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- I. Group Profile
- Name: Atheism
- Atheism is
- a) the disbelief in the existence of God or any other
- b) the doctrine that there is neither god nor any
other deity. (1)
- The word comes from two Greek word roots: a , which means
"not," and theos , which means "god." (2)
- Atheism has its roots in both Eastern and Western ancient
cultures.While the philosophers of ancient Greece were debating
the characteristics of their gods, the Indian Vedas were also
questioning the power and origin of the deities of their belief
system. These debates, in both cultures, eventually led to questions
concerning the actual existence of any gods. These questions
did not gain widespread recognizition until much later, however.
Atheism as it is known today largely developed in Western culture,
and had its first great entrance onto history's philosophical
stage during the Enlightenment. (3)
- Early Christian thought set some of the groundwork for later
atheist arguments. Christian thinkers debated the characteristics
of God and tried to prove, through reason, the existence of God
and the existence of the Christian idea of God. Anslem, for example,
in the Ontological Argument for the Existence of God, argued
that God is that which there is nothing greater, and since a
real God is greater than an imagined one, then God must exist.
Other Christian thinkers did not accept Anselm's reasoning here,
but offered other arguments on why God had to exist. Aquinas
tried to present God as a "first mover," as one who
set the world in motion, and without whom nothing would exist.
He argued that objects and their existence proved the existnce
of its creator. (4)
- Theologians continued to debate similar issues for hundreds
of years. Nobody ever proved the existence of God, but many pointed
out weaknesses in the theories of their fellow Christians. These
exposed weaknesses would later prove to be valuable ammunition
for the atheist argument.(5)
- During the Enlightenment, emprical knowledge, reason, and
the scientific method all had an impact on society. Mankind came
to trust only those things that could be tested and studied.
Without evidence, a theory was useless. Mankind first applied
these processes to science and mathematics. Eventually, people
began to use the same processes to posit the question of God's
existence. When this eventually occurred, many people decided
that not enough evidence existed to support the idea of the existence
of a god or supreme being. These people were the first modern
- Some of the great philosophers of the nineteenth century,
such as Karl Marx, not only thought that no evidence existed
to support the belief in a god, but also believed that religion
was a creation of society. They thought that society created
religion in order to supress man's desire to seek a good life
by promising him a better after-life.(7) Others, like Sigmund
Freud, believed that religion was something that comforted people
and kept them somewhat in order. (8) With the endorsement of
some of the greatest minds of the century, atheism became a notable
philosophy of life for the first time in the nineteenth century.
- Although atheism has significantly affected religions and
society at large since its great popularity in the nineteenth
century, atheists consist of only a fraction of each society
in the world today. The greatest threat to atheism right now
is the discrimination of atheists by members of other religious
groups. Much like religious cults and sects, atheism is one of
the biggest tests of the U.S. Bill of Rights. An individual's
right to freedom of religion must logically include an individual's
right to no religion. Even today, society does not seem willing
to accept atheists. The Tennessee State Constitution, in violation
of its own Bill of Rights, did not allow atheists to hold public
office until the 1960s. President Bush was scolded for making
the comment that atheists should not be considered citizens of
the United States. (9)
- Sacred or Revered Texts:
- According to Tom Kunesh, "Writings by atheists themselves
can be classified into three main areas:
- 1) evidential atheism, or anti-theism, from confirmed anti-
religionists like Voltaire and Baron d'Holbach, both of the 18th
- 2) the atheism of suspicion, founded in the critique of religion
from the social sciences of economics and psychology promoted
by the 19th century luminaries Marx and Freud; and
- 3) religious atheism, as old as daoism and Buddhism, places
atheism within the sphere of the secular world and religious
- Some important atheist texts are:
- Selected Anti-Theism Texts
- Voltaire, Candide
- Selected Critque Of Religion Texts
- Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion
- Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's
Philosophy of Law
- Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of
- Selected Relgious Atheism Texts
- Tom Kunesh, The Shaman Atheist: The Dao of Atheism.
- Cult or Sect:
- Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts
"cult" and "sect" are employed in popular
discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote
religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits
of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage
the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative
stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly
and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect,"
please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult"
and "Sect" page, where you will find additional
links to related issues.
- Size of Group: According to the 1994 World Almanac
, there are:
- 161 million atheists in Asia
- 56 million atheists in the former USSR
- 18 million atheists in Europe
- 3.2 million atheists in Latin America
- 1.3 million atheists in North America
- .5 million atheists in Oceania
- .3 million atheists in Africa(11)
- for an approximate total of 240.3 million atheists in the
world. ( Total from adding 1994 World Almanac figures )
- Group Organization:
- Different atheists follow their beliefs in different ways.
Some form or join organizations for atheists, while others do
not even associate with other atheists, keeping their beliefs
relatively unknown to society. Organizations like American Atheists and Atheists United are engaged in debate about
atheist and theological issues, and they seek to promote the
rights and beliefs of atheists. [For an update on the disappearance
of Madalyn O'Hair in 1995, see this news story on the conviction of Gary Paul
Karr on four counts of conspiracy] .
- Others join atheist groups that act as a social network,
as a group that tries to dissuade others from "blind faith"
in religion, or as an ideology/religion in and of itself. Faith Atheism
, for example, declares itself to be a "religion,"
although it does not believe in the existence of any God. Some
people participate in and enjoy the ritual and social network
of the churches in which they were raised, and yet they do not
believe in any god. The only thing that links all atheists together
is their common lack of belief in the existence of any god.(12)
- II. Atheist Beliefs/Rationale
- All atheists share the common belief in the non-existence
of any god or supernatural power. They do not believe that enough
substantial evidence exists to prove the existence of God. Some
atheists believe that religion is "the opiate of the people,"
that it makes society worse, and that a popular belief in no
God will make society better.(13) They see religion as an institution
that divides people, and professes hypocritical and inconsistent
doctrine. Other atheists believe that religion serves a positive
role in society, but do not believe that it professes the truth.
- Some atheists, such as Freud, believe that belief in a god
is a result of a common psychologicaldependancy upon a figure
who monitors and protects people at all times, much like a parent
does with a child. (14)
- Feuerbach, considered by many to be the father of modern
atheism, believed that God was a mere reflection of mankind back
upon itself. He thought that people's beliefs about God reflected
what they viewed as good and just. (15)
- Science has had a great impact on atheist thinkers. Along
with advancements in science came a dependence on reason and
logic. Atheism's growing popularity in the nineteenth century
was a direct result of this dependence. Many atheists then believed
that science, and not religion, would join together all humanity
- III. Related Ideologies
- What is now known as agnosticism took its first form in the
time of the pre-Socratic philosophers, in the fourth century
B.C. Pyrrho and Sextus Empericus believed that nothing could
be known with absolute certainty, especially questions pertaining
to God and the supernatural. The term "agnosticism"
was invented by Thomas Huxley around 1869. He took the negative
Greek prefix a and added to it the word gignoskein , which means
"to know." Agnosticism began to take its present-day
form around the same time. Huxley did not believe in the Judeo-Christian
idea of God, but neither did he deny its existence. He felt that
no substantial evidence existed to support the existence or absense
of a God or supernatural power. Huxley's belief system merely
revolved around the idea that humans do not know the answer to
such questions as: does God exist? How does one know God if it
does exist? Why does evil exist? Why do bad things happen to
- Agnosticism's main criticism of atheism is that it discounts
religions because they believe, with no substantial evidence,
in Gods. Atheists, at the same time, believe in the absence of
God, but have no substantial evidence to back this notion.
- Unlike atheists, who believe that God does not exist, agnostics
do not deny the existence of God, but rather believe that no
substantial evidence has been found to disprove the existence
- Agnosticism in the twentieth century does not have the same
number of dedicated adherents as it did in the nineteenth century,
but it has greatly influenced and permeated society and other
- According to Webster's Concise Multimedia Encyclopedia 1995,
Agnosticism is: "Belief that the existence of God cannot
be proven; that in the nature of things the individual cannot
know anything of what lies behind or beyond the world of natural
phenomena. The term was coined 1869 by T H Huxley. Whereas an
atheist denies the existence of God or gods, an agnostic asserts
that God or a First Cause is one of those concepts (others include
the Absolute, infinity, eternity, and immortality) that lie beyond
the reach of human intelligence, and therefore can be neither
confirmed nor denied." (18)
- Secular Humanism
- Humanist philosophies were held at bay by the political powers
of the churches of Western Europe during the dark ages. Any views
in opposition to that of the church were looked down upon, and
individuals who expressed these views of opposition were subjected
to banishment, torture, and/or execution. The humanist views
were not even taken into consideration until the Renaissance
period when music , philosophy, and literature were prevalent.
Churches began to be criticized during the Enlightenment period,
due to the development and advancement of science. During the
nineteenth century, the free thought movement in Western Europe
and the United States helped open the way for more criticism
of religion. Those people who rejected faith or superstition
no longer had to worry about persecution by governements or churches.
During the twentieth century, scientists, philosophers, and progressive
theologians "classified humanism as a non-theistic religion
which would fulfill the human need for an ordered, ethical/philosophical
system to guide one's life, a spirituality without the supernatural."
Over the past thirty years, "secular humanism has been used
to describe the non-religious life stance" of these individuals.
Because of a series of Supreme Court decisions (McCollum v. Board
of Education, Engel v. Vitale, Murray v. Curlett, Abington v.
Schemp) in the 1960s that ruled against organized prayer in school,
and further separated the instiutions of church and state in
the United States, society as a whole has become more secularized,
focusing more on science and reason, instead of religion, for
answers to major questions. (19)
- According to The Council for Secular Humanism Web Site, Secular
Humanism is a term which has come into use in the last thirty
years to describe a world view with the following elements and
- A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether
religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by
each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
- Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence,
and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism,
in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important
- A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity
for both the individual and humankind in general.
- A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding
that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect
perception of it.
- A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful
through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual
and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ
- A search for viable individual, social and political principles
of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance
human well-being and individual responsibility.
- A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas,
good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a
better world for ourselves and our children. (20)
- IV. Links to Atheism Web Sites
- Major Atheist Organizations
Atheists The American Atheists, Inc.
- Was founded in 1963. It has been battling for the civil liberties
of all atheists, as well as the separation of government and
religion. Its formation can be credited to the 1959 court case
Murray v. Curlett , which challenged prayer in public schools.
Association for the Advancement of Atheism This organization,
also know as four-A, is the oldest American atheist group around.
It was established by Charles Lee Smith and Freeman Hopwood in
1925. The organization has remained relatively dormant since
the 1930s, and has only recently become reorganized. At our last
viewing, this web site is not well developed. http://se1.com/ft/ftorg/aaaa/
United Atheists United is national organization founded in
1982 "to promote atheism, especially through education,
and to maintain seperation of church and state." It holds
monthly meetings that are informative and allow atheists to exchange
From Religion Foundation This organization was founded in
1978 to promote the separation of church and state and to educate
the public about non-religious views. http://www.infidels.org/org/ffrf/
- Other Atheist Reference Sites
- Skeptical Web An extensive list of atheist,
humanist, and freethinking organization home pages from around
the world. http://members.aol.com/skepticweb/atheist.html
Atheism Web Lots of links to atheist readings, arguments,
organizations, and resources. http://www.infidels.org/news/atheism/
Secular Web Library The largest atheist online library, with
a search engine. http://www.infidels.org/library
- Atheist Issues
- Atheism Arguments This site contains arguments
and discussions that have recently taken place over atheism-related
- Discrimination An essay about the discrimination faced
by atheists. http://www.cs.wcupa.edu/~sroch/atheism.html
Atheist Manifesto This is an individual statement and not
an organizational manifesto. The statement was ppsted on the
newsgroup alt.atheism by an Australian in the early 90s. The
authorship of the statement is apparently unknown. http://www.2think.org/hii/ath_mani.shtml
- Atheism and Patriotism A discussion on what
role atheists should play in war-time, and in the draft. http://www.sdsmt.edu/student-orgs/caa/discussion2.html
- Atheists Anonymous A well-organized page
that clearly defines atheist beliefs. http://www.science.mcmaster.ca/csc/aa/atheism1.htm
- International Atheism Sites
in India This page contains biographies and works from prominent
Indian atheists, and other atheist resources. http://rogue.northwest.com/~ct/tocindia.htm
Society of Australia Contains archives of the organization's
Atheists Society Home page of Israel's only atheist organization.
Atheist Newsletter Archives of the Canadian Atheist Newsletter.
- Agnosticism Sites
- The Agnostic
Church The homepage to the Agnostic Church, with an agnostic
bible and stated goal. http://www.agnostic.org
- Madalyn Murray O'Hair A brief essay that
gives O'Hair's view of agnosticism. http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/madalyn_ohair/agnostic.html
- Agnostic Resources A page of a few good links
to agnosticism-related readings and organizations. http://www.religioustolerance.org/agnostic.htm
- Robert Green Ingersoll The complete works
of Ingersoll, with a search engine. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/
Freud A brief synopsis of Freud's main points in The Future
of an Illusion. http:// members.aol.com/Lcn59/index2.html
- Karl Marx "Introduction," Contribution
to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law. http://csf.colorado.edu/psn/marx/Archive/1844-DFJ/law.htm
- Madlyn Murray O'Hair A brief biograpy of
O'Hair from the American Atheists, the foundation that she created.
Russell Homepage of the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster
Rand Home page of the Ayn Rand Institute, with a short biography
and other resources. http://www.aynrand.org/entry.html
- Fyodor Dostoevsky An extensive page with
information on Dostoevsky's life, and many of his works. http://members.aol.com/KatharenaE/private/Philo/Dostoy/dostoy.html
- V. Definitions
- Below is a list of definitions that may be useful to the
reader when studying atheist related texts.
- Agnosticism: the view that any ultimate reality (such as
God) is unknown and probably unknowable.(21)
- Atheism: a disbelief in the existence of deity; the doctrine
that there is no deity.(22)
- Belief: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence
is placed in some person or thing; conviction of the truth of
some statement or the reality of some group or phenomenon especially
when based on examination of evidence.(23)
- Faith: belief and trust in and loyalty to God; belief in
the traditional doctrines of a religion.(24)
- Free Thought: unorthodox attitudes or beliefs; 18th century
- God: the supreme or ultimate reality; a person or thing of
- Heresy: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church
- Infidel: an unbeliever with respect to a particular religion;
one who acknowledges no religious belief.(28)
- Religion: the service and worship of God or the supernatural;
a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes,
beliefs, and practices.(29)
- Skepticism: an attitude of doubt or a disposition of incredulity
either in general or toward a particular object; the doctrine
that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain.(30)
- Theism: belief in the existence of a god or gods.(31)
- VI. Bibliography
- Angier, Natalie. 2001.
"Confessions of a Lonely Atheist," New York Times Magazine.
(Jan 14) pp. 34-38.
- Freud, Sigmund. 1961.
The Future of an Illusion . New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
- James, George Alfred. 1986.
"Atheism," The Encyclopedia of Religion . Vol. I, p.
478-490. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
- Kirkley, Evelyn A. 2000.
Rational Mothers and Infidel Gentlemen: Gender and American Atheism,
1865-1995 . Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. 198 pp.
- Mish, Frederick C.,Ed. 1988.
Webster's Ninth New College Dictionary . p.112. Springfield,
- Neusch, Marcel. 1982.
The Sources of Modern Atheism . p. 37, 39, 62-63. Ramsey, NJ:
- Passantino, Bob and Gretchen Passantino. 2000.
"Imagine There's No Heaven: Contemporary Atheism Speaks
Out in Humanist Manifesto 2000," Christian Research Journal
. 22:3 (12-21).
- Schilling, S. Paul. 1969.
God in an Age of Atheism . p. 118-129. Nashville, TN: Abingdon
- Shinn, Roger L. 1995.
"Atheism," Encyclopedia Americana . p. 337. Danbury,
CT: Grolier Incorporated.
- Stark, Rodney. 1999.
"Atheism, Faith, and the Social Scientific Study of Religion."
Journal of Contemporary Religion . 14/1:41-62 (January).
- Mish, Frederick C. Ed., Webster's Ninth New College Dictionary
, Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc. 1988. p.112.
- Religious Atheisms, n.d. http://www.hypertext.com/atheisms/definitions.html
- James, George Alfred, The Encyclopedia of Religion . New
York:Macmillan Publishing Co, 1986; pp. 478-490.
- Ibid. pp. 484-490.
- Ibid. pp. 484-490.
- Ibid. pp. 484-490.
- Neusch, Marcel, The Sources of Modern Atheism . Ramsey, NJ.
Paulist Press, 1982. pp. 62-63.
- Ibid. p.37.
- President Bush and His Unamerican Bigotry. http://linkline.com/personal/frice/gbush.htm
- Religious Atheisms: Preface. http://www.hypertext.com/atheisms/prefacetpk.html
- Religious Tolerance: Atheism. http://www.religioustolerance.org/atheist.htm
- Atheist, Humanist, and Freethought Links, http://www.hti.net/www/athiesm/athlink.html
- Neusch, 1982, pp. 62-63.
- Ibid, p.37.
- Ibid, p.39.
- An Illustrated Guide to Atheist History. http://www.hti.net/www.atheism/athhist5/html
- Shinn, Roger L., "Atheism," Encyclopedia Americana
, Danbury, CT:Grolier. 1995. p. 337
- Webster's Concise Multimedia Encyclopedia 1995, http://www.update.uu.se/~fbendz/atheism/webster.htm
- What is Secular Humanism? http://www.secularhumanism.org/what.html
- Mish, 1988, p.65.
- Ibid, p.112.
- Ibid, p.142.
- Ibid, p.446.
- Ibid, p.491.
- Ibid, p.525.
- Ibid, p.566.
- Ibid, p.619.
- Ibid, p.995.
- Ibid, p.1103.
- Ibid, p.1222.
- Created by Christopher Thomas Beverly and David Wilson Cary
- For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
- Spring term, 1998 University of Virginia
- Last modified: 10/18/01
- Source: www.religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/profiles/listalpha.htm