Atheism is an absence of belief in the existence of gods. In an narrower sense, atheism is a position that there are no deities. The actual term atheism emerged first in the 16th century during the spread of freedom of thought, skeptical inquiry, and the subsequent increase in criticism of religion. The first individuals to identify themselves using the word atheist lived in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment. For the definition of atheism, the terms "god" and "gods" are used interchangeably as there is no reason to differentiate between monotheistic and polytheistic deities in regards to disbelief in them. This is with the deliberate intent of ignoring the privileged position the God of Christianity, Yahweh has occupied in English grammar.
Definitions and Types
There are many different categories and definitions of atheism that describe the numerous positions it maintains. Unlike denominations and sects such as Protestantism and Catholicism in Christianity, Sunni and Shia in Islam, and their multiple subgroups, one does not join a group or faction of atheists. Instead of dictating one's beliefs, these categories are models that merely describe the individual's beliefs. Despite all of their differences, all of these terms are included in the blanket term "atheist".
Some of the more difficult aspects of defining the term "atheist" is the question of what god, or type of god, is being denied. This is particularly important for those who claim that atheism is supported by evidence (more specifically, the lack of evidence for a theistic case). Whether atheism also requires a person to disbelieve in all other forms of magic, or ghosts, or psychic powers is also a question. These are not "gods" in the conventional sense at all, but they are still supernatural entities or powers.
Not all atheists abandon their belief in gods because they were disillusioned by it, some were just never raised with or indoctrinated with religious beliefs in the first place. Hence a substantial number have nothing to become disillusioned with. However, in areas where belief in gods is essentially treated as a normality, there is a high chance that an atheist is a person who had previously harbored a belief in god before converting away from it. As the term "atheist" only really means something in the context of theistic belief, being disillusioned or unconvinced by religion is certainly a factor in most, if not all people who declare themselves as an atheist.
Implicit vs. explicit
- Implicit Atheism is simply the state of lacking belief in gods.
- Explicit Atheism is a conscious rejection of the belief in gods or their existence. Explicit atheists can be weak or strong atheists, but all strong atheists are explicit atheists.
Agnostic atheism (or weak atheism) is the position that describes the state of reality as if no gods exist. This position does not require a statement or declaration of gods' non-existence as the argument of agnostic atheism is based on the lack of evidence for the existence of gods, therefore there is no reason to believe in them. This argument can be classified as pragmatic atheism, an acknowledgment of the lack of evidence but only operating as if there were no gods. Agnostic atheists, however, are almost always reluctant to make outright statements like "Gods do not exist", because of the great difficulties involved in dismissing the existence of anything that can be asserted without evidence.
Positive atheism (or strong atheism) is the position that makes an explicit statement against the existence of gods. Positive atheists would disagree with pragmatic atheists about the inability to prove the non-existence of gods. Strong atheism specifically combats religious beliefs and other arguments for belief in gods, such as Pascal's Wager, and argument from design. These arguments tend to demonstrate that the concept of god is logically inconsistent or incoherent in order to actively disprove the existence of a god
In contrast, weak atheist arguments tend to concentrate on the lack of evidence for gods, while strong atheist arguments tend to concentrate on making a positive case for the non-existence of gods.
Apatheism is the state of neither accepting nor denying claims that gods exist or do not exist. Apatheists consider the very question of the existence or non-existence of gods or other supernatural beings to be irrelevant and not worth consideration under any circumstances.
Post-theism is a form of atheism that rejects the belief in god as obsolete, that the stage in human development where belief in god belongs to has passed. Notable examples of atheists who can be identified as post-theists are Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Religious atheism is a state of atheism that is compatible with non-theistic religions, namely Buddhism and Shinto. Many followers of Buddhism identify as atheists and agnostics. According to RationalWiki, most people who practice Shintoism are nonbelievers.
Arguments for atheism range from scientific and philosophical to historical and social approaches. Arguments for disbelief in deities include the lack of empirical evidence, problem of evil, inconsistent revelations, falsifiable hypothesis, and the argument from non-belief. Nonbelievers also contend that the burden of proof rests on the shoulder of the theist to provide evidence for the existence of gods.
If the god being denied by nonbelievers is the interventionist God, which most theists hold to exist, then the argument against the existence of this being is easy; the lack of any demonstrable interventions demonstrates the god's lack of existence. In this case, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. However, if the god being denied by nonbelievers is a non-interventionist, or deist type god, then the above argument regarding evidence doesn't work. Indeed, the only possible "evidence" for a deist god is the very existence of the universe, and most sane people do not tend to deny the universe's existence. On the other hand, as said "evidence" is simply asserted and isn't testable in any way, it is a lot less convincing and we return to "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."
Some of the major arguments regarding disillusion with the religious belief in God is the fact that most world religions insist that all other faiths are wrong. While some moderate believers may like to maintain a position that "all religions are right" or that "they're just different interpretations", it's undeniable that heresy and apostasy are looked down upon very harshly in many faiths. This suggests the possibility that no religion is right, and further suggests that, because the vast majority of believers in any faith are born into it, being a member of the "correct" group is merely an accident of birth in most cases. There is also historical evidence that organized religion, while professing a peaceful moral code, is often the basis for violence and war as well as a method to motivate people in political conflicts or at least a justification for such violence. Some of the hostility between different religions and even among different sects or denominations within the same religion further reinforces the plausibility this idea.
Other arguments may be directed towards a religion or its specifics, namely the evils that the concept of religion has produced over the ages, the hypocrisy of professed believers and religious leaders who encourage their followers to help the poor, love their neighbors, and behave morally but become wealthy through donations to the church and carry love for certain neighbors to an immoral extreme as defined by their own professed religious beliefs, and finally, the contradiction between talk of a loving god and a world in which children starve to death and innocent people die and suffer in horrible ways.
Issues with religion may arise due to the nature of fundamentalists who insist that their holy texts are literally true. This leads to attempts by such fundamentalists to undermine education and research by censoring any scientific, historical, and philosophical knowledge that seems to contradict their beliefs, effectively posing a detriment to human progress. Intelligent design is a prominent case of this. Often this doesn't sit well with moderate believers and especially those who may be on the verge of losing their faith, especially when the evidence provided by daily experience suggests that there may be no events that cannot be explained by common sense and scientific study.
Other issues that atheists and nonbelievers have with religion involve the characteristics of supposed gods. Nonbelievers often view the notion that a supreme all-knowing deity would have the narcissistic need to be worshiped by lesser, inferior beings, and would punish anyone for worshiping a different god or none at all, to be ludicrous and perverse.
Many atheists argue, in similar fashion to the born-again Christian who "just knows" that God exists with undeniable certainty, that the day-to-day experience of the atheist demonstrates quite clearly that God does not exist. This is because they have an image in their heads of what this "God" would have to look like, for example, an entity in the form of the Old Testament God who runs around annihilating entire cities, turning people into pillars of salt, and generally answering people's prayers in flashes of fire and brimstone, or, answering prayers for the victory of a given football team, but not answering those made on behalf of starving children in the third world or the people dying as a result of violent conflicts.
The arguments for atheism that are based on logic try to show that the god or gods in question cannot possibly exist, rendering any escape hatch arguments like "Gawd dun did it" sterile. These arguments contend that some properties of a creator-god are incompatible with each other or with known facts about the world or about reality, and thus a creator-god cannot be a logically consistent entity that exists. If the god in question does not have the common properties the Abrahamic God has, such as omnipotence and omni-benevolence, then the said arguments will not be of any use in refuting the existence of the god or gods in question. This scenario would also render the argument vulnerable to the tactic of moving the goalpost fallacy through altering the descriptions and properties of the god in question.
Other logical arguments try to prove that god is not compatible with our scientific knowledge of reality. The problem of evil states that a good god wouldn't permit gratuitous evil, yet such evil occurs, so a good god cannot logically exist. The argument from design is often given as proof of a creator, but it raises the following logical question: if the universe is so complex that it must have had a creator, then the creator must be at least as complex and must therefore have it's own creator. Also, the argument from design does not offer evidence for any specific religion; while it could be taken as support for the existence of a god or gods, it doesn't argue for the Christian God any more than, say, the Hindu gods.
When believers hasten to point out that their gods are not bound by logic, let alone the known laws of physics, this is really a case of a logical fallacy known as special pleading and doesn't prove anything itself. Atheists therefore tend to reject these counters to the logical arguments as they mostly beg the question of a creator's existence and yet very arbitrarily plead that a creator can be exempt from the very same logic that was used to "prove" its existence.
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Morality is one of the larger issues facing the society, and many religions and believers openly express the notion that they have the grounds to decide, explain, and enforce moral judgments. Many believers will assume that since morals were derived from their gods, one can not have morals nor justify the basis for them if the belief in Gods is absent. Contrary to the claims of such people, "no belief in gods" does not mean "no morality." There are strong humanistic, cultural, and genetic rationales for the existence of morality and ethical behavior, and many people, not just atheists and nonbelievers, recognize this fact. For example, most people derive their morality from non-theistic elements such as empathy, reasoning, experience, and societal influences.
Some atheist and secular groups are doing charitable work traditionally done by religious organizations like funding scholarships as an alternative to faith-based scholarships and at least a few atheist group volunteers to do environmental protection work.
It could be argued that accusing atheists of having no morals or no basis for their morals is sometimes a psychological projection from people who themselves have not developed healthy intrinsic moral sensibilities and responses, and also require an external written code such as that in the Bible or Quran to prevent them from engaging in immoral activities. As a quote by an ex-evangelical author, Valerie Tarico goes: "If you can’t tell right from wrong without appealing to an authority or a sacred text, what you lack is not religion but compassion."
Typical examples of this trope invoke either Hitler (whose supposed atheism is itself rather dubious) or some of the genocidal communist dictators (mainly Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot). Setting aside the dubious Godwin's Law example(s), using Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot as examples of the immoral consequences of atheism have the common weakness that it is far from clear that it was their atheism (rather than, say, their political ideologies and/or ruthless ambitions) that caused their murderous actions. This is in stark contrast to the numerous and varied examples of the very explicit use of religion to justify killing, maiming, raping, enslaving or otherwise mistreating your fellow man, including notorious instances of deities outright ordering such behaviour in sacred, religious texts, with the Old Testament YHWH’s command to exterminate the Amalekites being just one, horrendous case in point.
There have been attempts by psychologists and social scientists to investigate whether atheists are more or less moral than religious believers. Many of these experiments have been inconclusive, finding no difference. A study of almost 1200 children published in 2015 found children raised in religious households were less altruistic than those from non-religious households.
This attitude has even been used to justify hate and discrimination, and is the reason why atheists are so distrusted in the US.
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In early ancient Greek, the adjective 'átheos' (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 deliberate and active godlessness in the sense of "severing relations with the gods" or "denying the gods". 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 'átheos' as "atheistic". As an abstract noun, there was also ἀθεότης ('atheotēs'), "atheism". Cicero transliterated the Greek word into the Latin 'átheos'. 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.
The term atheist (from Fr. 'athée'), in the sense of "one who ... denies the existence of God or gods", predates atheism in English, being first found as early as 1566, and again in 1571. Atheist as a label of practical godlessness was used at least as early as 1577. The term atheism was derived from the French 'athéisme', and appears in English about 1587. An earlier work, from about 1534, used the term atheonism. Related words emerged later: deist in 1621, theist in 1662, deism in 1675, and theism in 1678. At that time "deist" and "deism" already carried their modern meaning. The term theism came to be contrasted with deism.
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".
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There has been a long history of rational people who have not accepted superstitious or magical explanations of natural phenomena and who have felt that "gods" are not necessary for the working of the world. The Eastern philosophy of Buddhism is broadly atheistic, explicitly eschewing the notion of a creation myth. In the Western world, there have been atheists almost as long as there has been philosophy and writing. Some of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world have been critical of belief in deities or eschewed religion entirely - many favouring logic and rationality to inform their lives and their actions, rather than religious texts. Democritus, who originally conceived of the atom, hypothesized a world without magic holding it together. Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants of Athens, preceded Marx when he called religion a tool to control the masses.
Perhaps the best example of an explicitly atheistic ancient philosophy is the Charvaka school of thought, which originated in India in the first millennium BCE. The Charvakas posited a materialistic universe, rejected the idea of an afterlife, and emphasized the need to enjoy this life.
Modern atheism in the Western world can be traced to the Age of Enlightenment. Important thinkers of that era who were atheists include Baron d'Holbach and Denis Diderot. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, though not explicitly avowing atheism, wrote critical essays on religions and religious beliefs (his most famous being a critique of belief in miracles), and posited naturalistic explanations for the origins of religion in The Natural History of Religion as well as criticizing traditional arguments for the existence of God in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
Not until recently, however, did the term known as "atheism" begin to carry its current connotation. In an increasing number of countries around the world it is a neutral or unimportant label. The nation of New Zealand, for example, has thrice elected an agnostic woman (Helen Clark) as Prime Minister, followed by its current agnostic leader (John Key). Several Prime Ministers of the UK have been atheists, including Clement Attlee, and the current deputy PM, Nick Clegg. Also, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, is openly atheist, and at least one other former Australian PM was atheist. However, in more religious areas such as the United States or Saudi Arabia the term carries a heavy stigma. Indeed, prejudice against atheists is so high in the United States that one study found that they are America's most distrusted minority.
The reason for such attitudes towards atheists in these nations is unclear. Firstly, there is no stated creed with which to disagree (except perhaps for "strong" atheists, whose only belief is that there are no gods). Nor are atheists generally organized into lobbies or interest groups or political action committees (at least none that wield massive power), unlike the many groups that lobby on behalf of various religions. And yet an atheist would be the least likely to be elected President of the United States. According to the American Values Survey, about 67% of all voters would be uncomfortable with an atheist president, and no other group — including Mormons, African Americans, and homosexuals — would lose so much of the potential vote based on one single trait alone. One potential reason for this is that in the United States, Christian groups have managed to push and implant the concept that without religion there can be no morality - often playing to people's needs for absolutes and written rules - absolute morality is presented as something inherently true and achievable only by believers.
A research report conducted in 2005 indicates that the true proportion of atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers is around 6% in the United States, 44% in Great Britain, 54% in France, around 67% in Sweden, 65% in Japan, around 61% in Denmark, and around 51% in Norway. According to a 2014 WIN-Gallup International poll, 61% of China identify as "convinced atheists." In 2016, a Pew Research Center poll shows that 66-72% of the Czech Republic identify as atheist, agnostics, and non-believers.
According to a 2012 WIN-Gallup International poll, 13% of the world identifies as "atheist", 23% identifies as "not religious", and 59% identifies as "religious"; these results were 3% more "atheist", 9% less "religious", and 6% more "non-religious" than 2005. Of note, in the United States 13% fewer people identified as "religious".
Education and IQ
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Many studies have shown that groups with higher intelligence or more education have significantly more atheists. A recent meta-analysis of 39 eligible studies from 1927 to 2002 was published in Mensa Magazine, and concluded that atheists are more likely to be of higher intelligence than their religious counterparts.The American Sociological Association found that higher intelligence was linked with atheism and liberal political ideology. According to an article in the prestigious science journal Nature in 1998 the belief in a personal god or afterlife was very low among the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Only 7.0% believed in a personal god as compared to more than 85% of the general U.S. population. A 2012 WIN-Gallup International poll found that people with college education were 16% less likely to describe themselves as religious than those without complete high school education. A survey conducted by the Times of India in 2015 revealed that 22% of IIT-Bombay graduates do not believe in the existence of God, while another 30% do not know. According to a Harvard survey, there are more atheists and agnostics entering Harvard University, one of the top ranked schools in America, than Catholics and Protestants. According to the same study, atheists and agnostics also make up a much higher percentage of the students than the general public. This may suggest that the more intelligent subjects are more unlikely to believe in god or supernatural powers. An alternative interpretation is that having completed the kind of education that makes you likely to do well in IQ tests is also likely to have either divested you of religiosity or at least made you less susceptible to the kind of beliefs in a personal god which characterise Christian fundamentalism. Yet another possibility is that those with more education are simply more likely to have thought seriously about religion and scrutinized the things they were brought up to believe; the higher intelligence among atheists may simply be because those who achieve high levels of education tend to be smarter than average (meaning that it's not so much that smart people are atheists as that atheists tend to be smart people). If so, then if atheism were to become mainstream, we could expect the average age of atheists to go down, eventually approaching the average age of religious people.
The Programme for International Student Assessment notes that the best education is present in China and Singapore, while the poorest is present in Peru, Colombia, Qatar and Indonesia. China is noted for having an atheist majority and Singapore is noted for having a religious majority of Buddhists. Peru and Colombia have an overwhelming religious Catholic Christian majority and Qatar and Indonesia have an overwhelming religious Islamic majority. Clearly differing cultures and focuses within those religions influence these circumstances, but the presence of such a clear trend also suggests a given society's focus on religious teaching may have a strong effect of its own.
Education professor Yong Zhao asserts that the reason why countries with such differing religious attitudes succeed, while countries with other differing religious attitudes fail, is simply due to the excessive workload and testing present in the Confucian cultural circle, the students within which make for outstanding test takers.