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Richard Dawkins, a supporter of atheism, as well as the author of the well known book The God Delusion

Atheism is rejecting belief that there is a god.[1][2] It is the opposite of theism, which is the belief that at least one god exists. A person who rejects belief in gods is called an atheist.

Atheism is not the same as agnosticism. Agnostics say that there is no way to know whether gods exist or not.[3] Being an agnostic does not have to mean a person rejects or believes in god. Some agnostics are theists, believing in god. The theologian Kierkegaard is an example. Other agnostics are atheists.

Reasons for atheism

Atheists often give reasons why they do not believe in a god or gods. Three of the reasons that they often give are the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Not all atheists think these reasons provide complete proof that gods cannot exist, but they are reasons given to support rejecting belief that gods exist. Some atheists think there is no evidence for any god or gods and goddesses so believing any type of theism means believing unproved assumptions. These atheists think a simpler explanation for everything is methodological naturalism which means that only natural things exist. Occam's razor shows simple explanations without many unproved guesses are more likely to be true. [4]

Where the word comes from

The Greek word αθεοι (atheoi), as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians (2:12) on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46. It is usually written in English as "[those who are] without God".[5]

The word atheism comes from the Greek language. It can be divided into a- (ἄ), a Greek prefix meaning "without", and theos (θεός), meaning "god", and recombined to form "without gods"[6] or "godless". In Ancient Greece it also meant "impious".

Starting in about the 5th century BC, the word came to describe people who were "severing relations with the gods" or "denying the gods". Before then, the meaning had been closer to "impious". There is also the abstract noun, ἀθεότης (atheotēs), "atheism".

Cicero transliterated the Greek word into the Latin atheos. This word was often used in the debate between early Christians and Hellenists. Each side used it to label the other, in a bad way.[7]

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."[8] Atheism was first used to describe an openly positive belief in late 18th-century Europe, meaning disbelief in the monotheistic Abrahamic god.[9] The 20th century saw the term expand to refer to disbelief in all deities. However, it is still common in Western society to describe atheism as simply "disbelief in God".[10]

Atheism in society

Map of atheist and agnostic population by percentage in the world, by Zuckerman (2006). Take into account that many people hide their lack of belief in gods because of lack of support of others in some countries where people place religion as an important character of a person.
Map of irreligious population by percentage in the world. Some countries, such as Brazil, Mexico and Chile, do not have categories for irreligious philosophical positions, for example atheism, agnosticism and secular humanism, in the census box, or it is applied irregularly, and because of this big populations of atheists in a very specific map may be hidden.

In many places, it is (or was) a crime to be make public the idea of atheism. Examples would be to claim the Bible or Qur'an could not be true, or to speak or write that there is no god.[11]

Muslim apostasy, that is becoming an atheist or believing in a god other than Allah, may be a dangerous act in places with many conservative Muslim people. While the Muslim religious book does not prescribe any earthly punishment for apostates, many religious courts have punished and some still punish this act with the death penalty. Many countries still have laws against atheism.[12][13][14]

Atheism is becoming more common,[15] mainly in South America, North America, Oceania and Europe (by percentage of people that had a religion before and started to be atheist).

In many countries, mainly in the Western world, there are laws that protect atheists' right to express their atheistic belief (freedom of speech). This means that atheists have the same rights under the law as everyone else. Freedom of religion in international law and treaties includes the freedom to not have a religion.

Today, about 2.3% of the world's population describes itself as atheist. About 11.9% is described as nontheist.[16] Between 64% and 65% of Japanese describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers,[17][18] and up to 48% in Russia.[17] The percentage of such people in European Union member states ranges between 6% (Italy) and 85% (Sweden).[17]

Defining atheism

People disagree about what atheism means. They disagree on when to call certain people atheists or not.

A chart of the relationship between weak/strong and implicit/explicit atheism

Implicit and explicit atheism

Atheism has sometimes been defined to include the simple absence of belief that any deities exist. This definition is very general and includes people who have never heard about theistic ideas.

In 1772, Baron d'Holbach said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God".[19] George H. Smith in 1979 said 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 [who is able 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".[20]

Smith created the expressions "implicit atheism" and "explicit atheism."

Ernest Nagel disagrees with Smith's definition of atheism as an "absence of theism", saying only explicit atheism is true atheism.[21]

"Weak" and "strong" atheism

Philosophers like Antony Flew,[22] Michael Martin,[10] and William L. Rowe[23] have looked at strong (sometimes called positive) atheism against weak (sometimes called negative) atheism. Strong atheism is the certain belief that no god exists. Weak atheism is all other forms of not believing in a god or gods. According to this idea, anyone who does not believe in a god or gods is either a weak or a strong atheist.[24] The terms weak and strong are very new, the terms negative and positive are older. They have been used more in philosophical writing[22] and in Catholic beliefs.[25] since at least 1813.[26][27] Under this definition of atheism, most agnostics are weak atheists.

According to Martin, agnosticism includes weak atheism.[10] Most agnostics disagree, they think their view is different from atheism. In their view, atheism is no different from believing in a god, because both require belief.[28]

Agnostics say that it cannot be known if a god or gods exist. In their view, strong atheism requires a leap of faith. The mathematician W. K. Clifford wrote an essay called The Ethics of Belief.[29] In this essay, Clifford shows some examples how people can believe in things which go against what they see or feel. One of these examples is a story of a ship captain who transports immigrants. The immigrants have to pay to be able to go on the ship. The ship is old, and in a bad state, it needs to be fixed badly. At first the captain thought about fixing the ship, even though that this would cost a lot of money. Before the ship sails, he can forget about his worry by telling himself that the ship has safely made many trips and survived many storms before, so it would also be good for this trip, so his fear is not necessary. Unfortunately the ship sinks, and all die. The shipowner is greedy and takes the money the insurance pays for the ship. According to Clifford, the captain did something that is wrong, when he made himself believe there were no problems with the ship, he did this because he is greedy. Even if the ship had made its trip safely, the captain would have done something that is wrong. According to Clifford, it is always wrong to believe something without enough reasons.[3]

Atheists usually respond by saying that there is no difference between a idea about religion with no proof and one about other things[30] and that the lack of proof that gods do not exist does not mean that any do any more than it means that any do not.[31] Scottish philosopher J. J. C. Smart says that "sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical skepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever, except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic."[32] So, some popular atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins like to show the difference between theist, agnostic and atheist positions by the probability assigned to the statement "God exists".[33]

Atheism in daily life

In everyday life, many people define natural phenomena without the need of a god or gods. They do not deny the existence of one or more gods, they simply say that this existence is not necessary. Gods do not provide a purpose to life, nor influence it, according to this view.[34] Many scientists practice what they call methodological naturalism. They silently adopt philosophical naturalism and use the scientific method. Their belief in a god does not affect their results.[35]

Practical atheism can take different 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.[36]

Theoretical atheism

Theoretic atheism tries to find arguments against the existence of god, and to disprove the arguments of Theism, such as the argument from design or Pascal's Wager. These theoretical reasons have many forms, most of them are ontological or epistemological. Some rely on psychology or sociology.

Positions of well-known philosophers

Immanuel Kant

According to Immanuel Kant, there can be no proof of a supreme being that is made using reason. In his work, "Critique of pure reason", he tries to show that all attempts of either proving the existence of God, or disproving it, end in a logical contradictions. Kant says that it is impossible to know whether there are any higher beings. This makes him an agnostic.

Ludwig Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach published The Essence of Christianity in 1841.[37] In his work he postulates the following:

  1. Religion is not only a historical or transcendental fact, but most of all an achievement of human consciousness, its mind or its imagination.
  2. All religions are only different in their form, but they have one thing in common: They are projections of unmet needs of human nature. God, and all religious content is nothing more than psychological projections. The material causes of these projections are rooted in the nature of human beings.

The following phrases sum up Feuerbach's writing:

  • Man created God in his image[38]
  • Homo homini Deus est ('Man is a god to Man')[39]

Related pages


  1. Rowe, William L. (1998). "Atheism". Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Ed. Edward Craig. 
  2. 3.0 3.1 Smart, J.J.C. (2011). "Atheism and Agnosticism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  3. What is Occam's Razor?
  4. The word αθεοι—in any of its forms—appears nowhere else in the Septuagint or the New Testament. Robertson, A.T. (1960) [1932]. "Ephesians: Chapter 2". Word Pictures in the New Testament. Broadman Press. Retrieved 2007-04-12. "Old Greek word, not in LXX, only here in N.T. Atheists in the original sense of being without God and also in the sense of hostility to God from failure to worship him. See Paul's words in Ro 1:18–32."
  5. Etymological description of "atheism." Atheist Frontier glossary - Atheism. September 2010.
  6. Drachmann, A. B. (1977 ("an unchanged reprint of the 1922 edition")). Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishers. ISBN 0-89005-201-8 . "Atheism and atheist are words formed from Greek roots and with Greek derivative endings. Nevertheless they are not Greek; their formation is not consonant with Greek usage. In Greek they said atheos and atheotēs; to these the English words ungodly and ungodliness correspond rather closely. In exactly the same way as ungodly, atheos was used as an expression of severe censure and moral condemnation; this use is an old one, and the oldest that can be traced. Not till later do we find it employed to denote a certain philosophical creed."
  7. Armstrong, Karen (1999). A History of God. London: Vintage. ISBN 0-09-927367-5 .
  8. Atheism is usually described as "disbelief in God", rather than more generally as "disbelief in deities". A clear distinction is rarely drawn in modern writings between these two definitions, but some old uses of atheism meant disbelief in the singular God, not in polytheistic deities. Britannica (1911). "Atheonism". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  9. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Martin, Michael. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-521-84270-0.
  10. Ruth Geller. "Goodbye to Blasphemy in Britain". Institute for Humanist Studies. Retrieved 2008-06-06.
  11. "Pakistan bans Da Vinci Code film". BBC News / South Asia. BBC. 2006. Retrieved 2006-06-04.
  12. Crimes Act 1961 - Section 123
  13. "Jordanian poet accused of 'atheism and blasphemy'," The Daily Star Lebanon Saturday, October 25, 2008.
  14. "American Religion Identification Survey"
  15. "Worldwide Adherents of All Religions by Six Continental Areas, Mid-2005". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. Retrieved 2007-04-15.
    • 2.3% Atheists: Persons professing atheism, skepticism, disbelief, or irreligion, including the militantly antireligious (opposed to all religion).
    • 11.9% Nonreligious: Persons professing no religion, nonbelievers, agnostics, freethinkers, uninterested, or dereligionized secularists indifferent to all religion but not militantly so.
  16. 17.0 17.1 17.2 Zuckerman, Phil. "Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns", The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. by Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2005.
  17. However, data from the U.S. State Dept. may contradict this figure, since 44% are reported as adherents of Shinto, a polytheistic religion, and information was not provided on the number of respondents identifying with multiple categories. (64% atheists/agnostics/non-believers, plus 44% Shintoists, adds up to more than 100%.)
  18. d'Holbach, P.H.T. (1772). Good Sense. Retrieved 2006-10-27.
  19. Smith 1979, p. 14
  20. Nagel, Ernest (1959). "Philosophical Concepts of Atheism". Basic Beliefs: The Religious Philosophies of Mankind. Sheridan House. "I shall understand by 'atheism' a critique and a denial of the major claims of all varieties of theism... atheism is not to be identified with sheer unbelief... Thus, a child who has received no religious instruction and has never heard about God, is not an atheist - for he is not denying any theistic claims. Similarly in the case of an adult who, if he has withdrawn from the faith of his father without reflection or because of frank indifference to any theological issue, is also not an atheist - for such an adult is not challenging theism and not professing any views on the subject."
    reprinted in Critiques of God, edited by Peter A. Angeles, Prometheus Books, 1997.
  21. 22.0 22.1 Flew, Antony. "The Presumption of Atheism". The Presumption of Atheism and other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom, and Immortality. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976. pp 14ff.
  22. Rowe, William L. "Atheism". Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward Craig (editor). Routledge: June 1998. ISBN 0-415-18706-0. 530-534.
  23. Cline, Austin (2006). "Strong Atheism vs. Weak Atheism: What's the Difference?". []. Retrieved 2006-10-21.
  24. Maritain, Jacques (July 1949). "On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism". The Review of Politics 11 (3): 267–280.
  25. Stevens, Robert (1813). Sermons on our duty towards God, our neighbour, and ourselves (4th Ed. ed.). London: Self published. pp. 10-11. OCLC 26059549 . Retrieved September 1, 2009.
  26. Bishop Burnet (1813). "Discourse of the Pastoral Care". The young minister's companion: or, A collection of valuable and scarce treatises on the pastoral office.... Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong. pp. 166. OCLC 7381237 . Retrieved September 1, 2009.
  27. Kenny, Anthony (2006). "Why I Am Not an Atheist". What I believe. Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-8971-0 . "The true default position is neither theism nor atheism, but agnosticism … a claim to knowledge needs to be substantiated; ignorance need only be confessed."
  28. "W.K. Clifford - The Ethics of Belief".
  29. Baggini 2003, pp. 30–34. "Who seriously claims we should say 'I neither believe nor disbelieve that the Pope is a robot', or 'As to whether or not eating this piece of chocolate will turn me into an elephant I am completely agnostic'. In the absence of any good reasons to believe these outlandish claims, we rightly disbelieve them, we don't just suspend judgement."
  30. Baggini 2003, p. 22. "A lack of proof is no grounds for the suspension of belief. This is because when we have a lack of absolute proof we can still have overwhelming evidence or one explanation which is far superior to the alternatives."
  31. Smart, J.C.C. (2004-03-09). "Atheism and Agnosticism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 2007-04-12.
  32. Cudworth, Ralph. The true intellectual system of the universe. 1678. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Bantam Books: 2006, p. 50. (ISBN 0-618-68000-4)
  33. Zdybicka 2005, p. 20.
  34. Schafersman, Steven D. "Naturalism is an Essential Part of Science and Critical Inquiry". Conference on Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise. Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas. February 1997. Revised May 2007. Retrieved on 2007-04-09.
  35. Zdybicka 2005, p. 21.
  36. Feuerbach 1841
  37. "Denn nicht Gott schuf den Menschen nach seinem Bilde, wie es in der Bibel heißt, sondern der Mensch schuf, wie ich im‚ Wesen des Christentums' zeigte, Gott nach seinem Bilde." From: Vorlesungen über das Wesen der Religion, Leipzig 1851, XX. Vorlesung, p. 241 ("It was not God who created man in his image, as it is written in the Bible, but Man created God in his image, as I showed in 'The Essence of Christianity')
  38. Feuerbach 1841, Part II, p.409


  • Martin, Michael, ed. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60367-6
  • Smith, George, Atheism: The Case Against God, (1974). ISBN 0-87975-124-X
  • Zdybicka, Zofia J. (2005), "Atheism" (PDF), in Maryniarczyk, Andrzej (ed.), Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1, Polish Thomas Aquinas Association, retrieved 2010-05-04 Unknown parameter |original-url= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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