From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
| "However important it may be for all men to know the Truth, very few, nevertheless, are acquainted with it, because the majority are incapable of searching it themselves, or perhaps, do not wish the trouble. Thus we must not be astonished if the world is filled with vain and ridiculous opinions, and nothing is more capable of making them current than ignorance, which is the sole source of the false ideas that exist regarding the Divinity, the soul, and the spirit, and all the errors depending thereon." --Treatise of the Three Impostors
The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god(s)", used as a pejorative term applied 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 using the word "atheist" lived in the 18th century.
Arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to social and historical approaches. Rationales for not believing in any supernatural deity include the lack of empirical evidence, the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, rejection of concepts which cannot be falsified, and the argument from nonbelief. Many atheists hold that atheism is a more parsimonious worldview than theism, and therefore the burden of proof lies not on the atheist to disprove the existence of God, but on the theist to provide a rationale for theism
Atheism is accepted within some religious and spiritual belief systems, including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Raelism, Neopagan movements such as Wicca, and nontheistic religions. Jainism and some forms of Buddhism do not advocate belief in gods, whereas Hinduism holds atheism to be valid, but some schools view the path of an atheist to be difficult to follow in matters of spirituality.
Since conceptions of atheism vary, determining how many atheists exist in the world today is difficult. According to one estimate, atheists make up about 2.3% of the world's population, while a further 11.9% are nonreligious. According to another study, rates of self-reported atheism are among the highest in Western nations, again to varying degrees: United States (4%), Italy (7%), Spain (11%), Great Britain (17%), Germany (20%), and France (32%).
Critias viewed religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. Atomists such as Democritus attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Other pre-Socratic philosophers who probably had atheistic views included Prodicus and Protagoras. In the 3rd-century BCE the Greek philosophers Theodorus Cirenaicus also did not believe gods exist.
Socrates (c. 471–399 BCE), was accused of impiety (see Euthyphro dilemma) on the basis that he inspired questioning of the state gods. Although he disputed the accusation that he was a "complete atheist", saying that he could not be an atheist as he believed in spirits, he was ultimately sentenced to death. Socrates also prays to various gods in Plato's dialogue Phaedrus and says "By Zeus" in the dialogue The Republic.
Euhemerus (c. 330–260 BCE) published his view that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures.
Although not strictly an atheist, Euhemerus was later criticized for having "spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods".
Atomic materialist Epicurus (c. 341–270 BCE) disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity; he considered the soul purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, he believed that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.
The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99–55 BCE) agreed that, if there were gods, they were unconcerned with humanity and unable to affect the natural world. For this reason, he believed humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. He expounds his Epicurean views of the cosmos, atoms, the soul, mortality, and religion in De rerum natura ("On the nature of things"), which popularized Epicurus' philosophy in Rome.
The Roman philosopher Sextus Empiricus held that one should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs—a form of skepticism known as Pyrrhonism—that nothing was inherently evil, and that ataraxia ("peace of mind") is attainable by withholding one's judgment. His relatively large volume of surviving works had a lasting influence on later philosophers.
The meaning of "atheist" changed over the course of classical antiquity. The early Christians were labeled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in pagan gods. During the Roman Empire, Christians were executed for their rejection of the Roman gods in general and Emperor-worship in particular. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome under Theodosius I in 381, heresy became a punishable offense.
Early Middle Ages to the Renaissance
There were, however, movements within this period that forwarded heterodox conceptions of the Christian God, including differing views of the nature, transcendence, and knowability of God. Individuals and groups such as Johannes Scotus Eriugena, David of Dinant, Amalric of Bena, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit maintained Christian viewpoints with pantheistic tendencies. Nicholas of Cusa held to a form of fideism he called docta ignorantia ("learned ignorance"), asserting that God is beyond human categorization, and our knowledge of God is limited to conjecture. William of Ockham inspired anti-metaphysical tendencies with his nominalistic limitation of human knowledge to singular objects, and asserted that the divine essence could not be intuitively or rationally apprehended by human intellect. Followers of Ockham, such as John of Mirecourt and Nicholas of Autrecourt furthered this view. The resulting division between faith and reason influenced later theologians such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Martin Luther.
The Renaissance did much to expand the scope of freethought and skeptical inquiry. Individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci sought experimentation as a means of explanation, and opposed arguments from religious authority. Other critics of religion and the Church during this time included Niccolò Machiavelli, Bonaventure des Périers, and François Rabelais.
Early modern period
The Renaissance and Reformation eras witnessed a resurgence in religious fervor, as evidenced by the proliferation of new religious orders, confraternities, and popular devotions in the Catholic world, and the appearance of increasingly austere Protestant sects such as the Calvinists. This era of interconfessional rivalry permitted an even wider scope of theological and philosophical speculation, much of which would later be used to advance a religiously skeptical world-view.
Criticism of Christianity became increasingly frequent in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France and England, where there appears to have been a religious malaise, according to contemporary sources. Some Protestant thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, espoused a materialist philosophy and skepticism toward supernatural occurrences, while the Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza rejected divine providence in favour of a pantheistic naturalism. By the late 17th century, Deism came to be openly espoused by intellectuals such as John Toland. Despite their ridicule of Christianity, many Deists held atheism in scorn. The first known atheist who threw off the mantle of deism, bluntly denying the existence of gods, was Jean Meslier, a French priest who lived in the early 18th century.
The philosopher David Hume developed a skeptical epistemology grounded in empiricism, undermining the metaphysical basis of natural theology.
The French Revolution took atheism outside the salons and into the public sphere. Attempts to enforce the Civil Constitution of the Clergy led to anti-clerical violence and the expulsion of many clergy from France. The chaotic political events in revolutionary Paris eventually enabled the more radical Jacobins to seize power in 1793, ushering in the Reign of Terror. At its climax, the more militant atheists attempted to forcibly de-Christianize France, replacing religion with a Cult of Reason. These persecutions ended with the Thermidorian Reaction, but some of the secularizing measures of this period remained a permanent legacy of French politics.
The Napoleonic era institutionalized the secularization of French society, and exported the revolution to northern Italy, in the hopes of creating pliable republics. In the 19th century, many atheists and other anti-religious thinkers devoted their efforts to political and social revolution, facilitating the upheavals of 1848, the Risorgimento in Italy, and the growth of an international socialist movement.
In the latter half of the 19th century, atheism rose to prominence under the influence of rationalistic and freethinking philosophers. Many prominent German philosophers of this era denied the existence of deities and were critical of religion, including Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Late modern period
Atheism in the 20th century, particularly in the form of practical atheism, advanced in many societies. Atheistic thought found recognition in a wide variety of other, broader philosophies, such as existentialism, objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, logical positivism, Marxism, feminism, and the general scientific and rationalist movement.
Logical positivism and scientism paved the way for neopositivism, analytical philosophy, structuralism, and naturalism. Neopositivism and analytical philosophy discarded classical rationalism and metaphysics in favor of strict empiricism and epistemological nominalism. Proponents such as Bertrand Russell emphatically rejected belief in God. In his early work, Ludwig Wittgenstein attempted to separate metaphysical and supernatural language from rational discourse. A. J. Ayer asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements, citing his adherence to the empirical sciences. Relatedly the applied structuralism of Lévi-Strauss sourced religious language to the human subconscious in denying its transcendental meaning. J. N. Findlay and J. J. C. Smart argued that the existence of God is not logically necessary. Naturalists and materialistic monists such as John Dewey considered the natural world to be the basis of everything, denying the existence of God or immortality.
The 20th century also saw the political advancement of atheism, spurred on by interpretation of the works of Marx and Engels. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, increased religious freedom for minority religions lasted for a few years, before the policies of Stalinism turned towards repression of religion. The Soviet Union and other communist states promoted state atheism and opposed religion, often by violent means.
Other leaders like E. V. Ramasami Naicker (Periyar), a prominent atheist leader of India, fought against Hinduism and Brahmins for discriminating and dividing people in the name of caste and religion.
in response to the Death of God theological movement, citing the estimation that nearly half of all people in the world lived under an anti-religious power, and millions more in Africa, Asia, and South America seemed to lack knowledge of the Christian God.
These regimes enhanced the negative associations of atheism, especially where anti-communist sentiment was strong in the United States, despite the fact that prominent atheists were anti-communist.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of actively anti-religious regimes has reduced considerably. In 2006, Timothy Shah of the Pew Forum noted "a worldwide trend across all major religious groups, in which God-based and faith-based movements in general are experiencing increasing confidence and influence vis-à-vis secular movements and ideologies."
But Gregory S. Paul and Phil Zuckerman consider this a myth and suggest that the actual situation is much more complex and nuanced.
- Atheism in Hinduism
- Atheist feminism
- Criticism of atheism
- Discrimination against atheists
- List of nontheists
- List of secularist organizations
- Wealth and atheism
- Why I am not a Christian