The Philosophy of Atheism

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"The Philosophy of Atheism"

"The Philosophy of Atheism," available online from Spunk Library at

By Emma Goldman

Published in 1916 in Mother Earth

Emma Goldman (1869–1940) is remembered as one of the most outspoken American atheists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An atheist is someone who does not believe in God. She rejected belief in such religious ideas as heaven, hell, sin, and other principles, and she outlined her views in a 1916 essay called "The Philosophy of Atheism." Goldman was also a prominent anarchist. Anarchism is a political theory that considers government to be unnecessary and even harmful. Anarchists call for a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.

Goldman was a controversial figure whose beliefs were not very popular in the United States of the early twentieth century. She was in favor of equality of the sexes, sexual freedom, birth control, and labor organization into unions, as well as many other issues that were considered radical at that time. "The Philosophy of Atheism" described another of Goldman's controversial beliefs: that God did not exist. A philosophy is an idea or theory that gives greater understanding to how the world works. Goldman's philosophy first appeared in the journal Mother Earth, which she founded. She later gave speeches on this philosophy.

"It is the earth, not heaven, which man must rescue if he is truly to be saved."

In addition to stating in her essay that God did not exist, Goldman believed that religion could not provide people with a guide for living. Religion, she said, was designed to make man dependent and without free will (self-determination). Therefore, any guidelines from religion on how to live life also had this same aim. Goldman also discussed what philosophers call the "problem of evil." This says that a powerful, kind, and loving god would have arranged the world in a way that reflects his (or her) goodness, and would not have allowed evil to exist. Belief in such a god, Goldman said, ignores the existence of evil and suffering in the world. It is in part by this reasoning that Goldman concluded that a loving god does not exist.

Goldman believed that only humans could create a world in which people live lives of freedom and peace rather than lives of suffering, war, and mistreatment. Guides for living have to come from universal principles of social justice rather than from religion and its sacred writings. Social justice is the belief that all people should receive the same rights, from opportunities in education and economy, to equality in treatment. Goldman states that the solution to the problems that torment mankind is with man himself, not through reliance on a divine being. "No, not the gods, but MAN must rise in his mighty wrath. He … himself, must undertake to usher in justice upon the earth." In other words, only humans, with their own passion for justice and humanity, can solve the problems of injustice in the world.

Weak Versus Strong Atheism

Sometimes the terms "weak atheist" and "strong atheist" are used to refer to different types of atheists. Weak atheists do not find the evidence for the existence of gods persuasive. While theists say that deities, or gods, do exist, weak atheists do not necessarily disagree. Some simply hold no opinion on the matter. Others more actively have doubts that gods exist. They consider it likely that gods do not exist because no one can prove that they do. In this respect, weak atheism is similar to agnosticism, or the view that gods might or might not exist but no one can know for certain.

In contrast to weak atheism is strong atheism. Strong atheism describes the position Emma Goldman takes in her essay, "The Philosophy of Atheism." Strong atheists positively deny that deities exist. Goldman states that it is only by rejecting the idea of God altogether that mankind can break away from the crutch of religion and achieve true freedom. Strong atheists tend to believe in rationalism, the philosophy that truth can be reached through human reason and factual analysis rather than through religious faith or the teachings of a church.

Strong atheists are critical of any belief system that demands from people faith or simple acceptance instead of relying on reasoning and critical thinking. Atheists of this type, including Goldman, argue that religion and belief in God are not just irrational, or unreasonable, but also destructive and harmful because of the influence of religious institutions over people's lives. Atheists believe that only by freeing themselves from religious beliefs can people likewise free themselves from superstition and realize their true potential.

Emma Goldman was born in Russia but in her teens immigrated to the United States. She was drawn to anarchist beliefs by the events surrounding the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago, Illinois, in 1886. During a workers' rally a bomb was tossed into the crowd, killing a number of policemen and wounding many more, including bystanders. Many people, including Goldman, believed that the four men who were later hanged for the crime had been convicted because of their political views rather than by the evidence.

In the decades that followed, Goldman dedicated herself to revolutionary ideals, equality of the sexes, and the rights of workers. She was imprisoned for distributing literature about birth control at a time when it was illegal to do so. In 1892 she came under suspicion because the police believed she had taken part in an attempt to assassinate the wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Finch. An industrialist is someone who owns or operates a manufacturing business. She was later a vocal opponent of U.S. entry into World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). After she was convicted of openly opposing the military draft, she was sentenced to prison, stripped of her U.S. citizenship, and deported to the Soviet Union.

Consistent with her social beliefs and her distrust of institutions, which she believed robbed people of their freedom, Goldman was a firm atheist. Her views were by no means new. Atheism, from the Greek word atheos, meaning "without gods," can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. For many centuries, people who opposed the official religion of the country in which they lived faced charges of atheism and were often executed for their beliefs. It was not until the dawn of the Age of Reason in Europe (roughly the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) that philosophers in such countries as France, Germany, Russia, and England began to take openly atheistic positions. These views were still often considered criminal by the state. One of the most prominent Age of Reason atheists was Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a British philosopher who wrote: "Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety [devotion], to laws, to reputation; all of which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, even if religion vanished; but religious superstition dismounts [takes down] all these and erects an absolute monarchy in the minds of men." This is a viewpoint very similar to Goldman's, who argues that people have to provide their own guides for living, not take them from religious beliefs.

Things to remember while reading "The Philosophy of Atheism":

  • Atheism is a philosophy, a set of ideas about understanding the universe and the ways to live appropriately. Philosophies can address the workings of nature, the meaning of life, and religion, as well as other topics in the arts and sciences. Atheism's philosophy is that there is no God and humankind must rely only on itself to improve human life and solve the world's problems.
  • Goldman's argument in favor of atheism looks to science as the source of reason, rather than to faith. As man's knowledge of science and the natural world has increased over time, the concept of God, she says, has become more unclear. It is precisely such advances in knowledge that cause many people to doubt or deny the existence of God.
  • The essay talks strongly about people giving power to themselves instead of appealing to a divine being with positive and negative qualities found in the world. By assigning powers such as punishment and reward for bad and good behavior to a god, people lose their free will and surrender control over their lives. Goldman believes that people themselves have the power to take charge of their lives and even to help address the problems and reduce the suffering in the world.
  • Religious revivals, which Goldman attacks, are large gatherings of people who come to hear compelling speakers, such as Billy Sunday (1862–1935), preach about religion. In the early twentieth century such revivals were common and resulted in many people becoming newly religious. Revivalism was responsible for a large growth in U.S. religious participation.

Excerpt from "The Philosophy of Atheism"

To give an adequate exposition of the Philosophy of Atheism, it would be necessary to go into the historical changes of the belief in a Deity, from its earliest beginning to the present day. But that is not within the scope of the present paper. However, it is not out of place to mention, in passing, that the concept God, Supernatural Power, Spirit, Deity, or in whatever other term the essence of Theism may have found expression, has become more indefinite and obscure in the course of time and progress. In other words, the God idea is growing more impersonal and nebulous in proportion as the human mind is learning to understand natural phenomena and in the degree that science progressively correlates human and social events.

God, today, no longer represents the same forces as in the beginning of His existence; neither does He direct human destiny with the same Iron hand as of yore. Rather does the God idea express a sort of spiritualistic stimulus to satisfy the fads and fancies of every shade of human weakness. In the course of human development the God idea has been forced to adapt itself to every phase of human affairs, which is perfectly consistent with the origin of the idea itself.

The conception of gods originated in fear and curiosity. Primitive man, unable to understand the phenomena of nature and harassed by them, saw in every terrifying manifestation some sinister force expressly directed against him; and as ignorance and fear are the parents of all superstition, the troubled fancy of primitive man wove the God idea.

Very aptly, the world-renowned atheist and anarchist, Michael Baku-nin, says in his great work God and the State: "All religions, with their gods, their demi-gods, and their prophets, their messiahs and their saints, were created by the prejudiced fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties …. The history of religions, of the birth, grandeur, and the decline of the gods who had succeeded one another in human belief, is nothing, therefore, but the development of the collective intelligence and conscience of mankind. As fast as they discovered, in the course of their historically-progressive advance, either in themselves or in external nature, a quality, or even any great defect whatever, they attributed it to their gods, after having exaggerated and enlarged it beyond measure, after the manner of children, by an act of their religious fancy…. The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice."

Thus the God idea… has dominated humanity and will continue to do so until man will raise his head to the sunlit day, unafraid and with an awakened will to himself. In proportion as man learns to realize himself and mold his own destiny theism becomes superfluous. How far man will be able to find his relation to his fellows will depend entirely upon how much he can outgrow his dependence upon God….

It is the earth, not heaven, which man must rescue if he is truly to be saved….

It is characteristic of theistic "tolerance" that no one really cares what the people believe in, just so they believe or pretend to believe. To accomplish this end, the crudest … methods are being used. Religious … revivals with Billy Sunday as their champion—methods which must outrage every refined sense, and which in their effect upon the ignorant and curious often tend to create a mild state of insanity…. All these frantic efforts find approval and support from the earthly powers….

Consciously or unconsciously, most theists see in gods and devils, heaven and hell; reward and punishment, a whip to lash the people into obedience, meekness and contentment….

Have not all theists painted their Deity as the god of love and goodness? Yet after thousands of years of such preachments the gods remain deaf to the agony of the human race. Confucius cares not for the poverty, squalor and misery of people of China. Buddha remains undisturbed in his philosophical indifference to the famine and starvation of outraged Hindoos; Jahve continues deaf to the bitter cry of Israel; while Jesus refuses to rise from the dead against his Christians who are butchering each other.

The burden of all song and praise "unto the Highest" has been that God stands for justice and mercy. Yet injustice among men is ever on the increase; the outrages committed against the masses in this country alone would seem enough to overflow the very heavens. But where are the gods to make an end to all these horrors, these wrongs, this inhumanity to man? No, not the gods, but MAN must rise in his mighty wrath. He, deceived by all the deities, betrayed by their emissaries, he, himself, must undertake to usher in justice upon the earth….

The philosophy of Atheism represents a concept of life without any metaphysical Beyond or Divine Regulator. It is the concept of an actual, real world with its liberating, expanding and beautifying possibilities, as against an unreal world, which, with its spirits, oracles, and mean contentment has kept humanity in helpless degradation.

It may seem a wild paradox, and yet it is pathetically true, that this real, visible world and our life should have been so long under the influence of metaphysical speculation, rather than of physical demonstrable forces. Under the lash of the theistic idea, this earth has served no other purpose than as a temporary station to test man's capacity for immolation to the will of God. But the moment man attempted to ascertain the nature of that will, he was told that it was utterly futile for "finite human intelligence" to get beyond the all-powerful infinite will. Under the terrific weight of this omnipotence, man has been bowed into the dust—a will-less creature, broken and sweating in the dark. The triumph of the philosophy of Atheism is to free man from the nightmare of gods … Again and again the light of reason has dispelled the theistic nightmare, but poverty, misery and fear have recreated the phantoms…. Atheism, on the other hand, in its philosophic aspect refuses allegiance not merely to a definite concept of God, but it refuses all servitude to the God idea, and opposes the theistic principle as such. Gods in their individual function are not half as pernicious as the principle of theism which represents the belief in a supernatural, or even omnipotent, power to rule the earth and man upon it. It is the absolutism of theism, its pernicious influence upon humanity, its paralyzing effect upon thought and action, which Atheism is fighting with all its power.

The philosophy of Atheism has its root in the earth, in this life; its aim is the emancipation of the human race from all Godheads, be they Judaic, Christian, Mohammedan, Buddhistic, Brahministic, or what not. Mankind has been punished long and heavily for having created its gods; nothing but pain and persecution have been man's lot since gods began. There is but one way out of this blunder: Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth….

Atheism is already helping to free man from his dependence upon punishment and reward as the heavenly bargain-counter for the poor in spirit.

Do not all theists insist that there can be no morality, no justice, honesty or fidelity without the belief in a Divine Power? Based upon fear and hope, such morality has always been a vile product, imbued partly with self-righteousness, partly with hypocrisy. As to truth, justice, and fidelity, who have been their brave exponents and daring proclaimers? Nearly always the godless ones: the Atheists; they lived, fought, and died for them. They knew that justice, truth, and fidelity are not conditioned in heaven, but that they are related to and interwoven with the tremendous changes going on in the social and material life of the human race….

Thoughtful people are beginning to realize that moral precepts, imposed upon humanity through religious terror, have become stereotyped and have therefore lost all vitality. A glance at life today, at its disintegrating character, its conflicting interests with their hatreds, crimes, and greed, suffices to prove the sterility of theistic morality….

Atheism in its negation of gods is at the same time the strongest affirmation of man, and through man, the eternal yea to life, purpose, and beauty.

What happened next …

Goldman's views did not fall on deaf ears. In 1925 the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism was formed to attack all religious beliefs by distributing atheistic literature. Then, in 1929, a successor organization was formed, the League of Militant Atheists. This organization, which claimed to have 5.5 million members, worked actively to weaken the influence of religion. It established centers where lectures on atheism could be presented and tried to place atheists as university professors. In the later twentieth century American Atheists, Inc. (1963) and Atheists United (1982) were formed to protect the civil rights of atheists and promote the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state, that religion and the government should operate separately from one another.

Did you know …

  • J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972), the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), called Emma Goldman "the most dangerous woman in America."
  • In 1901 Goldman was arrested and charged for having planned the attempt by Leon Czolgosz (1873–1901) to assassinate President William McKinley (1843–1901; served 1896–1901) on September 6 of that year. She was held in jail but later released because of lack of evidence.
  • Although Emma Goldman was convicted of crimes and served three separate prison terms, many people regard her as a heroine, especially because of her opposition to war, her defense of the rights of workers, and her belief in the equality of the sexes. Institutions such as schools and family-planning clinics are named after her.
  • Scientists are more likely to be atheists than are people in other professions. In 1996 a survey found that about 60 percent of scientists expressed disbelief or doubt about the existence of God. In contrast, in a 2001 survey of Americans, less than 0.5 percent identified themselves as atheists.

Consider the following …

  • Explain why, in Goldman's view, religion cannot provide people with a useful guide to living.
  • Compare how atheists examine the "problem of evil" with the way this problem is examined in a religious tradition you may be familiar with.
  • Goldman refers to organized religion as "the most powerful and lucrative [profitable] industry in the world." Explain what she means by this statement, and express agreement or disagreement.

For More Information


Glassgold, Peter. Anarchy!: An Anthology of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth. New York: Counterpoint Press, 2001.

Goldman, Emma. Living My Life, vol. 1. New York: Dover Press, 1930.

Moritz, Theresa, and Albert Moritz. The World's Most Dangerous Women: A New Biography of Emma Goldman. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Subway Books, 2002.


Goldman, Emma. "The Philosophy of Atheism." Mother Earth (February 1916): 410-416. This article can also be found online at


Beverly, Christopher Thomas, and David Wilson Cary. "Atheism." Religious Movements Page. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

"Religion and Ethics: Atheism." (accessed on June 5, 2006).

Exposition: Explanation.

Obscure: Difficult to understand.

Nebulous: Unclear.

Correlates: Makes a relationship between.

Yore: Olden days.

Stimulus: Something that encourages an activity or interest.

Fads: Fashions or trends that are popular for a short period of time.

Fancies: Whims or sudden likings.

Consistent: In agreement.

Harassed: Bothered, disturbed.

Manifestation: Appearance.

Sinister: Threatening.

Expressly: Deliberately.

Superstition: False idea.

Aptly: Appropriately.

Demi-gods: Beings who are part human and part god.

Messiahs: Those who rescue or save from harm.

Attained: Achieved.

Faculties: Mental abilities.

Defect: Flaw.

Attributed: Credited.

Abdication: Giving up.

Negation: Denial.

Superfluous: Unnecessary.

Billy Sunday: A well-known American baseball player turned evangelist, or an enthusiastic preacher of Christianity.

Squalor: Dirtiness.

Jahve or Jehovah: A name for the god of the Hebrew Old Testament.

Wrath: Anger.

Deceived: Tricked.

Emissaries: Representatives.

Usher: Lead.

Oracles: Predictions of the future.

Mean: Lowly.

Degradation: Poverty, terrible life conditions.

Paradox: Contradiction.

Speculation: Guesswork.

Demonstrable: Provable.

Immolation: Killing as a sacrifice, usually by burning.

Ascertain: Learn.

Futile: Useless.

Omnipotence: All-powerfulness.

Pernicious: Harmful.

Absolutism: Unquestionable.

Emancipation: Freeing.

Fetters: Restraints.

Consciousness: Awareness.

Fidelity: Faithfulness, devotion.

Vile: Evil.

Imbued: Filled.

Hypocrisy: Insincerity, a false claim to having high principles.

Exponents: Supporters.

Conditioned: Made strong or readied.

Precepts: Guidelines.

Vitality: Strength.

Disintegrating: Decaying.

Suffices: Is enough.

Sterility: Unproductiveness.

Affirmation: Positive statement in support.

Yea: Positive statement in support.

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The Philosophy of Atheism

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