The term atheism usually refers to the belief that there is no God or are no gods. This position has been called positive atheism, since it involves an actual belief and not just the absence of belief. In contrast, negative atheism involves the absence of belief in a God or gods. Atheism is typically contrasted with agnosticism, the view that one cannot know if a deity exists. Negative atheism, however, is compatible with agnosticism, for in the name of rationality one who does not know if God exists should suspend belief in God.
In Western and Near Eastern societies the term atheism has sometimes been used narrowly to refer to the denial of theism, in particular Judeo-Christian and Islamic theism. According to theism, God is a personal being, an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good creator of the universe who takes an active interest in human concerns and guides creatures by revelation. Positive atheists disbelieve that this God exists and reject concomitants including an afterlife, a cosmic destiny, the supernatural origin of the universe, an immortal soul, the revealed nature of texts such as the Bible and the Koran, and a religious foundation of morality. Negative atheists, in the narrow sense, simply do not have a belief in the theistic God and what that entails.
Theism is not a characteristic of all religions, however. For example, although the theistic tradition is found in Hinduism in the Bhagavad Gita, the earlier Upanishads teach that ultimate reality, Brahma, is an impersonal and pantheistic god. Positive atheism in its broadest sense would advocate disbelief in the pantheistic as well as the theistic aspects of Hinduism. Indeed, there are skeptical and atheistic schools of thought within the Hindu tradition itself. Theravada Buddhism and Jainism are commonly believed to be atheistic, but this interpretation holds only for the narrow sense of disbelieving in a creator God. For although these religions reject a theistic creator God, they accept numerous lesser deities.
In the Western world, nonbelief in the existence of God is a pervasive phenomenon with a long and illustrious history. Ancient philosophers such as Lucretius were nonbelievers, and important thinkers of the Enlightenment such as the Baron d' Holbach (1723–1789) and Denis Diderot (1713–1784) were outspoken atheists. In the nineteenth century the most articulate and best-known atheists and critics of religion were Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Bertrand Russell, Sigmund Freud, and Jean-Paul Sartre were among the twentieth century's most influential atheists. In contemporary philosophical thought atheism has been defended by, among others, Paul Edwards, Antony Flew, Paul Kurtz, John Mackie, Michael Martin, Kai Nielsen, Michael Scriven, and J. J. C. Smart. In the United States, many contemporary atheists are also self-identified as humanists, secular humanists, or rationalists.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century atheism can be found from the Netherlands to New Zealand, from Canada to China, from Spain to South America. State atheism prevailed in the U.S.S.R. until the breakup of the Soviet Union. It was estimated in the 2002 New York Times Almanac that there are in the world about 222 million atheists (4 percent of the total population) and 887 million agnostics (negative atheists).
Popular misunderstandings of atheism abound. Thus, for example, it has been claimed that atheists are immoral, that morality cannot be justified without belief in God, and that life has no meaning without belief in God. There are, however, no grounds for supposing that atheists are any less moral than believers; many ethical systems have been developed that do not assume the existence of supernatural beings, and the meaning of life can be based on secular purposes such as the betterment of humankind.
Philosophically, atheism has been justified in differing ways. Negative atheists attempt to establish their position either by showing that the standard arguments for the existence of God—for instance the argument from first cause, the argument from design, the ontological argument, and the argument from religious experience—are unsound, or by demonstrating that statements about God are meaningless. Positive atheists argue in turn that the concept of God is inconsistent and that the existence of evil makes the existence of God improbable.
In particular, positive atheists have maintained that theism does not provide an adequate explanation of the existence of seemingly gratuitous evil such as the suffering of innocent children. Rejecting the standard defenses given by theists, they argue that justifications in terms of human free will leave unexplained why, for example, children suffer because of genetic diseases. Positive atheists hold that arguments that God allows much pain and suffering in order to build human character fail, in turn, to explain why there was suffering among animals before human beings ever evolved and why human character could not be developed with less suffering than in fact there is. They argue that an explanation of evil better than the explanation that God has given us free will or the chance to develop character is that God does not exist.
Atheism has wide-ranging implications for the human condition. Among other things it entails that ethical goals must be determined by secular aims and concerns, that human beings must take charge of their own destiny, and that death is the end of human existence.
Although it is sometimes associated with materialism, communism, rationalism, existentialism, or anarchism, there is no necessary relation between atheism and any of these other positions. Some atheists, for example the objectivist writer Ayn Rand (1905–1982), have been opposed to communism, and some—for example, Bertrand Russell—have rejected materialism. Although all contemporary materialists are atheists, the ancient materialist Epicurus believed that the gods were made of atoms. And although rationalists such as René Descartes have believed in God, many contemporary atheists consider themselves rationalists. Jean-Paul Sartre was an atheist and an existentialist; Søren Kierkegaard was an existentialist who accepted God. In turn, Karl Marx was an atheist who rejected anarchism, but Leo Tolstoy was a Christian who embraced it.
In sum, atheism is a complex phenomenon with a rich history, brilliant defenders, and a wide following. It is often unjustly maligned and confused with other positions.
Hiorth, Finngeir. Atheism in India. Mumbai, India: Indian Secular Society, 1998.
——. Atheism in the World. Oslo, Norway: Human-Etisk Forbund, 2003.
Joshi, S. T., ed. Atheism: A Reader. New York: Prometheus Books, 2000.
Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.