Atheism (derived from the Ancient Greek atheos meaning “without gods; godless; secular; denying or disdaining the gods, especially officially sanctioned gods”) is the absence or rejection of the belief that deities exist. The English term was used at least as early as the sixteenth century and atheistic ideas and their influence have a longer history. Over the centuries, atheists have supported their lack of belief in gods through a variety of avenues, including scientific, philosophical, and ideological notions.
In the East, a contemplative life not centered on the idea of deities began in the sixth century BCE with the rise of Jainism, Buddhism, and certain sects of Hinduism in India, and of Taoism in China. Within the astika (“orthodox”) schools of Hindu philosophy, the Samkhya and the early Mimamsa school did not accept a creator-deity in their respective systems.
Philosophical atheist thought began to appear in Europe and Asia in the sixth or fifth century BCE. Will Durant, in his The Story of Civilization, explained that certain pygmy tribes found in Africa were observed to have no identifiable cults or rites. There were no totems, no deities, and no spirits. Their dead were buried without special ceremonies or accompanying items and received no further attention. They even appeared to lack simple superstitions, according to travelers’ reports. The Vedas of Ceylon admitted only the possibility that deities might exist but went no further. Neither prayers nor sacrifices were suggested in any way by the tribes.
In the East, a contemplative life not centered on the idea of deities began in the sixth century BCE with the rise of Jainism, Buddhism, and certain sects of Hinduism in India, and of Taoism in China. These religions claim to offer a philosophic and salvific path not involving deity worship. Deities are not seen as necessary to the salvific goal of the early Buddhist tradition, their reality is explicitly questioned and often rejected. There is a fundamental incompatibility between the notion of gods and basic Buddhist principles, at least in some interpretations.
Within the astika (“orthodox”) schools of Hindu philosophy, the Samkhya and the early Mimamsa school did not accept a creator-deity in their respective systems.
The principal text of the Samkhya school, the Samkhya Karika, was written by Ishvara Krishna in the fourth century CE, by which time it was already a dominant Hindu school. The origins of the school are much older and are lost in legend. The school was both dualistic and atheistic. They believed in a dual existence of Prakriti (“nature”) and Purusha (“spirit”) and had no place for an Ishvara (“God”) in its system, arguing that the existence of Ishvara cannot be proved and hence cannot be admitted to exist. The school dominated Hindu philosophy in its day, but declined after the tenth century, although commentaries were still being written as late as the sixteenth century.
The foundational text for the Mimamsa school is the Purva Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini (c. third to first century BCE). The school reached its height c. 700 CE, and for some time in the Early Middle Ages exerted near-dominant influence on learned Hindu thought. The Mimamsa school saw their primary enquiry was into the nature of dharma based on close interpretation of the Vedas. Its core tenets were ritualism (orthopraxy), antiasceticism and antimysticism. The early Mimamsakas believed in an adrishta (“unseen”) that is the result of performing karmas (“works”) and saw no need for an Ishvara (“God”) in their system. Mimamsa persists in some subschools of Hinduism today.
Jains see their tradition as eternal. Organized Jainism can be dated back to Parshva who lived in the ninth century BCE, and, more reliably, to Mahavira, a teacher of the sixth century BCE, and a contemporary of the Buddha. Jainism is a dualistic religion with the universe made up of matter and souls. The universe, and the matter and souls within it, is eternal and uncreated, and there is no omnipotent creator deity in Jainism. There are, however, “gods” and other spirits who exist within the universe and Jains believe that the soul can attain “godhood”; however, none of these supernatural beings exercise any sort of creative activity or have the capacity or ability to intervene in answers to prayers.
The thoroughly materialistic and antireligious philosophical Crvka school that originated in India with the Brhaspatya-stras (final centuries BCE) is probably the most explicitly atheist school of philosophy in the region. The school grew out of the generic skepticism in the Mauryan period. Already in the sixth century BCE, Ajita Kesakambalin, was quoted in Pali scriptures by the Buddhists with whom he was debating, teaching that “with the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death.” Crvkan philosophy is now known principally from its Astika and Buddhist opponents. The proper aim of a Crvkan, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, productive life in this world. The Tattvopaplavasimha of Jayarashi Bhatta (c. 8th century) is sometimes cited as a surviving Carvaka text. The school appears to have died out sometime around the fifteenth century.
The nonadherence to the notion of a supreme deity or a prime mover is seen by many as a key distinction between Buddhism and other religions. While Buddhist traditions do not deny the existence of supernatural beings (many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe powers, in the typical Western sense, for creation, salvation or judgement, to the “gods”, however, praying to enlightened deities is sometimes seen as leading to some degree of spiritual merit.
Buddhists accept the existence of beings in higher realms, known as devas, but they, like humans, are said to be suffering in samsara, and not particularly wiser than we are. In fact the Buddha is often portrayed as a teacher of the deities, and superior to them. Despite this they do have some enlightened Devas in the path of buddhahood.
In later Mahayana literature, however, the idea of an eternal, all-pervading, all-knowing, immaculate, uncreated, and deathless Ground of Being (the dharmadhatu, inherently linked to the sattvadhatu, the realm of beings), which is the Awakened Mind (bodhicitta) or dharmakaya (“body of Truth”) of the Buddha himself, is attributed to the Buddha in a number of Mahayana sutras and is found in various tantras as well. In some Mahayana texts, such a principle is occasionally presented as manifesting in a more personalized form as a primordial Buddha, such as Samantabhadra, Vajradhara, Vairochana, Amitabha, and Adi-Buddha, among others.
In Western classical Antiquity, theism was the fundamental belief that supported the legitimacy of the state (the polis, later the Roman Empire). Historically, any person who did not believe in any deity supported by the state was fair game to accusations of atheism, a capital crime. For political reasons, Socrates in Athens (399 BCE) was accused of being atheos (“refusing to acknowledge the gods recognized by the state”).
Christians in Rome were also considered subversive to the state religion and persecuted as atheists. Thus, charges of atheism, meaning the subversion of religion, were often used similarly to charges of heresy and impiety as a political tool to eliminate enemies.
The roots of Western philosophy began in the Greek world in the sixth century BCE. The first Hellenic philosophers were not atheists, but they attempted to explain the world in terms of the processes of nature instead of by mythological accounts. Thus lightning was the result of “wind breaking out and parting the clouds”, and earthquakes occurred when “the earth is considerably altered by heating and cooling”. The early philosophers often criticized traditional religious notions. Xenophanes (6th century BCE) famously said that if cows and horses had hands, “then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cows like cows”. Another philosopher, Anaxagoras (5th century BCE), claimed that the Sun was “a fiery mass, larger than the Peloponnese”; a charge of impiety was brought against him, and he was forced to flee Athens.
The first fully materialistic philosophy was produced by the atomists Leucippus and Democritus (5th century BCE), who attempted to explain the formation and development of the world in terms of the chance movements of atoms moving in infinite space.
Euripides (480406 BCE), in his play Bellerophon, had the eponymous main character say:
Doth some one say that there be gods above?There are not; no, there are not. Let no fool,Led by the old false fable, thus deceive you.
A fragment from the lost satyr play Sisyphus, which has been attributed to both Critias and Euripides, claims that a clever man invented “the fear of the gods” in order to frighten people into behaving morally. This statement, however, originally did not mean that the gods themselves were nonexistent, but rather that their powers were a hoax.
Aristophanes (ca. 448380 BCE), known for his satirical style, wrote in his play the Knights: “Shrines! Shrines! Surely you don’t believe in the gods. What’s your argument? Where’s your proof?”
In the fifth century BCE the Sophists began to question many of the traditional assumptions of Greek culture. Prodicus of Ceos was said to have believed that “it was the things which were serviceable to human life that had been regarded as gods”, and Protagoras stated at the beginning of a book that “With regard to the gods I am unable to say either that they exist or do not exist”.
In the late fifth century BCE, the Greek lyric poet Diagoras of Melos was sentenced to death in Athens under the charge of being a “godless person” () after he made fun of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but he fled the city to escape punishment. Later writers have cited Diagoras as the “first atheist”, but he was probably not an atheist in the modern sense of the word. Somewhat later (c. 300 BCE), the Cyrenaic philosopher Theodorus of Cyrene is supposed to have denied that gods exist and wrote a book On the Gods expounding his views.
Euhemerus (c. 330260 BCE) published his view that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors, and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures. Although Euhemerus was later criticized for having “spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods”, his worldview was not atheist in a strict and theoretical sense, because he differentiated that the primordial deities were “eternal and imperishable”. Some historians have argued that he merely aimed at reinventing the old religions in the light of the beginning of deification of political rulers such as Alexander the Great. Euhemerus’ work was translated into Latin by Ennius, possibly to mythographically pave the way for the planned divinization of Scipio Africanus in Rome.
The most important Greek thinker in the development of atheism was Epicurus (c. 300 BCE). Drawing on the ideas of Democritus and the Atomists, he espoused a materialistic philosophy according to which the universe was governed by the laws of chance without the need for divine intervention (see scientific determinism). Although Epicurus still maintained that the gods existed, he believed that they were uninterested in human affairs. The aim of the Epicureans was to attain ataraxia (“peace of mind”) and one important way of doing this was by exposing fear of divine wrath as irrational. The Epicureans also denied the existence of an afterlife and the need to fear divine punishment after death.
One of the most eloquent expressions of Epicurean thought is Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (1st century BCE) in which he held that gods exist but argued that religious fear was one the chief cause of human unhappiness and that the gods did not involve themselves in the world.
The Epicureans also denied the existence of an afterlife and hence dismissed the fear of death.
Epicureans were not persecuted, but their teachings were controversial and were harshly attacked by the mainstream schools of Stoicism and Neoplatonism. The movement remained marginal, and gradually died out by the end of the Roman Empire.
In medieval Islam, Muslim scholars recognized the idea of atheism and frequently attacked unbelievers, although they were unable to name any atheists. When individuals were accused of atheism, they were usually viewed as heretics rather than proponents of atheism. However, outspoken rationalists and atheists existed, one notable figure being the ninth-century scholar Ibn al-Rawandi, who criticized the notion of religious prophecy, including that of Muhammad, and maintained that religious dogmas were not acceptable to reason and must be rejected. Other critics of religion in the Islamic world include the physician and philosopher Abu Bakr al-Razi (865925), the poet Al-Maarri (9731057), and the scholar Abu Isa al-Warraq (fl. 9th century). Al-Maarri, for example, wrote and taught that religion itself was a “fable invented by the ancients” and that humans were “of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”
In the European Middle Ages, no clear expression of atheism is known. The titular character of the Icelandic saga Hrafnkell, written in the late thirteenth century, says, “I think it is folly to have faith in gods”. After his temple to Freyr is burnt and he is enslaved, he vows never to perform another sacrifice, a position described in the sagas as golauss, “godless”. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology observes,
It is remarkable that Old Norse legend occasionally mentions certain men who, turning away in utter disgust and doubt from the heathen faith, placed their reliance on their own strength and virtue. Thus in the Slar lio 17 we read of Vbogi and Rdey sik au tru, “in themselves they trusted”,
citing several other examples, including two kings.
In Christian Europe, people were persecuted for heresy, especially in countries where the Inquisition was active. Prominent examples of dissent included the Cathers and the Waldensians. These sects, however antagonistic to the Church, are not examples of Atheism. While rebellions against the Church occurred, none could be considered exactly Atheist.
Another phenomenon in the middle ages was proofs of the existence of God. Both Anselm of Canterbury, and later, William of Ockham acknowledge adversaries who doubt the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs of God’s existence and Anselm’s ontological argument implicitly acknowledged the validity of the question about God’s existence. Frederick Copleston, however, explains that Thomas laid out his proofs not to counter atheism, but to address certain early Christian writers such as John of Damascus, who asserted that knowledge of God’s existence was naturally innate in man, based on his natural desire for happiness. Thomas stated that although there is desire for happiness which forms the basis for a proof of God’s existence in man, further reflection is required to understand that this desire is only fulfilled in God, not for example in wealth or sensual pleasure.
The charge of atheism was used to attack political or religious opponents. Pope Boniface VIII, because he insisted on the political supremacy of the church, was accused by his enemies after his death of holding (unlikely) positions such as “neither believing in the immortality nor incorruptibility of the soul, nor in a life to come”.
John Arnold’s Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe discusses individuals who were indifferent to the Church and did not participate in faith practices. Arnold notes that while these examples could be perceived as simply people being lazy, it demonstrates that “belief was not universally fervent”. Arnold enumerates examples of people not attending church, and even those who excluded the Church from their marriage. Disbelief, Arnold argues, stemmed from boredom. Arnold argues that while some blasphemy implies the existence of God, laws demonstrate that there were also cases of blasphemy that directly attacked articles of faith. Italian preachers in the fourteenth century also warned of unbelievers and people who lacked belief.
During the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation, criticism of the religious establishment became more frequent in predominantly Christian countries, but did not amount to atheism, per se.
The term athisme was coined in France in the sixteenth century. The word “atheist” appears in English books at least as early as 1566. The concept of atheism re-emerged initially as a reaction to the intellectual and religious turmoil of the Age of Enlightenment and the Reformation, as a charge used by those who saw the denial of god and godlessness in the controversial positions being put forward by others. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word ‘atheist’ was used exclusively as an insult; nobody wanted to be regarded as an atheist. Although one overtly atheistic compendium known as the Theophrastus redivivus was published by an anonymous author in the seventeenth century, atheism was an epithet implying a lack of moral restraint.
According to Geoffrey Blainey, the Reformation in Europe had paved the way for atheists by attacking the authority of the Catholic Church, which in turn “quietly inspired other thinkers to attack the authority of the new Protestant churches”. Deism gained influence in France, Prussia and England, and proffered belief in a noninterventionist deity, but “while some deists were atheists in disguise, most were religious, and by today’s standards would be called true believers”. The scientific and mathematical discoveries of such as Copernicus, Newton and Descartes sketched a pattern of natural laws that lent weight to this new outlook Blainey wrote that the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was “probably the first well known ‘semi-atheist’ to announce himself in a Christian land in the modern era”. Spinoza had been expelled from his synagogue for his protests against the teachings of its rabbis and for failing to attend Saturday services. He believed that God did not interfere in the running of the world, but rather that natural laws explained the workings of the universe. In 1661 he published his Short Treatise on God, but he was not a popular figure for the first century following his death: “An unbeliever was expected to be a rebel in almost everything and wicked in all his ways”, wrote Blainey, “but here was a virtuous one. He lived the good life and made his living in a useful way. . . . It took courage to be a Spinoza or even one of his supporters. If a handful of scholars agreed with his writings, they did not so say in public”.
How dangerous it was to be accused of being an atheist at this time is illustrated by the examples of tienne Dolet, who was strangled and burned in 1546, and Giulio Cesare Vanini, who received a similar fate in 1619. In 1689 the Polish nobleman Kazimierz yszczyski, who had denied the existence of God in his philosophical treatise De non-existentia Dei, was imprisoned unlawfully; despite Warsaw Confederation tradition and king Sobieski’s intercession, yszczyski was condemned to death for atheism and beheaded in Warsaw after his tongue was pulled out with a burning iron and his hands slowly burned. Similarly in 1766, the French nobleman Franois-Jean de la Barre, was tortured, beheaded, and his body burned for alleged vandalism of a crucifix, a case that became a cause clbre because Voltaire tried unsuccessfully to have the judgment reversed.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (15881679) was also accused of atheism, but he denied it. His theism was unusual, in that he held god to be material. Even earlier, the British playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe (15631593) was accused of atheism when a tract denying the divinity of Christ was found in his home. Before he could finish defending himself against the charge, Marlowe was murdered.
In early modern times, the first explicit atheist known by name was the German-languaged Danish critic of religion Matthias Knutzen (1646after 1674), who published three atheist writings in 1674.
Kazimierz yszczyski, a Polish philosopher (executed in 1689, following a hasty and controversial trial) demonstrated strong atheism in his work De non-existentia Dei:
II the Man is a creator of God, and God is a concept and creation of a Man. Hence the people are architects and engineers of God and God is not a true being, but a being existing only within mind, being chimaeric by its nature, because a God and a chimaera are the same.
IV simple folk are cheated by the more cunning with the fabrication of God for their own oppression; whereas the same oppression is shielded by the folk in a way, that if the wise attempted to free them by the truth, they would be quelled by the very people.
While not gaining converts from large portions of the population, versions of deism became influential in certain intellectual circles. Jean Jacques Rousseau challenged the Christian notion that human beings had been tainted by sin since the Garden of Eden, and instead proposed that humans were originally good, only later to be corrupted by civilization. The influential figure of Voltaire, spread deistic notions of to a wide audience. “After the French Revolution and its outbursts of atheism, Voltaire was widely condemned as one of the causes”, wrote Blainey, “Nonetheless, his writings did concede that fear of God was an essential policeman in a disorderly world: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’, wrote Voltaire”.
Arguably the first book in modern times solely dedicated to promoting atheism was written by French Catholic priest Jean Meslier (16641729), whose posthumously published lengthy philosophical essay (part of the original title: Thoughts and Feelings of Jean Meslier … Clear and Evident Demonstrations of the Vanity and Falsity of All the Religions of the World) rejects the concept of god (both in the Christian and also in the Deistic sense), the soul, miracles and the discipline of theology. Philosopher Michel Onfray states that Meslier’s work marks the beginning of “the history of true atheism”.
By the 1770s, atheism in some predominantly Christian countries was ceasing to be a dangerous accusation that required denial, and was evolving into a position openly avowed by some. The first open denial of the existence of God and avowal of atheism since classical times may be that of Baron d’Holbach (17231789) in his 1770 work, The System of Nature. D’Holbach was a Parisian social figure who conducted a famous salon widely attended by many intellectual notables of the day, including Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Benjamin Franklin. Nevertheless, his book was published under a pseudonym, and was banned and publicly burned by the Executioner. Diderot, one of the Enlightenment’s most prominent philosophes and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopdie, which sought to challenge religious, particularly Catholic, dogma said, “Reason is to the estimation of the philosophe what grace is to the Christian”, he wrote. “Grace determines the Christian’s action; reason the philosophe’s”. Diderot was briefly imprisoned for his writing, some of which was banned and burned.
In Scotland, David Hume produced a six volume history of England in 1754, which gave little attention to God. He implied that if God existed he was impotent in the face of European upheaval. Hume ridiculed miracles, but walked a careful line so as to avoid being too dismissive of Christianity. With Hume’s presence, Edinburgh gained a reputation as a “haven of atheism”, alarming many ordinary Britons.
The culte de la Raison developed during the uncertain period 179294 (Years I and III of the Revolution), following the September massacres, when Revolutionary France was ripe with fears of internal and foreign enemies. Several Parisian churches were transformed into Temples of Reason, notably the Church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis in the Marais. The churches were closed in May 1793 and more securely 24 November 1793, when the Catholic Mass was forbidden.
Blainey wrote that “atheism seized the pedestal in revolutionary France in the 1790s. The secular symbols replaced the cross. In the cathedral of Notre Dame the altar, the holy place, was converted into a monument to Reason…” During the Terror of 179293, France’s Christian calendar was abolished, monasteries, convents and church properties were seized and monks and nuns expelled. Historic churches were dismantled. The Cult of Reason was a creed based on atheism devised during the French Revolution by Jacques Hbert, Pierre Gaspard Chaumette, and their supporters. It was stopped by Maximilien Robespierre, a Deist, who instituted the Cult of the Supreme Being. Both cults were the outcome of the “de-Christianization” of French society during the Revolution and part of the Reign of Terror.
The Cult of Reason was celebrated in a carnival atmosphere of parades, ransacking of churches, ceremonious iconoclasm, in which religious and royal images were defaced, and ceremonies which substituted the “martyrs of the Revolution” for Christian martyrs. The earliest public demonstrations took place en province, outside Paris, notably by Hbertists in Lyon, but took a further radical turn with the Fte de la Libert (“Festival of Liberty”) at Notre Dame de Paris, 10 November (20 Brumaire) 1793, in ceremonies devised and organised by Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette.
The pamphlet Answer to Dr. Priestley’s Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever (1782) is considered to be the first published declaration of atheism in Britainplausibly the first in English (as distinct from covert or cryptically atheist works). The otherwise unknown William Hammon (possibly a pseudonym) signed the preface and postscript as editor of the work, and the anonymous main text is attributed to Matthew Turner (d. 1788?), a Liverpool physician who may have known Priestley. Historian of atheism David Berman has argued strongly for Turner’s authorship, but also suggested that there may have been two authors.
The French Revolution of 1789 catapulted atheistic thought into political notability in some Western countries, and opened the way for the nineteenth century movements of Rationalism, Freethought, and Liberalism. Born in 1792, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a child of the Age of Enlightenment, was expelled from England’s Oxford University in 1811 for submitting to the Dean an anonymous pamphlet that he wrote entitled, The Necessity of Atheism. This pamphlet is considered by scholars as the first atheistic tract published in the English language. An early atheistic influence in Germany was The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (18041872). He influenced other German nineteenth century atheistic thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Stirner, Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900).
The freethinker Charles Bradlaugh (18331891) was repeatedly elected to the British Parliament, but was not allowed to take his seat after his request to affirm rather than take the religious oath was turned down (he then offered to take the oath, but this too was denied him). After Bradlaugh was re-elected for the fourth time, a new Speaker allowed Bradlaugh to take the oath and permitted no objections. He became the first outspoken atheist to sit in Parliament, where he participated in amending the Oaths Act.
In 1844, Karl Marx (18181883), an atheistic political economist, wrote in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Marx believed that people turn to religion in order to dull the pain caused by the reality of social situations; that is, Marx suggests religion is an attempt at transcending the material state of affairs in a societythe pain of class oppressionby effectively creating a dream world, rendering the religious believer amenable to social control and exploitation in this world while they hope for relief and justice in life after death. In the same essay, Marx states, “[m]an creates religion, religion does not create man”.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a prominent nineteenth century philosopher, is well known for coining the aphorism “God is dead” (German: “Gott ist tot”); incidentally the phrase was not spoken by Nietzsche directly, but was used as a dialogue for the characters in his works. Nietzsche argued that Christian theism as a belief system had been a moral foundation of the Western world, and that the rejection and collapse of this foundation as a result of modern thinking (the death of God) would naturally cause a rise in nihilism or the lack of values. While Nietzsche was staunchly atheistic, he was also concerned about the negative effects of nihilism on humanity. As such, he called for a re-evaluation of old values and a creation of new ones, hoping that in doing so humans would achieve a higher state he labeled the Overman (bermensch).
Atheist feminism also began in the nineteenth century. Atheist feminists oppose religion as a main source of female oppression and gender inequality, believing that the majority of religions are sexist and oppressive to women.
Atheism in the twentieth century found recognition in a wide variety of other, broader philosophies in the Western tradition, such as existentialism, Objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, logical positivism, Marxism, anarchism, feminism, and the general scientific and rationalist movement. Neopositivism and analytical philosophy discarded classical rationalism and metaphysics in favor of strict empiricism and epistemological nominalism. Proponents such as Bertrand Russell emphatically rejected belief in God. In his early work, Ludwig Wittgenstein attempted to separate metaphysical and supernatural language from rational discourse. H. L. Mencken sought to debunk both the idea that science and religion are compatible, and the idea that science is a dogmatic belief system just like any religion.
A. J. Ayer asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements, citing his adherence to the empirical sciences. The structuralism of Lvi-Strauss sourced religious language to the human subconscious, denying its transcendental meaning. J. N. Findlay and J. J. C. Smart argued that the existence of God is not logically necessary. Naturalists and materialists such as John Dewey considered the natural world to be the basis of everything, denying the existence of God or immortality.
The historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that during the twentieth century, atheists in Western societies became more active and even militant, though they often “relied essentially on arguments used by numerous radical Christians since at least the eighteenth century”. They rejected the idea of an interventionist God, and said that Christianity promoted war and violence, though “the most ruthless leaders in the Second World War were atheists and secularists who were intensely hostile to both Judaism and Christianity” and “Later massive atrocities were committed in the East by those ardent atheists, Pol Pot and Mao Zedong”. Some scientists were meanwhile articulating a view that as the world becomes more educated, religion will be superseded.
Often, the state’s opposition to religion took more violent forms. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn documents widespread persecution, imprisonments and torture of believers in his seminal work The Gulag Archipelago. Consequently, religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, were among the most stringent opponents of communist regimes. In some cases, the initial strict measures of control and opposition to religious activity were gradually relaxed in communist states. Pope Pius XI followed his encyclicals challenging the new right-wing creeds of Italian Fascism (Non abbiamo bisogno, 1931) and Nazism (Mit brennender Sorge, 1937) with a denunciation of atheistic Communism in Divini redemptoris (1937).
The Russian Orthodox Church, for centuries the strongest of all Orthodox Churches, was suppressed by the Soviet government. In 1922, the Soviet regime arrested the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Following the death of Vladimir Lenin, with his rejection of religious authority as a tool of oppression and his strategy of “patently explain,” Soviet leader Joseph Stalin energetically pursued the persecution of the Church through the 1920s and 1930s. Lenin wrote that every religious idea and every idea of God “is unutterable vileness… of the most dangerous kind, ‘contagion of the most abominable kind”. Many priests were killed and imprisoned. Thousands of churches were closed, some turned into hospitals. In 1925 the government founded the League of Militant Atheists to intensify the persecution. The regime only relented in its persecution following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Bullock wrote that “A Marxist regime was ‘godless’ by definition, and Stalin had mocked religious belief since his days in the Tiflis seminary”. His assault on the Russian peasantry, wrote Bullock, “had been as much an attack on their traditional religion as on their individual holdings, and the defense of it had played a major part in arousing peasant resistance . . . “. In Divini Redemptoris, Pius XI said that atheistic Communism being led by Moscow was aimed at “upsetting the social order and at undermining the very foundations of Christian civilization”:
The central figure in Italian Fascism was the atheist Benito Mussolini. In his early career, Mussolini was a strident opponent of the Church, and the first Fascist program, written in 1919, had called for the secularization of Church property in Italy. More pragmatic than his German ally Adolf Hitler, Mussolini later moderated his stance, and in office, permitted the teaching of religion in schools and came to terms with the Papacy in the Lateran Treaty. Nevertheless, Non abbiamo bisogno condemned his Fascist movement’s “pagan worship of the State” and “revolution which snatches the young from the Church and from Jesus Christ, and which inculcates in its own young people hatred, violence and irreverence.”
The Western Allies saw the war against Hitler as a war for “Christian Civilisation”, while the atheist Stalin re-opened Russia’s churches to steel the Soviet population in the battle against Germany. The Nazi leadership itself held a range of views on religion. Hitler’s movement said it endorsed a form of Christianity stripped of its Jewish origins and certain key doctrines such as belief in the divinity of Christ. In practice his government persecuted the churches, and worked to reduce the influence of the Christianity on society. Richard J. Evans wrote that “Hitler emphasised again and again his belief that Nazism was a secular ideology founded on modern science. Science, he declared, would easily destroy the last remaining vestiges of superstition [. . .] ‘In the long run’, [Hitler] concluded in July 1941, ‘National Socialism and religion will no longer be able to exist together’ [. . .] The ideal solution would be to leave the religions to devour themselves, without persecutions’ “.
Party membership was required for civil service jobs. The majority of Nazi Party members did not leave their churches. Evans wrote that, by 1939, 95 percent of Germans still called themselves Protestant or Catholic, while 3.5 percent were gottglubig (lit. “believing in god”) and 1.5 percent atheist. Most in these latter categories were “convinced Nazis who had left their Church at the behest of the Party, which had been trying since the mid 1930s to reduce the influence of Christianity in society”. The majority of the three million Nazi Party members continued to pay their church taxes and register as either Roman Catholic or Evangelical Protestant Christians. Gottglubig was a nondenominational Nazified outlook on god beliefs, often described as predominantly based on creationist and deistic views. Heinrich Himmler, who himself was fascinated with Germanic paganism, was a strong promoter of the gottglubig movement and didn’t allow atheists into the SS, arguing that their “refusal to acknowledge higher powers” would be a “potential source of indiscipline”.
Across Eastern Europe following World War II, the parts of the Nazi Empire conquered by the Soviet Red Army, and Yugoslavia became one party Communist states, which, like the Soviet Union, were antipathetic to religion. Persecutions of religious leaders followed. The Soviet Union ended its truce against the Russian Orthodox Church, and extended its persecutions to the newly Communist Eastern bloc: “In Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and other Eastern European countries, Catholic leaders who were unwilling to be silent were denounced, publicly humiliated or imprisoned by the Communists. Leaders of the national Orthodox Churches in Romania and Bulgaria had to be cautious and submissive”, wrote Blainey. While the churches were generally not as severely treated as they had been in the USSR, nearly all their schools and many of their churches were closed, and they lost their formally prominent roles in public life. Children were taught atheism, and clergy were imprisoned by the thousands.
Albania under Enver Hoxha became, in 1967, the first (and to date only) formally declared atheist state, going far beyond what most other countries had attemptedcompletely prohibiting religious observance and systematically repressing and persecuting adherents. The right to religious practice was restored with the fall of communism in 1991.
Further post-war communist victories in the East saw religion purged by atheist regimes across China, North Korea and much of Indo-China. In 1949, China became a Communist state under the leadership of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China. China itself had been a cradle of religious thought since ancient times, being the birthplace of Confucianism and Daoism, and Buddhists having arrived in the first century AD. Under Mao, China became officially atheist, and though some religious practices were permitted to continue under State supervision, religious groups deemed a threat to order have been suppressedas with Tibetan Buddhism from 1959 and Falun Gong in recent years. Today around two-fifths of the population claim to be nonreligious or atheist. Religious schools and social institutions were closed, foreign missionaries expelled, and local religious practices discouraged. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao instigated “struggles” against the Four Olds: “old ideas, customs, culture, and habits of mind”. In 1999, the Communist Party launched a three-year drive to promote atheism in Tibet, saying intensifying propaganda on atheism is “especially important for Tibet because atheism plays an extremely important role in promoting economic construction, social advancement and socialist spiritual civilization in the region”.
In India, E. V. Ramasami Naicker (Periyar), a prominent atheist leader, fought against Hinduism and the Brahmins for discriminating and dividing people in the name of caste and religion. This was highlighted in 1956 when he made the Hindu god Rama wear a garland made of slippers and made antitheistic statements.
During this period, Christianity in the United States retained its popular appeal, and, wrote Blainey, the country “was the guardian, militarily of the “free world” and the defender of its religion in the face of militant communism”. During the Cold War, wrote Thomas Aiello the United States often characterized its opponents as “godless communists”, which tended to reinforce the view that atheists were unreliable and unpatriotic. Against this background, the words “under God” were inserted into the pledge of allegiance in 1954, and the national motto was changed from E Pluribus Unum to In God We Trust in 1956. However, there were some prominent atheist activists active at this time. Atheist Vashti McCollum was the plaintiff in a landmark 1948 Supreme Court case (McCollum v. Board of Education) that struck down religious education in U.S. public schools. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was perhaps one of the most influential American atheists; she brought forth the 1963 Supreme Court case Murray v. Curlett which banned compulsory prayer in public schools. Also in 1963 she founded American Atheists, an organization dedicated to defending the civil liberties of atheists and advocating for the complete separation of church and state.
The early twenty-first century has continued to see secularism, humanism and atheism promoted in the Western world, with the general consensus being that the number of people not affiliated with any particular religion has increased. This has been assisted by non-profit organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the United States (co-founded by Anne Nicol Gaylor and her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, in 1976 and incorporated nationally in 1978, it promotes the separation of church and state), and the Brights movement, which aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of science through a naturalistic, scientific and irreligious worldview, defense of irreligious people’s human, civil and political rights who share it, and their societal recognition. In addition, a large number of accessible antireligious, antitheist and secularist books, many of which have become bestsellers, have been published by scholars and scientists such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence M. Krauss, Jerry Coyne, and Victor J. Stenger.
This period saw the rise of the “New Atheism”, a label that has been applied, sometimes pejoratively, to outspoken critics of theism and religion, prompted by a series of essays published in late 2006, including The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, God Is Not Great, The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation. Richard Dawkins also propounds a more visible form of atheist activism which he light-heartedly describes as “militant atheism”.
Atheist feminism has also become more prominent in the 2010s. In 2012 the first “Women in Secularism” conference was held. Also, Secular Woman was founded on 28 June 2012 as the first national American organization focused on non-religious women. The mission of Secular Woman is to amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women. The atheist feminist movement has also become increasingly focused on fighting misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment within the atheist movement itself, especially since the upheaval following Michael Shermer’s allegations of sexual assault and coverage of his violent behavior applied by James Randi.
In 2013 the first atheist monument on American government property was unveiled at the Bradford County Courthouse in Florida; it is a 1,500-pound granite bench and plinth inscribed with quotes by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
In 2015, Madison, Wisconsin’s common council amended their city’s equal opportunity ordinance, adding atheism as a protected class in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations. This makes Madison the first city in America to pass an ordinance protecting atheists.
On 16 December 2016, Barack Obama signed into law the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which amends the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 by specifically extending protection to non-theists as well as those who do not claim any particular religion.
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History of atheism – Wikipedia