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I. Group Profile
Name: Atheism
Atheism is
  a) the disbelief in the existence of God or any other deity, or
  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 atheists. (6)
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 century;
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 relativism."(10)
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 the Future
  •   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 (16).

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 good people?
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 of God.
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 religions. (17)
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 principles:
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 human questions.
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 from us.
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
American 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.
American 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.
Atheists 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 views.
Freedom 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.
Other Atheist Reference Sites
Skeptical Web An extensive list of atheist, humanist, and freethinking organization home pages from around the world.
The Atheism Web Lots of links to atheist readings, arguments, organizations, and resources.
The Secular Web Library The largest atheist online library, with a search engine.
Atheist Issues
Atheism Arguments This site contains arguments and discussions that have recently taken place over atheism-related newsgroups.
Atheism - Discrimination An essay about the discrimination faced by atheists.
The 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.
Atheism and Patriotism A discussion on what role atheists should play in war-time, and in the draft.
Atheists Anonymous A well-organized page that clearly defines atheist beliefs.
International Atheism Sites
Atheism in India This page contains biographies and works from prominent Indian atheists, and other atheist resources.
Atheism Society of Australia Contains archives of the organization's newsletters.
Israeli Atheists Society Home page of Israel's only atheist organization.
Canadian 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.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair A brief essay that gives O'Hair's view of agnosticism.
Agnostic Resources A page of a few good links to agnosticism-related readings and organizations.
Robert Green Ingersoll The complete works of Ingersoll, with a search engine.
Sigmund Freud A brief synopsis of Freud's main points in The Future of an Illusion. http://
Karl Marx "Introduction," Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law.
Madlyn Murray O'Hair A brief biograpy of O'Hair from the American Atheists, the foundation that she created.
Bertrand Russell Homepage of the Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University.
Ayn Rand Home page of the Ayn Rand Institute, with a short biography and other resources.
Fyodor Dostoevsky An extensive page with information on Dostoevsky's life, and many of his works.

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 deism.(25)
God: the supreme or ultimate reality; a person or thing of supreme value.(26)
Heresy: adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church doctrine.(27)
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, MA:Merriam-Webster Inc.
  • Neusch, Marcel. 1982.
    The Sources of Modern Atheism . p. 37, 39, 62-63. Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press.
  • 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 Press.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Religious Atheisms: Preface.
  • Religious Tolerance: Atheism.
  • Atheist, Humanist, and Freethought Links,
  • Neusch, 1982, pp. 62-63.
  • Ibid, p.37.
  • Ibid, p.39.
  • An Illustrated Guide to Atheist History.
  • Shinn, Roger L., "Atheism," Encyclopedia Americana , Danbury, CT:Grolier. 1995. p. 337
  • Webster's Concise Multimedia Encyclopedia 1995,
  • What is Secular Humanism?
  • Ibid.
  • 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