Atheism (The History Of Religions)

Print PDF

Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists.

The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god", which was applied with a negative connotation to those thought to reject the gods worshipped by the larger society. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to identify themselves as "atheist" appeared in the 18th century.

Today, about 2.3% of the world's population describes itself as atheist, while a further 11.9% is described as nonreligious. Between 64% and 65% of Japanese are atheists, agnostics, or do not believe in God. In Europe, the estimated percentage of atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers in a personal god ranges as low as single digits in Poland, Romania, Cyprus, and some other countries, and up to 85% in Sweden (where 17% identify themselves as atheists), 80% in Denmark, 72% in Norway, and 60% in Finland.

Atheists tend to lean toward skepticism regarding supernatural claims, citing a lack of empirical evidence. Atheists have offered several rationales for not believing in any deity. These include the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Other arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical. Although some atheists have adopted secular philosophies, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere.

In Western culture, atheists are frequently assumed to be exclusively irreligious or unspiritual. However, atheism also figures in certain religious and spiritual belief systems, such as Jainism, some forms of Buddhism that do not advocate belief in gods,and Hinduism that holds atheism to be valid but difficult to follow spiritually.


In early ancient Greek, the adjective atheos (ἄθεος, from the privative ἀ- + θεός "god") meant "godless". It was first used as a term of censure roughly meaning "ungodly" or "impious". In the 5th century BCE, the word began to indicate more-intentional, active godlessness in the sense of "severing relations with the gods" or "denying the gods", instead of the earlier meaning of "impious". The term ἀσεβής (asebēs) then came to be applied against those who impiously denied or disrespected the local gods, even if they believed in other gods. Modern translations of classical texts sometimes render atheos as "atheistic". As an abstract noun, there was also ἀθεότης (atheotēs), "atheism". Cicero transliterated the Greek word into the Latin atheos. The term found frequent use in the debate between early Christians and Hellenists, with each side attributing it, in the pejorative sense, to the other.

In English, the term atheism was derived from the French athéisme in about 1587. The term atheist (from Fr. athée), in the sense of "one who denies or disbelieves the existence of God", predates atheism in English, being first attested in about 1571. Atheist as a label of practical godlessness was used at least as early as 1577. Related words emerged later: deist in 1621, theist in 1662; theism in 1678; and deism in 1682. Deism and theism changed meanings slightly around 1700, due to the influence of atheism; deism was originally used as a synonym for today's theism, but came to denote a separate philosophical doctrine.

Karen Armstrong writes that "During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word 'atheist' was still reserved exclusively for polemic ... The term 'atheist' was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist." Atheism was first used to describe a self-avowed belief in late 18th-century Europe, specifically denoting disbelief in the monotheistic Abrahamic god. In the 20th century, globalization contributed to the expansion of the term to refer to disbelief in all deities, though it remains common in Western society to describe atheism as simply "disbelief in God".

Definitions and distinctions

Writers disagree how best to define and classify atheism,  contesting what supernatural entities it applies to, whether it is an assertion in its own right or merely the absence of one, and whether it requires a conscious, explicit rejection. A variety of categories have been proposed to try to distinguish the different forms of atheism.


Some of the ambiguity and controversy involved in defining atheism arises from difficulty in reaching a consensus for the definitions of words like deity and god. The plurality of wildly different conceptions of god and deities leads to differing ideas regarding atheism's applicability. The ancient Romans accused Christians of being atheists for not worshiping the pagan deities. In the 20th century, this view fell into disfavor as theism came to be understood as encompassing belief in any divinity.

With respect to the range of phenomena being rejected, atheism may counter anything from the existence of a deity, to the existence of any spiritual, supernatural, or transcendental concepts, such as those of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Implicit vs. explicit

Definitions of atheism also vary in the degree of consideration a person must put to the idea of gods to be considered an atheist. Atheism has sometimes been defined to include the simple absence of belief that any deities exist. This broad definition would include newborns and other people who have not been exposed to theistic ideas. As far back as 1772, Baron d'Holbach said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God." Similarly, George H. Smith  (1979) suggested that: "The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist." Smith coined the term implicit atheism to refer to "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it" and explicit atheism to refer to the more common definition of conscious disbelief. Ernest Nagel contradicts Smith's definition of atheism as merely "absence of theism", acknowledging only explicit atheism as true "atheism".

In Western civilization, the view that children are born atheist is relatively recent. Before the 18th century, the existence of God was so universally accepted in the western world that even the possibility of true atheism was questioned. This is called theistic innatism—the notion that all people believe in God from birth; within this view was the connotation that atheists are simply in denial. There is a position claiming that atheists are quick to believe in God in times of crisis, that atheists make deathbed conversions, or that "there are no atheists in foxholes." Some proponents of this view claim that the anthropological benefit of religion is that religious faith enables humans to endure hardships better, functioning as an "opium of the people". Some atheists emphasize the fact that there have been examples to the contrary, among them examples of literal "atheists in foxholes."


The broadest demarcation of atheistic rationale is between practical and theoretical atheism.

Practical atheism
Main article: Apatheism

In practical or pragmatic atheism, also known as apatheism, individuals live as if there are no gods and explain natural phenomena without resorting to the divine. The existence of gods is not rejected, but may be designated unnecessary or useless; gods neither provide purpose to life, nor influence everyday life, according to this view. A form of practical atheism with implications for the scientific community is methodological naturalism—the "tacit adoption or assumption of philosophical naturalism within scientific method with or without fully accepting or believing it."

Practical atheism can take various forms:

* Absence of religious motivation—belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action;
* Active exclusion of the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action;
* Indifference—the absence of any interest in the problems of gods and religion; or
* Unawareness of the concept of a deity

Metaphysical arguments
Further information: Monism and Physicalism

One author writes:
"Metaphysical atheism... includes all doctrines that hold to metaphysical monism (the homogeneity of reality). Metaphysical atheism may be either: a) absolute — an explicit denial of God's existence associated with materialistic monism (all materialistic trends, both in ancient and modern times); b) relative — the implicit denial of God in all philosophies that, while they accept the existence of an absolute, conceive of the absolute as not possessing any of the attributes proper to God: transcendence, a personal character or unity. Relative atheism is associated with idealistic monism (pantheism, panentheism, deism)."


Comments (0)Add Comment

Write comment


Web Statistics