By Vexen Crabtree 2013
Atheism is the non-belief in god(s). Atheists are those who have no belief in god(s). All humans (and animals, and everything else) are atheist until they first learn about the idea of god(s), and come to believe in at least one of them. We're all born atheist, just as we are born apolitical. Atheism isn't, therefore, "a religion" and nor should it be capitalized, any more than "monotheist" or "polytheist" should be. It is unfortunate that despite the minimalist meaning of the word atheist, many theists "eagerly pack that term with as many negative connotations as they can"1. Also in the English-speaking world, many people's definition of religion is biased towards monotheism2,3 and so many people mistakenly think that "not believing in god" makes a person non-religious, and therefore, that anyone who is an atheist is non-religious. That's not true - there are some atheist religions, like Buddhism and Taoism, and "atheist" means only no belief in god(s) and does not mean "not religious in general". Atheism is not the opposite to religion, it is only the opposite to theism.
“An atheist is a man who has no invisible means of support.”
H. E. Fosdick (1878-1969)
or John Buchan (1875-1940)
“Atheism is a non-prophet organization.”
Most scholars recognize two types of atheist, and some employ a few subtle schemes to differentiate between them, although most the time both types of atheist are given the same nouns. The most of famous of these distinctions is that made by scholar George H. Smith (1979):
Implicit atheist (lower case atheism) is a person who has not yet learned about god(s), theism or religion. All people are born implicit atheists.
Explicit Atheist (upper case Atheism) is an atheist who understands what a god is and who has concluded that no such beings exist.
And another pair of terms can be used for explicit atheists:
Gnostic atheists are those who are sure that no gods exist of any type. They have examined the philosophical arguments against god, and conclude that it is a self-contradictory or impossible concept. See God is Logically Impossible: The Argument for Atheism from Incoherence for some arguments that gnostic atheists might make.
Agnostic atheists are those who do not think that god(s) exist, but, who do not think it is possible to completely disprove their possibility. Many of these atheists simply haven't given much thought to it, and are unconvinced by the arguments they have heard so far that god(s) exist4.
This latter pairing makes it clear that, as with all beliefs, humans have varying degrees of certainty. Richard Dawkins' scale places theists on a scale between 1 (completely sure that god(s) exist) and 7 (completely sure of atheism). So, we have identified three basic types of atheist - implicit atheist, and two forms of explicit atheist (gnostic and agnostic).
These basic definitions should make it clear that atheism is not a moral stance nor a moral choice. Individuals (including theists and atheists) adopt morals from their surrounding culture according to their own conscience. See: Religion and Morals which has some text on how theists derive morals from their religions and texts.
Some misuses of the word "atheism":
“Believers are correct about what atheism fails to give. It offers no philosophy of life or sense of purpose. But they point to this as if it is a strike against atheism. Clearly they have misunderstood atheism to be a religion or some codified way of life.”
“In a traditional Christian or Islamic society, people are expected to proclaim faith in God, with a strong commitment to a well-defined belief system. Under such circumstances, an Atheist may merely be someone who harbours serious doubt. Arguably, in a polytheistic society an Atheist may be someone who does not believe in enough gods, such that a monotheist could be accused of Atheism.”
"Atheism" by William Sims Bainbridge (2011)6
Unfortunately for Bainbridge, the word "atheism" does have a very particular meaning, from the Greek, meaning belief in "no gods", a-theos. In ancient, polytheistic Greece, Christians were indeed called "atheists" because of their rejection of everyday gods. This historical and technically incorrect usage of the word ought to be rejected else it cause mass confusion. If atheism and monotheism have the same interchangeable words to describe them volumes of texts on comparative religion would be ambiguous. The great benefit of using words to describe religions comes from the fact that words have meanings. Because once-upon-a-time Christians were called atheists does not mean that atheism can, or should, mean monotheist.
For more, see: Different Types of Atheism and Atheist Beliefs.
“Every baby in the world is an atheist - even babies born into very religious families. It's true. No one is born believing in Allah, Jesus, or He Zur, the ancient Egyptian baboon god. [...] We all start out in life as atheists. Some of us finish life that way, too.”
Everyone is born an atheist. We have to learn about gods from Human culture, or at least to discern the presence of gods (in a subjective sense)9. Until that happens, we are all implicit atheists. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have died as atheists because their local culture has had no concept of gods, or because they died before learning about them.
Also any animal that has no concept of gods is also an atheist. Jack Quintin asserts, on this basis, that atheism is actually 13.8 billion years old: "my single cell ancestors were atheist [and so were] my trilobite ancestors, my fish ancestors, my amphibian ancestors, my reptilian ancestors, my marsupial ancestors, my simian ancestors..."10.
There are some religions that are atheist. This means, there are some religions that specifically hold that there are no gods. Most other atheists are not members of any religions and don't share the beliefs of those religions.
“The ethical religions of the East [...] have no gods. Rather, they emphasize ethical ideals that relate the believer to the natural cohesion and unity of the universe”
Atheist religions include:
There have also been many sects, cults, and schools of thought, religious or not, that have been atheist. For example many UFO cults are atheistic. The infamous Scientology is a sci-fi, self-help, anti-alien religion with beliefs that don't include any kind of theism (hence, it is also atheist).
The Raelians in particular gained fame as the quintessential UFO-based religion. The actions of their "Clonaid" organisation, founded in 1997, was a veiled attempt at drawing people into their movement. It all started in The Bahamas when Claude Vorilhon claimed that in 1973, aliens approached him and told him that humans were created 25,000 years ago by advanced aliens in a laboratory. Luckily for Vorilhon they spoke fluent French and they knew the Bible very well, and informed us all that we'd mistranslated it quite badly. He had previously been a pop singer and racing-car journalist and it is somewhat a mystery as to how, inbetween 1973 and 1997, he managed to live a normal life with such a monumentous event behind him. Some people suspect he made the whole thing up.
Atheist and poly-theist religions have the kinder record as far as wars and atrocities are concerned. The mono-theistic beliefs are particularly prone to bouts of genocide and war in their endless attempts to wipe out competing deities. Polytheism is better off as it naturally assumes a less violent attitude towards other Gods, and atheism because there is no 'god' to use to justify wars against other religions on religious grounds. Voltaire, the famous critical thinker of the 18th century, argued in favour of intelligent design and theism and could not understand atheism, but, even this formidable enemy conceded that religious fanaticism is worse than atheism, and, stated that atheists are not prone to belief-driven murder and violence.13
Another minor issue but which some find particularly vexing is the issue of whether or not you capitalize the word "atheism" or "atheist". Some of those who differentiate between implicit and explicit atheism have taken to using "implicit atheism" normally but capitalizing "explicit Atheism" (see Smith (1979)). Firstly, in English you capitalize the names of religions. But atheism is not a religion. It is the same type of word as "theism" or "henotheism" or "polytheism" - it is a noun that describes religious beliefs, or in this case, lack of belief. Such descriptive words do not gain a capital letter. For example, the sentence Buddhism is a popular and atheist religion has a capital on the name of the religion as expected, but no capitals on the words that describe it. Even when it comes to atheistic religions such as the Raelianism, there is no need to capitalize "atheist". This is because the word for adherents is "Raelians". Raelians are atheists, it is true, but that doesn't mean you need to capitalize the noun atheist any more than you would capitalize the word "political" in the sentence "most Raelians are apolitical" - the word doesn't become capitalized simply because it is describing something related to religion.
The sociologist William Sims Bainbridge makes some strange remarks on this, starting with recognition of the "lower-case implicit atheist, upper-case explicit Atheist" idea discussed above. He says:
“Perhaps a mere atheist lacks belief, whereas an Atheist actively professes the conviction that gods do not exist. [... Or] should not be capitalized unless the people belong to specific Atheist organisations, which, frankly, are few and far between. This essay chooses to capitalize the term in recognition that Atheists are a minority group that experiences some measure of discrimination in many societies.”
"Atheism" by William Sims Bainbridge (2011)15
He does indeed capitalize the word atheist throughout his essay(s). But the idea that he does so because atheists are considered minorities in some countries doesn't make sense (presumably, he is from the USA and not from Europe). For example, if an atheist from the UK moves to Poland, is it really true that he changes from being an "atheist" to an "Atheist" simply because he has become a minority? Are black people "black" in Ethiopia, but "Black" in Greece? Such a differentiation in spelling is impractical to the point of being nonsensical and it would create a quagmire of technical difficulties in spelling. Thankfully, aside from William Sims Bainbridge I've not heard anyone use such an argument.
His other idea - that membership of a group - is also particularly strange and illogical. Christians don't become lower-case "christians" if they aren't an official member of a Church. And why should an outspoken, explicit, aggressive Humanist only be a lower-case humanist and yet a quiet member of the British Humanist Association gains a capital "H" just because he pays a yearly subscription? These simple contradictions and absurdities reveal themselves during even the lightest consideration and it is hard to see how an otherwise intelligent sociologist could put such ideas into print! Atheism is not a religion, and therefore, it does not get capitalized.
Atheism is the non-belief in god(s). Some people add to this simple definition and argue that atheists are actually religious by default16,17. One argument is that in order to be an atheist you have to "deny God" and by doing so, you admit that God exists. Others say that "not believing in god" is automatically a "religious" belief and that it requires "faith"16. These positions are obviously daft - most people also deny that unicorns and tooth fairies exist. But this doesn't mean that such people are members of an a-unicornist religion. They are, for various reasons, non-believers. Disbelief does not automatically equate to a religious disbelief. One articulate argument that some atheists are religious in nature was best vocalized by William James:
But however fervent someone is about things that don't exist, it doesn't make it religious. Take football. The psychology and emotionality of followers can be very intense, and we can easily imagine William James say the same thing about football fans as he does about some atheists. The truth is that 'zeal' is a trait that can be applied to any human activity where there is enough enthusiasm. You might as well say that 'religious people, psychologically speaking, have often shown a temper which is indistinguishable from football fanaticism'. In other words, just because there is a strong drive, it doesn't make it a religious drive. This is the case with the most 'fervent' atheists: their zeal does not make them religious.
Atheist religions and philosophies are normally more intense intellectually - philosophy and wisdom are core elements. This was still the case with Greek and classical anti-religious writers before popular monotheism arose. It is probably true that without a belief in god, the mind is freer to pursue philosophical and scientific enquiries as there is no "god" to simply attribute cause to, when a phenomenon is not understood.
Here is the summary from my page on this subject:
“The historical battles between religious institutions and science, such as those in physics, astronomy and biology, indicate there is something wrong with the religious approach to the study of reality. The underlying problem extends to negative effects on the individual intelligence of believers, and a related negative effect on educational achievements. Hardly any of the several-hundred Nobel Prize winning scientists have been Christians. Only 3.3% of the Members of the Royal Society in the UK and 7% the National Academy of Sciences in the USA, believe in a personal God. The more senior and learnéd the scientist, the less likely they are to believe in God. The children of highly religious parents suffer diminished IQs - averaging 7 to 10 points lower compared to their non-religious counterparts in similar socio-economic groups. As you would expect from these results, multiple studies have also shown that IQ is opposed to the strength of religious belief. 39 studies since 1927 (out of 43) have found that the more educated a person is, and the higher one's intelligence, the less likely someone is to hold religious beliefs - "religion declines in proportion to the rise in education and personal income"19. This correlation isn't new and was also observed in ancient Greece by Polybius (200-118BCE)20.
The effect extends beyond individual countries and is visible inter-nationally. Countries with a higher rate of belief in God have lower average intelligence. All countries with high average intelligence have low national levels of belief in God. For countries where belief in God is over 80%, the average national IQ is 83 points. For those countries where stated disbelief in God (atheism) is greater than 20%, the national average IQ is 98 points. Instead of belief in God, countries with the highest IQs adhere to Far-Eastern belief systems such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism. It is not just intelligence and education that is inversely correlated with religion - it has also been found that the more you know about religion itself, the less likely you are to be religious21.”
“...the ongoing, growing, and powerful movement called secularism, a way of understanding and living that is indifferent to religion -- in fact, not even concerned enough to pay it any attention, much less oppose it.”
National Council of Churches22
Secular means without religion. Non-religious people lead secular lives. Secular government runs along rational and humanistic lines. This is the norm in democratic countries. The individuals that make up the government are rightly free to have whatever religion they want, as are the populace. Because of this freedom, in a multicultural world, there is a requirement for governments not to cause resentment or divisions by identifying itself with a particular religion. The most well-known phrase proposing secular democracy as an ideal is Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" [paraphrased]. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.
Secularism, promoted by secularists, is the belief that religion should be a private, personal, voluntary affair that does not impose upon other people. Public spaces and officialdom should therefore be religion-neutral. Secularism ensures that religions are treated fairly and that no bias exists for a particular religion, and also that non-religious folk such as Humanists are treated with equal respect. It is the only democratic way to proceed in a globalized world where populations are free to choose their own, varied, religions. ⇒ See Secularism.
Secularisation is the process of things becoming more secular. Most of the Western world has seen this paradigm come to dominate politics and civil life, starting from the time of the Enlightenment. For example in 1864 the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) published a document as a hostile response to fledging secularisation, as growing tolerance for other religions and the growing power of democracy was challenging the RCC's power to implement its doctrine in the countries of Europe23. Thus as the world develops morally and tolerance and public equality come to the fore, religion, because it causes issues, retreats from the public sphere as people prefer to meet on neutral terms, in peace. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.
Secularisation Theory is the theory in sociology that as society advances in modernity, religion retreats and becomes increasingly hollow. Since the rise of science in the 17th Century, sociological commentators have realised that religion may be in a permanent decline, and some have proposed that science and intelligence, both rooted in the Enlightenment, are anathema to religious faith. Karl Marx (1818-1883), Durkheim (1857-1917), Max Weber (1864-1920), the founders of sociology, and William James (lectures from 1901-1902) are four eminent men who all noted this decline. The case was over-confidently stated by C.Wright Mills in 1959 who thought religion will decline and "disappear altogether except, possibly, in the private realm"24. It wasn't until the late 1960s that a coherent theory was developed, principally by "Berger, Luckmann, and Wilson, referring to processes developed by Durkheim (differentiation), Weber (rationalization), and Tönnies (Gemeinschaft-Gessellschaft)"25. The theory holds that intellectual and scientific developments have undermined the spiritual, supernatural, superstitious and paranormal ideas on which religion relies for its legitimacy, and, the differentiation of modern life into different compartments (i.e. work, politics, society, education and knowledge, home-time, entertainment) have relegated religion to merely one part of life, rather than an all-pervading narrative. As this continues, religion becomes more and more shallow, surviving for a while on empty until loss of active membership forces it into obscurity - although most theorists only hold this happens for organized public religion, not for private spirituality. ⇒ See: Definitions of Secularisation Theory: Why is Religion Declining?
The evidences and shortcomings of this theory are discussed later in this text. ⇒ See Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?.”
Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?Definitions of Secularisation Theory: Why is Religion Declining?Anti-Religious Forces - The Specific Social Forces Fuelling SecularisationSecularism - The belief that religion should be a private, personal and voluntary affairAtheism and Secularism
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Bainbridge, William Sims
(2011) Atheism. This essay is chapter 17 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011).
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Meaning and Scope of Secularization. This essay is chapter 33 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages p599-615).
Drachmann, Anders Björn. (1860-1935) Professor of Classical Philology in the University of Copenhagen.
(1922) Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. E-book. Gutenberg Project ebook. Originally published 1919 in Danish, Kjoebenhavns Universitets Festskrift. Translated by Ingeborg Andersen.
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. E-book. 8th (Amazon Kindle digital edition) edition. Published by D. Appleston and Co, New York, USA.
(2011) Defining Religion: A Social Science Approach. This essay is chapter 14 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 263-279).
(1997) Sociology. Hardback book. 3rd edition. Originally published 1989. Current version published by Polity Press in association with Blackwell Publishers Ltd. The Amazon link is to a newer version..
Hefner, Robert W.
(2011) Religion and Modernity Worldwide. This essay is chapter 8 of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011) (pages 152-171).
Hinnells, John R.. Currently professor of theology at Liverpool Hope University.
(1997, Ed.) The Penguin Dictionary of Religions. Paperback book. Originally published 1984. Current version published by Penguin Books, London, UK. References to this book simply state the title of the entry used.
IHEU. International Humanist and Ethical Union.
(2012) Freedom of Thought. A copy can be found on iheu.org/...Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf, accessed 2013 Oct 28.
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Paperback book. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. Book Review.
Smith, George H.
(1979). Atheism: The case against God. Published by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, USA. In "Atheism" by William Sims Bainbridge (2011).
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.
"There are as many African religions as peoples or 'tribes', that is, many hundreds. [...] There has been some sharp reaction against [Christian texts on African religion that make a monotheistic God central to African beliefs]. There are certainly some peoples with either no conception of a supreme God or one so limited as to be effectively otiose (Achloli, Lango, Lovedu, Nyakyusa, Swazi, Zande; Jok)."^