by Michael Martin
entry in Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia

Atheism, the denial of or lack of belief in the existence of a god or gods. The term atheism comes from the Greek prefix a-, meaning "without," and the Greek word theos, meaning "deity." The denial of god's existence is also known as strong, or positive, atheism, whereas the lack of belief in god is known as negative, or weak, atheism. Although atheism is often contrasted with agnosticism -- the view that we cannot know whether a deity exists or not and should therefore suspend belief -- negative atheism is in fact compatible with agnosticism.

Atheism has wide-ranging implications for the human condition. In the absence of belief in god, ethical goals must be determined by secular (nonreligious) aims and concerns, human beings must take full responsibility for their destiny, and death marks the end of a person's existence. As of 1994 there were an estimated 240 million atheists around the world comprising slightly more than 4 percent of the world's population, including those who profess atheism, skepticism, disbelief, or irreligion. The estimate of nonbelievers increases significantly, to about 21 percent of the world's population, if negative atheists are included.

Scope of Atheism

From ancient times, people have at times used atheism as a term of abuse for religious positions they opposed. The first Christians were called atheists because they denied the existence of the Roman deities. Over time, several misunderstandings of atheism have arisen: that atheists are immoral, that morality cannot be justified without belief in God, and that life has no purpose without belief in God. Yet there is no evidence that atheists are any less moral than believers. Many systems of morality have been developed that do not presuppose the existence of a supernatural being. Moreover, the purpose of human life may be based on secular goals, such as the betterment of humankind.

In Western society the term atheism has been used more narrowly to refer to the denial of theism, in particular Judeo-Christian theism, which asserts the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good personal being. This being created the universe, takes an active interest in human concerns, and guides his creatures through divine disclosure known as revelation. Positive atheists reject this theistic God and the associated beliefs in an afterlife, a cosmic destiny, a supernatural origin of the universe, an immortal soul, the revealed nature of the Bible and the Koran, and a religious foundation for morality.

Theism, however, is not a characteristic of all religions. Some religions reject theism but are not entirely atheistic. Although the theistic tradition is fully developed in the Bhagavad-Gita, the sacred text of Hinduism, earlier Hindu writings known as the Upanishads teach that Brahman (ultimate reality) is impersonal . Positive atheists reject even the pantheistic aspects of Hinduism that equate God with the universe. Several other Eastern religions, including Theravada Buddhism and Jainism, are commonly believed to be atheistic, but this interpretation is not strictly correct. These religions do reject a theistic God believed to have created the universe, but they accept numerous lesser gods. At most, such religions are atheistic in the narrow sense of rejecting theism.


In the Western intellectual world, nonbelief in the existence of God is a widespread phenomenon with a long and distinguished history. Philosophers of the ancient world such as Lucretius were nonbelievers. Even in the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century) there were currents of thought that questioned theist assumptions, including skepticism, the doctrine that true knowledge is impossible, and naturalism, the belief that only natural forces control the world. Several leading thinkers of the Enlightenment (1700-1789) were professed atheists, including Danish** writer Baron Holbach and French encyclopedist Denis Diderot. Expressions of nonbelief also are found in classics of Western literature, including the writings of English poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron; English novelist Thomas Hardy; French philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Paul Sartre; Russian author Ivan Turgenev; and American writers Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair. In the 19th century the most articulate and best-known atheists and critics of religion were German philosophers Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and Sartre are among the 20th century's most influential atheists.


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Note: Baron Holbach was a native of the Rhineland-Palatinate (Germany, on the French border) but lived in France for most of his life and is considered by most of the historians we consulted to have been a "French Cyclopedist." He was not Danish in any sense. (This error is retained in the 2000 edition, the latest edition to which we have access.)
-- editor, Positive Atheism Magazine
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Reasons for Rejecting God

Criticisms of Theism

Atheists justify their philosophical position in several different ways. Negative atheists attempt to establish their position by refuting typical theist arguments for the existence of God, such as the argument from first cause, the argument from design, the ontological argument, and the argument from religious experience. Other negative atheists assert that any statement about God is meaningless, because attributes such as all-knowing and all-powerful cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Positive atheists, on the other hand, defend their position by arguing that the concept of God is inconsistent. They question, for example, whether a God who is all-knowing can also be all-good and how a God who lacks bodily existence can be all-knowing.

The Problem of Evil

Some positive atheists have maintained that the existence of evil makes the existence of God improbable. In particular, atheists assert that theism does not provide an adequate explanation for the existence of seemingly gratuitous evil, such as the suffering of innocent children. Theists commonly defend the existence of evil by claiming that God desires that human beings have the freedom to choose between good and evil, or that the purpose of evil is to build human character, such as the ability to persevere. Positive atheists counter that justifications for evil in terms of human free will leave unexplained why, for example, children suffer because of genetic diseases or abuse from adults. Arguments that God allows pain and suffering to build human character fail, in turn, to explain why there was suffering among animals before human beings evolved and why human character could not be developed with less suffering than occurs in the world. For atheists, a better explanation for the presence of evil in the world is that God does not exist.

Historical Evidence

Atheists have also criticized historical evidence used to support belief in the major theistic religions. For example, atheists have argued that a lack of evidence casts doubt on important doctrines of Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because such events are said to represent miracles, atheists assert that extremely strong evidence is necessary to support their occurrence. According to atheists, the available evidence to support these alleged miracles -- from Biblical, pagan, and Jewish sources -- is weak, and therefore such claims should be rejected.

Diversity in Atheism

Atheism is primarily a reaction to, or a rejection of, religious belief, and thus does not determine other philosophical beliefs. Atheism has sometimes been associated with the philosophical ideas of materialism, which holds that only matter exists; communism, which asserts that religion impedes human progress; and rationalism, which emphasizes analytic reasoning over other sources of knowledge. However, there is no necessary connection between atheism and these positions. Some atheists have opposed communism and some have rejected materialism. Although nearly all contemporary materialists are atheists, the ancient Greek materialist Epicurus believed the gods were made of matter in the form of atoms. Rationalists such as French philosopher René Descartes have believed in God, whereas atheists such as Sartre are not considered to be rationalists. Atheism has also been associated with systems of thought that reject authority, such as anarchism, a political theory opposed to all forms of government, and existentialism, a philosophic movement that emphasizes absolute human freedom of choice; there is however no necessary connection between atheism and these positions. British analytic philosopher A. J. Ayer was an atheist who opposed existentialism, while Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was an existentialist who accepted God. Marx was an atheist who rejected anarchism while Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, a Christian, embraced anarchism. Because atheism in a strict sense is merely a negation, it does not provide a comprehensive worldview. It is therefore not possible to presume other philosophical positions to be outgrowths of atheism.

Intellectual debate over the existence of God continues to be active, especially on college campuses, in religious discussion groups, and in electronic forums on the Internet. In contemporary philosophical thought, atheism has been defended by British philosopher Antony Flew, Australian philosopher John Mackie, and American philosopher Michael Martin, among others. Leading organizations of unbelief in the United States include The American Atheists, The Committee for the Scientific Study of Religion, and The Internet Infidels.

Contributed By:
Michael Martin

"Atheism," Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia.
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