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What is Atheism?

Updated on November 27, 2016

Atheism, commonly speaking, is the denial of God. Theism (from Greek theos, "God") is belief in or conceptualization of God; atheism is the rejection of such belief or conceptualization.

The meaning of atheism, then, depends upon the theism that is being denied. Hence the word has been used traditionally in at least three ways. (1) Most precisely, atheism is the denial that there is any being or power deserving the name of God or the reverence accorded God. (2) Frequently, atheism is the name applied to any conviction that rejects the prevailing beliefs in the God or gods of a given culture. (3) Sometimes atheism refers simply to the practical rejection or ignoring of God.

Because the word is often used in argument or accusation, the three meanings are frequently confused. The ambiguity of the term can be illustrated by the fact that the 17th century philosopher Spinoza was called both "the God-intoxicated man" and an atheist. The essential factor in atheism is some element of denial or rejection, not simply the skepticism or doubt known as agnosticism.

Modern Forms of Atheism

In any case, thoroughgoing, systematic atheism appeared in force as a protest against Christian orthodoxy in the modern West. It is helpful to differentiate between two forms of atheism which, even though they frequently interact and occasionally are indistinguishable, contrast in motive and dynamism. These are the rationalistic and romantic forms.

Rationalistic atheism arose out of the modern confidence that scientific reason could offer an explanation of the world that made religious superstition obsolete. The origins of the movement in Renaissance and post-Renaissance thought are obscure, but it reaches full tide during the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

The French philosophes included several outspoken atheists. It is reported that the Scottish skeptic, David Hume, told his host in Paris, Baron d' Holbach, that he had never met a real atheist. Holbach's reply was, "It may interest you to know, Monsieur, that you are dining tonight with seventeen of them."

Romantic atheism, emerging in the 19th century, was a radical protest against God as an enemy of human power and morality. Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov defied God on moral grounds, then asked the nihilistic question, "If there is no God, is everything permitted?" The romantic complaint against God swept through the poetry and prose of western Europe.

Meanwhile, Ludwig Feuerbach had already united the rationalistic and romantic strains. His romanticism appeared in his effort to turn theology into anthropology for the sake of a passionate affirmation of man. His rationalism came out in his naturalistic materialism, which explained God as a projection of the human mind - a theme that Sigmund Freud was later to develop in psychological terms.

The chief heir of Feuerbach was Karl Marx, whose atheism had several roots. On the one hand he was a romantic humanist who was anti-God in order to be pro-man. On the other, he was a rationalist, claiming to refute God with a scientific materialism. Reinforcing both themes was his protest against religion as the ideological prejudice of the bourgeoisie, who sanctified the status quo and offered the proletariat consolation in heaven instead of justice now. The Marxist complaint against religion is in many ways a repetition of the attack of the Hebrew prophets upon cult as a substitute for justice.

The romantic impulse to atheism, untouched by rationalism, erupted again in Friedrich Nietzsche. In cryptic writings he let his "madman" declare: "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." For Nietzsche this murder of God was a tremendous deed for which men could atone only by becoming gods.

The Nietzschean strain persists, in a rationally disciplined form, in some of the 20th century existentialists, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre affirms that, since there is no God, man is the creator of his own values, and he must determine what is good by his act of decision. (Existentialism, as a system of thought, is neither theistic nor atheistic; prominent existentialists belong in both camps.)

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