All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


ATHEISM . The term atheism is employed in a variety of ways. For the purpose of the present survey atheism is the doctrine that God does not exist, that belief in the existence of God is a false belief. The word God here refers to a divine being regarded as the independent creator of the world, a being superlatively powerful, wise, and good. The focus of the present study is on atheism occurring within a context of thought normally called "religious."

Rudiments in Ancient and Primitive Religion

Already in the writings of Cicero (c. 10643 bce), the question was raised whether there might be some "wild and primitive peoples" who possess no idea of gods of any kind. The view of David Hume in his Natural History of Religion (1757) was that polytheism, in his view the earliest religion of humankind, was devoid of a belief in God. According to most nineteenth-century anthropological theories, the belief in God was a late development in the evolution of religious ideas. Contemporary ethnographic research supports the view that a belief in a supreme creator is, at least, a pervasive feature of the religion of many primitive peoples.

The complete absence of the idea of God would not qualify as atheism as it has here been defined, but the role of the supreme being among primitive peoples is instructive for an understanding of religious forms of atheism as they occur under other cultural conditions. Where primitive religion includes the belief in a supreme being, the creator of all that exists, this being is not always the center of religious life and worship. In the traditional religion of many African peoples the most common acts of worship are directed toward spiritual beings known as the living-dead. These are individuals of the community who have died, but whose influence is still profoundly felt by the living. In some cases God is approached directly only when the living-dead have failed, or in cases of severe distress. Where a belief in the supreme being occurs among primitive peoples, the possibility of atheism is remote, for like other conceptions among such societies the supreme being is not so much a belief, in the sense of a credal affirmation that might be rejected, as an integral component of a total conception of reality through which experience is ordered.

The first step toward religious atheism occurs in the context of religious thought in which a variety of beings, each believed to be supreme, or in which a variety of conceptions of the supreme being, appear concurrently and compete. The earliest documents of the Hindu religious tradition, the Vedas (c. 900 bce), refer to a variety of gods who preside over various powers of nature and are often practically identified with them. In the gveda any one of these diverse gods can stand out as supreme when he is the object of praise. In this context no god of the Vedas is more often praised than Indra, the king of the gods. It is interesting, then, that among the hymns that praise him are also found passages that ridicule his reputed power and that cast doubt upon his existence.

Such doubt is hardly representative of the praises sung to Indra. Yet it is significant that this kind of skepticism is included in the most authoritative of Hindu scriptures. It seems to arise concurrently with new ways of conceiving the divine expressed among some of the late hymns of the gveda. Here, beside the hymns to the nature gods, one finds reference to an unknown god who has encompassed all created things. Here are found hymns to Viśvakarma, the father who made all. And here is found that One wherein abide all existing things, that One which, before all existing things appeared, "breathed windless" by its own inherent power. In these late hymns is also found reference to an impersonal order to the universe, a law (ta ) to which even the highest gods are subject or which by their power they uphold.

The possibility of conceiving of the ultimate source of the universe not as a god, but as something quite impersonal, is also reflected in the early Upaniads (c. 700600 bce), the concluding portions of the Vedas. The Upaniads are the repository of diverse currents of thought, but the quest that pervades them is for that supreme object of knowledge in which all that has being has its ultimate ground. The Upaniads refer to this reality, called brahman, in two significantly differing ways. On the one hand, the Upaniads speak of brahman as having qualities (sagua ). In this context it is the ultimate cause, the true creator of all that is, the personal God, the Lord (Īśvara) of the Universe, and the supreme object of worship. On the other hand, they speak of brahman as beyond qualities (nirgua ). No concepts are adequate to describe it. The most that one can say about it is by way of negation. With such opposing conceptions, the possibility emerges of a rejection of the existence of God that is nevertheless religious.

The possibility of conceiving of the ultimate as something other than a god, even the highest of gods, can be seen in the writings of other civilizations as well. In the Chinese classics and in inscriptions of the Shang dynasty in China (c. 17501100 bce), are found frequent reference to a supreme ruler in heaven known as Shangdi. This god is not known as creator, but he was undoubtedly a personal being, a divine supervisor over human society, whose decrees determine the course of events on earth. At about the time the Shang dynasty was supplanted by the Zhou (c. 1100 bce) the name T'ien appeared alongside of Shang-ti as a designation for the supreme ruler in heaven. But the word tian, meaning both "heaven" and "sky," gradually lost the connotation of a personal being and came to suggest the more universal conception of a cosmic rule that impartially determines the affairs of men on earth by their conformity to a moral order. Closely related to tian, the ultimate ordering principle of things, was the completely impersonal Dao, literally "way" or "road." By extension it means the way to go, the truth, the normative ethical standard by which to govern human life. In the famous Dao de jing, ascribed to Lanzhou (sixth century bce), it is the metaphysical principle that governs the world. It cannot be described in words, but can be dimly perceived within the intricate balance of nature. It is the law or order of nature identified with nature itself. It is not understood as God or as a god.

Classical Forms in Eastern Religious Thought

Skepticism about the existence of a god, even the king of gods, and the emergence of impersonal conceptions of the ultimate ground of the universe is not yet atheism, as defined above. Such conceptions have yet to advance arguments that belief in God is a false belief. Such arguments begin to appear where emerging theistic conceptions of God and impersonal conceptions of the absolute source and rule of the world confront one another as philosophical options over an extended period of time.

Ancient China

In ancient China the personal concept of a supreme ruler in heaven seems gradually to have been replaced by the impersonal idea of tian often associated with the concept of Dao. For Confucius (551479 bce), the most influential of ancient Chinese minds, obedience to the will of heaven is simply the practice of the moral law. By following the rules of duty and protocol handed down from the sage kings of the distant past, one lives in harmony with the moral order that governs the heavens and the life of the earth below. Confucius acknowledged the value of religious ceremonies and endorsed the veneration of ancestors, but he saw the will of Heaven operating by a kind of inherent providence. A person who has sinned against Heaven (tian ) has no god to pray to at all.

Opposing the views of some of the early followers of Confucius, Mozi (c. 468390 bce) attributed to Heaven more anthropomorphic properties. He held that Heaven loves the world and desires that all human beings should relate to one another in undifferentiated love and mutual aid. Because he ascribed to Heaven such qualities as love and desire, some have suggested that Mozi's understanding of Heaven approximates the Western conception of God. Yet, as with Confucius, the providential care that Mozi sees in the working of Heaven is administered to man through the natural order of things.

By attributing love to the rule of Heaven, Mozi wished to offer an alternative to the fatalistic views of some of the disciples of Confucius. In this effort he also acknowledged the real activity of the dead and of spirits in the daily lives of human beings and therefore justified on more than ceremonial grounds the religious practices that pertained to them. In contrast to this, Xunzi (298238 bce) argued that Heaven is no more than a designation for the natural process through which good is rewarded and evil punished and upon which religious acts can have no effect. Because Xunzi denied the existence of supernatural agents, including the popular gods and the spirits of the dead, he might be called an atheist. But the issue that separates the thought of Xunzi from that of Mozi is an issue very different from the question of the existence of God. What divides them is whether one can ascribe personlike qualities to the ordering law of the universe that both of them presume to exist.

Strictly speaking, there was no precise equivalent in Chinese thought to the concept of God before the idea was introduced to China by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. In the absence of this conception, the atheism of ancient China can hardly be more than implied. It was in India, where both theistic notions of the source and governance of the universe and impersonal conceptions of the ultimate ground were able to challenge one another, that explicit forms of religious atheism emerged.

God in classical Indian philosophy

The early Upani-ads form the intellectual background for both the heterodox and the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy that began to develop around the sixth century bce. These groups of schools are distinguished not on the basis of any specific doctrine but according to whether they affirm (āstika ) or do not affirm (nāstika ) the authority of the Vedas. Of the heterodox schools, those that do not affirm the authority of the Vedas, the Cārvāka and the Jains are explicitly atheistic. In Buddhism, the third of the heterodox schools, atheism is implied. Of the six orthodox schools (dar śana s), Sākhya, probably the oldest, is atheistic. It is associated closely with the Yoga (meditation) school, which affirms the existence of God. Between the sixth and tenth centuries ce, the Nyāya (logic) school became associated with the Vaiśeika (atomist) school, and together they developed forceful arguments to prove the existence of God, while the Pūrva Mīāmsā attacked and rejected such arguments. Its sister school, the Uttara Mīāmsā, better known as Vedānta, acknowledged that arguments for the existence of God have persuasive power at the level of everyday truth but held that at the higher level of religious knowledge the supreme being is really an illusion.

It was argued by the Nyāya school that objects made of parts are invariably the effect of a cause. Because the world as a whole is made of parts, the world must be the effect of a causal agent, and this causal agent is God (Īśvara). To this line of argument it could be objected that the world is so different from other effects that one cannot infer a cause to the world as a whole. The Nyāya, however, replied that a valid inference can be drawn from the concomitance of two things without limiting the inference to the peculiarities of the concomitance observed. Otherwise, if one had observed only small amounts of smoke (say from cigarettes), one could infer only the existence of small amounts of fire. On this "principle of concomitance," the conclusion should be that if a smaller effect has a cause, then the largest of effects must also have a cause. This, it is held, is the invisible and bodiless but infinitely wise and benevolent creator.

A related argument states that since objects characterized by order and design, such as garments, buildings, and devices, are invariably the products of intelligent beings, it follows on the principle of concomitance that the world, which displays the same characteristics, must also be the work of an intelligent being. Further, orthodox Hindu philosophies shared the affirmation of a moral order by which the voluntary actions of persons are rewarded with good or evil in this or a future life. For some exponents of the Nyāya and the Yoga schools, this view implies the existence of God, who as the ultimate arbiter apportions the appropriate reward. In Indian thought there is found no specific effort to infer the existence of God from the fact that the idea of God exists in the mind. There are, however, arguments that try to show, on the assumption that he exists, that he is superlatively powerful and wise. It was noted by some early exponents of the Yoga school that qualities like intelligence and power are found among finite beings in variations of degree. Since the degrees of perfection of any quality represent a continuum of degrees, the qualities of wisdom and power must find their highest degree in an omniscient and omnipotent being.

Heterodox Indian thought

Of the heterodox Indian schools, the Cārvāka represents the most radical departure from the tenor of religious thought in the Upaniads. It holds that the Vedas are the work of knaves and fools, and it rejects all sources of knowledge other than the senses. With this, it rejects the principles of inference upon which the Nyāya-Vaiśeika school depends to demonstrate the existence of God. The Cārvāka holds that the visible world alone exists, that the only heaven is that to be found in the wearing of beautiful clothing, in the company of young women, and in the enjoyment of delicious food. The only sovereign is the king. The only hell to be avoided is the difficulties of the present life. The only liberation is death; and that is to be avoided as long as humanly possible.

One could hardly call the Cārvāka a system of religious life and thought unless one saw a religious motivation behind its prodigious effort to liberate its adherents from the sophistry and abuse of the religious setting in which it arose. The exponents of the Cārvāka reject the doctrine of the soul and with it the ideas of karman and rebirth. They reject all forms of religious asceticism and hold that religious rites are incapable of any effect. By contrast, the Jains endorse an intensely ascetic path to the release of the soul (jīva ) from an otherwise endless cycle of rebirth. According to the Jains, the soul, by nature, is eternal, perfectly blissful, and omniscient. Yet in consequence of accumulated karman, conceived as a subtle material substance, all but liberated souls are ensnared in a limiting material body.

The Jains depict the cosmos as uncreated and eternal. They therefore require no doctrine of God in order to explain its existence. Their points against theistic ideas are expressed in differing versions of arguments developed over centuries of dispute. Space permits mention of only a few. (1) If the world is held to be an effect from the mere fact that it is made of parts, then space must also be considered an effect. Yet the Naiyāyikas (the adherents of Nyāya-Vaiśeika theism) insist that space is eternal. (2) It cannot be held that the world is an ex nihilo effect because the Naiyāyikas also hold that the world is composed of eternal atoms. (3) If the view that the world is an effect means that the world is subject to change, then God too is an effect since he must undergo change by having created the world. (4) But even if it is granted that the world has the nature of an effect, it does not follow that the cause must be an intelligent one. (5) And even if it is granted that the creator is an intelligent being, it is impossible to see how this agent could create except by means of a body. (6) And if the possibility of a bodiless creator is admitted there remains the problem of his motive. If one says that God created from self-interest or need, one has admitted that God was lacking in some perfection. He could not have created out of compassion, for prior to the creation there were no beings to have compassion upon. If he created out of inherent goodness then the world should be perfectly good. If he created out of whim, then the world would have no purpose, and this the Naiyāyikas deny. If he created simply out of his nature, it would be as reasonable to say that the world is the effect of nature itself.

To the argument from design, the Jains reply (7) that if a beehive, or an anthill, is the work of a multitude of beings, there is no apparent reason why the world should not have been the work of a committee of gods. To arguments from moral order, the Jains raise the question whether God is arbitrary in the rewards he gives. (8) If God makes a gift of happiness to those he simply chooses, he is guilty of favoritism. (9) If he rewards precisely in accord with the merit of each individual, then he himself is subject to a moral law beyond him.

In its earliest period, Buddhist thought is less polemical than that of the Jains in its attitude toward belief in God. Yet here as well theistic ideas are found wanting. By nature Buddhism is a path of intense self-reliance, explicitly rejecting the religious system of the Vedas that seeks the favor of the gods. In the Pali canon, the earliest of Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha ridicules the claim of the brahmans to possession of a way to union with a perfect being who has never been seen and who is beyond human knowledge. This, he says, is like the man who claims to love the most beautiful woman in this or another country and desires to make her his own but knows not her name, her caste, where she lives, or what she looks like.

Unlike the Jains, who accept the reality of the material world, the Buddhists hold that all that can be said to have being is but part of a succession of impermanent phenomena, call dharma s. To this way of thinking, the idea of a changeless God is clearly out of place. Later Buddhist writers like Vasubandhu and Yaśomitra (fourth to fifth century ce) argue that if God is the sole cause of all that exists, then, given the cause, all existing things should have been created at once. On the hypothesis that the world is a flux of phenomena, it could never have been the effect of a single, ultimate cause. Buddhism, moreover, holds that the succession of dharma s is governed by an immutable law expressed in the doctrine of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda ). The arising of one phenomenon is dependent upon the occurrence of others. Since this law is held to apply without exception, it admits of no room for an uncaused cause.

Among the Buddhist criticisms of theistic belief, there are also found questions about the motive of God's creative act. If he created out of his own good pleasure, then he must take delight in the suffering of his creatures. But it also holds that if God is the ultimate cause of all that occurs, then every performance of every person is ultimately a performance of God. If this is true, it removes from the individual person all responsibility for his actions and finally removes all meaning from the ideas of right and wrong.

Orthodox Hindu philosophy

Acceptance of the authority of the Vedas does not imply theistic belief. While the Nyāya-Vaiśeika school regards the Vedas as having been created by God, the Sākhya and the Mīmāmā schools hold that the Vedas are such that they require no creator. For the Sākhya school the universe consists of two distinct realities: soul (purua ) and matter (prakti ). Neither of them can be identified with God, and neither requires God as cause, governor, or designer. The soul is pure consciousness, devoid of qualities of any kind. But in its ambiguous association with the body it is unconscious of its freedom and independence and falsely identifies itself with one or another aspect of material reality. Prakti is the primordial ground from which the universe has evolved. It is composed of three fundamental qualities or kinds of substance (gua s), like a rope composed of three differing strands. Before the emergence of the universe the chaotic distribution of the three qualities had produced a state of static equilibrium. Subsequently, upon a cosmic disturbance, an unequal aggregation of these qualities proceeded gradually to bring forth all the material realities in the universe.

According to the Yoga school, this disturbance in the primordial equilibrium of prakti was an effect of the will of God. The Sākhya hold it was not. Rather, prakti, in the Sākhya view, evolves by its own inherent teleology, providing the purua the conditions necessary for its liberation (mukti ). To the view of the Yoga school that this sort of teleology points to the existence of a God, the Sākhya school replies that prakti is capable in itself of this kind of purpose just as milk, though it is devoid of intelligence, is capable of providing nourishment for the calf. A minority within the Sākhya school hold that the existence of God is simply incapable of proof. The majority hold that belief in God is a mistaken belief. If he is perfect he cannot have created out of selfishness, and he could not have created out of kindness, for his creatures are most unhappy.

The Mīmāmā school holds the Vedas to be authoritative, but not as created or revealed by God. The Vedas, rather, are the expression in wordssacred wordsof the eternal, ritual, and moral order of the world. The Mīmāmā supports the performance of sacrifice to a variety of gods. Yet it holds that it is not the gods as such but the potential (apūrva ) energy generated in the performance of the ritual that delivers the heavenly reward, and it explains the creation stories in the Vedas as merely underlining the importance of the ritual action to which these stories pertain.

The Mīmāmā shares with the Jains the view that the world is eternal, rendering superfluous the idea of God as the ultimate cause. In the work of the founder of the Mīmāmā school, Jaimini (second century ce), there is found no specific reference to the doctrine of God. Later exponents, such as Kumārila and Prabhākara (eighth century ce), advance definite arguments to refute theistic views. It is held by Kumārila that in order to establish that God created the world it would be necessary to provide authoritative testimony. But in the nature of the case no witnesses are available. The view that God revealed the truth of his creative act is without avail, because it would still be necessary to establish the veracity of his claim. Kumārila also objects to the Nyāya-Vaiśeika view that God created the world out of atoms but has established the varieties of happiness and unhappiness of finite beings in the world in accordance with their merit. If the distribution of happiness and unhappiness can be explained on the basis of the merit of individual souls, then it is unnecessary to attribute this to God. Other arguments of the Mīmāmā school are that if God is a material substance he is incapable of being affected by the qualities of merit or demerit of immaterial souls. If he is a spiritual being it is impossible that he could have acted as cause upon the material atoms that compose the world. If God is the explanation for the existence of the world it is impossible to see how he could also be, as he is in the Nyāya-Vaiśeika view, the destroyer. To these objections the Mīmāmā add others familiar among other atheistic schools. It is impossible to think of God as having a body, since this body would require a creator as well, yet it is impossible to see him as creating anything without one. And to these are added again the question of the motivation of God.

Like the Mīmāmā, Śakara (788820 ce), the founder of the Advaita (or nondualist) school of Vedānta, regards the Vedas as eternal and uncreated. Yet Śakara's interest is not in the ritual injunctions that the Vedas prescribe but in the meaning of those sections of the Upaniads that refer to that pure Self that pervades all existing things, the knowledge of which is the ultimate truth. Śakara, like the Sākhya school and the Jains, affirms the existence of the soul. But unlike them he holds that souls are not a plurality of beings but One. What seems to be a variety of souls is but the illusory manifestation of this One, like a candle flame seen through a broken lens. He also holds that the variety perceived among objects of experience is also like an illusion. In the final analysis there is no material world and no God. There is but one ultimate reality called brahman.

The study of those sections of the Vedas (the Jñānakāa ) that pertain to this truth should be restricted, according to Śakara, to persons who are beyond the desire for earthly or even for heavenly rewards. Those sections of the Vedas (the Karmakāa ) that pertain to ritual action he recommends to persons less advanced. In the light of this distinction Śakara admits of two differing levels of truth. To say that the world of empirical experience is illusory is not to say that it is completely false. Rather, it begins and moves within the error that identifies the self with the body, the senses, or the objects of sense. It proceeds under the assumption that the knower is an object within the material world. From the standpoint of the absolute truth this kind of knowledge is seen as illusion, on the analogy of illusions encountered in the mundane world. In the world of empirical experience, reality is understood in terms of time, space, and cause. As such it presents a cohesive picture manifesting a measure of order and design. In the light of this, Śakara argues that on the level of mundane experience the world is appropriately seen as an effect, and that from this effect it is reasonable to infer a cause. He also holds that the evident design and adaptation of the world, as seen from this perspective, is sufficient to infer an intelligent being who has fashioned it like a potter makes a pot from clay. And, in accordance with the view of God as lord of the moral order, Śakara argues that the law of karman in itself is insufficient for the just administration of rewards of good and evil.

While Śakara offers these arguments as serious considerations, he acknowledges that the existence of God is not amenable to proof and turns finally to the authority of the Vedas. Any proof for the existence of God is bound to be formulated within the context of a false duality in which the ultimate is seen as acting as cause upon the objects of name and form. The difficulties in proving the existence of God, then, are presumably resolved in the higher knowledge in which appearances like God and world finally give way to the perfect truth.

Atheism and Religious Thought in Western Philosophy

Religious forms of atheism in India appeared in a context in which differing conceptions of deity and of the ultimate source and order of the universe were each capable of supporting an integrated system of religious thought and action. Early periods of Western thought manifested similarly differing conceptions of deity and of the ultimate ground of all that exists. But just as Chinese intellectual history came to be dominated by the impersonal conception of the natural order of the world, so the personal conception of deity gradually achieved ascendency in the West. While alternative conceptions of deity continued as minor currents of Western thought, the possibility of an atheistic form of religious thought received new attention with the criticism of the philosophical doctrine of God by secular thought.

Ancient Greece

The religion of ancient Greece depicted in the poetry of Homer (eighth century bce) revolved around a pantheon of gods presided over by the sky god Zeus, who was seen not as a creator but as the upholder of moral order. The gods, here associated with various aspects of the universe, are represented as superhuman immortal beings endowed with human passions, frequently behaving in undignified and amoral ways. Nevertheless, the worship of these gods in temples and other holy places, especially by means of sacrifice, constituted the state religion of Greece throughout the classical period. While there was no precise conception of God in ancient Greece, philosophical criticisms of the gods of popular belief are of interest because of their similarity to arguments later brought against theism and because of the alternative conceptions of the divine they often put in their place. The denial of these gods was a gradual development, finally expressed in uncompromising terms only around 300 bce.

Xenophanes (c. 570475 bce) attacked the anthropomorphic and amoral representations of the gods in the poetry of Homer. He suggested that if animals could draw and paint, they too would represent gods in their image. As the counterpart of his rejection of the gods of the poets, he held a philosophical idea of a higher divine being who must be one, eternal, and unchangeable. There is evidence both for and against the view that he identified this being with the universe as a whole.

The development of Ionic naturalism (c. fifth century bce) presented a challenge to traditional belief, because it offered natural explanations for phenomena that had been accounted for on the basis of belief in the gods. Naturalistic theories, however, often accommodated belief in the gods or in some conception of the divine. According to Democritus (c. 460370 bce), the world and all that occurs within it is but the modification in shape and arrangement of the eternal atoms of which all things are composed. Within this view such events as thunder and lightning popularly ascribed to Zeus are explained in natural terms. At the same time Democritus held that fire is the divine soul-substance that accounts for the life of the body and constitutes the soul of the world. Anaxagoras (c. 499427 bce), on the other hand, was accused of impiety and was required to leave Athens, not for an explicit denial of the popular gods, but for his teaching that the heavenly bodies are purely natural objects, that the sun is a red-hot stone and the moon made of earth.

Among the Sophists (c. third to fourth century bce) criticism of the gods was based on the distinction drawn between law, or human convention (nomos ), and nature (phusis ). Ideas associated with public worship were assigned to the former category. They were seen as relative to human society and in some cases as the product of the purely human imagination. With the advent of Sophistic thought, criticism of the gods became more visible, because it occurred not simply in the context of a naturalistic theory that left public worship undisturbed but also in the context of higher education. On the other hand, because their fortunes depended largely upon public acceptance, the Sophists did not always extend their criticism of human convention to an outright denial of the gods. Protagoras (c. 485420 bce), the best known of the Sophists, was tried and outlawed in Athens for asserting that he could say of the gods "neither that they exist nor that they do not exist." He, however, is, as far as is known, the first to raise the question of the existence of the gods as a question for which an uncompromising negative answer might be given.

Proceeding further along Sophistic lines, Prodicus of Ceos, a younger contemporary of Protagoras, sought to explain the existence of the popular belief in gods. Observing that Homer occasionally used the name of Hephaistos instead of "fire," he inferred that the gods had originally been associated with things that man requires for his existence. In explaining the origin of popular belief, he did not, however, explicitly repudiate the existence of the gods or the divinity of the sun or moon. The earliest expression of thoroughly atheistic belief in ancient Greece appears in a fragment of satirical drama by Critias, a contemporary and acquaintance of Socrates. In this work the character Sisyphus articulates the view that at its origin humanity was devoid of social organization. Subsequently, men made laws to prevent mere power from prevailing over right. The enforcement of law thus prevented observable evil. Then a wise man conceived of making the people believe that there are gods to police their secret deeds and thoughts. It is not known, however, whether the speech of the dramatic character Sisyphus expresses the view of Critias himself. Thinking along a similar line, Euhemerus (c. 300 bce) argued that the gods had once been kings and rulers who had become the objects of worship because of the improvements in civilization they had bestowed upon their subjects. Yet he too seems to have held that the heavenly bodies are real and eternal gods.

While many philosophers of this period rejected certain of the gods of popular belief, they also often affirmed the divinity of the celestial bodies and developed alternative ideas of the divine, sometimes in pantheistic or vaguely monotheistic terms. Theodorus of Cyrene (c. 300 bce), on the other hand, seems to have rejected all such ideas. Diogenes Laertius and Cicero both observe that he did not accept the existence of any god.

Early Christianity

Contemporary research on Christian origins suggests that early Christianity did not unanimously appropriate the view of God set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. A pervading theme of the gnostic literature that circulated widely in early Christian communities is that the world is an untoward environment. It is not the work of an omnipotent and benevolent being but the result of a divine fault. Its creator is unworthy of the religious devotion of man and an obstacle to the religious goal of liberation from the present evil world. The ultimate reality, on the other hand, is not to be thought of as a God at all. It is referred to as the unknown One, the unfathomable, the incomprehensible. Occasionally, this reality is spoken of paradoxically as the One that exists in nonbeing existence. Although by the fourth century, gnosticism was condemned as unorthodox by a majority of Christian churches, it is undeniable that it represented for its adherents a religious way of life.

The emergence of the Western conception of God

Despite the pervasiveness of gnostic ideas in the first centuries of the Christian era, the biblical image of God as father and creator received the stamp of orthodox Christian teaching. The idea that God as creator of the world can be known by means of reason is expressed in the New Testament (Rom. 1:1823, Acts 17:23) and becomes a persistent theme in Christian theology from the time of the apologists of the second and third centuries. The speculative theologians of Alexandria (Athanasius, Didymus, Cyril) all hold that although God in himself is beyond comprehension, he can be known through the creation and through the human soul, which was created in his image. In the works of Augustine of Hippo (384430 ce) one finds support for the belief in the existence of God from a variety of facts of experience. With the emergence of Scholasticism, such ideas were developed into rational proofs for the existence of God that were intended to stand to reason without appeal to revelation. According to Anselm of Canterbury (10331109), God is that than which nothing more perfect can be thought. From the fact that an existent being is more perfect than a purely imaginary object, it follows that God must exist.

Thomas Aquinas (12281274) rejected Anselm's proof but under the influence of Aristotle's metaphysics elaborated the famous five ways by which the existence of God can be known. According to Thomas, (1) the facts that there is motion in the universe and that everything in motion derives its motion from something else show that there must be an unmoved mover. Secondary movers move only when they are moved by something else. (2) From the fact that all events have an efficient cause, Thomas infers that there must be a substantial agent that is its own cause. If the chain of efficient causes goes on forever, there would be no first efficient cause and therefore no effect. (3) From the fact of contingent and corruptible things about us, Thomas proceeds to the fact that there must be a being that exists by its own very nature, a necessary being. (4) Because the highest degree of any quality observed in any finite thing is always the cause of that quality in anything in which that quality is found, the gradations in goodness, beauty, and truth in objects of experience imply that all being and goodness in the universe must have their source in one who is the perfect being. (5) Finally, from the orderly character of natural events there must be a general order to the universe, and this universal order points to the existence of an intelligent agent who has ordered all things. Following Thomas, other arguments were offered in support of belief in such a God. Among the most influential of these were the arguments of René Descartes (15911650), who attempted to demonstrate the existence of God from the presence of the idea of God in the mind.

The attack upon theism

Since the seventeenth century this conception of God and the arguments that claimed to demonstrate his existence have been subject to persistent attack. In the first place, because Thomas took the physics of Aristotle as the basis for his understanding of cause and motion, his arguments were less capable of supporting theistic belief once Aristotle's views on these matters were supplanted by those of Isaac Newton (16421727). For Aristotle, an explanation is required both for the initiation and for the continuance of change. The first mover of Thomas, since it is taken as both initiating and continuing change, supports the view of God both as creator and governor of the universe. Newton's first law of motion, on the other hand, holds that a body will remain at rest or in continuous motion in the same direction unless it is subject to a contravening force. When the idea was developed by Pierre-Simon de Laplace (17491827) that the world is a regular and perfectly determinate system, the idea of God as the source of its movement was rendered superfluous. Moreover, once the idea of the universe as a perfect system was established, eternal existence could be attributed to the material world, as in the work of Paul-Henri d'Holbach (17231789). Theistic arguments were further eroded by the view articulated by David Hume (17111776) that cause itself is but an immanent habit of thought and not a necessary relation between substances or events. With this the possibility of inferring the existence of God from any classical form of a causal argument was undermined.

Influenced by Hume and others, Immanuel Kant (17241804), in his famous Critique of Pure Reason (1781), gathered the substance of various arguments for the existence of God into three. (1) The ontological argument proceeds from the idea of God to the existence of God. It holds that this idea is such that the nonexistence of God would not be possible. (2) The cosmological argument proceeds from the fact of the existence of the world to the existence of God as the sufficient reason or the ultimate cause of its being. (3) The physico-theological argument proceeds from the evident order, adaptation, or purposefulness of the world to the existence of an intelligent being who made it.

None of these arguments, in the view of Kant, is adequate to prove the existence of God. The ontological argument treats existence as though it could be the property of an idea. The cosmological argument posits the first cause only to avoid an infinite chain of causal relations. And it presupposes the validity of the ontological argument in its use of the category of a necessary being as the first cause. The physico-theological argument presupposes the validity of the first two, but even if accepted could prove only the existence of a designer or architect of the universe and not a creator.

Such speculative reasoning fails, according to Kant, because it depends upon the illegitimate use of the concepts of the pure theoretical reason that individuals employ in their apprehension of spatial and temporal objects to extend their knowledge beyond the reach of sensuous experience. Kant denies, however, that this analysis should lead to the conclusion that God does not exist. In his Critique of Practical Reason (1778), he argues that it is in the domain of moral action that religious ideas have their real significance, and it is here that belief in God can be justified on rational grounds. The substance of his argument is that it is necessary to postulate freedom, immortality, and God in order to live reasonably according to the "moral law within."

It was precisely the transposition of religious ideas from the realm of metaphysics to the realm of practical reason, the idea of belief in God as the support for moral action, that attracted the most violent assault upon theistic ideas in the following generation. Its significance for the nineteenth century is indicated in the view of Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872), who argues (1) that religion is the "dream of man," in which he projects his own infinite nature as a being beyond himself and then perceives himself as the object of this projected being; (2) that such a being, as "a contradiction to reason and morality," is quite inadequate to support a genuine human community; and (3) that a new philosophy based upon the being of man must unmask the essential nature of religion, which is to alienate man from himself, and replace theology with the humanistic underpinning for an ethically legitimate order.

Karl Marx (18181883) concurred in the judgment that religion is a symptom of alienation. But he argued that a merely intellectual liberation from religion would be unable to bring about the kind of human community that Feuerbach had envisioned. Religion, he argued, is an instrument of economic control. By its construction of an illusory happiness religion presents an obstacle to the liberation of the alienated worker from economic exploitation in the real, that is the material, world. Later in the century Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) articulated a view of the moral significance of theistic faith very different from that of Marx. Yet it is no less hostile to theistic belief. The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he held, is the support of a slave morality. God was the instrument of the weak in inflicting a bad conscience upon the powerful and healthy and thus undermining their vitality and love of life. The success of this strategy has brought Western civilization to the brink of a nihilism that signals both the imminent death of God and the dawning of a new day in which Christian morality will be left behind.

In the twentieth century a new challenge to theism arose from the effort of philosophers to develop a criterion to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless language. In order to make sense, it was held, a statement has to be capable of empirical verification. Because statements about God cannot be shown to be true or false by methods of empirical testing, they seem to be without claim to cognitive standing. With this and further developments, the challenge to religious thought was no longer to the justification of theistic belief but to the status of the expression of theistic belief as meaningful language. The threat was not to its intellectual support but to its claim to belong to the domain of serious philosophical dispute.

The twentieth century

To the attack upon theism since the seventeenth century, theologians in the twentieth century responded in a variety of ways. These responses can be discussed as two opposing types: (1) those who continued to affirm the existence of God as the superlatively wise, powerful, and benevolent creator of the world and (2) those who did not affirm the existence of such a God or who even openly deny it. It is within this latter group that the most recent forms of religious atheism are found. The first type includes the revival of scholasticism in Roman Catholic and Anglican theological circles, which was accorded official ecclesiastical support during the First Vatican Council (1870). Among the most influential of these theists were Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange (18771964), Jacques Maritain (18821973), and Étienne Gilson (18841978). Central to this response was a reaffirmation of metaphysics and of the importance of natural theology, at least in the sense of a rational structuring of the truths received through revelation and a clarification of these truths in terms of ordinary experience.

A second movement that belongs to this type, neoorthodoxy, dominated Protestant thought during the first half of the twentieth century, especially after World War I. Rejecting the prevalent themes of nineteenth-century Protestant thought, neoorthodoxy rediscovered the personal God of the Bible and the Protestant reformers. It repudiated efforts to find God through human effort, and instead affirmed that he is to be known through his revelation attested in sacred scripture and by means of the obedience of faith. The God of Karl Barth (18861968), the most influential exponent of this movement, is a God who exists, who lives, and who has made himself known through mighty acts in history of which the Bible is witness.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the significance of change or process in the works of William James (18421910), Henri Bergson (18591941), Samuel Alexander (18591938), and others, together with a widespread criticism of the absolute determinism of Laplace, provided the context for new efforts toward a doctrine of God in the thought of such figures as Alfred North Whitehead (18611947), Henry Nelson Wieman (18841975), and Charles Hartshorne (18972000). Claiming independence from what it saw as the static theism of both the Thomistic and neoorthodox traditions, it conceived God as a limited being who is subject to "becoming" in time as natural "process" unfolds. God, in this view, fulfills his own being, as the force for progress, in and through the ordering of the world.

A reply to the attack upon theism very different from all of these was developed in the thought of Paul Tillich (18861965). It centers upon his view of faith as a state of "being concerned ultimately." This view of faith, according to Tillich, transcends the three fundamental kinds of theism that have been the object of secular attack. (1) "Empty theism" is the affirmation of God employed by politicians and dictators to produce the impression that they are moral and worthy of trust. Its use of the idea of God exploits the traditional and psychological connotations of the word without any specification of what is meant. (2) Theism as "divine-human encounter" found in the Bible and among the reformers is the immediate certainty of divine forgiveness that is independent of moral, intellectual, or religious preconditions. Its power is evident in the capacity of such a personal image of God, supported by scripture and personal experience, to defeat the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, fate and death. Yet given the doubt prevailing in the present age, the experience of divine forgiveness is subject to psychological explanation, and the idea of sin appears relative at best and meaningless at worst. (3) "Theological theism" tries by means of the various proofs for the existence of God to transform the divine-human encounter into a doctrine about two different beings that have existence independent of one another. This, however, can establish the existence of God only as a being beside others and bound to the subject-object structure of reality. Under the gaze of such a being of infinite knowledge and power the alienated human being is deprived of freedom and creativity. Against this kind of theism, says Tillich, the atheism of the nineteenth century was a justified response.

What Tillich calls "absolute faith," on the other hand, accepts and affirms despair and in so doing finds meaning within the disintegration of meaning itself. In "absolute faith" the depth and power of being is revealed in which the negation of being is embraced. Its object is the "God beyond God," the God who appears when the God of theism has disappeared in the anxiety of meaninglessness and doubt. This God is not a being but the ground of Being itself.

In an effort towards a radical recasting of the fundamental categories of theology, Bishop John A. T. Robinson (19191983) of Woolwich, England, employed a number of Tillich's insights together with some of the more famous ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (19061945) and Rudolf Bultmann (18841976). Writing in 1963, he affirmed, with Bultmann, that the Bible assumes a cosmology in which God is a being "up there." The Christian who is heir to the Copernican revolution tends to translate such categories into terms compatible with the modern view of the world. When one speaks of God "up there," one really means the God "out there." This he thinks, is poor translation, for there are no vacant spaces in the universe in which God could really be said to reside. Robinson is willing to concede that the skies are empty, and that humanity, as Bonhoeffer had said, has come of age. The divine transcendence, he argues, is to be confronted not in the "beyond" or in the "height" but in the infinite and inexhaustible "depth" or "ground" of being revealed in the midst of life.

Neither Tillich nor Robinson referred to their thought as atheistic. Tillich suggested, however, that to understand God as the depth of being practically requires one to forget everything traditional that one has learned about God, and perhaps even the word itself. Robinson stated that he did not yet have a name for the kind of religious thinking he wanted to bring about. In the United States, on the other hand, reflection of a similar sort was given a name that gained it an instant vogue: the theology of the death of God.

The "death of God" theology was a heterogeneous movement encompassing a variety of issues upon which its members often disagreed. Besides the question of God, it was concerned with a variety of forms of alienation within the Christian community, with the significance of the secular world and its intellectual norms, and with the significance for theology of the person and work of Jesus. The movement received its name from the title of a work published in 1961 by Gabriel Vahanian that announced the death of God as a cultural fact, the fact acknowledged by Bonhoeffer and Robinson that modern man functions intellectually and socially without God as a working hypothesis. This cultural fact, for Vahanian, implies a loss of the sense of transcendence and the substitution of a radically immanentist perspective in dealing with questions of human existence. That the death of God has occurred as a cultural fact in no way implies for him, however, that God himself has ceased to exist. God is, and remains, infinite and wholly other, still calling humanity to existential and cultural conversion. Vahanian's concern is for a transfiguration of culture in which the living God is freed from the false images that have reified him.

Vahanian's view of the reality of God sets him clearly apart from other persons associated with the death of God. For Paul M. Van Buren, writing in 1965, the issue for theology is how the modern Christian, who is in fact a secular being, can understand faith in a secular way. Taking his method from the philosophical tradition known as language analysis, he argues that not only the God of theism but also any other conception of God has been rendered meaningless to the modern mind. He concludes that when the language of Christian faith is sorted out, the gospel can be interpreted as the expression of a historical perspective concerning Jesus that has wide-ranging empirical consequences for the ethical existence of the Christian.

For William Hamilton, writing at about the same time, the death of God means the loss of the God of theism and the loss of "real transcendence." His response is a new understanding of Protestantism that liberates it from religionfrom, that is, any system of thought or action in which God is seen as fulfilling any sort of need or as solving any human problem, even the problem of the loss of God. Hamilton's Protestant is a person without God, without faith in God, but also a person in protest against release or escape from the world by means of the sacred. He is a person led into the affairs of the world and into solidarity with his neighbor, in whom he encounters Jesus and where alone he can become Jesus to the world.

In the thought of Vahanian, Van Buren, and Hamilton, the death of God is a metaphor. In the work of Thomas J. J. Altizer, on the other hand, the death of God is to be taken literally. In a work published in 1967 he seems to be saying both that God did once exist and that he really did cease to exist. He believes that the death of God is decisive for theology because in it God has reconciled himself with the world. God, the sovereign and transcendent Lord of the Christian tradition, has taken the form of a servant and entered the world through Christ. With this, the realm of the transcendent and supernatural has become empty and God has died. With the death of God, humans are liberated from fears and inhibitions imposed upon them by an awesome mystery beyond.

The view of these thinkers that belief in God is impossible, unnecessary, or wrong, has apparently not caused them to believe that they are disqualified as theologians. To this extent they stand alongside other forms of religious atheism encountered in the history of religious thought. It has certainly been objected by other theologians that the "death of God" theology does not authentically represent the Christian tradition. For the present it is sufficient that the death of God represents a controversy of significant dimensions in the record of Christian thought and that its influence continues to affect the development of theology in the early twenty-first century.


The forms of atheism that appear throughout the history of religions represent an important resource for the interpretation of twenty-first century religious thought. Much of the reasoning behind the rejection of popular religion in ancient Greece or theism in India can be compared with the reasoning behind the rejection of theism in the West. The naturalism of ancient Greek and classical Indian philosophy invites comparison with naturalism in the West, the atheism of the Sophists with that of nineteenth-century Europe. The widespread secularistic mood in contemporary society bears comparison with the secularism of late Greek and Roman antiquity. And the ethical preoccupation of some exponents of the death of God invites comparison with the ethical practicality of the philosophies of ancient China. The major forms of religious atheism are perhaps less distinguished by the traditions they belong to than by affinities in inner structure.

From the present survey it is possible to conclude that doubt about the existence of God does not in itself imply the end of piety, ethics, or spirituality. Elaborate systems of ethical religious thought and action have been based both on the view that God does and that God does not exist. The question that arises from the present survey is not whether it is possible to speak any longer about God but whether it is necessary to do so. The question whether it is possible for modern philosophy or theology to develop a compelling system of religious thought and action that rejects belief in God will be addressed more effectively as the dimensions of the question that emerge in differing historical situations are compared.

See Also

Doubt and Belief; Naturalism.


The idea that civilization begins at a stage at which the concept of God is absent is developed by David Hume in The Natural History of Religion (1757), edited by H. E. Root (Stanford, Calif., 1957). A similar view is developed by John Lubbock in The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man (1870), edited by Peter Rivière (Chicago, 1978). An excellent contemporary study of the significance of God in traditional African religion is John S. Mbiti's Concepts of God in Africa (New York, 1970). See also Ake Hultkrantz's Belief and Worship in Native North America (Syracuse, N.Y., 1981). Both of these works contain excellent bibliographies. The question whether native peoples are without a concept of God has received new interest in light of John Nance's The Gentle Tasaday (New York, 1975).

The most thorough work on the classical philosophies of India remains Surendranath Dasgupta's A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 19221955). Nikunja Vihari Banerjee's The Spirit of Indian Philosophy (New Delhi, 1974) is a thoroughly readable introduction containing a useful discussion of arguments for and against the existence of God in Indian thought. Ninian Smart's Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy (London, 1964) presents the substance of Indian metaphysics in language accessible to the Western reader. It contains also a useful glossary and bibliography. More specialized studies include Kewal Krishnan Mittal's Materialism in Indian Thought (Delhi, 1974); Dale Riepe's The Naturalistic Tradition in Indian Thought (Seattle, 1961); and Helmuth von Glasenapp's Buddhism: A Non-Theistic Religion (New York, 1966). A useful selection of relevant original texts is presented in translation in A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N.J., 1957). A concise introduction to Chinese thought is presented in Fung Youlan's A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York, 1948), which offers a short bibliography.

Relevant works on ancient Greek material include Roy K. Hack's God in Greek Philosophy (Princeton, N. J., 1931), which contains a selected bibliography, and Anders B. Drachmann's Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (1922; Chicago, 1977), which provides extensive notes. For a scholarly treatment of the concept of God in ancient Israel, see William F. Albright's Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (London, 1968) and Harold H. Rowley's The Faith of Israel: Aspects of Old Testament Thought (London, 1956). Elaine H. Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1979) is an introduction to gnostic Christian literature based on the recent discoveries at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The development of theism, from Augustine to its criticism through the nineteenth century, is thoroughly discussed in Frederick C. Copleston's A History of Philosophy, 8 vols. (New York, 19461966). A concise introduction to the development of the Christian idea of God is found in the article "God" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed., edited by Frank Leslie Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingston (London, 1974), which contains a useful bibliography. For a thorough discussion of contemporary developments in theology, including the theology of the "death of God," see Langdon Gilkey's Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-language (Indianapolis, 1969).

Finally, a useful reference work is The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 2 vols., edited by Gordon Stein (New York, 1985). Although clearly focused on the West, it includes a broad range of articles on various forms of unbelief in most parts of the world.

George Alfred James (1987 and 2005)

views updated


The words atheist and godless are still frequently used as terms of abuse. Nevertheless, there are relatively few people nowadays in whom the thought of atheism and atheists arouses unspeakable horror. It seems to be agreed that an atheist can be a good person whose oaths and promises are no less trustworthy than those of other people, and in most civilized lands atheists have the same or nearly the same rights as anybody else. What is more, it appears to be generally realized that some of the world's foremost philosophers, scientists, and artists have been avowed atheists and that the increase in atheism has gone hand in hand with the spread of education. Even spokesmen of the most conservative religious groups in the mid-twentieth century conceded that atheism may well be a philosophical position that is adopted for the noblest of reasons. Thus, in "The Contemporary Status of Atheism" (1965), Jean-Marie Le Blond appealed to his fellow believers for a "truly human and mutually respectful dialogue" with atheists, insisting that a "life without God need not be bestial, unintelligent, or immoral" and that atheism can be "serene and deeply human." In the previous year Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, had observed that some atheists were undoubtedly inspired by "greathearted dreams of justice and progress" as well as by "impatience with the mediocrity and self-seeking of so many contemporary social settings."

Hostility to Atheism

It was otherwise in earlier ages. One could fill many volumes with the abuse and calumny contained in the writings of Christian apologists, learned no less than popular. The tenor of these writings is not simply that atheism is mistaken but also that only a depraved person could adopt so hideous a position and that the spread of atheism would be a horrifying catastrophe for the human race. "No atheist as such," wrote Richard Bentley in Eight Sermons (1724), "can be a true friend, an affectionate relation, or a loyal subject." In the preface to his The True Intellectual System of the World (1678), Ralph Cudworth made it clear that he was addressing himself not to "downright and professed atheists" but to "weak, staggering and sceptical theists." Downright atheists were beyond the pale, for they had "sunk into so great a degree of sottishness" that they evidently could not be reached. Writing almost exactly two centuries later, the Protestant theologian Robert Flint, who readily admitted that he had met atheists of great courage and integrity, nevertheless expressed his extreme concern over the "strenuous propagation" of atheism, especially in the "periodical press." "The prevalence of atheism in any land," he wrote, "must bring with it national decay and disaster." The triumph of atheism in England would "bring with it hopeless national ruin." If once the workers of the large cities became atheists, "utter anarchy would be inevitable" (Anti-Theistic Theories, pp. 3637). All these quotations are from British Protestants. Very similar and frequently more virulent remarks could be quoted from German, French, Italian, and American believers of the same periods.

In France until the Revolution and in most other countries until some time later, it was illegal to publish works in defense of atheism, and in fact real or alleged atheists were subject to dire persecution throughout the times of Christian domination. Some of the world's greatest philosophers were among those who advocated and in some instances actively promoted this persecution. The story antedates Christianity, and persecution of atheists was already advocated in Plato's Laws. Plato divided atheists into several groups, all of which must be punished; but whereas the members of some groups required no more than "admonition and imprisonment," those belonging to others deserved punishment exceeding "one death or two." Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, II, 11, 3 and 4) had no doubt that unbelievers should be "shut off from the world by death." Such a course, he argued, is justified since it surely is "a much more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul's life," than it is "to forge money, through which temporal life is afforded." If, as is just, forgers of money and other malefactors are straightaway put to death, it is all the more just that "heretics be not only excommunicated but also put to death."

John Locke, one of the great pioneers of religious toleration, explicitly exempted Roman Catholics and atheists from the application of the principles he advocated. "Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society," he wrote, "can have no hold upon an atheist." Moreover, since atheism is not a religion but, on the contrary, a position that is out to "undermine and destroy all religion," it cannot come under the privilege of the toleration that is justly claimed by bona fide religions (A Letter concerning Toleration ). It may be assumed that Locke did not advocate that atheists be shut off from the world, but that he was merely opposed to the free advocacy of atheism in writing and speech.

After Locke's time, the "shutting off" approach became infrequent, but atheists continued to be the victims of persecution and discrimination in various forms. To give some interesting and far from untypical illustrations: Baron d'Holbach's The System of Nature was falsely attributed in its first edition to Jean-Baptiste de Mirabaud, a former secretary of the French Academy who had been dead for ten years. Very shortly after its publication in 1770, it was condemned to be burned by the public hangman after a trial in which the public prosecutor expressed his regret that he could not lay his hands on the unknown real author, adding that the corruption of morals evident in almost all sections of society was very probably due to the spread of ideas like those contained in the condemned book. When the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was an undergraduate at Oxford, he published a short and very temperate pamphlet titled The Necessity of Atheism. This at once aroused a violent protest that resulted in the burning of all undistributed copies and in the expulsion of Shelley and his friend Thomas Hogg from the university. Some years later Shelley was judicially deprived of the custody of his children on the ground that he was "likely to inculcate the same [atheistic] principles upon them." As late as 1877 Annie Besant, the noted social reformer, was judged to be unfit to take care of her children on the same ground, although the judge admitted that she had been a careful and affectionate mother. Until the passing of the Evidence Amendment Act of 1869, unbelievers in Great Britain were considered incompetent to give evidence in a court of law. Atheists were thus in effect unable to sue when they were the victims of fraud or slander. Charles Bradlaugh, whose efforts were largely responsible for the Act of 1869, was also the main figure in a prolonged battle to secure the right of avowed atheists to sit in the House of Commons. After Bradlaugh was elected, he was found unfit to take his seat. He won the resulting by-election and was again declared unfit to sit in the House, and this merry-go-round continued for several years, until a Conservative speaker found a legal way of securing Bradlaugh's admission. In the United States there has not been similar legal discrimination against atheists, but there is perhaps to this day more de facto discrimination and prejudice than in any other Western country.

A comprehensive entry on atheism would, among other things, trace the history of the persecution of real and alleged atheists, of the changes in public attitudes, and of the gradual repeal of discriminatory legislation. It would also inquire into the psychological sources of the hatred of atheists that is sometimes found in otherwise apparently kindly and sensible men. Because of space limitations, the present entry will, however, be largely confined to what is undoubtedly the most interesting question for philosophers: Is atheism a logically tenable position? What are the arguments for it, what are the arguments against it, and how strong are these, respectively? It will not be possible to deal exhaustively even with these questions, but an attempt will be made to sketch the position of a philosophically sophisticated atheist and to explain why a view of this kind has appealed to many important thinkers in recent times.

Definition of Atheism

No definition of atheism could hope to be in accord with all uses of this term. However, it would be most confusing to adopt any of several definitions that can only be regarded as eccentric. These would result in classifying as believers many people who would not regard themselves as such (and who would not commonly be so regarded) and in classifying as atheists many people who have not usually been thought of in this way. Thus, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in denying the charge of atheism, wrote in "Über den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine Göttliche Weltregierung" that the "true atheist" is the person who, instead of following the voice of conscience, always calculates consequences before acting in a moral situation. Friedrich Jodl, who was himself a positivist and an unbeliever, similarly remarked that "only the man without ideals is truly an atheist," implying, no doubt, that, although he did not believe in God, he was not a "true" atheist (Vom Lebenswege, 2 vols., Stuttgart and Berlin, 19161917, Vol. II, p. 370.). In the twentieth century Paul Tillich defined atheism as the view that "life has no depth, that it is shallow." Anybody who says this "in complete seriousness is an atheist"; otherwise, he is not (Shaking of the Foundations, New York, 1948, p. 63). Stephen Toulmin, in an article ("On Remaining an Agnostic," Listener, October 17, 1957) in which he championed agnosticism as he understood it, distinguishes his own position from that of both believers and atheists in that, unlike them, he does not "find personal attitudes of any sort in Nature-at-large." The believer, according to Toulmin, regards the Cosmic Powers as friendly to man, while the atheist regards the cosmos as indifferent or as "positively callous."

Whatever the point of the definitions just quoted, their paradoxical consequences make them useless in the present context. For our purposes, definitions of atheism and corresponding definitions of God will be serviceable only if they preserve, at least roughly, the traditional battle lines. Whatever their differences, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, George Berkeley, William Paley, Henry Longueville Mansel, J. S. Mill, William James, Paul Tillich, and John Hick should continue to be classified as believers; T. H. Huxley, Leslie Stephen, and Clarence Darrow as agnostics; and Holbach, Ludwig Büchner, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean-Paul Sartre as atheists. The definition proposed in the present entry will, in taking account of certain complexities of the situation, depart in a significant respect from the one that is most popular, but it will not involve reclassification of any of the great philosophers of the past. According to the most usual definition, an atheist is a person who maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence "God exists" expresses a false proposition. In contrast, an agnostic maintains that it is not known or cannot be known whether there is a God, that is, whether the sentence "God exists" expresses a true proposition. On our definition, an atheist is a person who rejects belief in God, regardless of whether or not the reason for the rejection is the claim that "God exists" expresses a false proposition. People frequently adopt an attitude of rejection toward a position for reasons other than that it is a false proposition. It is common among contemporary philosophers, and indeed it was not uncommon in earlier centuries, to reject positions on the ground that they are meaningless. Sometimes, too, a theory is rejected on such grounds as that it is sterile or redundant or capricious, and there are many other considerations that in certain contexts are generally agreed to constitute good grounds for rejecting an assertion. An atheist in the narrower, more popular sense, is ipso facto an atheist in our broader sense, but the converse does not hold.

theistic positions

Before exploring the implications of our definition any further, something should be said about the different uses of the word God and the correspondingly different positions, all of which have been referred to as "belief in God." For our purposes, it will be sufficient to distinguish three of these. All the believers in question have characterized God as a supreme personal being who is the creator or the ground of the universe and who, whatever his other attributes may be, is at the very least immensely powerful, highly intelligent, and very good, loving, and just. While some of them would maintain that the predicates just mentioned"powerful," "good," and the restare used in a literal sense when applied to God, other believers insist that when applied to God, these, and indeed all or almost all, predicates must be employed in "metaphorical," "symbolic," or "analogical" senses. Let us, without implying anything derogatory, refer to the belief that predicates can be applied literally to God as the "anthropomorphic" conception of God and to the belief that predicates can only be applied analogically to God as the "metaphysical" conception of God.

Among professional philosophers, belief in the metaphysical God has been much more common than belief in the anthropomorphic God. This metaphysical position is at least as old as Thomas (and, it may be plausibly argued, as old as Plato). In the early eighteenth century it was championed by Peter Browne, bishop of Cork, who was trying to answer difficulties raised by the infidel John Toland. In the nineteenth century this position was defended by Mansel in his Bampton Lectures, and in the twentieth century it was a key feature of Tillich's philosophy. God, on Tillich's view, "infinitely transcends every finite being"; between the finite and the infinite there is "an absolute break, an 'infinite jump'"; there is here "no proportion and gradation." When we say, for example, "God is Love," or "God is Life," the words love and life are used symbolically, not literally. They were originally introduced in connection with "segments of finite experience," and when applied to God, they cannot have the same meaning that they have in ordinary human situations.

The anthropomorphic position is by no means confined to unsophisticated believers. It has commanded the support of several eminent philosophers, especially believers who were also empiricists or otherwise opposed to rationalism. Thus, Berkeley emphatically defended the anthropomorphic position against Bishop Browne. In Alciphron Berkeley attacked Browne's procedure on the ground that unless "wise" and "good" are used in the same sense for God and man, "it is evident that every syllogism brought to prove those attributes, or (which is the same thing) to prove the being of a God, will be found to consist of four terms, and consequently can conclude nothing." In the nineteenth century J. S. Mill championed anthropomorphic belief as opposed to the metaphysical theology of Hamilton and Mansel; more recently, Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, who is perhaps best classified as a fideist, indicted the metaphysical God as a "Nothing-God" and a "dead thing." In The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and in Peoples he wrote that such a fleshless abstraction cannot be the answer to the cravings of the human heart. Only the anthropomorphic God can ever be "the loving God," the God to whom we come "by the way of love and of suffering."

Among those who believe in an anthropomorphic God, there are two positions to be distinguished. First, there is the more traditional position that allows no limitations upon the extent to which God possesses the various admirable characteristicson this view, God is all-powerful, all-loving, infinitely good, perfectly just, and so on. Second, there is the somewhat heretical position of those who, while maintaining that God possesses these characteristics to a high degree, allow that he is limited at least in his power or in his goodness. Mill, who believed in such a finite anthropomorphic deity, claimed that regardless of the official pronouncements of the various religions, in actual practice most Western believers adhered to a theory like his own.


A few words must be said about the possible meanings of creation when God is referred to as the creator (or ground) of the universe. Thomas Aquinas, in his On the Eternity of the World and elsewhere, makes a distinction between the temporal sense in which God is supposed to have made the universe at a certain moment in time, prior to which it did not exist, and the more sophisticated sense in which it is asserted that the universe is absolutely dependent on God so that it would cease to exist if God were not sustaining it. Thomas himself believed in God's creation of the universe in both senses, but it was only in the second sense that he regarded the theory of divine creation as susceptible of logical proof. Both these senses must be distinguished from the creative activity ascribed to the demiurge of Plato's Timaeus or to Mill's God. Here the deity is not, strictly, a creator but merely an arranger of preexisting material. For the purposes of this entry, a person will count as a believer in the creation of the universe by God if he or she makes any of three claims just distinguished.

the broader sense of atheism

Let us now return to our definition of atheism. A person is an atheist in our sense who adopts an attitude of rejection toward all three theistic positions previously statedbelief in a metaphysical God, in an infinite anthropomorphic God, and in a finite anthropomorphic God. He or she will count as a believer in God if maintaining that "God exists" expresses a true proposition, where "God" is employed in one of the three ways described. A person will be an agnostic who does not accept any of these three claims but at the same time suspends judgment concerning at least one of them. It will be observed that on our way of drawing the lines, agnosticism and atheism remain distinct positions, since suspension of judgment and rejection are different attitudes.

The broader definition here adopted enables us to classify together philosophers whose attitudes toward belief in God are exceedingly similar, although their detailed reasons may not always coincide. Rudolf Carnap, for example, regards metaphysical theology as meaningless, while treating belief in an infinite as well as a finite anthropomorphic God as "mythology," implying that both are false or probably false. In our sense, he can be classified as an atheist without further ado, and it is doubtful that believers would consider him less hostile than atheists in the narrower sense. It is also worth observing that our broader definition receives a good deal of backing from the actual writings of philosophers and others who regarded themselves as atheists. Many of them were by no means unaware of the fact that the word God has a number of uses and that what may be a plausible justification for rejecting one kind of belief in God may be quite inappropriate in the case of another. Charles Bradlaugh, for example, made it very clear that in calling himself an atheist he did not simply maintain that there is no God. In his "Plea for Atheism," he wrote:

The atheist does not say "there is no God," but he says "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the word 'God' is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. The Bible God I deny; the Christian God I disbelieve in; but I am not rash enough to say there is no God as long as you tell me you are unprepared to define God to me."

The writings of Jean Meslier, Holbach, and other eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century atheists, while certainly containing remarks to the effect that the sentence "God exists" expresses a false proposition, are also full of claims that once we critically examine the talk about a "pure spirit" that supposedly exists timelessly and without a body, we find that words have been used without any meaning. In any event, by using the word atheism in the broader sense, it will be possible to discuss certain antitheological considerations of great interest that would otherwise have to be excluded.

Traditional Atheistic Arguments

In this section we shall discuss two of the arguments popular among atheistic writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In later sections we shall present considerations commonly urged by Anglo-Saxon writers in more recent years. However, in a rudimentary form these more recent reflections are already present in the writings of earlier atheists, just as the older arguments continue to be pressed in current literature.

the eternity of matter

The first of the two older atheistic arguments is based on the doctrine of the eternity of matter, or, to bring it more in accord with recent physical theory, the eternity of mass-energy. (As far as the basic issues here are concerned, it is not of any moment whether what is said to be eternal is matter or energy or mass-energy, and for the sake of convenience we shall speak only of the eternity of "matter.") There are two steps in this argument. It is claimed, first, either as something self-evident or as a proposition proved by science, that matter is eternal; second, it is asserted that this claim rules out a God conceived as the creator of the material universe. If the physical universe had been created by God, it would follow that there was a time when the quantity of matter was less than it is now, when it was in fact zero. But physics proves or presupposes that the quantity of matter has always been the same.

Since most ordinary people include "creator of the material universe" in their concept of God, and since they mean by creation a temporal act of making something out of nothing, the appeal to the eternity of matter is effective as a popular argument for atheism. A little reflection shows, however, that by itself the argument is of very limited significance. To begin with, regardless of any scientific evidence, the doctrine of the eternity of matter, in all its forms, would be challenged by anybody who accepts any of the causal varieties of the Cosmological Argument. Such a person would presumably argue that while conservation principles may accurately describe a certain feature of the material universe ever since it began existing, the material universe itself requires a nonmaterial cause. Hence, any atheistic conclusion in the present context would have to be accompanied by a refutation of the causal forms of the Cosmological Argument. But granting for the moment that the eternity of matter is fully established, this is not incompatible with the theory of divine creation in the sense in which it has been put forward by its philosophically more sophisticated adherents. The eternity of matter is no doubt incompatible with the existence of a God who made the material universe out of nothing and with the kind of activity in which the demiurge is supposed to engage (since bringing order into previously chaotic materials requires the addition of energy); but it is not incompatible with creation in the second of the two senses distinguished by Thomas, in which creation means "absolute dependence" and does not refer to any datable act. There may indeed be some difficulty in the notion of a nonphysical entity nonphysically sustaining the universe, and it is tempting to think that this is an intelligible doctrine simply because the words sustain and depend immediately call up certain pictures in one's mind; but these difficulties raise rather different questions. Finally, in this connection it should be pointed out that the eternity of matter in all its forms is compatible with a belief in God or gods, like those of the Epicureans and Thomas Hobbes (if Hobbes was serious), who are physical beings, or in gods of any kind, as long as it is not claimed that these have created the universe or any aspect of it.

A few words should perhaps be added here about the claim of some writers that the doctrine of the eternity of matter in all its forms has now been refuted by physics and that physics even somehow proves the existence of God. In this connection it should be mentioned, first, that the great majority of scientifically informed philosophers agree that the findings of recent physics do not affect the issues dividing believers and unbelievers, and, second, that even if the doctrine of the eternity of matter were now untenable in all its forms, this would undermine one of the arguments for atheism, but not atheism itself. If there was a time when matter did not exist (assuming this to be a meaningful assertion), it does not automatically follow that matter was created by God. To show that matter was created by God, an appeal to the Cosmological Argument (and not to physics) would be as necessary as ever. As for the theory of continuous creation, advocated by some cosmologists, it does indeed imply that the principle of the conservation of mass-energy is false. However, the basic assumption behind the theory of continuous creation is the so-called perfect cosmological principle, which is in effect an endorsement of the eternity of matter. This principle asserts that the large-scale aspects of the universe are the same at all times and in all places; and this, more specifically, means that the stars and galaxies have always been about as evenly distributed as they are at the present time.

evil and other imperfections

Among the traditional atheistic arguments a second type has generally been regarded as more formidable and still enjoys an undiminished popularity. This type of argument points to some imperfection or defect in the universe and argues that the defect is incompatible with the existence of God insofar as God is defined as a perfect being.

Among the imperfections or alleged imperfections, emphasis has frequently been placed on the enormous waste in nature, especially in matters of reproduction, and on the trial-and-error "method" of evolution. Referring to the process of evolution, G. H. Lewes remarked that "nothing could be more unworthy of a supreme intelligence than this inability to construct an organism at once, without making several tentative efforts, undoing today what was so carefully done yesterday, and repeating for centuries the same tentatives and the same corrections in the same succession." And if the end of this entire process is man, it has been questioned whether it was worth all the pain and tribulations that preceded it. "If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in," writes Bertrand Russell, "I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of my efforts" (Religion and Science, p. 222). Again, it has been suggested by several writers, and not at all facetiously, that if there were a God, then surely he would have provided human beings with clearer evidence of his own existence. If an omniscient and omnipotent God did not take care that his intentions should be understood by his creatures, asked Nietzsche, "could he be a God of goodness?" Would he not, rather, be a cruel god if, "being himself in possession of the truth, he could calmly contemplate mankind, in a state of miserable torment, worrying its mind as to what was truth?" (Morgenröte, Aphorism 91). If a God exists, then, in the words of Charles Bradlaugh, "he could have so convinced all men of the fact of his existence that doubt, disagreement, or disbelief would be impossible."

The most widely discussed of all these arguments from the imperfections of the universe is the argument from evil, and it may be best to restrict our discussion to it. The following is a statement by Brand Blanshard:

We are told that with God all things are possible. If so, it was possible for him to create a world in which the vast mass of suffering that is morally pointlessthe pain and misery of animals, the cancer and blindness of little children, the humiliations of senility and insanitywere avoided. These are apparently inflictions of the Creator himself. If you admit that, you deny his goodness; if you say he could not have done otherwise, you deny that with him all things are possible. ("Irrationalism in Theology," in Faith and the Philosophers, edited by John Hick, London, 1964, p. 172)

It should be emphasized that the argument from evil, as here stated, is directed against the conclusion of the believer in an infinite anthropomorphic God and is not merely a criticism of his evidence. On occasions, for example in David Hume's Dialogues concerning Natural Religion, the argument has been used for the milder purpose of showing that the Design Argument cannot succeed in establishing a maker of the universe who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. It argues from the nature of the world to the nature of its cause, and since the world is a mixture of good and evil, it cannot be established in this way that its creator is perfectly good. The form in which we are concerned with the argument from evilwhat we may call its stronger sensemaintains that the evil in the world shows the theological claim to be false. The argument may be construed as comparing the theological assertion to a falsified scientific hypothesis: If the theory that the universe is the work of an all-powerful and all-good being were true, then the universe would not exhibit certain features; experience shows that it does exhibit these features, and hence the theory is false.

The argument from evil has no logical force against belief in a finite God. The evil in the world is perfectly compatible with the existence of a God who is lacking either omnipotence or perfect goodness, or both. In fact, E. S. Brightman and the American personalists and other well-known champions of belief in a finite anthropomorphic God adopted their position precisely in order to reconcile belief in God with the existence of evil. There is also no obvious incompatibility between the existence of the metaphysical God and the evil in the world, since it is not claimed for the metaphysical God either that he is all-powerful or that he is perfectly good in the ordinary senses of these words. Mansel, for example, in Limits of Religious Thought openly acknowledged that in the light of the injustice and suffering we find in the world, the moral character of God cannot be represented "after the model of the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving." His position, Mansel insisted, unlike the position of anthropomorphic believers, to whom Mansel referred as "vulgar Rationalists" in this context, was immune from difficulties like the problem of evil Substantially similar remarks are to be found in the writings of many other members of this tradition.

The most basic objections to metaphysical theology will be discussed in the next section, but perhaps it should be mentioned in passing that according to some critics, philosophers like Mansel have a tendency to revert to the view that God is good in the very same sense in which human beings are sometimes good and, more generally, to anthropomorphic theology. This is not at all surprising since, like other believers, they derive or wish to derive comfort and reassurance from their theology. Such comfort may be derivable from the view that the ultimate reality is good and just in the sense or one of the senses in which we use these terms when we praise good and just human beings. No comfort at all, on the other hand, seems derivable from the statement that God is good and just but that "the true nature and manner of all the divine operation of goodness," in the words of Bishop Browne, "is utterly incomprehensible" or that they differ from human justice and goodness, as Mansel put it, "in kind," not only in degree.

There is a long history of attempts by believers to show that the argument from evil does not really refute the assertion that an infinite anthropomorphic God exists. It has been maintained by some that evil is unreal; by others that, although real, it is of a "privative" rather than a "positive" character; that it is real and positive but that it is the consequence of man's abuse of his gift of free will and that a universe without evil and without free will would be worse than one with both; that the argument is based on a narrow hedonistic conception of good and evil and that, in any event, the theological position cannot be adequately judged unless it is viewed in conjunction with belief in an afterlife in which the wrongs of the present life will somehow be righted; and many more. Critics have come up with various answers to these rejoinders, and the discussion has been going on with unabated vigor in recent years. There would be little point in reviewing this debate here, but something should perhaps be said about two retorts by believers that have not been adequately discussed by the proponents of the argument from evil.

A Christian rejoinder

One rejoinder to the argument from evil seems to be of considerable value in showing that this argument does not by itself justify rejection of belief in an infinite anthropomorphic God. It has been argued (for example, by Arnold Lunn in his exchange of letters with C. E. M. Joad published in Is Christianity True?, London and Philadelphia, 1933) that although the existence of evil cannot be reconciled with the existence of an infinite anthropomorphic God, this is not too serious a problem in view of the powerful affirmative evidence for this position. In other areas too, Lunn reminds us, we do not abandon a well-supported theory just because we meet with some counterevidence. He is not in the least disturbed by "the fact that divine science, like natural science, brings us face to face with apparently insoluble contradictions." This hardly disposes of the argument from evil, as Lunn seems to think. The comparison between the difficulty that a believer faces from the facts of evil and the difficulties besetting a scientific theory for which there is otherwise strong evidence is somewhat tenuous. There are indeed cases answering to this description in science, but they are invariably resolved by further inquiry. Either we come to see that the difficulty or exception was merely apparent or else the original theory is modified or abandoned. In the theological case, several millennia of experience and debate do not seem to have brought us any nearer a resolution. But, assuming that Lunn's comparison fails as a defense of belief in an infinite anthropomorphic God, there can be no question that he would have made out a strong case in favor of agnosticism as opposed to atheism if there were in fact good evidence for the existence of the God in question. If, for example, the Cosmological Argument were, as far as we can judge, free from fallacious transitions, we would have a situation similar to the kind we frequently face in which there is significant and roughly equally impressive evidence both ways (for example, some apparently trustworthy witnesses implicating the defendant in a court case, while other equally trustworthy witnesses exonerate) and in which suspense of judgment is the most rational attitude. The moral for our discussion is that an atheist cannot afford to neglect the arguments for the existence of God. Unless they can be demolished, the argument from evil will not by itself establish the atheist's case, even if none of the answers mentioned earlier are in fact successful.

A fideistic rejoinder

Another rejoinder to the argument from evil has become extremely popular in recent years among existentialist believers and all who maintain that arguments for or against the existence of God are, as it is put, radically beside the point. We are told that one simply either has faith or one has not, one is either "open" to the presence of God or one is not. If one has faith, proofs and reasoning are not needed; if one lacks faith, they are of no avail. A person who has faith is not shaken by absence of evidence or by counterevidence; a person who has no faith will never become a true believer even if intellectually convinced by the arguments of rationalistic theology.

Systematic defenses by those who adopt such a position are exceedingly rare, but in 1964 an article appeared by an existentialist philosopher who seems familiar with contemporary analytic philosophy and whose answer to the argument from evil is representative of this entire approach. In his "On the Eclipse of God" (Commentary, June 1964, pp. 5560), Emil Fackenheim insists that the essential mark of the faith of a person who is "primordially open to God" is certainty, or, specifically, "the believer's certainty of standing in relation to an unprovable and irrefutable God " (Fackenheim's italics). It is this "irrefutability" of his faith that, Fackenheim believes, enables him to circumvent the problem of evil. No conceivable experience, he insists, can possibly upset the true biblical faith. If there is good fortune, it "reveals the hand of God." If the fortune is bad and if this cannot be explained as just punishment, the conclusion is that "God's ways are unintelligible, not that there are no ways of God." To put it "radically": "Religious faith can be, and is, empirically verifiable; but nothing empirical can possibly refute it " (Fackenheim's italics). Fackenheim cites the examples of Jeremiah, Job, and the Psalmist, all of whom encountered tragedy and disaster without losing their faith in the existence of God. Biblical faith, he observes in this connection, "is never destroyed by tragedy but only tested by it," and in the course of such a test, it "conquers" tragedy. To underline the invulnerability of this position, Fackenheim adds that no amount of scientific evidence can "affect" biblical belief any more than "historical tragedy" or "an empty heart" can.

What is to be said in reply to all this, especially to the remarkable claim, made in all seriousness, that although faith is empirically verifiable, nothing can possibly refute it? The answer is surely that there is a confusion here between logical and psychological issues. Fackenheim may well have given an accurate account of faith as a psychological phenomenon, but this is totally irrelevant to the question at issue among believers, agnostics, and atheistsnamely, which position is favored by the evidence or lack of evidence. All the wordsdestroy, test, conquer, affect, and refute are used ambiguously in this as in countless similar discussions. They refer on the one hand to certain psychological effects (or their absence) and on the other to the relation between facts and a proposition for or against which these facts are (or fail to be) evidence. If the question at issue were whether tragedy and injustice can produce loss of belief in a person who has the "biblical faith," the answer may well be in the negative, and Fackenheim's examples support such an answer. They have not the slightest bearing, however, on the question of whether the tragedies and the injustices in the world disprove or make improbable or are any kind of evidence against the statement that the world is the work of an all-powerful and all-good Godthe statement in which the believers have faith. The first question may be of great psychological and human interest, and if Fackenheim is right, then a person interested in dissuading "biblical" believers would be foolish even to try. It is the second question alone, however, that is of interest to philosophers, and it alone is at issue between believers and unbelievers. By telling his biblical stories, Fackenheim has done nothing whatsoever to circumvent the problem of evil or to show that what the believer has faith in is immune to criticism.

Before leaving this topic, a few words are in order about a certain concession, occasionally made by unbelievers, which does not appear to be warranted. Some atheists are willing to concede that whereas they can come to grips with rationalistic believers, they are powerless when faced with a fideist like Fackenheim. Thus, Ernest Nagel, in his "Defense of Atheism," remarks that such a position is "impregnable to rational argument." Now, if a proposition, p, is endorsed on the basis of faith and not on the basis of logical arguments, then indeed a critic cannot undermine any arguments supporting p, but may well be in a position to test (and falsify) p itself. If a fideist were to maintain, admitting from the outset that there is no evidence for the proposition and that it is based on faith alone, that the New York Times sells for 50 cents on weekdays, there is of course no evidence for the proposition that can be attacked, but this would not prevent us from disproving the assertion. Any plea by the fideist there is no evidence or that no evidence can ever move him or her will not have the slightest bearing on the soundness of the refutation. A proponent of the argument from evil would similarly maintain that the assertion of the existence of an infinite anthropomorphic deity has certain publicly testable consequencesthat there is no evil in the world or at least not certain kinds of eviland that experience shows these to be false. It would be to the point to argue either that the assertion of the existence of such a deity does not really have the consequences in question or that experience does not really falsify them; but it is totally beside the point to maintain either that faith in an infinite anthropomorphic God is not, in the case of a particular believer, based on any evidence or that the believer will not abandon his or her position, come what may.

Rejection of Metaphysical Theology

In presenting the case against metaphysical theology, we shall concentrate on the views of Tillich and his disciple, Bishop J. A. T. Robinson, whose Honest to God created such a stir among theologians when it was published in 1963. No defender of this position had as much influence in the mid-twentieth century as Tillich. Moreover, his statement of the position is radical and uncompromising and is thus easier to discuss than more qualified versions. At the same time it may well be the case that some of these more qualified versions are not open to quite the same objections. In particular, it might be claimed that the Thomistic doctrine of analogy enables its proponents to escape both the difficulties of straightforward anthropomorphic theology and those besetting Tillich's position.

Tillich and Robinson entirely agree with atheists that belief in any anthropomorphic deity should be rejected. Traditional theism, Tillich writes, "has made God a heavenly, completely perfect person who resides above the world and mankind" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 271). Against such a highest person, he goes on, "the protest of atheism is correct." Elsewhere Tillich repeatedly pours scorn on what he terms "monarchic monotheism" and the theology of the "cosmic policeman." Following Tillich, Bishop Robinson tells us that we must now give up belief in God as somebody "out there," just as Copernican astronomy made people abandon "the old man in the sky." Most believers, he writes, are inclined to think of God as a kind of "visitor from outer space" (Honest to God, p. 50). Unlike the "old man in the sky" or the "visitor from outer space," the God of Tillich and Robinson is not another individual entity beside the familiar entities of experience, not even the "most powerful" or the "most perfect" one. He is "being-itself." As such, God is not contingent but necessary, and arguments for his existence are not required. The idea of God, writes Tillich, is not the idea of "something or someone who might or might not exist" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 205). "In making God an object besides other objects, the existence and nature of which are matters of argument, theology supports the escape to atheism. The first step to atheism is always a theology which drags God down to the level of doubtful things" (Shaking of the Foundations, p. 52).

It should be mentioned in passing that to some readers of Tillich and Robinson there appears to be a radical ambiguity in their entire position, specifically in the reasons they give for rejecting the anthropomorphic theory of the God "out there." At times we are told that the old-fashioned believers are mistaken because God is really inside usinsofar as our lives have "depth," insofar as we live "agapeistically." This is what we may call the Feuerbachian tendency in Tillich and his followers. At other times anthropomorphic theology is denounced because God so radically transcends anything we ever experience that the picture of a glorified man cannot possibly do justice to the reality. In the former context, God must not be said to be "out there" because he is really "in here deep down," in the latter context, because he is too removed to be even out there. In the former context, theological sentences become a species of very special psychological statements, and in the latter they are clearly items of transcendent metaphysics. There seems to be a constant oscillation between these two positions, so that at times traditional theology is denounced for not being sufficiently this-worldly, while at other times it is condemned for being too close to the world. The former position is of no interest to us, since it may rightly be dismissed as not being in any accepted sense a theological position at allit is clearly quite compatible with the most thoroughgoing positivism and atheism. Our discussion will therefore be confined to the latter position exclusively.

As already explained in a previous section, Tillich (that is, Tillich the transcendent metaphysician) regards God as so vastly transcending any finite, familiar entity that predicates taken from ordinary experience cannot be employed in their literal senses when applied to God but must be used symbolically or metaphorically. There is just one statement that we can make about God in which all words are used "directly and properly," namely, that "God as being-itself is the ground of the ontological structure of being without being subject to the structure himself." Tillich expands this statement as follows: "God is that structure; that is, he has the power of determining the structure of everything that has being" (Systematic Theology, Vol. I, p. 239). If anything is said beyond this "bare assertion," Tillich insists it cannot be regarded any longer as a "direct and proper statement." Although all other predicates must be used symbolically when applied to God, certain symbols are justified or appropriate, while others are unjustified or inappropriate, since the former "point" to aspects of the ultimate reality, while the latter do not. Thus, we are justified in speaking of God, symbolically, as "King," "father," and "healing." These are "pointers to the "divine life."

unintelligibility of metaphysical theology

A philosophically sophisticated atheist would object to Tillich's theology not on the ground that it is false or not proven but on the very different ground that it is unintelligiblethat it consists of sentences that may be rich in pictorial associations and in expressive meaning but that fail to make any genuine assertions. Tillich's position may indeed be immune to the difficulties of an anthropomorphic theology, but only at the expense of not saying anything about the world. This criticism would almost certainly be offered by anybody who accepts an empiricist criterion of meaning, but it is worth pointing out that it is an objection that has been endorsed, in substance if not in precisely these words, by numerous believers in an anthropomorphic God. Voltaire on occasion objected on such grounds to the theologians who claimed that we must not use words in their familiar senses when applying them to God, and it has already been mentioned that Unamuno dismissed the metaphysical God as a "Nothing" and a "dead thing." Similarly, William James objected to the emptiness of the "universalistic" theology of the Hegelians of his day, preferring what he called a particularistic belief.

Untranslatable metaphors

This criticism might be backed up in the following way: While recognizing that he constantly uses words symbolically or metaphorically, Tillich does not appreciate the difference between translatable and untranslatable metaphors, and he does not see that his own metaphors are untranslatable. Very frequently indeed, especially in ordinary life, when words are used metaphorically, the context or certain special conventions make it clear what is asserted. Thus, the editor of an encyclopedia, when asked why he or she looks so troubled, may reply, "Too many cares are weighing down on methe pressure is too great." Obviously the words weighing down and pressure are here metaphorical, yet we all understand what is being said. Why? Because the metaphorical expressions are translatablebecause we can eliminate them, because we can specify in nonmetaphorical terms what the sentence is used to assert. If the metaphors could not be eliminated, we would not have succeeded in making any assertion.

A critic would proceed to argue that Tillich's metaphors are of the untranslatable variety and that when he has offered what seem to him translations, he has really only substituted one metaphor for another. Tillich believed that in his basic statement, quoted earlier, all words are used literally, or "properly." But this is open to question. The word ground, for example, is surely not used in any of its literal senses when being-itself is said to be the ground of the ontological structure of being. It can hardly be used in the physical sense in which the floor or the grass underneath our feet could be regarded as a "ground," or in the logical sense in which the premises of an argument may be the ground for endorsing the conclusion. Similar remarks apply to the use of structure, power, and determine. Hence, when we are told that "God is personal" (which is acknowledged to be metaphorical) means "God is the ground of everything personal," or that "God lives" (which is also acknowledged to be metaphorical) means "God is the ground of life," one set of metaphors is exchanged for another, and literal significance is not achieved. Tillich's God, it should be remembered, is so transcendent that not even mystical experience acquaints us with him. "The idea of God," he writes, "transcends both mysticism and the person-to-person encounter" (The Courage To Be, p. 178). Consequently, he does not have at his disposal any statements in which God is literally characterized and that could serve as the translations of the metaphorical utterances. The absence of such statements literally characterizing being-itself equally prevent Tillich from justifying the employment of his set of "symbols" as appropriate and the rejection of other symbols as inappropriate.

Unfalsifiability of metaphysical theology

We noted earlier that a metaphysical theology like Tillich's avoids the troublesome problem of evil because it does not maintain that God is perfectly good or, indeed, omnipotent in any of the ordinary or literal senses of these words. This very immunity would, however, be invoked by some critics as a decisive objection and they would, by a somewhat different route, reach the same conclusionnamely, that Tillich's theological sentences do not amount to genuine assertions. The point in question may perhaps be most forcefully presented by contrasting Tillich's position with that of anthropomorphic believers such as John Hick or A. C. Ewing. Hick and Ewing are (theoretically) very much concerned with the problem of evil. They argue that given the nature of man and a world with dependable sequences (or causal laws), evil of certain kinds is unavoidable, and furthermore that (though they do not, of course, claim to be able to prove this) in the next life there will be appropriate rewards and compensations. They admit or imply that their belief would be logically weakened, perhaps fatally so, it if could be shown that there is no afterlife or that in the afterlife injustice and misery, far from vanishing, will be even more oppressive than in the present life, or that the evils which, given the nature of man and a world of dependable sequences, they thought to be unavoidable, could in fact have been prevented by an omnipotent Creator. Tillich, however, need not be (theoretically) concerned about any such contingencies. Even if things in this life became vastly more horrible than they already are, or even if we had conclusive evidence that in the afterlife things are so bad that by comparison, Auschwitz and Belsen were kingdoms of joy and justice, Tillich's theology would be totally unaffected. Being-itself, as Tillich put it, would still be "actual": It is not "something or someone who might or might not exist." God, as Bishop Robinson puts it, is not a "problematic" entity, which might conceivably not have been there." This is true of the anthropomorphic deity, but not of what Tillich in one place terms "the God above God" (Listener, August 1961, pp. 169ff.).

In other words, unlike the position of Hick and Ewing, Tillich's theology is compatible with anything whatsoever in this life as well as in the next one; and it is the opinion of many contemporary philosophers, believers as well as unbelievers, that if a putative statement is compatible with anything whatsoever, if it excludes no conceivable state of affairs, then it is not a genuine assertion (it should be noted that "state of affairs" is not used in a narrow way so that much that positivists exclude, for example, happiness or suffering in the next world, could count as conceivable states of affairs). This criterion may, of course, be questioned, but if it is accepted, then Tillich's theology, unlike that of anthropomorphic believers, would have to be condemned as devoid of any assertive force.

We have not here considered other variants of metaphysical theology, but those opposed to Tillich's system for the reasons here outlined would maintain that other forms of this general outlook are bound to be open to some of the same objections: In every case, words would have to be used in a metaphorical way in crucial places, and these metaphors would turn out to be untranslatable; in every case it would be impossible to justify the employment of one set of metaphors or symbols in preference to another, and in every case the author of the system would be unable to specify what conceivable state of affairs is excluded by his sentences or, if he did do so, the exclusion could be shown to be arbitrary in a way that would not be true of the statements of anthropomorphic believers.

Atheism or Agnosticism?

It is time to discuss a very common challenge to atheists. The challenge is usually issued by agnostics, but it would in general also be endorsed by fideistic believers. "It is admittedly impossible," the critic would reason, "to prove the existence of God, but it is equally impossible to disprove his existence; hence, we must either suspend judgment or, if we embrace some position, we must do so on the basis of faith alone." To avoid misleading associations of the words prove and disprove, the same point may be expressed by saying that we have no evidence either for or against God's existence. Sometimes the reminder is added that the mere failure of the arguments for the existence of God does not show that there is no God. Anybody who supposed this would plainly be guilty of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam.

If certain of the considerations advanced by atheists that were discussed in previous sections are sound, this agnostic charge would be quite beside the point as far as belief in an infinite anthropomorphic or a metaphysical God is concerned. For in that event, the first theory can be shown to be false (with certain qualifications explained earlier), and the second can be rejected on the ground that it is unintelligible. In the case of an infinite anthropomorphic God, there is evidence against the position; in the case of a metaphysical God, we do not have a coherent position. However, when we turn to the question of a finite anthropomorphic God, the challenge does at first sight seem very plausible. As already pointed out, the argument from evil does not affect this position, and we may, at least provisionally, grant that belief in a finite anthropomorphic God is intelligible because the predicates used in expressing it are applied to this deity in their familiar senses. We shall see, before long, that there are difficulties in regard to the intelligibility of even this position, but waiving all considerations of this kind for the moment, let us inquire how an atheist could reply to this challenge. It is admitted by the challenger that there is no evidence for the existence of such a deity; where, he asks, is the evidence against its existence? If there is none, why should one be an atheist rather than an agnostic? Why is atheism justified if we cannot be sure that there is no God in the sense under discussion?

grounds for the rejection of theories

In justifying his position, an atheist should perhaps begin by calling attention to the fact that the agnostics who suspend judgment concerning God are not also agnostics in relation to the gods of the Greeks or in relation to the devil and witches. Like the majority of other educated people, most agnostics reject and do not suspend judgment concerning the Olympian gods or the devil or witches. Assuming that rejection is the appropriate attitude in these cases, what justifies this rejection?

It will be instructive to look at a concrete example of such a belief that is rejected by agnostics and atheists alike and, incidentally, by most believers in God. Billy Graham is one of the few Protestant ministers who still believe in the devil. The devil is introduced by Dr. Graham as the only plausible explanatory principle of a great many phenomena. He is brought in to explain the constant defeat of the efforts of constructive and well-meaning people, the perverse choices of men who so commonly prefer what is degrading to what is "rich and beautiful and ennobling," the speed with which lies and slander spread in all directions, and also the failure of the world's diplomats. "Could men of education, intelligence, and honest intent," asks Dr. Graham, "gather around a world conference table and fail so completely to understand each other's needs and goals if their thinking was not being deliberately clouded and corrupted?" All such failures are "the works of the devil" and they show that he "is a creature of vastly superior intelligence, a mighty and gifted spirit of infinite resourcefulness." The devil is no "bungling creature" but "a prince of lofty stature, of unlimited craft and cunning, able to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself" (Peace with God, New York, 1954, pp. 5963).

What reasons could or would be given for rejecting this explanation of diplomatic failures in terms of the devil's cunning ways? Aside from possibly questioning some of Dr. Graham's descriptions of what goes on in the world, that is, of the "facts" to be explained, our reasons would probably reduce to the following: First, we do not need to bring in the devil to explain the failure of diplomats to reach agreement on important international issues. We are confident, on the basis of past experience, that explanations of these failures in terms of human motives, in terms of human ignorance and miscalculation, are quite adequate, although in any particular case we may not be in the possession of such an explanation; and, second, the devil hypothesis, granting it to be intelligible, is too vague to be of any use. It is hinted that the devil has a body, but what that body is like or where it lives and exactly how it operates, we are not told. If "devil" is construed on the analogy of the theoretical terms of the natural sciences, our complaint would be that no, or none but totally arbitrary, correspondence rules have been assigned to it.

It should be observed that the devil theory is rejected although it has not been tested and, hence, has not been falsified in the way in which certain exploded medical theories have been tested and falsified. There are, in other words, theories that we reject (and which agnostics, like others, believe they have good reason to reject), although they have not been falsified. It is important to distinguish here two very different reasons why a theory may not have been tested and, hence, why it cannot have been falsified. The theory may be sufficiently precise for us to know what would have to be done to test it, but we may be chronically or temporarily unable to carry out any of the relevant tests. This is to be sharply contrasted with the situation in which a theory is so vague that we do not know what we must do to subject it to a test. In the former case, suspension of judgment may well be the appropriate attitude; it does not follow that the same is true in the latter case, and in fact most of us regard rejection as the appropriate attitude in such a situation until and unless the theory is stated with more precision.

An atheist would maintain that we have just as good grounds for rejecting belief in a finite anthropomorphic deity of any sort as we have for rejecting belief in Zeus or in the devil or in witches. It should be noted that the believers in the finite anthropomorphic God usually advance their theory as a hypothesis that is the best available explanation of certain facts. Mill, for example, thought that the Design Argument, in the form in which he advocated it, affords "a large balance of probability in favor of creation by intelligence," although he conceded that new evidence for the Darwinian theory would alter this balance of probability (Three Essays on Religion, New York, 1874, p. 174). An atheist would argue that we do not need a finite God to account for any facts any more than we need the devil theory; and, more important, that the theory is too vague to be of any explanatory value. Mill, for example, talks of "creation by intelligence," but he does not tell us in any detail what the "Author of Nature" is like, where he can be found, how he works, and so on. Furthermore, because of its vagueness the theory is totally sterile. It does not lead to subsidiary hypotheses about celestial laboratories or factories in which eyes and ears and other organs are produced. Nor does it help us to interpret fossils or other remains here on earth. It is tempting, but it would be misleading, to say that the accumulation of evidence for the Darwinian theory (or some modified version of it) since Mill wrote on the subject has put the design theory "out of court." This would suggest that the theological explanation was at some time "in court," in the way in which a falsified scientific explanation may once have been a serious contender. It is true, of course, as a matter of history, that informed people cease to bring in God as an explanation for a given set of phenomena once a satisfactory scientific or naturalistic explanation is available. In a more important sense, however, the theological explanations were never serious rivals, just as the devil explanation of diplomatic failures is not a serious rival to psychological explanations. The theological explanations never were serious rivals because of their excessive vagueness and their consequent sterility. We do not at present have anything like a satisfactory scientific explanation of cancer, but no theological theory would be treated as a genuine alternative by a cancer researcher, even a devoutly religious one.

It should be added to all this that believers who, unlike Mill, do not treat their theology as a kind of hypothesis, are not affected by the above objections. Indeed, quite a number of them have strenuously opposed any kind of "God of the gaps." However, some of the very writers who insist that their theology must not be regarded as a scientific hypothesis elsewhere make statements that imply the opposite. They also frequently maintain that certain phenomenafor example, the universal hunger for God or the origin of lifecan be explained only, or can be explained best, on the assumption that there is a God, and a God of a certain kind. Whatever they may say on other occasions, insofar as they propose their theology as the only possible, or as the best available, explanation of such phenomena, they are committed to the position that has been criticized in this section.

The Demand for a Cosmic Brain

There was a good deal of discussion in the late nineteenth century of an antitheological argument that ought to be briefly mentioned here. To many persons, including unbelievers, the argument will seem to be merely grotesque; but in view of the revival in more recent years of several forms of extreme materialism, it deserves some discussion. Moreover, even if it is granted that the argument fails to prove its conclusion, the very grotesqueness of some of its formulations enables a more sophisticated contemporary atheist to state a challenge in a particularly forceful way.

The two writers chiefly associated with this argument were the German physiologist Emil Du BoisReymond and the English mathematician W. K. Clifford, both of whom wrote extensively on philosophical subjects. However, the argument is really much older, and versions of it are found in Meslier and Holbach. The remark attributed to Pierre Simon de Laplace that "in scanning the heavens with a telescope he found no God" may be regarded as an argument belonging to the same family. "Can we regard the universe," asked Clifford in his essay "Body and Mind," "or that part of it which immediately surrounds us, as a vast brain, and therefore the reality which underlies it as a conscious mind? This question has been considered by the great naturalist, Du BoisReymond, and has received from him that negative answer which I think we also must give." The student of nature, Du BoisReymond had written, before he can "allow a psychical principle to the universe," will demand to be shown "somewhere within it, embedded in neurine and fed with warm arterial blood under proper pressure, a convolution of ganglionic globules and nerve-tubes proportioned in size to the faculties of such a mind" (Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens, p. 37). But, in fact, no such gigantic ganglionic globules or nerve-tubes are discoverable, and, hence, we should not allow a "psychical principle" to the universe. The following would be a more systematic statement of the argument: Experience shows that thinking, volition, and other psychological phenomena do not and cannot occur without a certain physiological basismore specifically, without a brain and nervous system. Our observations appear to indicate, although this is not a matter of which one can be certain, that no cosmic brain or nervous system exists. Hence, it is probable that no cosmic consciousness exists either.

This argument has been criticized on the ground that it assumes a certain view (or a certain group of views) about the relationship between body and mind that is not self-evidently true and that many believers would deny. It assumes that consciousness can exist only in conjunction with a nervous system and a brain. However, the objector would maintain, the actual evidence on the subject does not warrant such a claim. It is true that within our experience, conscious processes are found only in connection with a highly developed brain, but this does not prove that consciousness may not occur in conjunction with other physical structures or without any physical "attachments" whatsoever. This is a big question about which nothing very useful can be said in a few words. Perhaps all we can do here is point out that if materialism of some kind is true, then the demand to be shown the bodily foundation or aspect of the divine consciousness is not misplaced, while if the opposite view that consciousness can exist independently of a physical structure is correct, the Du BoisReymond argument would have no force.

Quite aside from this objection, the argument probably seems to many people, believers and unbelievers alike, to rest on a total, one is almost inclined to say a willful, misunderstanding of the theological position. James Martineau, who replied at some length to Du BoisReymond, protested that the "demand for organic centralization" was "strangely inappropriate," indeed quite irrelevant to the question at issue between the believer and the unbeliever. If Du BoisReymond himself, wrote Martineau, were "ever to alight on the portentous cerebrum which he imagines, I greatly doubt whether he would fulfill his promise and turn theist at the sight: that he had found the Cause of causes would be the last inference it would occur to him to draw: rather would he look round for some monstrous creature, some cosmic megatherium, born to float and pasture on the fields of space" (Modern Materialism and Its Relation to Religion and Theology, p. 184). Martineau then likened the argument to Laplace's remark, mentioned earlier, that in looking at the heavens with his telescope, he could nowhere see God and to statements by certain physiologists that in opening the brain, they could not discover a soul. All such pronouncements Martineau regarded as absurd. Although the physiologist finds no soul when he opens up the brain, "we positively know" (by introspection) the existence of conscious thought. Similarly, that "the telescope misses all but the bodies of the universe and their light" has no tendency to prove "the absence of a Living Mind through all." If you take the "wrong instruments" you will not find what you are looking for. "The test tube will not detect an insincerity," nor will "the microscope analyse a grief"; but insincerity and grief are real for all that. The organism of nature, Martineau concludes, "like that of the brain, lies open, in its external features, to the scrutiny of science; but, on the inner side, the life of both is reserved for other modes of apprehension, of which the base is self-consciousness and the crown is religion."

One is strongly inclined to agree with Martineau that there is something absurd in scanning the heavens for God. Étienne Borne, a French Catholic whose discussions are distinguished by fairness and sympathy for the opposition, refers to this approach as "a tritely positivist atheism" that "misses the point of the problem altogether" (Modern Atheism, p. 145). One must not expect to find God or God's body in the heavens because God is not a huge man with huge arms, legs, arteries, nervous system, and brain. Only children think of God as a "king" sitting on his throne in Heaven. Educated grownups do not think of God in any such crude fashion. Du BoisReymond, Clifford, and Laplace are all guilty of an enormous ignoratio elenchi.

is anthropomorphic theology intelligible?

Let us grant the force of Borne's objection. A critic may nevertheless raise the following questions: What is God like if he is not a grand consciousness tied to a grand body, if he is so completely nonphysical as to make any results of telescopic exploration antecedently irrelevant? If the telescope, as Martineau put it, is the "wrong instrument," what is the right instrument? More specifically, what does it mean to speak of a pure spirit, a disembodied mind, as infinitely (or finitely) powerful, wise, good, just, and all the rest? We can understand these words when they are applied to human beings who have bodies and whose behavior is publicly observable; we could undoubtedly understand these words when they are applied to some hypothetical superhuman beings who also have bodies and whose behavior is in principle observable; but what do they mean when they are applied to a pure spirit? Do they then mean anything at all? In recent years it has come to be widely questioned whether it makes any sense to talk about a disembodied consciousness. It is widely believed, in other words, that psychological predicates are logically tied to the behavior of organisms. This view, it should be pointed out, is not identical with reductive materialism. It does not, or at least does not necessarily, imply that the person is just a body, that there are no private experiences, or that feelings are simply ways of behaving. It makes the milder claim that however much more than a body a human being may be, one cannot sensibly talk about this "more" without presupposing (as part of what one means, and not as a mere contingent fact) a living organism. Anybody who has studied and felt the force of this thesis is not likely to dismiss as facetious or as "trite positivism" the question as to what words such as wise, just, and powerful can mean when they are applied to an entity that is supposedly devoid of a body. What would it be like to be, for example, just, without a body? To be just, a person has to act justlyto behave in certain ways. But how is it possible to perform these acts, to behave in the required ways, without a body? Similar remarks apply to the other divine attributes.

One may term this the "semantic" challenge to anthropomorphic theology, as distinct, for example, from arguments like the one from evil or from the eternity of matter, which assume the meaningfulness of the position attacked. A proponent of this challenge does not flatly maintain that anthropomorphic theology is unintelligible. For the pointthat the predicates in question lose their meaning when applied to a supposedly disembodied entitywould be accompanied by the observation that in fact most anthropomorphic believers do, in an important sense of the word, believe in a god with a body, whatever they may say or agree to in certain "theoretical" moments. If we judge the content of their belief not by what they say during these "theoretical" moments but by the images in terms of which their thinking is conducted, then it seems clear that in this sense or to this extent they believe in a god with a body. It is true that the images of most Western adults are not those of a big king on his heavenly throne, but it nevertheless seems to be the case that, when they think about God unself-consciously (and this is, incidentally, true of most unbelievers also), they vaguely think of him as possessing some kind of rather large body. The moment they assert or deny or question such statements as "God created the universe" or "God will be a just judge when we come before him," they introduce a body into the background, if not into the foreground, of their mental pictures. The difference between children and adults, according to this account, is that children have more vivid and definite images than adults.

This entire point may perhaps be brought out more clearly by comparing it with a similar "semantic" criticism of belief in human survival after death. The semantic critic would maintain that while a believer in reincarnation or the resurrection of the body may be immune from this objection, those who claim that human beings will continue to exist as disembodied minds are really using words without meaning. They do not see this because of the mental pictures accompanying or (partly) constituting their thoughts on the subject. Or, alternatively, they do not see this because, in spite of what they say in certain "theoretical" contexts, in practice they believe in the survival of the familiar em bodied minds whom they know in this life. When they wonder whether their friends, enemies, certain historical personages, or, for that matter, anybody did or will go on existing after death, they think of them automatically in their familiar bodily "guises" or else in some ghostly "disguises," but still as bodily beings of some kind. If these images are eliminated on the ground that they are irrelevant or inappropriate because the subject of survival is a disembodied mind, it is not clear that an intelligible statement remains. What, for example, do such words as love and hate or happiness and misery mean when they are predicated of a disembodied mind?

It will be seen from all this that the argument of Du BoisReymond and Clifford is not without some point. One may incorporate what is of value in their discussion into the following challenge to anthropomorphic theology: Insofar as the believer believes in a god with a body, what he or she says is intelligible; but in that case the available evidence indicates that there is no such body, and the remarks of Du BoisReymond and Clifford are to the point; if or insofar as God is declared to be a purely spiritual entity, the observations of Du BoisReymond and Clifford become irrelevant, but in that case the predicates applied to God have lost their meaning, and, hence, we no longer have an intelligible assertion.

summary of the atheist's position

Let us summarize the atheist's case as it has here been presented. A philosophically sophisticated atheist would begin by distinguishing three types of belief in Godwhat we have called the metaphysical God, the infinite anthropomorphic God, and the finite anthropomorphic God. He will then claim that he can give grounds for rejecting all three, although he does not claim that he can prove all of them to be false. He will try to show that metaphysical theology is incoherent or unintelligible, and, if he can do this, he will certainly have given a good ground for rejecting it. He will also question the intelligibility of anthropomorphic theology insofar as God is here said to be a purely spiritual entity. If and insofar as belief in an infinite anthropomorphic God is intelligible, he will maintain that it is shown to be false by the existence of evil. In the sense in which he will allow the existence of a finite anthropomorphic God to be an intelligible hypothesis, he will argue that it should be rejected because it is not needed to account for any phenomena and, further, because it is too vague to be of any explanatory value. We saw that some of these justifications, even if sound as far as they go, would not establish the atheist's case unless they are accompanied by a demolition of the arguments for the existence of God.

Some Objections to Atheism

If there were reason to believe that any of the arguments for the existence of God are sound or have at least some tendency to establish their conclusions, then they would of course constitute objections to atheism. Since these arguments are fully discussed elsewhere in this encyclopedia, we shall here confine ourselves to objections that are logically independent of them. Some of these objections have been put forward by writers who explicitly reject all the traditional proofs but nevertheless regard atheism as an untenable position.

the mystery of the universe

It has been argued by several writers that whatever the objections to the different forms of theology may be, atheism is also unacceptable since it has no answer to the "ultimate question" about the origin of the universe. Thus, the nineteenth-century physicist John Tyndall, after endorsing a thoroughgoing naturalism, proceeded to reject atheism in favor of an agnostic position. In a paper titled "Force and Matter," he tells the story of how Napoleon turned to the unbelieving scientists who had accompanied him to Egypt and asked them, pointing to the stars, "Who, gentlemen, made all these?" "That question," Tyndall comments, "still remains unanswered, and science makes no attempt to answer it." Later he adds that "the real mystery of this universe lies unsolved, and, as far as we are concerned, is incapable of solution" (Fragments of Science, pp. 9293). In much the same vein, the celebrated American freethinker and social reformer Clarence Darrow, after pointing out the weaknesses of the First Cause Argument, observed that the position of the atheist is just as vulnerable. If, he wrote, the atheist answers the question "What is the origin of it all?" by saying that the universe always existed, he has the same difficulty to contend with as the believer has when he is asked the question "Who made God?" To say that "the universe was here last year, or millions of years ago, does not explain its origin. This is still a mystery. As to the question of the origin of things, man can only wonder and doubt and guess" (Verdicts out of Court, pp. 430431).

A philosophically acute atheist could offer a twofold answer to arguments of this kind. First, he would maintain that the question about the "origin of the universe" or the "origin of it all" is improper and rests on the mistaken or doubtful assumption that there is a thing called "the universe." It is tempting to suppose that there is such a thing because we have a tendency to think of the universe as a large container in which all things are located and, perhaps more important, because grammatically the expression functions analogously to expressions like "this dog" or "the Cathedral of Notre Dame," which do denote certain things. Upon reflection, however, it becomes clear, the rejoinder would continue, that "the universe" is not a thing-denoting expression or, putting the point differently, that there is not a universe over and above the different things within the universe. While it makes sense to ask for the origin of any particular thing, there is not a further thing left over, called "the universe" or "it all," into whose origin one can sensibly inquire. The origin of a great many things is of course unknown to us, but this is something very different from "the ultimate mystery" that figures in the argument under discussion; and there is no reason to suppose that questions about the origin of any individual thing fall in principle outside the domain of scientific investigation.

Furthermore, even if it is granted both that the question concerning the origin of the universe is proper and that we do not and cannot discover the true answer, this is not by itself an argument against atheism. It may well be possible to know that a certain suggested answer to a question is false (or meaningless) without knowing the true answer. All kinds of crimes have never been solved, but this does not prevent us from knowing that certain people did not commit them. An atheist can quite consistently maintain "I have no idea how the origin of the universe is to be explained, but the theological theory cannot be the right answer in view of such facts as the existence of evil." To support his position, the atheist must be able to justify his rejection of theological answers to the question "What is the origin of the universe?" He does not have to be able to answer that question.

atheism presupposes omniscience

In the popular apologetic pronouncements of liberal believers, it is customary to contrast the agnostic, who is praised for his circumspection, with the atheist, who is accused of arrogant dogmatism and who, like the orthodox or conservative believer, claims to know what, from the nature of the case, no mere human being can possibly know. "The atheist," in the words of Dr. W. D. Kring, a twentieth-century Unitarian, "can be just as closed-minded as the man who knows everything. The atheist just knows everything in a negative direction" (New York Times, March 22, 1965).

Reasoning of this kind figured prominently in several influential works by nineteenth-century Protestant theologians. Their favorite argument was the following reductio ad absurdum: Atheism could be known to be true only if the atheist knew everything; but this is of course impossible; hence, atheism cannot be known to be true. For a man to deny God, wrote Thomas Chalmers, "he must be a God himself. He must arrogate the ubiquity and omniscience of the Godhead." Chalmers insists that the believer has a great initial polemical advantage over the atheist. For, he argues, some very limited segment of the universe may provide the believer with strong or even decisive evidence, with an "unequivocal token" of God's existence. The atheist, on the other hand, would have to "walk the whole expanse of infinity" to make out his case (On Natural Theology, Vol. I, Book I, Ch. 2). By what miracle, asks John Foster, can an atheist acquire the "immense intelligence" required for this task? Unless he is "omnipresentunless he is at this moment at every place in the universehe cannot know but there may be in some place manifestations of a Deity by which even he would be overpowered." And what is true of space equally applies to "the immeasurable ages that are past" (Essays, 18th ed., p. 35). The atheist could not know that there is no God unless he had examined every part of the universe at every past moment to make sure that at no time was there a trace of divine activity.

According to Robert Flint, who endorsed and elaborated the arguments of Chalmers and Foster, the situation should be clear to anybody who reflects on the difficulty of "proving a negative." If a man landed on an unknown island, any number of traces in almost any spot would be sufficient to show that a living creature had been there, but he would have to "traverse the whole island, examine every nook and corner, every object and every inch of space in it, before he was entitled to affirm that no living creature had been there" (Anti-Theistic Theories, pp. 911). The larger the territory in question, the more difficult it would become to show that it had not a single animal inhabitant. If, then, it is "proverbially difficult to prove a negative," there can surely "be no negative so difficult to prove as that there is no God." This is plain if we reflect that "before we can be sure that nothing testifies to His existence, we must know all things." The territory in this case is "the universe in all its length and breadth." To know that there is no trace of God anywhere in eternal time and boundless space, a man would have had to examine and to comprehend every object that ever existed. This would indeed require omnipresence and omniscience, and Chalmers was there perfectly right when he maintained that the atheist's claim implies that "he is himself God."

Whatever its rhetorical force, this argument is so patently invalid that it can be disposed of in just a few words. We have in preceding sections of this entry presented several of the most widely used arguments and considerations that have been advanced in support of atheism. These may or may not be logically compelling, but none of them in any way imply that the atheist must be omniscient if he is right. To establish that the existence of evil is incompatible with the view that the universe is the work of an all-powerful and all-good Creator, to show that a given theory is too vague to be of any explanatory value, or to call attention to the fact that certain words have in a certain context lost their meaningnone of these require omniscience.

Writers like Chalmers, Foster, and Flint seem to labor under the impression that as far as its refutability is concerned, "God exists" is on par with a statement like "A hippogriff exists, existed, or will exist in some place at some time." It may be plausible to maintain that our not having found any hippogriffs on earth is no conclusive evidence that such an animal does not exist in some other part of the universe to which we have no access. The same does not at all apply to the question of whether one is or can be entitled to reject the claims of believers in God. For, unlike the hippogriff, God is by some declared to be the all-powerful and all-good Creator of the universe; he is said by most believers to be a mind without a body; and it is asserted by some that predicates taken from ordinary experience can never be applied to God in their literal senses. These features of theological claims may make it possible to justify their rejection although one has not explored every "nook and cranny" of the universe.

Atheism, Zeal, and Gloom

In the opening section of this entry we referred to the view, common in previous centuries, that atheism is bound or, at any rate, very likely to lead to immorality, to national ruin, and to other disasters. This warning is no longer taken very seriously among reputable thinkers, but certain other statements about the baleful consequences of unbelief in general and atheism in particular continue to be widely discussed. Thus, it is frequently maintained that if atheism were true or justified, life would be deprived of all meaning and purpose. Again, it has been held that without God the universe becomes "terrifying" and man's life a lonely and gloomy affair. "Old age," wrote William James in his Varieties of Religious Experience (New York and London, 1902), "has the last word: a purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness." Blaise Pascal, who was particularly concerned about the terror of a "silent universe" without God, observed in a similar vein that "the last act" is always tragic"a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end forever."

James and Pascal were believers, but very similar statements have frequently come from unbelievers themselves. "I am not ashamed to confess," wrote G. J. Romanes, a nineteenth-century biologist, at the end of his A Candid Examination of Theism (a work that was published anonymously in London in 1878 and which caused a commotion at the time), "that with this virtual denial of God, the universe has lost to me its soul of loveliness."

More recently, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski spoke of the state of mind of an unbeliever like himself as "tragic and shattering." Not only does the absence of God, in the opinion of these writers, make the universe "lonely," "soulless," and "tragic," but it also deprives it of love. Only when we have become accustomed to a "loveless" as well as a "Godless universe," in the words of Joseph Wood Krutch, shall "we realize what atheism really means."

Finally, it has been claimed that atheism is fatal to what William James called the capacity of the strenuous mood. James himself had no doubt that the unbeliever is prevented from "getting out of the game of existence its keenest possibilities of zest." Our attitude toward concrete evils, he asserted, "is entirely different in a world where we believe there are none but finite demanders, from what it is in one where we joyously face tragedy for an infinite demander's sake." Religious faith sets free every kind of energy, endurance, and courage in the believer and "on the battlefield of human history," religion will for this reason always "drive irreligion to the wall" (The Will to Believe, pp. 213ff.)

Some of these claims seem a great deal more impressive than others. It is not easy to deal with the charge that atheism deprives life of its meaning, chiefly because the word meaning in this connection is both ambiguous and extremely vague. However, if what is meant is that an atheist cannot be attached to certain goals that give direction to his life, then the charge is quite plainly false. If what is meant is that although the atheist may, like other men, pursue certain goals, he will not be able to justify any of his activities, then it should be pointed out that most human beings, even believers in God, do not justify the great majority of their acts by reference to God's will. Hence, the justification of these actions, if they ever are justified, could not be affected by the soundness of atheism. It is difficult to see how such activities as engaging in scientific research, assisting people who are in trouble, singing or dancing or making love or eating superb meals, if they ever were worthwhile, would cease to be so once belief in God is rejected. If what is meant by the charge is that the unbeliever will eventually have to fall back, in his justification, on one or more value judgments that he cannot justify by reference to anything more fundamental, this may be true, but it is not necessarily baleful, and it is not a consequence of atheism. Anybody who engages in the process of justifying anything will eventually reach a stage at which some proposition, principle, or judgment will simply have to be accepted and not referred back to anything else. The unbeliever may, in justifying his acts, regard as fundamental such judgments as "happiness is intrinsically worthwhile" or "the increase of knowledge is good for its own sake," whereas some believers may say that only service of God is intrinsically valuable. If it is a sign of irrationality, which in any normal sense of the word it is not, to accept a value judgment that is not based on another one, then the atheist is not one whit more irrational than the believer.

On the question of zest, it should be observed that neither James nor anybody else has ever offered empirical evidence for the assertion that unbelievers lead less active or strenuous lives than believers. What we know about human temperament suggests that the acceptance or rejection of a metaphysical position has, in the case of the vast majority of men, exceedingly little to do with whether they lead active or inactive lives. The Soviet cosmonauts, who were atheists (to take one relatively recent illustration), appeared to display the same courage and endurance as their American counterparts, who were believers. In general terms, a survey of the contributions of atheists and other unbelievers to science and social progress, often in conditions requiring unusual stamina and fortitude, would seem to indicate that James was in error. The a priori character of James's views on this subject remind one of Locke's conviction, mentioned earlier in this entry, that atheists, since they do not fear divine punishment, cannot be trusted to keep oaths and promises.

As for the "loveless universe" presented by atheism, it must of course be admitted that if there is no God who loves his creatures, there would be that much less love in the world. But this is perhaps all that an atheist would have to concede in this connection. Aside from certain mystics and their raptures, it may be questioned whether a biologically normal human being is capable of feeling any real or deep love for an unseen power; and it hardly seems credible to suppose that a person will cease to love other human beings and animals (if he ever loved them) just because he does not believe them to be the work of God. Perhaps one may hazard a guess that if more human beings grow up in an environment that is free from irrational taboos and repressions (and these, one may add, have not been altogether unconnected with religious belief in the past), there will be more, not less, love in the worldpeople will be more lovable and will also be more capable of giving love. As far as love is concerned, the record of theistic religions has not been particularly impressive.

The writers whose views we are discussing have probably been on stronger ground when they maintain that atheism is a gloomy or tragic philosophy, but here too some qualifications are in order. To begin with, if atheism implies that life is gloomy, it does so not by itself but in conjunction with the rejection of the belief in life after death. There have been atheists, of whom J. E. McTaggart is probably the most famous, who believed in immortality, and they would deny that their atheism had any gloomy implications. However, since the great majority of atheists undoubtedly reject any belief in survival, this does not go to the root of the matter. It cannot be denied that the thought of annihilation can be quite unendurable; but it may be questioned whether believers, whatever they may be expected to feel, do in fact find the thought of death any less distressing. In the opinion of some observers, this is due to the fact that regardless of his profession, the believer frequently does not really believe that death is the gate to an eternal life in the presence of God. "Almost inevitably some part of him," in the words of Russell, is aware that beliefs of this kind are "myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting" (Human Society in Ethics and Politics, p. 207). Russell and Sigmund Freud regard belief in God and immortality as illusions that usually do not work, but they are quick to add that anybody who refuses to be the victim of unworthy fears would dispense with such illusions even if they did work. "There is something feeble and a little contemptible," in Russell's words, "about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths." Some years earlier, in an essay titled "What I Believe," Russell had put the point very bluntly:

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting. Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cozy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigor, and the great spaces have a splendor of their own.

See also Agnosticism; Analogy in Theology; Augustine, St.; Berkeley, George; Blanshard, Brand; Brightman, Edgar Sheffield; Carnap, Rudolf; Clifford, William Kingdon; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Cudworth, Ralph; Du Bois-Reymond, Emil; Epicureanism and the Epicurean School; Evil, The Problem of; Existentialism; Feuerbach, Ludwig Andreas; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Freud, Sigmund; Hamilton, William; Hobbes, Thomas; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Huxley, Thomas Henry; Immortality; James, William; Jodl, Friedrich; Laplace, Pierre Simon de; Locke, John; Mansel, Henry Longueville; Martineau, James; Marx, Karl; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Meslier, Jean; Mill, John Stuart; Nagel, Ernest; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Nihilism; Paley, William; Pascal, Blaise; Plato; Popular Arguments for the Existence of God; Russell, Bertrand Arthur William; Sartre, Jean-Paul; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Shelley, Percy Bysshe; Stephen, Leslie; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Tillich, Paul; Toleration; Unamuno y Jugo, Miguel de; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.


The only full-length history of atheism in existence is Fritz Mauthner's four-volume work, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 19201923). Although this work contains much interesting information that cannot easily be obtained elsewhere, it is marred by extreme repetitiousness and by a curiously broad use of the word atheism, which allows Mauthner to speak of agnostic and even deistic atheists. Probably of greater value are the various works on the history of free thought by J. M. Robertson, chiefly his A Short History of Free Thought (New York: Russell and Russell, 1899). Accounts of the struggles of atheists in England in the nineteenth century will be found in H. Bradlaugh Bonner, Charles Bradlaugh: A Record of His Life and Work (London: Unwin, 1895); G. J. Holyoake's two-volume Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (London: Unwin, 1892); and A. H. Nethercot, The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (London, 1961).

An early defense of atheism is found in Vol. II of Holbach's two-volume The System of Nature, translated by H. D. Robinson (Boston: Mendum, 1853) and in his briefer work Common Sense, translated by A. Knoop (New York, 1920). Shelley defended atheism in his essays The Necessity of Atheism and A Refutation of Deism, and in one of the Notes to Canto VII of Queen Mab, titled "There is no God." All of these are included in Shelley's Prose, edited by D. L. Clark (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954). Charles Bradlaugh's "A Plea for Atheism" was first published in 1864 and reprinted in the Centenary Volume, Charles Bradlaugh: Champion of Liberty (London, 1933). Although he rarely used the term atheism, Schopenhauer is usually and quite properly classified as an atheist. His fullest discussion of the reasons for rejecting belief in God are found in his "The Christian System" and in his "Religion: A Dialogue." Both of these are available in a translation by T. B. Saunders in Complete Essays of Schopenhauer (New York: Willey, 1942). Another nineteenth-century work defending atheism is Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (1841), translated by George Eliot, with an introduction by Karl Barth (New York: Harper, 1957). Of early critical works, special mention should be made of Ralph Cudworth's two-volume The True Intellectual System of the World (London, 1678), which is an enormously detailed onslaught on all forms of atheism known to the author, and of Voltaire's article "Atheism" in his Philosophical Dictionary, translated by Peter Gay (New York: Basic, 1962). Part II of Voltaire's article is an extended critique of The System of Nature.

In more recent years, atheism has been championed in R. Robinson, An Atheist's Values (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); in Ernest Nagel, "A Defence of Atheism," which is available in A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap (New York: Free Press, 1965), and in Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966). Rudolf Carnap's position, which is briefly mentioned in the present entry, is presented in his "The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language," which is available in a translation by Arthur Pap in Logical Positivism, edited by A. J. Ayer (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1959). A somewhat similar position is defended by Antony Flew in "Theology and Falsification." This paper is available in various anthologies, perhaps most conveniently in The Existence of God, edited by John Hick (New York: Macmillan, 1964). An interesting and unusual defense of theology against contemporary criticisms like those of Carnap and Flew is found in I. M. Crombie's "The Possibility of Theological Statements," in Faith and Logic, edited by Basil Mitchell (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957). The comments in the present entry about the attempts of fideists to circumvent the argument from evil and other difficulties are elaborated in Paul Edwards, "Is Fideistic Theology Irrefutable?" in Rationalist Annual (1966).

There is a kind of "ontological" argument for atheism proposed by J. N. Findlay in "Can God's Existence Be Disproved?"; this, together with various rejoinders, is reprinted in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, edited by Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955). The view that belief in God is not false but self-contradictory and that, hence, atheism is necessarily true is advocated by Jean-Paul Sartre in his Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956). Bertrand Russell wavered between calling himself an atheist and an agnostic. Many of his publications may plausibly be regarded as defenses of atheism. In this connection special mention should be made of The Scientific Outlook (New York: Norton, 1931), Religion and Science (New York: Holt, 1935), and Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Related Subjects (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), which includes "What I Believe."

What we have been calling metaphysical theology is defended by H. L. Mansel in The Limits of Religious Thought (London: Murray, 1858). Mansel's views were vigorously attacked by John Stuart Mill in his An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (4th ed., London, 1872); and Mill in turn was answered by Mansel in The Philosophy of the Conditioned (London: Strahan, 1866). The version of metaphysical theology on which we concentrated in the present entry is expounded by Paul Tillich in Vol. I of his three-volume Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19511963), in his The Courage to Be (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952), and in J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (London, 1963). This position is criticized in great detail in Paul Edwards, "Professor Tillich's Confusions," in Mind 74 (1965): 192214, and in Dorothy Emmet, "'The Ground of Being,'" in Journal of Theological Studies 15 (1964): 280292. Various reactions to the views of Robinson are collected in The Honest to God Debate, edited by D. L. Edwards (London: SCM Press, 1963). The Thomistic doctrine of "analogical predication," which was not discussed in the present entry, is expounded in the Summa Theologiae, I, 13, 5, and in the work by Thomas Cajetan available in On the Analogy of Names and the Concept of Being, translated by E. A. Bushinski and H. J. Koren (Pittsburgh, 1953). Contemporary expositions of it may be found in G. H. Joyce, The Principles of Natural Theology (London: Longmans Green, 1923), and in E. L. Mascall, Existence and Analogy (London, 1949). The theory is criticized in Frederick Ferré, Language, Logic and God (New York: Harper, 1961), and in W. T. Blackstone, The Problem of Religious Knowledge (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963). There is an interesting attempt to state the doctrine with great precision by using the tools of contemporary logic in I. M. Bochenski, "On Analogy," in Thomist 11 (1948): 474497. Tillich's theory, as well as the Thomistic theory, is criticized in Sidney Hook, The Quest for Being (New York: St. Martin's, 1960).

Thomas Aquinas's views on the nature of creation and the possibility of proving that the material universe has not always existed are given in On the Eternity of the World, translated by Cyril Vollert (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ. Press, 1964), which also contains relevant extracts from the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles. The argument for atheism based on the eternity of matter is stated in Ludwig Büchner, Force and Matter (4th English ed., London 1884; reprinted New York, 1950). The question of whether contemporary theories in physical cosmology have any bearing on the question of the existence of God is discussed in William Bonnor, The Mystery of the Expanding Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1964); M. K. Munitz, Space, Time and Creation (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957); E. L. Mascall, Christian Theology and Natural Science (London: Longmans Green, 1956); and Antony Flew, "Cosmology and Creation," in Humanist 76 (May 1961): 3435. All the writers just mentioned incline to the view that physical cosmology has no bearing on the question of the existence of God. The opposite position is supported by E. A. Milne in Modern Cosmology and the Christian Idea of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).

The argument for atheism based on the premise that there is no "cosmic brain" is expounded in Emil Du BoisReymond, Über die Grenzen des Naturerkennens (Berlin, 1873), and by W. K. Clifford in an essay titled "Body and Mind," which is available in Vol. II of Clifford's two-volume Lectures and Essays, edited by F. Pollock (London and New York, 1879). It is criticized in James Martineau, Modern Materialism and Its Relation to Religion and Theology (London, 1876; New York, 1877). According to Mauthner, op. cit., Vol. III, pp. 439 ff., the remark that "in scanning the heavens with a telescope he found no God" has been falsely attributed to Laplace and occurs in fact in one of the writings of another distinguished astronomer of the same period, Joseph Jérôme de Lalande. Arguments by Indian philosophers, similar to those of Du BoisReymond and Clifford, are found in Slovavartika, Sec. I, verses 4359, reprinted in A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and C. A. Moore (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).

The essay by Tyndall in which he defends agnosticism in contrast to atheism is contained in his Fragments of Science (New York, 1871). A similar argument by Clarence Darrow occurs in his lecture "Why I Am an Agnostic," which was first delivered in 1929 and is now available in Clarence DarrowVerdicts out of Court, edited by A. Weinberg and L. Weinberg (Chicago, 1963). Agnosticism is criticized from an atheistic viewpoint in several of the writings of Friedrich Engels. There is a useful collection of all the main discussions of religion by Marx and Engels in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Religion (Moscow, 1957; New York: Schocken, 1964).

The argument that atheism must be untenable since, if it were true, the atheist himself would have to be omniscient, is advanced in Thomas Chalmers's two-volume On Natural Theology (New York, 1836); in J. Foster, Essays (London, 1844); and in Robert Flint, Anti-Theistic Theories (London, 1878). There is a reply to Chalmers and Foster in G. J. Holyoake, Trial of Theism (London, 1858). A somewhat similar argument is contained in Paul Ziff, "About 'God,'" in Religious Experience and Truth, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1961). There is a reply to this in Paul Edwards, "Some Notes on Anthropomorphic Theology," in Religious Experience and Truth.

Pascal's horror of a universe without God is expressed in numerous passages in his Pensées, translated by W. E. Trotter, with an introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York: Dover, 2003). William James's claims that unbelief is fatal to "the strenuous mood" is contained in his essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life," which is reprinted in his The Will to Believe (New York: Longmans Green, 1897). The view that atheism makes the universe "loveless" is defended by J. W. Krutch in his The Modern Temper (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929). Malinowski's remarks about the "tragic" nature of life without God are found in his contribution to the BBC symposium Science and Religion (New York, 1931). The very different view that there is something liberating in the rejection of belief in God is advocated in J. M. Guyau, The Non-Religion of the Future, with an introduction from N. M. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1962); in Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, in Vol. II of his three-volume Werke, edited by Karl Schlechta (Munich, 19541956); and in Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, translated by W. D. Robson-Scott (New York: Liveright, 1927).

In more recent years there have been numerous books and articles by religious thinkers in which the atheist's position is treated with a certain amount of sympathy. The following writings are especially worth mentioning in this connection: James Collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago: Regnery, 1959); Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, translated by E. M. Riley (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1950); Étienne Borne, Atheism, translated by S. J. Tester (New York, 1961); Ignace Lepp, Atheism in Our Time, translated by Bernard Murchlord (New York: Macmillan, 1963); W. A. Luijpen, Phenomenology and Atheism, translated by W. van de Putte (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1964); Jacques Maritain, "The Meaning of Contemporary Atheism," in Listener (March 1950): 427432; Gabriel Marcel, "Philosophical Atheism," in International Philosophical Quarterly 2 (1962): 501514; and Jean-Marie Le Blond, "The Contemporary Status of Atheism," in International Philosophical Quarterly 5 (1965): 3755.

Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Buckley, Michael. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Everitt, Nicholas. The Non-Existence of God. London: Routledge, 2004.

Flew, Antony. The Presumption of Atheism, and other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom and Immortality. London: Pemberton, 1976.

Herrick, Jim. Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics, and Atheists. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985.

Hunter, Michael, and David Wootton, eds. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Routledge, 1996.

MacIntyre, Alasdair, and Paul Ricoeur. The Religious Significance of Atheism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Mackie, J. L. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

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

McGrath, Alister E. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Nielsen, Kai. Philosophy and Atheism: In Defense of Atheism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985.

Smart, J. J. C., and John Haldane. Atheism and Theism, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Smith, George H. Why Atheism? Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Wallace, Stan, ed. Does God Exist?: The Craig-Flew Debate. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

Paul Edwards (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

views updated


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 .


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

views updated


An atheist is a man who lives without God. If he persists in this state, atheism truly becomes a way of life. It is not possible to formulate a single, comprehensive definition of atheism that will cover all cases equally and adequately. The very term is analogical and the notion is realized in actual historical instances only with important variations. After presenting an historical survey, this article discusses three principal types of atheism, and various theological responses to atheism in the distinctively modern situation.

Historical Survey. Statements of an atheistic character are traceable as far back as the preSocratic philosophers, while there are indications of at least a practical atheism in primitive tribes discovered by European explorers in Brazil in the 16th century. It was not until the 18th century, however, that explicit and energetic formulations of atheistic doctrine were attempted, as part of a general attack on Christianity and the sociocultural order with which it had become identified.

Greco-Roman antiquity. If there were expressions of atheism in Greco-Roman antiquity, these were for the most part directed against the prevailing civic religions or the popular polytheistic superstitions of the masses. The earliest philosophers did not clearly distinguish matter and spirit, so that it is somewhat inappropriate to accuse them of a materialism that would be incompatible with belief in divinity, in unequivocal terms. After Socrates it was not uncommon for philosophers, and especially poets, to be suspected of atheism and impiety, but this generally meant a skeptical or critical attitude toward the debased religious practices and fantastic myths on which the populace thrived. Alongside a proliferation of magical and superstitious creeds and rites, there actually developed among the Stoics a purer and more refined notion of a supreme Deity. Pantheism was prominent well into the imperial era of Rome, but there were some signs of a personal approach to a God who was regarded as benign and providential.

It seems clear that ancient proponents of atheism were more concerned with overthrowing moral principles and conventional ideas of right and wrong based on a belief in the gods than with denying absolutely the reality of the divine. The Epicureans in particular, who are most commonly regarded as atheists, did not reject the gods as nonexistent, but taught that men should not fear them and that moral standards must be derived from considerations of man's welfare and happiness and not from the alleged decrees of divine beings. Lucretius' De rerum natura may be atheistic in tone and inspiration, but it was intended to be primarily a treatise of a new, radically immanentist humanism. The note struck at this early date, many centuries later signaled the arrival of an unabashed atheism, the sweeping away of every vestige of belief in an order not imposed or controlled by and for mankind itself.

Sources of Modern Atheism. The traces of atheism in the Middle Ages are too faint and uncertain to merit consideration. It may be noted that as early as the 13th century forces of irreligion were in evidence in the intellectual as well as in the political and social orders. When atheism made its unequivocal appearance, it had behind it several centuries of a falling away from the Christian faith and the gradual construction of a way of life from which religion was increasingly excluded. The 16th century witnessed for the first time in the history of Christendom men who openly professed contempt for the faith of Jesus Christ and still maintained positions of public respect and trust, at least in some parts of Europe. Contemporary documents, including citizens' petitions and reports of official commissions, indicate that the 17th century saw the diffusion of anti-Christian ideas and irreligious movements and societies in England, France, the territories of Spain, and Italy. It was not until the 19th century that atheism managed to capture the allegiance of leaders in public life as well as in the arts and sciences. For this full-blown atheism the way was cleared in three stages: (1) libertinism or freethinking, in the 17th century; (2) deistic and antiChristian naturalism, in the 18th century; and (3) materialistic scientism, after 1750 and well into the 19th century.

The self-styled freethinkers or libertins appeared first in France, hard upon a period of ideological strife and chaos that covered the closing decades of the 16th century with a pall of skepticism. There was a concrete effort to "liberate" reason from faith and morals from the influence of religion. In England the freethinkers were even more outspoken and published numerous works calculated to undermine Christian belief and to substitute for it a cult of humanity and a thoroughly laicized social order. Throughout the 18th century, atheism attracted adherents and fervent supporters among the philosophes and advocates of revolutionary upheaval, as well as the champions of a materialistic view of man and of the universe. The French encyclopedists counted several atheists in their number; but in some instances it is not easy to distinguish outright atheism from other positions, ranging from virulent rejection of the supernatural to pantheism, deism, and agnosticism. The 18th century closed with Kant's attack on metaphysics and the power of natural reason to attain an objective and certain knowledge of God. Concomitant with this, there developed a heightened sensitivity to the misery and suffering of mankind and a corresponding desire for man to find, by his own efforts and here in this life, satisfaction of all his needs and an existence free of all pain and want.

Modern Atheists. At the head of the 19th century stands the figure of G. W. F. hegel. To his intellectual posterity Hegel bequeathed a vision of human history caught in the snares of an impersonal absolute that would subsequently be misapprehended as the Living God of Christianity. The vision was intolerable, and, to some, atheism seemed the only viable alternative. They were trapped in this impasse by their rejection of Christian faith. Henceforth atheism was embraced as the only way to preserve men's rights and liberties: enlightenment had to be godless, in opposition to the forces of reaction and ignorance in league with the old religion (see hegelianism and neohegelianism).

In the mid-19th century Karl marx declared religion to be the "opium of the people" and proposed atheism as the cornerstone of a brave new edifice of humanity transformed by total revolution. His was a war cry, in the name of the downtrodden proletariat, against belief in a God who provides for His creatures and in behalf of a new order in which individuals would provide for themselves (see materialism, dialectical and historical).

Marx's atheism was scientistic, at least in part, and materialistic; Nietzsche's was lyrical and romantic, a paean of praise of the superman of the future. F. W. nietzsche lashed out against the "slave morality" of Christianity and exhorted whoever could to go beyond the distinction between good and evil and to decide his own future for himself in complete autonomy. Nietzsche left to the 20th century the twofold boast that God is dead and that hereafter man is completely free; for him, the possibilities for human achievement were unlimited.

Both scientistic and romantic atheism continued in the 20th century, but a new and profoundly disturbing voice was heard as well. J. P. Sartre was representative of a new brand of atheism that was deeply skeptical and pessimistic and at times collapsed into sheer nihilism. Existentialist atheism agreed that God is dead, but doubted seriously that this liberates man in any sense other than that of leaving him alone and overwhelmed in an absurd universe filled with peril and dread (see existentialism).

Vatican II and Atheism. The problem of atheism was faced several times by the popes of the 20th century, especially by Pius XI (Divini Redemptoris ), Pius XII (Ad Apostolorum Principis ), John XXIII (Mater et magistra ) and Paul VI (Ecclesiam suam ). Quite naturally the problem of atheism was also brought to the attention of the Fathers of Vatican II, who dedicated an important section of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World to the study of the different types of atheism, to their causes, and to the answers the Church should give to them (Gaudium et spes 1921). The Council does not provide a systematic division of the different species of atheism. It speaks of two forms of atheism which take "a systematic expression": the humanistic atheism of the Western world, grounded on the assumption of the incompatibility of man's freedom and dignity with religious belief; and the materialistic atheism associated with communism, grounded on economic and social criteria (ibid. 20). But it is clear that not all the forms of systematic or theoretical atheism can be reduced to these two. As a matter of fact there are many more; and almost all the species of atheism mentioned by the Council (skeptical, agnostic, scientific, positivistic etc., ibid. 19) belong to the systematic or theoretical type.

Vatican II identified several causes of modern atheism. (1) The mystery of God: this leads some people "to believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about him." (2) Fallacious methodologies: "Others use such a method so to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone." (3) False humanism: "Some laud man so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm man than to deny God. They claim that this [human] freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord who is author and purpose of all things." (4) Religious deviations: "Some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel." (5) The problem of evil: "Atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil of this world." (6) Hedonism and materialism: "Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God because it is excessively engrossed in earthly affairs." (7) The scandals of the believers: "To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrines, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion" (ibid.).

Types of Atheism. The man for whom atheism is a way of life may be found to (1) deny in fact, by the way he lives, the God in whom he professes to believe, or (2) believe, in spite of himself, in the God in whom he thinks he does not believe, or (3) deny, knowingly and in reality, the true God. These three types may, in J. Maritain's terminology, be designated respectively as (1) the practical atheist, (2) the pseudoatheist, and (3) the absolute atheist.

Practical Atheism. The practical atheist is perhaps the most common and certainly the most curious, because he is not only unaware of his atheism but would almost infallibly deny it if it were called to his attention. For this type of atheism is grounded in lifestyle: it is as significant of character and personality as any other single physical or mental trait. What is true of every atheist as suchthat he lives without Godis verified in a striking manner in the practical atheist. Practical atheism evidently entails a set of moral standards, a code of ethics that flatly ignores the force of the precepts of the divine and natural moral law. A completely naturalistic moral code guides the practical atheist in his actions only to the extent that he finds in the code a ready justification. Every sinner may be acutely and even painfully aware of his terrible isolation. The practical atheist is neither conscious of, nor disturbed by, the absence of God from his life.

Pseudo-Atheism. The pseudo-atheist is willing to be called an atheist because he denies and repudiates the gods he knows other men worship. He knows of no other god, none he finds understandable or is willing to love and serve. Yet in his heart he yearns for the presence of the God of life; he may even search for years, drawing ever closer to the Unknown God, while continuing to proclaim his unbelief in the ghosts and shadows other men take for God. Life must be lived without God, because God is nowhere to be found. At least He is unrecognizable in these absurd substitutes and surrogates that men falsely endow with His sacred name. The pseudo-atheist has never sufficiently known the true God, whereas the practical atheist has chosen to ignore God and to eject Him effectively from his thoughts and his way of life. In his contacts with the practical atheist, the pseudo-atheist may be chagrined and scandalized by the contradiction between lip service to divinity and the flouting of standards of human decency.

Absolute Atheism. Radical and absolute atheism, that of a life from which God has been consciously and consistently excluded, is not only possible, it is actual. For the absolute atheist the denial of God is the natural and indispensable corollary of the positive affirmation of himself, of humanity focused and concentrated in his own person as his solitary concern and ultimate end. The absolute atheist has much in common with the practical atheist, but the two types should not be confused. The practical atheist almost never thinks of God, and when he does, his thoughts are characteristically fleeting and vague, without personal impact. The absolute atheist, however, may think of God often, but only the more firmly and resolutely to shut Him out of his life and to deepen his attachment to the values that have usurped the place of God.

Christian Response. Atheism has been recognized as a phenomenon that requires a response from all believers. The Church's pastoral concern for the growing phenomenon of world atheism prompted Paul VI to establish the Vatican Secretariat for Non-Believers in 1965. John Paul II in 1993 joined this official body with the Pontifical Council for Culture. The council, composed of bishops and experts in various fields, is charged with establishing dialogue with those who do not believe in God, provided that they are sincerely open to cooperation. For the problem of the evangelization of the atheists, the main positions taken by Christian philosophers and theologians can be reduced to four.

Adaptation. According to a small group of authors who received great publicity immediately after Vatican II, under the name of theologians of "the death of God" (see death of god theology), atheism is to be taken very seriously, since in modern culture there is no longer any rational motivation for believing in God. Modern man is honestly an atheist. Therefore, according to these theologians, the best strategy in the present situation is to adapt the Gospel to his atheistic understanding of reality, by eliminating from the Christian message and from Christian life in general, the whole religious, supernatural, and divine aspect, and by stressing on the contrary its content on a humanist level, showing, at this level, how Christianity is superior to any other interpretation of reality. As St. Paul became a Jew with the Jews and a Greek with the Greeks, so the preachers of the 20th century must become atheists with atheists, abandoning "the religious hypothesis." Even when this hypothesis is dropped, Jesus has sufficient prerogatives (his love for others, his complete dedication to his neighbor, his perfect freedom etc.) to win man's confidence, obedience, faith, and complete surrender. He has still sufficient claims to be considered the savior of mankind. This strategy of an "atheistic" (nonreligious) proclamation of the Gospel to an atheistic and secularized world was initially proposed by the Lutheran theologian and martyr of Nazi persecution, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was then followed and promoted by such"death of God" theologians as Altizer, van Buren, and Robinson. After a short, passing success it was recognized that the strategy of "historical compromise" between Christianity and atheism is a failure and extremely self-defeating. In the concern (certainly a legitimate one) to make the Gospel intelligible to modern man, this compromise mutilates it in its most essential elementprecisely in the religious, ultra-mundane, transcendent, sacred, divine element. The originality of Christ and the quality that rendered him capable of being the savior of mankind is not just that of being a supremely free man, or a man completely dedicated to others (man-for-others), but his identity of being the Son of God.

Confrontation. According to some authors the only valid strategy of the Church in the face of atheism is frontal counterposition. Atheism is seen as the extreme expression of man's pride, the most detestable aberration of reason and heart, since only a madman or a fool can proclaim that God does not exist or that"God is dead." Therefore for a believer it is impossible to come to an agreement with atheism; it is impossible even to start a dialogue for the atheist's motivations cannot be justified nor his perspectives and language accepted. Atheism is the number-one enemy of mankind. The first condition for mankind to be able to receive the message of salvation is to abandon atheism and the human idolatry which is masked under the attractive mantle of secular humanism. Salvation is possible for the atheist only on the condition that he is converted and professes the most complete and unconditional submission to God. Among the most authoritative assertors of this strategy were Barth and Brunner, two of the major exponents of 20th-century Protestant theology, and such Catholic thinkers as Maritain, Molnar, and Del Noce.

This strategy seems too drastic to many people. It forgets that every error contains at least a kernel of truth that must be patiently picked out and carefully preserved. In the second place, while admitting that to embrace the Gospel a deep conversion is always necessary, it must be clarified that this conversion does not entail sacrifice of everything human, as Barth claims. Humanity is living today under the sign of the Cross and many human achievements are in conformity with God's plan. Finally, it is necessary to distinguish between atheists and atheism. While atheism must be criticized and rejected with firm resolution, it is necessary to show the greatest understanding for atheists.

Integration. According to other theologians the most effective and appropriate strategy is that which does not eliminate either the originality of the Gospel or the reality of atheism, but tries on the contrary to preserve them both by integrating atheism into Christianity. The attempt to reach this goal consists in reducing the significance of atheism: by showing the atheist that his own view of the world, of history, of society, of man, of science, of politics etc., if developed consistently, does not exclude God at all, but, on the contrary, logically, leads to Him, to His plan of salvation, to the liberation, the love, the divinization that Jesus Christ alone makes possible. There are three main versions of this strategy of integration: the scientific one of teilhard de chardin, the political one of the theologians of Latin America (Gutierrez, Assmann, Boff, etc.), and the metaphysical one of Tillich and Rahner. The first version tries to integrate into the Gospel the scientific doctrine of evolution (generally professed by scientific atheism). The second adopts the political doctrines of Marxism. The third tries to make the Gospel emerge from the idealistic metaphysics of man, conceived as an infinite capacity for self-transcendence.

The positive aspects of this strategy are obvious. It is capable of entering into dialogue with scientists, philosophers, artists, politicians who do not share a religious belief; it manages to appreciate their ways of understanding and explaining things, their social, economic, and political initiatives, their dynamism, their determination to improve our society, to change the world. But the strategy also raises serious reservations: it seems too optimistic, since it establishes a natural bridge between metaphysics, science, and politics on the one hand, and the Gospel on the other hand, ignoring the absolute qualitative difference that distinguishes God from man. In the second place, by establishing a natural, logical connection between science, politics, metaphysics, and the Gospel, it eliminates the perfectly gratuitous, absolutely new and unforeseeable character of God's plans and His intervention for the salvation of mankind by grace.

Double Conversion. According to some authors atheism implies a double distortion, namely, of the natural order and of the supernatural order. Consequently, of an atheist they require a double conversion: (1) on the natural level, a conversion of mentality, which will cause him to embrace a more open view of things, so as to make room for a transcendent reality; (2) on the supernatural level, a conversion to the work of salvation that God accomplishes in Jesus Christ. A first conversion at a natural level is required because the Gospel is the proclamation of the Good News that God has saved mankind in Jesus Christ. Now, this proclamation will continue to seem absurd, aberrant, and stupid as long as the convert remains completely shut up in himself and does not recognize any other reality except the "this-wordly" one or any other action except one that man himself carries out in history. So, a conversion of viewpoint, a change of mentality is required in the first place, to lead man to confess his own finiteness and, at the same time, to recognize his capacity for overcoming it not only horizontally but also vertically. Then he will be ready to enter into dialogue not only with his fellowmen but also with other beings superior to him, should he perceive their existence.

At this point, with the help of God's grace, the phase of the second conversion will begin: the phase in which the Gospel will no longer be considered as a fairy tale, an absurd story or mere myth, but as the truth that brings freedom and the restoration of interior health, and fills his heart with joy, since "only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light" (Gaudium et spes 22). Among the most brilliant supporters are J. Miguez Bonino, H. urs von balthasar, Richard niebuhr, and Henri de lubac.

This theory is apt to safeguard both the originality of the Gospel and the necessity of a rational basis for Christian faith. It is also fully consistent with the teachings of Gaudium et spes, which does not simply invite the atheist "to examine the Gospel of Christ with an open mind" and to gladly accept it (second conversion ) but also requires from him to reject all those prejudices and fallacious methodologies that prevent him from seeing that the recognition of the reality of God does not cause any damage to the nobility and greatness of man (first conversion ).

Bibliography: e. borne, Atheism, tr. s. j. tester (New York 1961). h. de lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, tr. e. m. riley (New York 1949). i. lepp, Atheist in Our Time, tr. b. murchland (New York 1963). j. maritain, The Range of Reason (New York 1952) 103117. j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959). a. j. festugiere, Epicurus and His Gods, tr. c. w. chilton (Cambridge, MA 1956). c. fabro, God in Exile, Modern Atheism (New York 1968). p. hebblethwaite, The Council Fathers and Atheism (New York 1967). k. rahner, ed., Pastoral Approach to Atheism (New York 1967). j. p. reid, Man without God (New York 1971). t. altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Philadelphia 1966). h. u. von balthasar, The God Question and Modern Man, tr. H. Graef (New York 1967). e. bloch, Atheismus im Christentum (Frankfurt 1969). p. teilhard de chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, tr. b. wall (New York 1959). a. del noce, Il problema dell'ateismo (Bologna 1965). g. gutierrez Theology of Liberation, tr., ed., e. inda and j. eagleson (Maryknoll, NY 1973). b. mondin, Cultura, marxismo, cristianesimo (Rome 1978). k. rahner,"Atheism and Implicit Christianity," Theological Investigations 9, tr. G. Harrison (London 1972) 145164. j. a. t. robinson, Honest to God (London 1963), b. welte, Nietzsches Atheismus und das Christentum (Darmstadt 1958). m. j. buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven 1987). w. kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, tr. m. j. o'connell (New York 1984).

[j. p. reid/

b. mondin/eds.]

views updated


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 .


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

views updated


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


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

views updated

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

views updated



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


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

views updated


Atheism, defined most briefly, is denial of the reality of God. Since there are many concepts of God, there are many varieties of atheism. Athenians accused Socrates of atheism, although (in Plato's Apology) he told his judges, "I shall obey God rather than you." Romans referred to Christians as atheists; they rejected the gods of Rome. The seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza was described as a "God-intoxicated man" and as an atheist. Today somebody occasionally says, only half jokingly, "I am a Catholic atheist, not a Protestant atheist," or "I am a Jewish atheist, not a Christian atheist."

Therefore a revised definition might say: Atheism is the denial of any reality (1) regarded as the core energizing and ordering force of the universe and humankind, and (2) evocative of awe and worship. That means also the denial of any transhuman moral authority.

Atheism is less frequent than agnosticism, which says of ultimate reality, "I don't know," usually also meaning, "You don't know either." There are strains of agnosticism in all religions.

Modern Western atheism appears in several forms:

  1. Scientific atheism explains natural phenomena as the result of matter-energy in motion. Studies of religious beliefs of scientists reveal about the same diversity as in the general public. Albert Einstein understood his beliefs as similar to Spinoza's and occasionally referred to God as der Alte (the Ancient). But today's science usually does not introduce God into causal explanations of natural processes. It may echo the French astronomer LaPlace's reply to Napoleon's question about God, "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis."
  2. Logical positivism in the mid-twentieth century defined religion, ethics, and metaphysics as meaningless, because they lacked empirical verification or disproof. Although not quite atheism, since it held that denial of God is as meaningless as affirmation of God, it was effectively a practical atheism.
  3. Marxist atheism adopted Ludwig Feuerbach's belief that religion is bound to illusions projected by the human mind. But the real passion of Marxist atheism is its insistence that religion is "the opiate of the people," which supports the privileges of the powerful and solaces the weak in their miseries.
  4. Existentialist atheism may express radical faith in God or radical atheism. The driving force of its atheism is rejection of any divine authority that submerges human freedom. Often it adopts Friedrich Nietzsche's declaration that God is dead, a statement usually intended as a cultural observation (the death of belief in God), less often as a metaphysical reality. In the 1960s this belief influenced some Christian theologies, with the crucifixion of Jesus related to the death of God. The social activism associated with Martin Luther King, Jr., and other liberation theologies countered both existentialist and Marxist atheism.

Some believers today welcome atheism as an energizing partner in conversation, since it makes religious commitment an act of will, not conformity to cultural habit. The issues surrounding atheism play out in public controversies about printing "In God we trust" on money, the pledge of allegiance to "one nation under God," and arguments about religion in public schools or symbols of Christmas and Hanukkah in public parks.

See alsoAgnosticism; Church and State; Death of God; Ethical Culture; Existentialism; God; Humanism; Secularization.


Buckley, Michael J. At the OriginsofModernAtheism. 1987.

Monod, Jacques. Chance andNecessity, translated by Austryn Wainhouse. 1972.

Roger Lincoln Shinn

views updated


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.


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.


See alsoAgnosticism ; Deism .

More From

You Might Also Like