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Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience
WHAT IS ATHEISM?
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WHAT IS ATHEISM?

Definition of Atheism | The Term “Atheism” | What Do Atheists Believe? | Who Are Atheists? | Is Atheism a Religion? | Atheism and Morality | Types of Atheism and Related Terms

Definition of Atheism Back to Top
Atheism may be defined as the mental attitude which unreservedly accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a lifestyle and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and the scientific method, independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds.
- Madalyn Murray O'Hair (1963)

Atheism (or non-theism, which is broadly synonymous) is the lack of belief in the existence of God or gods or, more strongly, the belief that there is no such thing as God or gods. It may involve the outright rejection of any kind of theism (which can be generally defined as the belief in one or more gods); or it may be the rejection of belief in a specific god or gods (e.g. the Christian God); or it may be just a general feeling that humans can explain the universe and devise suitable moral codes to live by without the aid of Gods or scriptures; or it may a more passive lack of belief in the existence of gods, due to ignorance or apathy.

Strictly speaking, a person could still believe in the existence of such things as immortal souls, life after death, ghosts, supernatural powers, etc, and still remain an atheist on the ground that they disbelieve in the existence of God or gods, but in practice most atheists also reject any supernatural or transcendent reality, usually citing a lack of empirical evidence. For example, they generally view Satan (either in the context of Christianity or of Satanism) as being every bit as mythological and nonexistent as God.

The Term “Atheism” Back to Top

The term originates with the Greek “atheos”, meaning “without god”, By the 5th Century BCE, the word had taken on a more intentional connotation indicating a denial of the gods, rather than its initial meaning of mere impiety. In the religious debate between early Christians and Hellenists, each side accused the other of being atheist (almost always in a pejorative sense). In the same way, the ancient Romans regarded Christians as atheists for their refusal to worship the pagan Roman deities.

The word “atheism”, in the sense of “one who denies or disbelieves the existence of God”, was first used in French (”athéisme”) in the early 1570s, and then in English later in the 1570s and 1580s. It actually predated the use of terms like theism and deism. Throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, it was almost exclusively used as a pejorative description or insult, and it was only in the 18th Century that it was first used as a self-description, specifically denoting disbelief in the Christian or “Abrahamic” God.

Many atheists, however, prefer to uses less loaded labels, like “skeptic” (or no label at all), in order to avoid the pejorative baggage with which the word “atheist” has come to be loaded.

What do Atheists Believe? Back to Top
Atheism is more than just the knowledge that gods do not exist, and that religion is either a mistake or a fraud. Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.
- attr. Carl Sagan (c. 1985)

Atheists believe that there is no proof or evidence for the existence of gods, and they see no need for, or use for, gods. They generally believe that the universe, the Earth and life on Earth evolved by perfectly natural processes, and see no evidence of intervention or guidance by a supernatural entity. In fact, most atheists consider any paranormal belief systems (such as astrology, clairvoyance, spiritualism, etc) as at best useless, and at times positively dangerous. They might further argue that religions have often shown themselves to be intolerant and bigoted, have impeded scientific and social progress, have caused significant strife and bloodshed, and have never served mankind in a good way.

Atheists tend instead towards secular philosophies such as humanism, rationalism and naturalism. Atheism is generally based on a philosophy of naturalism, which holds that only natural phenomena exist and that there are no supernatural forces, or materialism (also known as physicalism), which holds that the world and the universe contain only material or physical objects, such as can be described by the physical sciences of physics, chemistry and biology. Very few, however, would take this to the philosophical extreme of “eliminative materialism” and deny the existence of minds, thoughts, ideas, etc.

Many atheists think that the question “what is the meaning of life?” is just as silly as “what is the meaning of a cup of coffee”, and do not believe that life has any meaning or purpose, nor that it requires one: it simply is. Others find meaning in the choices they make in life (whether it be political reform, charitable work, relationships, etc) rather than in the promise of a hypothetical life after death. To an atheist, the knowledge that we have only one life makes it all the more precious and ensures a life-affirming, life-enhancing attitude, untainted with wishful thinking, self-delusion or self-pity.

Who Are Atheists? Back to Top

People become atheists for a variety of reasons. In general, atheists do not lack belief because of ignorance or denial, but are non-believing through choice. For some, atheism may be an act of rebellion against a religious upbringing, but usually it results from independent thinking and reasoned skepticism. Many have spent time studying one or more religions, often quite thoroughly, and have made a carefully considered decision to reject them. A 2010 American study has shown that atheists are actually distinctly better informed about religion than people who consider themselves religious (closely followed by agnostics, with Catholics and Protestants firmly at the bottom of the list). A good proportion (but by no means all) become atheists because religion just did not work for them or seem irrelevant to their lives, because their questioning of the core beliefs of religion have left them unsatisfied, or because they have come to the conclusion that religious convictions are fundamentally incompatible with their own observations.

However, it should be noted that atheism can encompass a whole range of views, and there is no one ideology or set of behaviours to which all atheists adhere. An individual atheist may deny anything from the existence of a specific deity, to the existence of any gods at all, to the existence of any spiritual, supernatural or transcendental concepts, such as those of Hinduism and Buddhism.
All thinking men are atheists.
- Ernest Hemingway (1929)

There are a small but vocal number of what might be called militant atheists who would like to see all forms of religious belief completely eradicated. In addition to the convictions of moderate atheists, they would also claim that religion is demonstrably false and, furthermore, usually or always harmful or dangerous. Most open-minded atheists and humanists are opposed to such militant views, considering them equivalent to religious fundamentalism, and more likely to give atheism a bad reputation than to further its cause.

For an analysis of what proportion the population consider themselves to be atheist or areligious, see the section on Atheism in Today’s World.

Is Atheism a Religion? Back to Top

Atheism is not in itself a religion. It does not involve any kind of worship, rituals, faith, prayers, etc, and it has no spiritual leader and no sacred text. Most atheists never join any kind of atheist organization (although they do exist). Some atheist and humanist organizations do offer secular rituals for common events such as namings, weddings and funerals (with the intention of giving them meaning and significance without any religious content), but these are realively rare and not mainstream events.

Atheism is not necessarily anti-religious either, and atheists in general do not dislike or outright hate theists (although they may be vehemently opposed to their views). Most atheists would willingly concede there are, or have been, some good things about religion, such as religious art and music, religious charities and good works, some religious wisdom and scripture, and the human fellowship and togetherness that religion often fosters. Atheists are no more required to be hostile to the religious than Christians or Jews are required to be hostile to Hindus or Muslims. Nor, on the whole, will they attempt to “convert” others, although they may well defend their own positions vigorously if challenged.

There are even some, like Alain de Botton for example, who try to find a middle way between religion and fundamantalist atheism, and who look for ways to preserve some of the finer elements of religion - such as its art and architecture, its spirit of community and its concept of humility - without involving the idea of a transcendent being or God. De Botton has even (albeit playfully, and not entirely seriously) suggested the idea of temples for atheists.

Atheism is not even necessarily equivalent to irreligion, although the majority of atheists are also irreligious, in the sense that they do not practice any religion. Some religious and spiritual belief systems that do not actively advocate belief in gods (such as some forms of Buddhism, for example) could be described as atheistic, and several other religions, including Confucianism, Taoism and Jainism, either do not include belief in a personal god as a tenet of the religion, or actively teach non-theism. There are even sects of Christian Atheists (who reject the God of Christianity but follow the teachings of Jesus) and Jewish Atheists (who emphasize Jewish culture and history, rather than belief in a God, as the sources of Jewish identity). Unitarian Universalism is an example of a religious (Christian) movement into which some atheists may comfortably fit, should they feel the need.

Atheism and Morality Back to Top

Atheists are no less moral than any other individual, and they are just as likely to be empathetic, charitable, etc. Religions do not have a monopoly on moral behaviour, and morality is (or should be) more than just simply following rules. Indeed, atheists often follow a very similar moral code as religious people, but they arrive at the decision of what is good or bad without any help from the idea of God. Atheism does not have its own moral code, and indeed does not say anything about how an individual person should act, but most atheists nevertheless follow the same general moral code as theists (even if for different reasons).

Atheists are quite as capable of positive views on other aspects of life as proponents of any other belief: atheism is only intrinsically negative when it comes to belief in gods. Neither are atheists necessarily pessimistic or depressive, but they do tend to be realists (in the non-philosophical sense) and are willing to square up to a world where bad things inevitably happen and where much is dependent on blind chance, without seeking recourse to superstition or comforting fictions.

Types of Atheism and Related Terms Back to Top

Various forms or sub-categories of atheism can be identified, and there are several other related terms which should be distinguished:

  • Practical and Theoretical Atheism
    The broadest demarcation of atheistic rationale is between theoretical and practical (or pragmatic) atheism.
    The different forms of theoretical atheism each derive from a particular rationale or philosophical argument, and explicitly posit arguments against the existence of gods, responding to common theistic arguments (such as the Argument from Design or Pascal's Wager, for example).
    Practical atheism, on the other hand, requires no specific argument, and can encompass mere indifference to, or ignorance of, the idea of gods. Practical atheists live their lives as if there were no gods, and explain natural phenomena without resorting to the divine. Thus, they do not necessarily deny the existence of gods, but considered them unnecessary or useless, neither providing purpose to life, nor influencing everyday events.
  • Implicit and Explicit Atheism
    Implicit atheism refers to the absence of theistic belief without any conscious rejection of it. An implicit atheist has not thought about belief in gods, and so can be described as being implicitly without a belief in gods. This broad definition would therefore include newborn babies and other people who have never been exposed to theistic ideas. This is a relatively recent conception, and prior to the 19th Century the existence of God was so universally accepted in the western world that it was just taken for granted that all people believe in God from birth.
    Explicit atheism, on the other hand, refers to the more common definition of conscious disbelief in deities. An explicit atheist has been exposed to the idea of a god or gods and has actively chose to reject it, either by eschewing belief in gods (weak atheism), or by going further and concluding that gods do not exist (strong atheism).
  • Strong (Positive) and Weak (Negative) Atheism
    Strong (or hard or positive) atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist.
    Weak (or soft or negative) atheism includes all other forms of non-theism. It is essentially an absence of belief which makes no particular claims and therefore requires no justification. Weak atheism may therefore also incorporate agnoticism, although most agnostics would see their view as quite distinct from atheism, which they would consider no more justifiable than theism.
    The label Positive Atheism is also used to describe the philosophy of Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (aka Gora), which specifically stresses positive values and emphasizes such things as setting an example by being morally upright, showing an understanding that religious people have their own reasons to believe, not proselytizing or lecturing others about atheism, and defending oneself with truthfulness instead of aiming to “win” any confrontations with outspoken critics.
  • Antitheism
    Antitheism is active opposition to belief in the existence of gods (or a specific god or gods). An antitheist, then, espouses atheism to such an extent that they would try to convince theists of the error of their ways. Alternatively, it can be defined as opposition to God, holiness or the divine, rather than a more general opposition to belief in gods. Related views are dystheism (the belief in a deity that is specifically not benevolent) and misotheism (which strictly speaking means hatred of God).
  • Apatheism
    Apatheism is a form of pragmatic atheism which is characterized by apathy, disregard or lack of interest towards either the belief or lack of belief in a deity. An apatheist is therefore just not interested in accepting or denying any claims that gods exist or do not exist, but considers the question of the existence of gods as neither meaningful nor relevant to his or her life.
  • It is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty. This is what Agnosticism asserts; and, in my opinion, it is all that is essential to Agnosticism.
    - Thomas Huxley (1889)
  • Agnosticism
    Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth or otherwise of certain metaphysical claims regarding theology, the afterlife or the existence of deities, spiritual beings or even ultimate reality are unknown, or even unknowable. Thus, an agnostic believes that there can be no proof either that God exists or that God does not exist, or alternatively that, if such a proof is in fact possible, it has not yet come to light.
    Agnosticism is not in itself a religious declaration, and an agnostic may also be a theist or an atheist. It is compatible with most theistic positions (an agnostic theist may choose to believe that a God exists, even if convinced that the existence of such a god is inherently unknowable).
    Agnosticism can in turn be subdivided into several sub-categories, such as weak and strong agnosticism, apathetic agnosticism, religious agnosticism and ignosticism (the view that the existence of a deity is meaningless or empirically untestable, and the term “god” itself is meaningless).
    Some authors distinguish theist, agnostic and atheist positions by the probability assigned to the statement “God exists”, thus seeing agnosticism as just a position on a continuum between theism and atheism.
  • Freethought
    Freethought or Freethinking is a general philosophical viewpoint that holds that opinions should be formed on the basis of science, logic and reason, and should not be influenced by authority, tradition or any other dogma.
    As applied to religion, freethinkers generally hold that (given the presently known facts, established scientific theories and logical principles) there is insufficient evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena such as gods and deities.
  • Secular Humanism
    Secular humanism is a humanist philosophy that espouses reason, ethics and justice, and specifically rejects the supernatural and the spiritual as the basis of moral reflection and decision-making. It is a life stance that focuses on the way human beings can lead good, happy and functional lives, and attempts to present a more positive attitude to the world than merely the absence of belief, largely centred on human experience, thought and hopes.
    Secular humanists are generally non-theists, and typically describe themselves as non-religious. They do not rely on gods or other supernatural forces to solve their problems or to provide guidance for their conduct, but rely instead on the application of reason, the lessons of history and personal experience to form an ethical/moral foundation and to create meaning in life. They look to the methodology of science as the most reliable source of information about what is factual or true about the universe.
    They typically advocate freedom of religion as well as freedom FROM religion, the strict separation of church and state, the abolition of tax exemptions for religious institutions, the abolition of sectarian religious education in public schools, zero funding for private religious schools, and the freeing of the legal system from religious constraints.
  • Pantheism
    Pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing immanent God, and that the universe (or nature) and God are therefore equivalent. Naturalistic Pantheism, of the kind espoused by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, is similar to atheism insofar as it disbelieves in a personal God or other deities and supernatural beings, and the “god” of Spinoza is essentially just a metaphor for the laws that govern the universe (Richard Dawkins has referred to pantheism as “sexed up atheism”). However, unlike atheists, pantheists tend look to nature and the universe for mystical or spiritual fulfillment.
 
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