaged in the overt mockery of religion. While there were undeniably many such libertines in early modern Europe, there was great debate at the time over whether there were, in fact, any sincere theoretical atheists. The idea of a providential God, some asserted, is innate in the human mind. René Descartes (15961650) argued as much in his Meditationes de Prima Philosophia (1641; Meditations on first philosophy). Although the concept of God may become obscured by the more vivid and compelling material from the senses, ultimatelyin dire circumstances or as the end of life approachedall professed atheists were said to acknowledge God.

Another recognized category was the indirect atheist. Although probably not a nonbeliever himself, the indirect atheist was someone whose ideas, if taken to their logical conclusion, led to atheism. Descartes, with his employment of hyperbolic skepticism and, according to his critics, allegedly fallacious demonstrations of God's existence, was often considered a proto-atheist in this sense.

The long list of real and alleged atheists in the early modern period includes, besides Rabelais, the Italian Lucilio Vanini (15851619), the English materialist and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (15881679), the Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (16321677), and numerous French philosophes of the eighteenth century, including Julien Offroy de La Mettrie (17091751); Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach (17231789); and the encyclopédiste Denis Diderot (17131784). While some of these and other figures were indeed atheists in the strict sense of the term, there is nothing that they really have in common other than unorthodox beliefs about God and religion and the fact that they generated a good deal of concern among ecclesiastical and political authorities.

Italy enjoyed perhaps the greatest reputation in the seventeenth century as a congenial home for atheism. This perception was fostered by the presence of thinkers like Vanini, an open and avowed atheist who denied the possibility of an immaterial God creating a material world and communicating with embodied beings. Religion, Vanini insisted, was a fiction, and the only true worship was that of nature. He was burned at the stake for his "blasphemous" beliefs.

Hobbes is often cited by his seventeenth-century contemporaries as one of the period's leading atheists, but his case is a vexed one. His materialism explicitly rules out the possibility of any incorporeal substance (including the human soul and God), and he seems to have had an ambivalent attitude at best toward Christian doctrine. He claims that it is wrong to attribute any human properties to God and thus rules out the personal God of Western religion. But Hobbes nowhere denies God's existence; in fact, he explicitly affirms it, and adds that God should be worshiped. Moreover, he advocated Christianity as the proper civil religion for England. But this did not prevent his critics (including Samuel Clarke) from reading his Leviathan (1651) and other worksprobably correctlyas expressions of an atheistic philosophy.

Practically all major discussions of atheism in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, centered on the ideas and influence of one figure: Spinoza. The excommunicated Jewish thinker was considered to be the most dangerous atheist of his time. The great French philosopher and man of letters Pierre Bayle called him "the greatest atheist who ever lived." However, Bayle also believed Spinoza to be a perfect example of a theoretical atheist: despite his denial of a providential God and his promotion of a view seen as corrupting of others, Spinoza was, Bayle insists, a man of outstanding character and conduct who led an exemplary life.

In his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670; Theological-political treatise), Spinoza argued that the Bible is not literally the word of God but simply a collection of human writings. He also believed that while the prophets were men with highly active imaginations, they were not intellectually superior to ordinary human beings and had no privileged access to any kind of divine communication. It is in his Ethica (1663, 1677; Ethics), however, that the real nature of Spinoza's atheism appears. Spinoza denies the providential God of Scripture. There is no wise, benevolent, all-knowing, just God governing the world and standing in judgment over us. Such an anthropomorphizing of God, he argues, can lead only to superstition and a life of bondage to the passions of hope and fear. In fact, Spinoza denies that there is a transcendent God at all. Rather, God is nature; or, more accurately, God is equivalent to the most universal, active causal principles in nature, which cover all phenomena. In a famous phrase, Spinoza speaks of "God, or Nature" (Deus, sive Natura), and it is clear that his goal is not to deify nature but to completely naturalize God and reduce the divinity to the same laws that govern everything that happens in nature.

Spinoza thus denies the supernatural, and consequently any theology, sectarian religion, or morality that depends upon it. This is not to say that he rejects all religion. Rather, he insists that the true religion consists in the observance of some basic moral principles, above all, love of one's fellow human beings. If what was essential to early modern atheism was the denial of the existence of a transcendent God, a rejection of the creation of the world, and the elimination of any divine foundation for morality, then Spinoza's philosophy, if any, was indeed atheistic. Many thinkers in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were caught up in the controversies around Spinoza, and the term Spinozist became synonymous with atheist in the period.

In early-eighteenth-century France there was a good deal of "atheism" in the many clandestine manuscripts that circulated in society and especially in the unregulated discussions that took place in the salons and cafés of Paris. Here could be found diverse libertines, radicals, and freethinkers expressing doubts about Christian dogma (including the divinity of Christ) and mocking religious beliefs in general. Many of them (including the declared atheist Nicolas Fréret) were influenced by the writings of Henri de Boulainvilliers (16581722), a nobleman who, by the end of his life, was a devout Spinozist. In his Essai de métaphysique (c. 1700; Essay on metaphysics), which circulated in manuscript form, Boulainvilliers insisted that the divine creation of the world was impossible, and that nature was governed not by providence but by necessary laws. Above all, he rejected the notion of a transcendent, personal God endowed with the usual moral and psychological characteristics.

An equally great cause of concern for eighteenth-century theists lay in the radical materialism of such thinkers as La Mettrie. In his work L'homme machine (1747; Man, a machine), La Mettrie, who was a physician, rejected even the progressive, dualist scientific philosophy of the Cartesians and presented an extreme mechanistic account of the human being, doing away with an incorporeal soul and any non-material causes in nature. Fancying himself a Spinozist, he argued that there was no evidence in nature to support the belief in a transcendent, intelligent, and providential deity. Although La Mettrie has disparaging words to say about atheismhe calls it a "strange opinion"there can be no question that it is his own position. He undoubtedly agreed with his colleague Holbach, like Vanini one of the few self-proclaimed atheists of the time, who said in his Systéme de la nature (1770; System of nature) that "sacred opinions are the real source of evils among human beings. . . . An atheist . . . is a man who destroys chimerae harmful to the human race, in order to lead men back to nature, to experience, and to reason, which has no need of recourse to ideal powers to explain the operations of nature." Holbach justified atheism not merely on its truth, but also its utility; he insisted that the doctrine was clearly the most conducive to human happiness and tranquility.

The early modern period's attitude toward atheism was complex. On the one hand, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were, in important respects, an era of rationalism and enlightenment. Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Newton, and others all argued for the separation of philosophy and science from religion, and believed in the general toleration of new or heterodox ideas. But none of these figures was willing to do without the traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God; in fact, all of them devoted a good deal of effort to demonstrating God's existence. (It should be noted, though, that offering a proof for God's existence was not, by itself, sufficient evidence that a thinker was not an atheist. As the case of Spinoza shows, it all depended on what one meant by "God.") The English chemist Robert Boyle sought to counter atheism by appealing to the argument from design, while the French priest and philosopher Pierre Gassendi was concerned to show that the ancient atomism of Epicurus and Democritus could be purified of its atheistic elements and made consistent with Christianity. But as forerunners and leaders of the Enlightenment, they were committed at least in a general way to certain liberal values, including (for the sake of philosophical and scientific progress itself) the free expression of ideas.

And yet there were certain ideas that not even these progressive thinkers were willing to tolerate. Locke, for one, drew the line at atheism. He argued strenuously for the toleration of different religions. But "atheism and epicurism" were not religions, he insisted, and in his Third Letter for Toleration (1692) he argued in favor of "the magistrate's power to restrain and suppress them." The intellectual world of early modern Europe had its radical currents, fueled in some cases by atheism, which in turn generated a backlash from its more moderate wing.

See also Anticlericalism ; Deism ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; Enlightenment ; Hobbes, Thomas ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; La Mettrie, Julien Offroy de ; Rabelais, François ; Reason ; Scientific Revolution ; Skepticism: Academic and Pyrrhonian ; Spinoza, Baruch .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Buckley, Michael J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven, 1987.

Fabro, Cornelio. God in Exile: Modern Atheism; A Study of the Internal Dynamic of Modern Atheism, from Its Roots in the Cartesian Cogito to the Present Day. Translated and edited by Arthur Gibson. Westminster, Md., 1968.

Febvre, Lucien. The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais. Translated by Beatrice Gottlieb. Cambridge, Mass., 1982.

Hunter, Michael, and David Wootton, eds. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Oxford and New York, 1992.

Israel, Jonathan I. Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 16501750. Oxford and New York, 2001.

Kors, Alan Charles. Atheism in France, 16501729. Vol. 1, The Orthodox Sources of Disbelief. Princeton, 1990.

Popkin, Richard H., and Arjo Vanderjagt, eds. Scepticism and Irreligion in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York, 1993.

Steven Nadler

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Atheism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Atheism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism-0

"Atheism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism-0

Atheism

Atheism


Atheism, a term that began to appear with frequency only in modern times, literally means the denial of theism, that is, belief in the existence of a personal God who creates the world and exists independently of it. This denial may be formal and explicit, as in the writings of Karl Marx (18181883), Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), Sigmund Freud (18561939), and Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980); or it may be an implicit "practical" atheism in which a person or community tacitly assumes that nothing transcends, or exists beyond, the physical universe. In both cases the justification for atheism is usually rooted in the alleged absence of positive evidence for God's existence. Often vaguely referred to as "unbelief," atheism comes in many varieties, but it is those forms that emphasize the lack of "evidence" for God that are of special interest in discussions of science and religion.

Atheism also arises, of course, among those who consider it impossible logically to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful and omnibenevolent God with the fact of evil and suffering in the world. The physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg (1933), for example, has stated that it is not only the absence of evidence but, even more, the fact of evil and suffering that grounds his own atheism. Along with many others today, he finds in the suffering of living beings, especially as this has been exposed by evolutionary biology, a stronger reason for rejecting theism than the mere absence of physical evidence warrants. Since the days of Charles Darwin (18091882) the indifference of natural selection to the pain and the extinction of sentient organisms has often been cited as a clinching scientific reason for atheism. Darwin himself was unable to reconcile the idea of an intelligent divine designer with the disturbing life-struggle that his own evolutionary science uncovered. And among scientists today it is more often biologists than physical scientists who reject the notion of a personal God.

It should be noted, however, that the renunciation of theism because of innocent suffering has been a strong temptation quite apart from any specifically scientific information given by evolutionary biology. Darwinian depictions of life may add support to an atheism already based on a compassionate protest against suffering, but the question of how to hold together the idea of God and the fact of suffering is as old as theism itself. Indeed, belief in God arose in the first place, in part at least, as a response to the fact of suffering; and biblical as well as other religious portraits of ultimate reality find in God a compassionate will to conquer suffering and death.

Consequently, as far as the question of science and religion is concerned, atheism is of interest primarily when its proponents accuse theism of failing to provide adequate evidence for its claims. Here evidence means empirically available and publicly accessible data that might reasonably confirm theistic claims. To many scientific thinkers such evidence is ambiguous at best and completely lacking at worst. Although the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century founders of modern science (Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and others) were convinced theists, there is little question that they ironically bequeathed to Western intellectual culture, and especially to modern philosophy, an understanding of truth-seeking (or an epistemic method) that has led many educated people to be skeptical of all propositions unsupported by experimental evidence. And since it is the very nature of theism to refer to a deity that is sensually unavailable, or to propose that believers wait patiently in unconditional trust for a future revelation of indisputable evidence of the divine, the idea of God seems especially uncongenial to confirmation by scientific method.

To those who elevate scientific method to the status of sole or primary arbiter of truth, therefore, all references to a hidden personal deity will be suspect. In the absence of empirical evidence, they ask, how can scientifically educated people be expected to take seriously theistic beliefs about the creation of the world, the eternal love of God, or the ultimate purpose of the universe? The renowned British philosopher Antony Flew (1923), applying Karl Popper's (19021994) criterion of falsifiability to the question of God's existence, has argued that since no counter-evidence would ever be enough to uproot the beliefs of a confirmed theist, theism violates the (scientifically shaped) rules of rational inquiry. If God lies beyond the domain of possible empirical verification or falsification, the claim goes, then theism cannot pass the most elementary test for truth.

At times the demand for theists to provide empirical evidence of God's existence is framed as a moral requirement, any violation of which is held to be indicative not only of cowardice but also of unethical insensitivity to the value of truth. The famous French biochemist and professed atheist Jacques Monod (19101976), for example, sought to base all of culture on what he called the postulate of (scientific) objectivity, which for him constituted the core of a new ethic of knowledge being ushered in by the modern age of science. Accordingly he dismissed theistic affirmations and all religious hope for final redemption as instances not only of cognitive but also moral delinquency. An earlier example of such passionate commitment to an "ethic of knowledge" is that of the American philosopher W. K. Clifford (18451879), whose essay "The Ethics of Belief" (1879) became famous in William James's (18421910) criticism of it in the "The Will to Believe." Clifford had stated that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence" (p. 183), an assertion that James along with others chastised for its puritanical extremism. In any case, among the beliefs for which sufficient evidence is especially lacking, at least according to Clifford's standards, are those of theists.


Does science support atheism?

The important question, then, is whether science, or the "scientific spirit," provides an incontestable basis for atheism. Although many atheists claim that it does, strictly speaking science as such can in principle justify neither atheism nor theism. By definition scientific method places theological interests beyond the compass of its concerns. Science does not as such ask about values, meaning, or God. Consequently the assertion that science sanctions atheism is logically spurious. Such a claim emanates not from science but from scientism, the belief that science is the only road to reliable knowledge. But one may legitimately ask whether this particular belief (scientism) orients the human mind reliably to the fullness of being or truth. Since it is impossible to conceive of an experimental situation that could in principle confirm or falsify the belief that science is the sole avenue to truth, it may be argued that scientism is a self-refuting proposition.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the progress of modern science has been accompanied historically by a rising skepticism, especially in the intellectual world, about the existence of a personal God. To many scientific thinkers the decline of theistic religion in modern times, especially among educated people, is a logical and not simply historical correlate of the advance of science. Albert Einstein (18791955), for example, famously asserted that the existence of a personal God, one capable of miraculously intervening in nature or history, would be incompatible with a basic assumption of all modern science, namely, that the laws of nature are utterly inviolable and invariant. For a scientist to believe in a responsive, personal God, a God who answers prayers, would be inconsistent with the very essence of scientific inquiry, which can tolerate no exceptions to natural laws.

Einstein, however, did not accept the label of "atheist" since it seemed a term of opprobrium and one that during his lifetime often implied moral relativism, which he vehemently opposed. Moreover, as a disciple of the famous Dutch pantheist Baruch Spinoza (16321677), he was not opposed to using the term God to refer to the mystery of "intelligence" that pervades the universe and makes possible the whole enterprise of scientific exploration. Einstein considered himself a deeply religious man, provided that "religion" is taken to mean a firm commitment to universal values (goodness, beauty, truth) and a cultivation of the insurmountable "mystery" encompassing the universe. But he considered the idea of a personal God dispensable to living religion.

Responding to Einstein, theologian Paul Tillich (18861965) insisted that living religion cannot dispense with the idea of a personal God since an impersonal deity would be lower in being than persons are. God must be "at least personal" in order to evoke the attitude of religious worship. God is much more than personal, of course, and so theology must acknowledge that personality is one among many symbols that religion employs in its attempts to understand ultimate reality; but it is not optional to theism. Addressing the objection by scientific atheists that God does not fall among the objects of empirical investigation, Tillich replied that God by definition cannot be one "object" among otherseven if the most exalted of thesewithout ceasing thereby to be God. If God is to be taken as the deepest reality it would be as the "ground of being" rather than as one being among others. Religious awareness of such a reality, however, comes not by grasping it empirically or scientifically, but only by allowing oneself to be grasped by it.


See also Evil and Suffering; Falsifiability; Theism


Bibliography

buckley, michael. at the origins of modern atheism. new haven, conn.: yale university press, 1987.

clifford, w. k. "the ethics of belief." in lectures and essays. london: macmillan, 1879.


dawkins, richard. the blind watchmaker. new york: norton, 1986.

einstein, albert. ideas and opinions. new york: crown, 1954.

flew, antony. god: a critical enquiry. lasalle, il.: open court, 1984.

freud, sigmund. the future of an illusion (1927). new york: norton, 1961.

larson, edward j., and witham, larry. "scientists and religion in america." scientific american 281, no. 88 (1999).

marty, martin. varieties of unbelief. new york: holt, rinehart, and winston, 1964.

monod, jacques. chance and necessity: an essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, trans. austryn wainhouse. new york: knopf, 1971.

stenmark, mikael. scientism: science, ethics and religion. aldershot, uk: ashgate, 2001.

tillich, paul. theology of culture, ed. robert c. kimball. new york: oxford university press, 1959.

weinberg, steven. dreams of a final theory. new york: pantheon, 1992.

john haught

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Atheism." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Atheism." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism

"Atheism." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism

Atheism

ATHEISM.

The term atheism usually refers to the belief that there is no God or are no gods. This position has been called positive atheism, since it involves an actual belief and not just the absence of belief. In contrast, negative atheism involves the absence of belief in a God or gods. Atheism is typically contrasted with agnosticism, the view that one cannot know if a deity exists. Negative atheism, however, is compatible with agnosticism, for in the name of rationality one who does not know if God exists should suspend belief in God.

In Western and Near Eastern societies the term atheism has sometimes been used narrowly to refer to the denial of theism, in particular Judeo-Christian and Islamic theism. According to theism, God is a personal being, an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good creator of the universe who takes an active interest in human concerns and guides creatures by revelation. Positive atheists disbelieve that this God exists and reject concomitants including an afterlife, a cosmic destiny, the supernatural origin of the universe, an immortal soul, the revealed nature of texts such as the Bible and the Koran, and a religious foundation of morality. Negative atheists, in the narrow sense, simply do not have a belief in the theistic God and what that entails.

Theism is not a characteristic of all religions, however. For example, although the theistic tradition is found in Hinduism in the Bhagavad Gita, the earlier Upanishads teach that ultimate reality, Brahma, is an impersonal and pantheistic god. Positive atheism in its broadest sense would advocate disbelief in the pantheistic as well as the theistic aspects of Hinduism. Indeed, there are skeptical and atheistic schools of thought within the Hindu tradition itself. Theravada Buddhism and Jainism are commonly believed to be atheistic, but this interpretation holds only for the narrow sense of disbelieving in a creator God. For although these religions reject a theistic creator God, they accept numerous lesser deities.

In the Western world, nonbelief in the existence of God is a pervasive phenomenon with a long and illustrious history. Ancient philosophers such as Lucretius were nonbelievers, and important thinkers of the Enlightenment such as the Baron d' Holbach (17231789) and Denis Diderot (17131784) were outspoken atheists. In the nineteenth century the most articulate and best-known atheists and critics of religion were Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre were among the twentieth century's most influential atheists. In contemporary philosophical thought atheism has been defended by, among others, Paul Edwards, Antony Flew, Paul Kurtz, John Mackie, Michael Martin, Kai Nielsen, Michael Scriven, and J. J. C. Smart. In the United States, many contemporary atheists are also self-identified as humanists, secular humanists, or rationalists.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century atheism can be found from the Netherlands to New Zealand, from Canada to China, from Spain to South America. State atheism prevailed in the U.S.S.R. until the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was estimated in the 2002 New York Times Almanac that there are in the world about 222 million atheists (4 percent of the total population) and 887 million agnostics (negative atheists).

Popular misunderstandings of atheism abound. Thus, for example, it has been claimed that atheists are immoral, that morality cannot be justified without belief in God, and that life has no meaning without belief in God. There are, however, no grounds for supposing that atheists are any less moral than believers; many ethical systems have been developed that do not assume the existence of supernatural beings, and the meaning of life can be based on secular purposes such as the betterment of humankind.

Philosophically, atheism has been justified in differing ways. Negative atheists attempt to establish their position either by showing that the standard arguments for the existence of Godfor instance the argument from first cause, the argument from design, the ontological argument, and the argument from religious experienceare unsound, or by demonstrating that statements about God are meaningless. Positive atheists argue in turn that the concept of God is inconsistent and that the existence of evil makes the existence of God improbable.

In particular, positive atheists have maintained that theism does not provide an adequate explanation of the existence of seemingly gratuitous evil such as the suffering of innocent children. Rejecting the standard defenses given by theists, they argue that justifications in terms of human free will leave unexplained why, for example, children suffer because of genetic diseases. Positive atheists hold that arguments that God allows much pain and suffering in order to build human character fail, in turn, to explain why there was suffering among animals before human beings ever evolved and why human character could not be developed with less suffering than in fact there is. They argue that an explanation of evil better than the explanation that God has given us free will or the chance to develop character is that God does not exist.

Atheism has wide-ranging implications for the human condition. Among other things it entails that ethical goals must be determined by secular aims and concerns, that human beings must take charge of their own destiny, and that death is the end of human existence.

Although it is sometimes associated with materialism, communism, rationalism, existentialism, or anarchism, there is no necessary relation between atheism and any of these other positions. Some atheists, for example the objectivist writer Ayn Rand (19051982), have been opposed to communism, and somefor example, Bertrand Russellhave rejected materialism. Although all contemporary materialists are atheists, the ancient materialist Epicurus believed that the gods were made of atoms. And although rationalists such as René Descartes have believed in God, many contemporary atheists consider themselves rationalists. Jean-Paul Sartre was an atheist and an existentialist; Søren Kierkegaard was an existentialist who accepted God. In turn, Karl Marx was an atheist who rejected anarchism, but Leo Tolstoy was a Christian who embraced it.

In sum, atheism is a complex phenomenon with a rich history, brilliant defenders, and a wide following. It is often unjustly maligned and confused with other positions.

See also Agnosticism ; Creationism ; Evil ; Religion ; Religion and the State .

bibliography

Hiorth, Finngeir. Atheism in India. Mumbai, India: Indian Secular Society, 1998.

. Atheism in the World. Oslo, Norway: Human-Etisk Forbund, 2003.

Joshi, S. T., ed. Atheism: A Reader. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Michael Martin

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Atheism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Atheism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism

"Atheism." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism

atheism

atheism is a philosophical term derived from the Greek ἄθεος, meaning the absence of a god, but is usually translated as disbelief in or denial of the existence of God. Dogmatic denials of God have been rare outside popular unbelief. More usual is the argument from the insufficiency of evidence for the existence of a God, which might more properly be termed scepticism or agnosticism. Speculative atheism goes further in denying the possibility of evidence to demonstrate the existence of God.

Atheistic views were held among the Greek Atomists of the 5th cent. bc, but within Christendom such views have been marginal. In the 16th cent., when the word atheism came into use in English, it was a term of abuse, and English philosophers long preferred the theory of Isaac Newton (1642–1727) that the origin of motion is external to matter rather than the materialist theory that motion is a property of matter. Natural theology in 18th-cent. England meant not scientific materialism (atheism) but the existence of at least a remote external first cause of the universe (deism). In this respect, English thought differed from that of continental Europe where Spinoza (1632–77) argued that God and the material world were the same thing. Materialistic ideas, however, could be derived from the philosophy of John Locke by writers such as Anthony Collins (1676–1729)—the first author to use the term ‘free thinker’.

Collins was spurned in England but read on the continent, where atheism became a commonplace of the French Enlightenment, especially in the writings of Baron d'Holbach (1723–89), whose Système de la nature (System of Nature) was influential in popular atheistic thought for the next hundred years. Atheism remained a dangerous creed to profess. Aikenhead, a youth, was hanged at Edinburgh in 1697; Whiston lost his chair at Cambridge in 1710 because his religious views were unsound; and Shelley, the poet, was expelled from Oxford as an undergraduate in 1811 for distributing a tract on ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. In Britain the best-known atheist, Thomas Paine (1737–1809), was in fact a deist whose Age of Reason was written to counter the progress of French atheism. As loyalist propaganda in the 1790s was directed against those radical ideas in religion and politics associated with the French Revolution, atheism became identified with lower-class subversion, though only a few radicals, such as William Godwin (1756–1836) and Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), were actually atheists.

In the 19th cent., materialistic atheism was taken up in the radical anticlerical publications of Richard Carlile (1790–1843), Charles Southwell (1814–60), George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), and Charles Bradlaugh (1833–91). Holyoake was an atheist in the sense that he saw no evidence for the existence of God, and to avoid the opprobrium associated with atheism he adopted the word secularism instead; but Bradlaugh was a speculative atheist, influenced by Spinoza, who argued that in a world in which matter is all there can be no evidence for any God beyond nature. Though one could argue that this philosophy, known as monism, is actually pantheism rather than atheism, the two were equated in popular thought. Not until 1886 was Bradlaugh, an avowed atheist, allowed to take his seat in Parliament.

With the development of scientific ideas in the 19th cent., theories of the universe and of biological evolution which dispensed with explanations requiring the existence of God gained influential support, though many intellectuals preferred Thomas Huxley's word ‘agnosticism’ to describe their views rather than outright atheism. Even in the early 21st cent., when large numbers of people live a materialistic life-style of practical atheism, the word atheism still lacks social respectability and public figures prefer to avoid its use.

Edward Royle

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"atheism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"atheism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism

"atheism." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism

Atheism

Atheism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Atheism, put simply, is the view that God does not exist. Cognitive atheism entails that, owing to the direction of the overall available evidence, people should believe that God does not exist. Doxastic atheism, in contrast, entails that one actually believes that God does not exist. A doxastic atheist can say: I believe that God does not exist, but I have no view regarding the status of the overall available evidence regarding Gods existence. A person could thus be a doxastic atheist without being a cognitive atheist. Cognitive atheists about God, however, are logically required to recommend doxastic atheism about God, at least on cognitive grounds, even if they fail at times actually to believe that God does not exist. In the history of philosophy, Democritus (c. 460c. 370 bce), Epicurus (341-270 bce), Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), and Friedrich Nietzsche are widely regarded as supporters of atheism.

Theism is the denial of atheism. Cognitive theists hold that, owing to the overall available evidence, people should believe that God exists. Doxastic theists, in contrast, hold that God exists, even if they have no position on the overall available evidence regarding God. Cognitive theists must recommend doxastic theism about God, at least on cognitive grounds, even if they fail at times actually to believe that God exists. Another alternative to atheism is agnosticism, whose cognitive version entails that, owing to highly mixed overall evidence, people should withhold judgment (neither believe nor disbelieve) that God exists. Cognitive atheism entails that cognitive theism and agnosticism get the available evidence wrong. It implies that the evidence counts decisively against the existence of God.

If reality is just material bodies in motion, then atheism is true, since God would not be just a material body in motion. That would be a quick case for atheism, but a problem arises: decisive evidence for holding that reality is just material bodies in motion is lacking. At least this is a topic of ongoing controversy among philosophers.

Another case for atheism would be: If God exists, the evil found in this world would not exist; this worlds evil does exist; so God does not exist. Here, again, the case would not be decisive. No decisive reason exists to think that God would not allow the evil found in this world. Certainly God could allow for various kinds of beings with free wills, and they could be causally responsible for much, if not all, of the evil in this world. A problem arises from the limited cognitive resources of human beings. People are simply not in a position to know that God would not allow the evil found in this world. God would be a moral tyrant in causing the evil in this world, but theism does not imply otherwise.

A big issue concerns whether cognitive atheism allows for due cognitive modesty for humans. Can one reasonably suppose that all available evidence has been canvassed in a way that calls for belief that God does not exist? This is a tall order, and it seems doubtful that one can plausibly answer yes. At any rate, God might seek to be elusive for various reasons, as recent work on divine hiddenness indicates. So atheism invites reasonable doubt about itself, owing at least to the limited cognitive resources available to humans.

SEE ALSO Agnosticism; Monotheism; Polytheism; Reality; Religion; Theism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Copan, Paul, and Paul K. Moser, eds. 2003. The Rationality of Theism. London: Routledge.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel, and Paul K. Moser, eds. 2002. Divine Hiddenness: New Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, Michael. 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Paul K. Moser

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Atheism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Atheism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/atheism

"Atheism." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/atheism

Atheism

ATHEISM

ATHEISM has regularly been defined as the denial of the existence of a deity. Under such a definition—one that implies a positive, dogmatic assertion of antitheism—the role of atheism in American history (and in most other histories) would be limited. It is important to note, however, the existence of some unabashedly atheistic individuals and organizations in America, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (founded in 1925). A more capacious definition of atheism is available, however, one in which the stress is on a lack of belief or even a sheer lack of philosophical interest, in God, rather than on a positive denial of God's existence. Such an atheism, grounded in Enlightenment rationalism and supported by a scientific paradigm insisting that the matter of the physical world represents reality in its entirety, was bolstered (albeit in different ways) by the nineteenth-century attempts of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche to offer naturalistic accounts of religion, and by a positivist current within twentieth-century philosophy in which any and all questions about the existence of God were dismissed as unintelligible. While these intellectual movements derived much of their energy and personnel from Europe, they have intersected dynamically with the broader tradition of American free thought. Individuals such as Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Robert G. Ingersoll, Abner Kneeland, and Joseph Lewis (some of whom can be defined as atheists; others, not) have all helped to define the varieties of atheism, antitheism, and agnosticism. An important contribution to the history of atheism has been the recent effort, beginning with those of the American Atheists organization, founded by the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, to comprehend and protect atheism within the terms of the First Amendment and Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state. The 1963 Supreme Court decision on school prayer in Murray v. Curlett marked the beginning of a strenuous effort to defend the civil rights of atheists through the court.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brown, Marshall G., and Gordon Stein. Freethought in the United States: A Descriptive Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Rinaldo, Peter M. Atheists, Agnostics, and Deists in America: A Brief History. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: DorPete Press, 2001.

JonWright

See alsoAgnosticism ; Deism .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Atheism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Atheism." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism-0

"Atheism." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism-0

Atheism

Atheism. Disbelief in the existence of God; to be distinguished from agnosticism, which professes uncertainty on the question. Modern atheists make a variety of claims to defend their position: that there is little or no real evidence for the existence of God, that theism is refuted by the existence of evil in the world, that it is meaningless because unverifiable, that it is inauthentic because it attacks human autonomy, and that it is unscientific.

In Indian religion and philosophy, atheism is addressed to different understandings of what God is and does (according to those who believe), and is often more subtle. Thus Jains and Buddhists allow that within the domains of appearance, that which might be labelled ‘God’ is no less (but no more) real than other transient appearances, and is of effect; but in practice, ‘God’ must be left behind for true progress to be made. Among Hindus, several systems interpreted the tradition without involving God, e.g. Carvaka; Saṃkhya was initially atheistic, though God was later able to be accommodated in the system; and Pūrva and Uttara Mīmāṃsā debated the worth of arguments pointing to God.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Atheism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Atheism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism

"Atheism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism

atheism

atheism (ā´thē-Ĭz´əm), denial of the existence of God or gods and of any supernatural existence, to be distinguished from agnosticism, which holds that the existence cannot be proved. The term atheism has been used as an accusation against all who attack established orthodoxy, as in the trial of Socrates. There were few avowed atheists from classical times until the 19th cent., when popular belief in a conflict between religion and science brought forth preachers of the gospel of atheism, such as Robert G. Ingersoll. There are today many individuals and groups professing atheism. The 20th cent. has seen many individuals and groups professing atheism, including Bertrand Russell and Madalyn Murry O'Hair.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"atheism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"atheism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism

"atheism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism

atheism

atheism Philosophical denial of the existence of God or any supernatural or spiritual being. The first Christians were called atheists because they denied Roman religions but the term is now used to indicate the denial of Christian theism. During the 18th-century Enlightenment, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and the Encyclopedists laid the foundations for atheism. In the 19th century, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud all accommodated some form of atheism into their respective philosophies. In the 20th century, many individuals and groups advocate atheism. See also agnosticism

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"atheism." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"atheism." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism-0

"atheism." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/atheism-0

atheism

a·the·ism / ˈā[unvoicedth]ēˌizəm/ • n. the theory or belief that God does not exist. DERIVATIVES: a·the·ist n. a·the·is·tic / ˌā[unvoicedth]ēˈistik/ adj. a·the·is·ti·cal / -ˈistikəl/ adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"atheism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"atheism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism-0

"atheism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism-0

atheism

atheism XVI. — Fr. athéisme, f. Gr. átheos, f. A-4 + theós god; see -ISM
So atheist XVI. — F. athéiste or It. ateista; hence atheistic XVII, atheistical XVI.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"atheism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"atheism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism-1

"atheism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism-1

atheism

atheism the theory or belief that God does not exist. The word comes (in the late 16th century, via French) from Greek atheos, from a- ‘without’ + theosgod’.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"atheism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"atheism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 16, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism

"atheism." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved October 16, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/atheism