Agnosticism and Atheism

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Agnosticism and Atheism

Agnosticism and atheism are not like other formal systems of belief. Most prominent religions have a membership or body of believers, group of texts that state the beliefs and principles of the religion, and clergy or officials to perform the rituals and hold worship services. Atheism and agnosticism have none of these things. They deal with doubt or disbelief in the concept of God, a supreme being that created the universe and all that is in it.

While they are often grouped together, agnosticism and atheism are, in fact, two different concepts. Atheism is the belief that there is no God. Though the term atheism actually originated in the sixteenth century, atheistic beliefs can be traced back to the sixth century bce in China, India, and Greece. In contrast, agnosticism is much newer. It came into being in the nineteenth century during the debates over the scientific theories of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin (1809–1892). (Evolution is a scientific theory in which species gradually change through a process called natural selection, so that descendents are different from their ancestors.) Agnosticism states that humans cannot know if there is a God. Such knowledge probably cannot be achieved. So, where atheists claim that there is no God, agnostics say that there is not enough evidence to know if there is a God or not.

Even though atheists and agnostics do not believe in a creator-god, they might otherwise be very religious. In faiths such as Buddhism and Daoism, for example, the personal creator-god or supreme being is replaced with a concept of universal cosmic rule that determines and orders the universe. Even in some forms of Christianity, with its strong sense of monotheism, or one supreme God, both atheists and agnostics have found a home. For example, Unitarianism Universalism is a liberal Christian denomination, or group, that does not require its followers to adhere to specific beliefs, including a belief in God. Its members seek spiritual growth and a sense of community. Humanistic Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism are movements within the Jewish faith that do not require a belief in God. Instead, they are movements that emphasize Jewish culture, history, and identity.

Some atheists and agnostics, just like Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of other organized religions, feel a personal need for fellowship in a community of like-minded people. They enjoy the sense of togetherness in gathering with others at church services. They find strength and support in such a community. They enjoy the act of singing together in hymns or of acting out deeply held ideas in ceremonies and rituals. While these approaches may appeal to some atheists and agnostics, however, many also reject organized religion and do not participate in such things.


The view that the existence or nonexistence of God is unknown and is probably unknowable.
A disbelief in the existence of God or a belief that there is no God.
A conviction of the truth of a proposition either by close examination or trust.
Belief and trust in God, accompanied by a sense of loyalty to the traditional doctrines, or principles, of religion.
The supreme or ultimate being or reality; creator of the universe.
A belief that matter and the motion of matter constitute the universe. All phenomena, even those of mind, are the result of material interactions.
The search to understand the basic values and reality of existence through logical reasoning.
Worldly things, of the physical world, as opposed to religious and spiritual.
Doubt or disbelief towards a particular proposition or object.
Belief in the existence of gods or God.
Going beyond the ordinary, beyond the universe and time, into spiritual dimensions.

It is difficult to come up with an accurate number of atheists and agnostics, either worldwide or country-by-country. Both agnostics and atheists are often vague about their personal beliefs. Since most atheists and agnostics are not part of any defined organization, information about their numbers comes only from census records. These records are not collected often and can be confusing regarding religious beliefs. Many people, when responding to the census, do not know how to list themselves. When atheists and agnostics are combined with others in a group referred to on surveys and in the census as "nonreligious," however, their numbers are shown to be quite large. One estimate from 1993 put the number at 1.2 billion worldwide, ranking nonreligious as the third largest "religion" in the world after Christianity and Islam.

A 2005 estimate put the number of atheists, agnostics, and other people who do not believe in a god, into a smaller group than the census category of "nonreligious" at between 500 million and 750 million. The number of professed atheists and agnostics alone is much smaller. Worldwide, the number of atheists is estimated at between 200 and 240 million. Many of these are in China and the former Soviet Union, where religion, under communism, was discouraged. (Communism is an economic and political philosophy that tries to establish a society without rich or poor people in which all property is communally owned.) At the same time, it is also unclear whether such numbers include Daoists and Buddhists, who could very well be atheist and religious at the same time. As a result, it is not possible to obtain an accurate worldwide number of atheists and agnostics.

If general nonbelievers are added to the figures for atheists and agnostics (those who do not follow any faith), the numbers double or triple. Some countries, such as Japan, report two-thirds of their population in the category of nonbelievers. In the Western world the largest numbers of atheists are found in Europe, with about 41 million. Sweden, followed closely by Denmark and Norway, has between 40 and 80 percent of its population in the nonbeliever category. In the United States, where 13 percent represent themselves as nonreligious, only about 0.5 percent label themselves agnostic. Even fewer call themselves atheists.

History and development

Atheism and agnosticism are beliefs that are found around the world. Atheism may have had its historical beginnings in the Hindu religion of India. As early as 900 bce the sacred texts known as the Vedas described a number of different gods who actually compete for supremacy (greatest power or authority), each having a different power and function. George Alfred James, writing in the Encyclopedia of Religion, describes a concept called "religious atheism," which is a rejection of the belief in a single supreme God, but not of the belief in religion. Religious atheists believe in an impersonal source that orders the universe. In the Hindu tradition this impersonal cosmic reality or oneness is called brahman. Texts dated to the seventh century bce describe brahman in ways that make it clear that brahman is not a god. Instead, it is a characteristic of the universe, like gravity, or "the Force" in the Star Wars movies.

Religious atheism

This same trend can be seen in China. During the Shang Dynasty (a period when the country was ruled by members of a single family, from about 1750 to 1100 bce), the supreme god was known as Shangdi, "The King Above," the organizer of human society. By the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty in 1100 bce, belief in a more impersonal cosmic concept was taking hold. Tian, or Heaven, was assuming equal status with Shangdi. Ultimately, Tian took hold in Chinese philosophy as the ordering principle of the universe, while Shangdi became a supreme ruler and creator of the universe. Tian helped to not only determine humanity's affairs, but also to set up a moral order and authority. It is this concept of Tian that led to dao, or "the way." According to Chinese philosophers, this concept, unseen and unknowable, governs the world. Philosophers are those who seek moral and spiritual truths about the world and existence. All things originate from and return to Tian. Dao is the central concept of the religion of Daoism.

About Agnosticism and Atheism

  • Belief. Agnostics and atheists both express doubt or skepticism about the existence of God. While agnostics say people cannot know if there is a God or not, atheists either disbelieve in God or reject the existence of God.
  • Followers. Exact numbers are difficult to estimate. Agnostics and atheists, when grouped together with other so-called nonreligious people, comprise the third largest group in the world dealing with religious matters. With 1.2 billion who share doubts, agnostics and atheists rank after Christianity and Islam in number. Estimates for atheists and agnostics alone, however, are between 500 and 750 million worldwide.

Confucianism, too, is a religion that does not rely on belief in a supreme being. Confucian thought teaches obedience to the way of Tian. A just society will be formed by following the universal rules of conduct and duty. Those rules are learned from the examples of wise kings of the distant past, from tradition, and from the moral order of Tian. Since the concept of a single supreme being did not appear in China until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the sixteenth century, early Chinese thought does not really qualify as atheism. Missionaries are people who try to convert, or change, the beliefs of others to their religion. Although Confucian thought does not directly reject one God, it does lead towards the concept of atheism.

In ancient India various religious sects (groups) appeared which did not rely on the belief in a single supreme god. Some historians describe these sects as atheistic. Unlike atheism, however, they include beliefs about the order of the universe and way of living. Jainism, Carvaka, and Buddhism all reject the rituals of Hinduism. Jainism and Buddhism contain some supernatural elements, but Buddhism in particular rejects the necessity of a single supreme God. The Buddha, who was born Siddartha Gautama (563–483 bce), in particular spoke forcefully about followers trusting in themselves and not seeking salvation from a god or gods. For both Jains and Buddhists, nirvana (a release from rebirth or from suffering) and enlightenment (realizing the true nature of reality and how to end suffering) are central concepts. For these believers, the state of nirvana will connect them to the universal order.

Carvaka is also a product of sixth century bce Indian philosophers. It differs from Jainism and Buddhism because its atheism is built on a materialist belief system, the concept that the universe consists only of matter and that spiritual things or events are actually the results of matter interacting with itself. The Carvaka sect felt that those who had written the Vedas were misguided, that the physical world alone is real, and that heaven means earthly happiness. For followers of the Carvaka doctrine, or set of beliefs, the idea of soul, which is central to most Western systems of belief, is wrong. Though an organized religion, the Carvaka sect comes close to the modern sense of atheism.

Development in the West

In the East (the countries of China, Japan, India, and others in Southeast Asia), early atheistic thought was actually religious atheism. In the West, however, such thought came from outside of religion and was secular (worldly or nonreligious) in nature. The ancient Greeks worshipped a number of gods, with Zeus the leader among them. He was not a creator-god, but he did uphold the moral order, or the right and proper way of existence. The Greek pantheon, the set of all their gods and goddesses, was attacked as early as the sixth century bce by the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570-475 bce). He thought that a group of hard-drinking and loose-living deities like the Greek gods were hardly god-like in their behavior. Xenophanes, however, was no atheist. He suggested instead that one god was directly connected to the world. His criticism of the Greek pantheon was important, though, because it showed that humans could question the existence of gods.

The ancient Greek philosophy of atomism made a more consistent argument against the need for God or gods. Atomists, like the Indian materialists, looked for a material explanation for the existence of the universe. Democritus (c. 460–370 bce) suggested that all matter in the universe was made of eternal elements he called "atoms." If atoms were eternal, Democritus reasoned, then the universe had always existed and would always continue to exist, and, as a result, there was no need for a creator. Another early Greek philosopher, Anaxagoras (c. 500–c. 428 bce), was exiled from the Greek city of Athens for stating that the stars, planets, and the sun were material objects and not heavenly bodies, or god-like spirits to be worshipped. Another thinker, Protagoras (c. 485–420 bce), was banned from Athens for saying that he had no way to know if gods existed or not, which is the central idea of agnosticism.

Ancient Greece also provides an example of a movement that could be consistent with modern atheism. The Epicureans, or followers of the philosopher Epicurus (c. 340–c. 270 bce), believed in a material universe, like the Atomists. They rejected the idea of divine wrath (anger) and retribution (punishment), refusing to believe that gods took vengeance on individuals who made them angry. Epicureans took great care, however, to avoid denying the existence of gods. Instead, Epicurus taught that the gods were physical beings, unconcerned with the lives of ordinary humans.

Belief in the gods was a requirement in many ancient societies, including Athens and Rome. The gods gave the state rulers their legitimacy (legal right to rule). Atheism was a charge brought against any person who differed from the beliefs of the state religions of Greece and Rome. The famous philosopher Socrates (c. 470–399 bce) was tried and executed in Athens for being "atheos." However, Socrates was not an atheist. He believed in certain gods, just not the right ones to save him from such a charge. Early Christians and pagans (followers of the Greek and Roman state religions) also accused each other of being atheists because they each believed the other had denied the existence of their gods.

The Western concept of monotheism (belief in one God) began with Judaism. While earlier cultures, including ancient Egypt, had concepts that shared characteristics with monotheism, Judaism was the first major religion in which monotheism was central to belief. Christianity inherited its monotheism from Judaism. With the rediscovery of works by the ancient Greek philosophers, however, Christian thinkers began wrestling with the problem of how to reconcile (bring together) pagan Greek and Christian views of the universe. Christian scholars, from Augustine of Hippo (384-430 ce) to Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) to Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), tried to find ways of making Greek thinking and Christian religious ideas work together. These thinkers attempted to prove the existence of God through logical arguments. For some of them, the existence of the universe and of life in it were proof of God's existence. Others believed that religious experience is so widespread that there must be a God to inspire it.

The Reformation and Age of Enlightenment

Many of these arguments, however, were forgotten during the Reformation, a revolt in Europe against traditional Catholic teachings that began in the early 1500s and continued for a century and a half. Before about 1521 the Catholic Church was a dominant force in the West, both religiously and politically. The popes were not only the leaders of the Catholic Church, but rulers of a large portion of central Italy. As the Church became more and more concerned with politics, its spiritual reputation suffered in many places. During the Reformation this led to widespread criticism of both the Catholic Church and the Protestant sects that broke away from it. Though this period focused on politics more than on religious ideas, such as the existence or nonexistence of God, the Reformation paved the way for later criticisms of religion. The scientific discoveries of the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that emphasized reason and logic, reinforced the questioning of Church policy, both Catholic and Protestant.

During the seventeenth century, when philosophers began observing and classifying natural phenomena, they looked for secular explanations for what they saw rather than religious ones. These early scientists discovered that the universe appeared to follow rules that could be described using logic and mathematics. They noted that these rules did not match what the Church said about the Universe. The criticisms of these philosophers, however, centered on the power and abuses of the Church, and not on the existence or nonexistence of God. Despite this fact, the French term athéisme came into use in the late sixteenth century as both an accusation and a description of scientists and other free thinkers who questioned established religion. In this sense, atheism does not refer to someone who denies the existence of God but to someone who is godless, in the sense of being without morals or honor. This very negative meaning of atheism has carried forward into the twenty-first century.

One seventeenth century scientist whose work found rational explanations for what was once attributed to God is Isaac Newton. English scientist and physicist Isaac Newton (1642–1727) revolutionized thought about the physical world with his law of gravitation, which described the movement of the planets, comets, and other bodies in space. The French astronomer Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) verified Newton's theory of gravitation and the movements of the planets as well as the rhythm of the ocean's tides. The discoveries of Newton and Laplace provided an alternative explanation for the existence and behavior of the universe that did not rely on God as its designer.

During the Age of Enlightenment reason and logic were often ranked above faith. One of France's most famous advocates of Enlightenment thought, Denis Diderot (1713–1784), was accused of atheism for his challenges to religion through his belief in materialism (the theory that physical matter is all that exists and everything can be explained through it). He explained this belief in his 1746 work, Pensées philosophiques ("Philosophical Thoughts").

Philosophers during the Enlightenment also supported the idea of a material universe, rather than one created and directed by an all-powerful God. Philosophers are those we seek to use logical reasoning to understand reality. In his work, The System of Nature, Paul Henri d'Holbach (1723–1789), openly denied the existence of God. Other philosophers also questioned God's existence, including David Hume (1711–1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Hume, in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, attacked the idea that order and the supposed perfection of the world was proof of the existence of a creator-God. Hume noted, in part, that if a well-ordered natural world needed a special designer, then God's mind, which was itself well-ordered, also needed a designer. In that case, who designed the designer? Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, found no adequate arguments for the existence of God. For Kant, however, this did not prove that God did not exist. Kant believed that the existence of God could neither be explained nor totally denied by scientific examination or rational thought.

The Nineteenth century to the present

In the nineteenth century the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872) argued that the concept of God is simply the projection of the highest ideals and standards that people can imagine. As such, God was not a subject for theology (religious study), but for anthropology (the study of human beings and their cultures). His work The Essence of Christianity influenced an entire generation of German thinkers, including Karl Marx (1818–1883). Marx was the founder of Marxism, an economic system that views history as an ongoing struggle between the oppressed workers, or proletariat class, and the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, or capitalists. Marx thought that the proletariat would rise against the owners and create a workers' state and a classless society. For Marx, the concept of God and religion was just another way the ruling class had of keeping the proletariat under control.

For philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), God was also a human invention. However, for him God was the tool of the weak who wanted to keep the vital and strong in check. Nietzsche believed in the heroic "superman," a modern person who would reject all middle class values, including religion. This superman would create new values and a new moral order. Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spake [Spoke] Zarathustra, "God is dead." By this he meant that the concept of God and religion had ceased to have an impact on the lives of humans.

Science advanced along many lines during the nineteenth century. British scientist Charles Darwin's work in evolution questioned the very nature of the biblical account of Genesis, which states that God created the world in six days. Many Christians also believed, as stated by Irish bishop, John Ussher (1581–1656), that the Creation described in Genesis occurred in 4004 bce. Discoveries in geology (the study of Earth's history and its composition) pushed the age of Earth back millions of years, further challenging Christian concepts of Creation. Such discoveries served to make more and more people openly doubt the existence of God or even the need for God.

To describe the doubts of this expanding group of people, British scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) coined the term agnosticism. This view says that people do not have enough information or evidence to say that God exists or does not exist. Such a doubt-filled view of theism (belief in God) was as old as atheism. Yet it was not given an official name until 1870, when Huxley invented it to describe his own doubt about the existence of God. Huxley was a believer in Darwin's theory of naural selection, which states that life becomes increasingly more complex over time randomly (by chance), not because of divine intervention from a supreme being, and that stronger types adapted and survived. A great advocate for science, Huxley was a powerful speaker and writer. His new term quickly became part of the language of religious discussion.

During the twentieth century organized religion in the West began responding to attacks on theism. Scholars found new ways to discuss the existence of God when science proved unable to resolve the question. Some of these arguments question the truth of science, proposing alternate theories about how life has evolved. The theory of intelligent design states that life is too complex to be a result of the random processes of natural selection, and that there has to be a first cause, or designer, to provide the engine that drives evolution. There are also theologists, people who study religious theory, in Protestant Christian thought who have broadened the concept of God from that of a personal human-like deity to more of a universal power, flow, and order. This is a concept also found in Eastern religions, such as Daoism. The theologist Paul Tillich (1886–1965), for example, moved away from a God-centered Christianity. For Tillich, the concept of God was more abstract. He called God the "ground of being." Tillich suggested that God actually exists within each person. Tillich shocked many in the religious community by claiming that the old formal God did not exist.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Thomas Henry Huxley was a renowned nineteenth-century scientist and writer who has been credited with advances in cellular biology (the study of the cell, the basic structural unit of living things) and in pioneering evolutionary biology, the study of how living things have evolved from simple to more complex forms. Huxley wrote and spoke widely on scientific subjects. He was also instrumental in transforming science from a hobby for the wealthy, as it had been up to the nineteenth century, into a true profession. Though he was the son of a schoolmaster, Huxley was largely self-educated in science. He became a doctor, earning early acclaim for his discovery in 1845 of a new membrane, or layer, in human hair. After joining the British navy, he served as chief surgeon on the HMS Rattlesnake for four years as it mapped regions of Australia. Huxley pursued his own research on these voyages, studying the anatomy, or structure and composition, of sea life.

Elected a member of the Royal Society (an organization sponsored by the British government to promote scientific research) in 1851, Huxley finally found a teaching position in 1854. Despite his early upbringing in the Anglican Church, Huxley became a skeptic regarding parts of Christianity, including the existence of God. He was a materialist and a supporter of the revolutionary theories of geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875). Lyell suggested that the geological processes now seen on Earth shaped the planet very slowly over the course of millions of years. So geological change was in opposition to the literal biblical description in Genesis, in which God created the earth and all life on it in six days.

Huxley became a champion of Charles Darwin (1809–1892), who promoted natural selection as the way in which evolution works, both in print and from the speaker's platform. Huxley largely agreed with Darwin's theory that humans developed slowly over millions of years, evolving from simple life forms to increasingly complex ones through processes such as natural selection, in which stronger and better adapted types of life survive. In 1860 Huxley debated evolution with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (1805–1873). The debate was covered by newspapers and journals across England and earned Huxley the nickname "Darwin's bulldog." In 1870 Huxley coined the term agnosticism to describe his own beliefs about the existence of God.

Meanwhile, the twentieth century after World War II (1939–45; a war in which the United Kingdom, France, and the United States defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan) brought about state-sponsored atheism by the communist governments of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Many people stopped practicing religion or did so only in secret. While religion was not officially forbidden by communist governments, it was heavily controlled because it was seen as a threat to the person in power. Communists also saw religion as a weakening influence, because it took resources away from the state. Only with the fall of the communist regimes in 1989 and 1990 was open religious practice restored in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Even in the early twenty-first century China continues to discourage religious activity, though Buddhists, Confucians, Daoists, and others are often able to worship quietly without repression from the state.

Agnosticism and atheism have long histories, perhaps as long as organized religions themselves. The concepts and those who hold them have survived for more than two thousand years. As a group they are very difficult to classify because their belief systems range from complete denial of any spiritual reality to a distrust and rejection of organized religion. Agnostics and atheists, however, together are considered a major presence in modern theology.

Basic beliefs

The terms agnosticism and atheism both come from Greek terms. The Greek prefix a means "not" or "without." Atheism is a compound of a and theos, or God, and thus means literally without God or not God.

Atheism is divided into several categories. Strong atheists reject the entire concept of theism or of the existence of a God. They do not personally believe in God, and they also believe that those who do are mistaken in their belief. An absence, rather than a rejection, of a belief in a single God (which could include some polytheists and those who have had no exposure to monotheistic beliefs) is called implicit atheism. A conscious rejection of God's existence is called explicit atheism. Some atheists also call themselves secularists, agnostics, or Bright. Bright is meant to take some of the historical stigma (mark of disgrace) away from being an atheist.

Agnosticism also blends Greek elements to form a new compound word. It mixes a with gnosis or knowledge, meaning without knowledge. Broadly speaking, the difference between the two concepts is that while atheists claim there is no God, agnostics claim not to be able to make statements one way or the other about the existence of God.

Agnosticism is a form of skepticism, or doubt, towards religious statements about the existence of God. Such questions, they say, are matters of faith rather than reason. Some agnostics leave the question of the existence or nonexistence of God open until further information can be found. Others say that there will never be logical, rational proof available The former belief is sometimes called weak, soft, or open agnosticism, while the latter is called strong, hard, or closed agnosticism. Agnostics base their skepticism about the existence of God on both the principles of logic and what can and cannot be said with language. For agnostics, the limits of language keep people from proving or disproving the existence of God.

A form of argument against the existence of God found in both agnosticism and atheism looks at people's motivation for believing in God. The theories of Ludwig Feuerbach influence this argument, as well as those of Karl Marx and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). This argument claims that humanity has created God because people need such an all-powerful father figure psychologically, or for their own mental well-being. God, for these thinkers, is an authority figure, someone a person can turn to in times of trouble for absolute answers and also for forgiveness of sins or wrongdoings. As such, God becomes a crutch for humans and an obstacle to accepting adult responsibility for one's actions.

Sacred writings

Since agnosticism and atheism are not religions but belief systems, there are no sacred texts. However, certain writings have proved essential to the development of both belief systems. The Dao De Jing, one of the most translated books of world literature and of any religion, is the sacred text of Daoism. Parts of it were written as early as the sixth century bce. It is one of the earliest coherent statements of a moral earthly order patterned not by an all-powerful God but by a metaphysical (spiritual) principle, the dao, a spiritual field that runs through everything and from which all things originate and return. The dao is the law of nature and not a God or gods. Other sacred texts in Eastern religions contain similar non-god elements.

In the Western tradition, influential titles include On the Nature of Things, a work from the first century bce by the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (c. 100–c. 55 bce). This work is a defense of materialist Epicurean thought. Though not specifically atheistic, it does question the gods' interest in humans and opened a discussion on the role of gods in humans' lives.

One of the most influential atheist works, The System of Nature, by Baron d'Holbach comes from the eighteenth century. His book describes the world in materialistic terms, saying that all that exists is physical matter. For Holbach there was no soul and no God. Atheism was the only honest belief. Though not a scientist himself, Holbach attempted to use the latest scientific findings of his day to support his work. His attack on Christianity was important because it blended the work of many thinkers who had come before him.

The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote several important works questioning the existence and reasons for God. These include The Essence of Christianity and Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. He argued that religion was, first of all, simply the product of the human desire for immortality or continual life. For Feuerbach, God was an invention of the human mind, a kind of father figure made up to comfort ourselves when we are overwhelmed by our insignificance.

Karl Marx also contributed to the discussion with Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. From this text comes his most famous statement about religion: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." By this, Marx meant that religion acted like a drug, hiding bitter reality from the mass of workers and keeping them under control. The "opium of the people" is one of Marx's most famous quotes, and one that has been used by agnostics as well as atheists to describe religion and its possible negative effects.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis (a type of therapy used to treat mental disorders), also wrote about the existence of God in The Future of an Illusion, among other works. Freud wrote that religion is an illusion, an unreal vision, or perception, that humankind has created to ease the fear of death. In order for a person to be healthy and mature, Freud said, he or she had to be free of such fantasies as religion. Moving his patients toward an acceptance of atheism was an important part of Freud's treatment.

Some basic texts for agnostics include David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and Thomas Henry Huxley's essay "Agnosticism," which first introduced the term. Two pamphlets by philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970): Why I Am Not a Christian and Am I An Atheist or An Agnostic? are also core texts. Russell thought that religion was just superstition, or blindly accepted belief, and that although there were positive aspects to religion, the negative ones outweighed the good. For him religion made people dependent and stopped the attainment of real knowledge. In Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell wrote:

Darwin's Beliefs

Charles Darwin's work asserts that humans, rather than being made in God's image, as the Bible says, are instead the descendants of other primates (evolutionary relatives of humans, a group that includes apes and monkeys). In his works Darwin implied that all life evolves from simpler forms and thus each form was not created individually by a master designer or supreme being. Though his work has been used as an argument for atheism, Darwin himself was not an atheist. He furthermore claimed that he thought of himself as an agnostic and found nothing inconsistent about believing in God and believing in evolution. In fact, Darwin did not give up Christianity himself until he was forty.

A careful man, Darwin discussed religion very little. His job was science, and his theory of natural selection was controversial enough without discussing it in the context of religion. There are, however, some indications in his writings about his feelings regarding the existence of God. In The Descent of Man, for example, he writes:

I am aware that the assumed instinctive belief in God has been used by many persons as an argument for his existence. The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man, until he has been elevated by long-continued culture.

Later in the same work Darwin adds:

I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to show why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance.

          Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man.

               New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes…. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after "desire for" the past or a fettering [repressing] of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.

Because of his fame as a philosopher, Russell's words about religion strongly influenced modern thought.

Although it has nothing explicit, or outright, to say about religion, one other text has become a symbol of atheism and agnosticism: On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, which sets out the theory of natural selection. Darwin's work has been a lightning rod for the debate over the existence or non-existence of God since its publication in 1859. Darwin's theory basically challenged the Creation as described in the Bible. Though many Christians take that biblical description as a symbolic story, Darwin's work continues to cause controversy in religious circles, especially among literal readers of the Bible, or those who believe that the stories within the Bible are factually true.

Influences of agnosticism and atheism

Some Eastern religions created belief systems that do not rely on a personified supreme being, like the monotheistic God of Judaism and Christianity, but on universal concepts like nirvana and the dao. In the Western religious tradition, however, the influence of atheism and agnosticism has been two-fold. First, it has stirred debate within organized religion to revisit the literal reading of the Bible. Christians who read the Bible literally developed the principle of inerrancy, that is, that the Bible contains no errors or mistakes. Other Christian groups, however, chose to read the Bible as a collection of symbolic stories. Since the time of the Enlightenment, this discussion has continued in Christian religious circles. While literal Christins still insist that the Bible is truth word for word, others, both Catholic and Protestant, take such readings as metaphor (a figure of speech to suggest a resemblance between two things) and myth (a legendary story that explains events in the natural world).

Atheism and agnosticism have also helped move people away from organized religions. The secularization of society (making it nonreligious) has been a trend since the late nineteenth century in the West. As a result, atheists and agnostics argue, there have been many beneficial results. Human beings are forced to take responsibility for everything they do, rather than blaming their actions on an all-powerful God. This in turn empowers them to do more things for themselves. Another positive result of the secularization of society is that, on the whole, religion no longer opposes scientific progress. Science has been freed from restrictions placed on it by religion. In the past, for example, the Catholic Church often rejected scientific advances because the Church thought these advances often conflicted with the idea of a creator-God, who was the source of all life on Earth. As a result of secularization, however, with its research into science, humanity has been greatly aided in areas such as medicine, technology, and electronics.

Religion itself has also benefited from a questioning of the existence of God, some agnostics and atheists claim. Christianity, for example, has become more democratic, ruled by believers, rather than by a hierarchy (chain of command, such as the different levels of leadership in a religion). For those who choose to practice religion, it becomes a personal choice and statement of belief, not a practice forced on them by social pressure. The net effect is to make religion stronger, because its membership is voluntary and more faithful.

For More Information


Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Everitt, Nicholas. The Non-existence of God: An Introduction. London, England: Routledge, 2004.

James, George Alfred. "Atheism." In Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 576-586.

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

Martin, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Neusch, Marcel. The Sources of Modern Atheism. Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1982.


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