Arguments for Atheism - Living without religion, with a clear conscience


Antiquity | Middle Ages and Renaissance | Early Modern Era | 20th Century | Atheism in Today’s World

Atheism (or at least ideas that would be recognized today as atheistic) has it origins in some of the oldest documented philosophies of antiquity - the Vedic period of India and classical ancient Greece - but it did not emerge as an overt and avowed belief system until late in the European Enlightenment. We will trace here its historical development down to its current position in the modern world.

Antiquity Back to Top

Hinduism is generally speaking a very theistic religion, but the Carvaka school that originated in India around 6th Century BC was probably the most explicitly atheistic and materialistic school of philosophy in India. Although our understanding of Carvaka philosophy is fragmentary and it is not considered part of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism, it explicitly rejected the doctrine of Vedas and denied the notion of a creationist god or an afterlife.

Other Indian philosophies generally regarded as atheistic include the more orthodox Classical Samkhya and Purva Mimamsa schools of Hinduism. Both Jainism and Buddhism also reject the idea of a personal creator God, although they may not be considered explicitly atheistic.

Western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, particularly in the Milesian philosophers of the 6th Century BC: Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. They were the first to reject mythological explanations for rational, naturalistic ones, and introduced the then revolutionary idea that nature could be understood as a self-contained system - the rudimentary origins of science.

The 5th Century BC Greek philosopher Diagoras of Melos is sometimes referred to as the "first atheist", and he strongly criticized religion and mysticism. Critias, an Athenian statesman and uncle of Plato, viewed religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. Atomist philosophers in the 5th Century BC, such as Leucippus and Democritus, attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Democritus specifically explained that the indivisible atoms that he believed made up everything in the universe had existed forever, so that the earth had never been "created" as such by any God or gods. A century later, Epicurus was the first to expound on the Problem of Evil, and explicitly argued against the existence of life after death.

Atheism in the ancient world was not always an easy path, though. Anaxagoras was banished from Athens for being an atheist. Socrates was executed at the end of the 5th Century BC for impiety for inspiring questioning of the Greek state gods. But the issue continued to recur in different guises.
As to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist.
- Protagoras (c. 450 BC, quoted in Plato’s “Theatetus” c. 369 BC)

The influential school of Skepticism, founded by Pyrrho in the 4th Century BC, advised against making any truth claims at all on the grounds that it is impossible to know which of the various competing opinions are right. In the 4th/3rd Century BC, Epicurus disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity and, while he did not rule out the existence of gods, he believed that if they did exist they were completely unconcerned with humanity. Other Greek philosophers who probably had atheistic views include the Sophists Prodicus and Protagoras in the 5th Century BC, and Theodorus the Atheist and Strato of Lampsacus in the 4th and 3rd Century BC.

The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (a follower of Epicurus) argued in the 1st Century BC that, if there were gods, they were unconcerned with humanity and unable to affect the natural world, and suggested that humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. In the 1st Century AD, the influential skeptic Sextus Empiricus argued that one should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs.

The meaning of "atheist" changed over the course of classical antiquity. The early Christians were labelled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in the pagan Roman gods. Then, when Christianity became the state religion of Rome under Emperor Theodosius in 381 AD, the position was reversed and heresy became a punishable offence.

Middle Ages and Renaissance Back to Top

During the Early Middle Ages and Middle Ages, the open espousal of atheistic views was rare in Europe, and atheism was a very uncommon, even dangerous, doctrine to hold. The charge of atheism was regularly used as way of attacking one's political or religious enemies, and the repercussions were severe. However, certain heterodox views were put forward by individual theologists such as Johannes Scotus Eriugena, David of Dinant, Amalric of Bena and William of Ockham, and by groups like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, and several writers mention that there were “not a few” (in the words of John Calvin) who denied the existence of God.

For most of the Middle Ages, religion was so universally dominant that it was not even believed possible that someone could deny the existence of God. Heterodox views were equally rare in the medieval Islamic world, although the 9th Century scholar Ibn al-Rawandi did go so far as to criticize the notion of religious prophecy (including even that of Mohammed), and maintained that religious dogmas were not acceptable to reason and must be rejected.

The European Renaissance of the 15th to 17th Centuries did much to expand the scope of freethought and skeptical inquiry, although criticisms of the religious establishment (such as those of Niccolò Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Bonaventure des Périers and François Rabelais) usually did not amount to actual atheism. As the scientific discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo became increasingly accepted, man's long-assumed privileged place in the universe appeared less and less justifiable. Progressive thinkers like Giordano Bruno, Lucilio Vanini and Galileo Galilei, bravely battling against the odds, were all savagely persecuted by the powerful Catholic Church of their time. Among those executed (often after torture) for the crime of atheism were Étienne Dolet in 1546, Lucilio Vanini in 1619, Kazimierz Lyszczynskiin 1689 and Jean-François de la Barre as late as 1766.

With the religious infighting during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, dissent of all kinds flourished, and some sects (such as the Anabaptists, Unitarians and Deists) developed much more humanist and less traditionally religious variants. Criticism of Christianity became increasingly frequent in the 17th and 18th Centuries, led by independent thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza and David Hume. The number of outspoken refutations to atheism during this period attests to the increasing prevalence of atheist positions, with some of the strongest anti-atheist apologists even attempting to deny the very existence of the movement they sought to crush. The British Blasphemy Act of 1677 specifically mentioned atheism and prescribed the death sentence for it.

Early Modern Era Back to Top

The first known atheist to bluntly and openly deny the existence of gods was the French priest Jean Meslier, whose radical views were only exposed after his death in 1729. The French physician and philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie wrote his shockingly bold work “L'Homme Machine” (“Man A Machine”), based on consistently materialistic and quasi-atheistic principles, in 1748.
What, indeed, is an atheist? He is one who destroys delusions which are harmful to humanity in order to lead men back to nature, to reality, to reason. He is a thinker who, having reflected on the nature of matter, its energy, properties and ways of acting, has no need of idealized powers or imaginary intelligences to explain the phenomena of the universe and the operations of nature.
- Baron d’Holbach (1770)

These early pioneers were followed during the Enlightenment by other openly atheistic thinkers, particularly the wealthy and influential Baron d'Holbach, whose 1770 work "Système de la nature" (“The System of Nature”) was the first avowedly atheistic work to gain any significant circulation (the book, sometimes called the Atheists' Bible, was banned and even publicly burned). Among “La Coterie Holbachique” which met at d’Holbach’s salon were his main collaborator Jacques-André Naigeon and fellow Frenchmen Denis Diderot and Voltaire (two of the Enlightenment's most prominent philosophers), both of whom were accused of atheism and briefly imprisoned, as well as progressive British intellectuals such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon.

These discussions of atheism, however, were largely confined to the French salon society of the educated and aristocratic elite. It took the French Revolution for atheism to reach out and into the public sphere in France, and at its height there was anti-clerical violence and the expulsion of many members of the clergy from the country. Some of the more militant atheists attempted to forcibly de-Christianize France, although this resulted in an equally violent reaction and the subsequent end of the so-called Reign of Terror.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries, academic research began to undermine the literal truths of religion and throw doubt on the existence of God as a separate supernatural being. In 1779, the German Protestant theologian J.G. Eichhorn suggested that the stories in the Book of Genesis, were not actual history, but were myths like the stories of Greek and Roman mythology, and cautioned against reading them as if they were the actual word of God. Further detailed literary analysis of the text of the Bible began to cast increasing doubt on its status as a reliable historical document. The new study of anthropology also began to reveal that there was a great deal of similarity between the rituals and stories of many religions, even tribal religions, throwing doubt on how Christianity (or any other religion) could claim that it was the only true faith and the unique result of God's revelation.

Perhaps the first major expression of atheistic ideas published in the English language was “The Necessity of Atheism”, a work by the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley published in 1811, although the chemist Matthew Turner had published a pamphlet defending atheism (“Answer to Dr. Priestley’s Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever”) as early as 1782. The prominent English intellectual Thomas Paine, particularly though his books "Common Sense", "The Age of Reason" and the "The Rights of Man", sought to open up the questioning of organized religion among the common people of Britain, America and France, as did Richard Carlile and Jeremey Bentham.

Their cause was helped somewhat by 19th Century developments in geology and paleontology, which subverted the Biblical creation story. Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species", published in 1859, further undermined the theological and social establishment, dispensing as it did with the idea of divine design, and perhaps marking the first time a scientific idea had explicitly subverted one of the principal arguments in favour of God.

Despite strict laws against blasphemy in 19th Century Britain, there was a serious campaign against the Churches by the secularist movement, particularly targeting the highly privileged Church of England. George Holyoake was the last person in England to be imprisoned for being an atheist, in 1842. The prominent and outspoken Victorian atheist Charles Bradlaugh was elected to Parliament in 1880, but was not allowed to take his seat because he would not swear the traditional religious oath, choosing to "affirm" instead. He was however re-elected several times over five years, eventually taking his seat in 1886 as Britain's first openly atheist member of Parliament.

After the secularization of French society during the Napoleonic era, many atheists and other anti-religious thinkers of the 19th Century devoted their efforts to political and social revolution, facilitating the upheavals of 1848, the Risorgimento in Italy, and the growth of an international socialist movement. In the latter half of the 19th Century, atheism rose to prominence under the influence of the rationalistic and freethinking German philosophers of the era (including Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche), who openly denied the existence of deities and were critical of religion. At the end of the 19th Century, Nietzsche was bold enough to definitively announce that God was dead, and that humanity had killed him.

20th Century Back to Top

In the 20th Century, atheistic thought found recognition in a wide variety of other broader philosophies, such as existentialism, objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, logical positivism, Marxism, feminism and the general scientific and rationalist movement. Proponents such as Bertrand Russell emphatically rejected belief in God; Ludwig Wittgenstein and A. J. Ayer, in their different ways, asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements; J. N. Findlay and J. J. C. Smart argued that the existence of God is not logically necessary; naturalists and materialistic monists such as John Dewey considered the natural world to be the basis of everything, denying the existence of God or immortality.

The 20th Century also saw the political advancement of atheism, spurred on by interpretation of the works of Marx and Engels. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Soviet Russia became the world's first avowedly atheistic state. Later, the policies of Stalinism turned towards repression of religion, often by violent means, and opposition to organized religion was made policy in all communist states, including the People's Republic of China, Mongolia and Cuba. In 1967, the Albanian government under Enver Hoxha announced the closure of all religious institutions in the country and declared Albania the world's first officially atheist state. By 1970, all 22 of the nations of central and eastern Europe which were behind the Iron Curtain were effectively atheistic. However, some of the excesses of the Soviet and Chinese revolutionary experiments, excesses unrelated to the issue of atheism itself, have served to severely damaged the image of atheism.

Atheism in Today’s World Back to Top

It is hard to draw boundaries between atheism, non-religious beliefs and non-theistic religious and spiritual beliefs, and the distinction between atheism and agnosticism in many studies is often confused and unreliable. Furthermore, in certain regions atheists may not report themselves as such in order to prevent suffering from social stigma, discrimination and even persecution. However, worldwide absolute estimates for atheism (as a primary religious preference) range from 200 to 240 million, with “non-religious” totals up to two to three times that. China, Japan, Russia, Vietnam, France and Germany are among the countries with the largest absolute numbers of atheists, agnostics or non-believers.

The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments, of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue, are complete skeptics in religion.
- John Stuart Mill (1873)

A 2001 study for Encyclopedia Britannica classified 2.5% of the world's population as atheists, and a separate 12.7% as non-religious (a similiar survey five years earlier indicated that about 14.7% of the world's population were non-religious, of which self-professed atheists made up around 3.8%). A 2004 BBC survey in ten countries showed an average close to 17% who “don't believe in God”, varying between 0% (Nigeria) and 39% (UK), with about 8% of the respondents stating specifically that they consider themselves to be atheists. A 2005 AP/Ipsos survey revealed France to be the most skeptical of the countries polled, with 19% claiming to be atheist and 16% agnostic. In a 2006 Financial Times poll, 32% of French respondents declared themselves atheists, while an additional 32% declared themselves agnostic.

Although atheists are in the minority in most countries, they are relatively common in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina and Uruguay, in former and present Communist states, and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. Several studies have found Sweden to be one of the most atheistic countries in the world, with up to 85% claiming to be atheists, agnostics or non-believers, followed by other Scandinavian, Northern European and South-East Asian countries.

The general consensus is that the number of people not affiliated with any particular religion has been increasing in recent years. For example, census data from Canada (a modern, industrial nation with a large and varied immigrant population), indicates that those claiming to have no religion rose to 24% in 2011, compared to 17% in 2001, 13% in 1991 and 7% in 1981, and that the percentage is much higher among the Canadian-born, as opposed to immigrant, population. Furthermore, of those who did claim a religion, almost 30% had not attended any religious service during the previous year. Interestingly, the largely Catholic province of Quebec, which showed the highest level of religious affiliation in the country, was overwhelmingly the province which attached the least importance of religion to life. Even in the generally religious United States, those claiming “no religion” is on the increase in every single state according to a 2009 ARIS survey.

A 1996 study for the magazine “Nature” gave a percentage of 60.7% of scientists expressing “disbelief or doubt in the existence of God” (defined as a personal God which interacts directly with human beings). As many as 93% among the members of the American National Academy of Sciences disbelieved in a personal God according to a 1998 study, and an even higher percentage of members of the UK’s equivalent Royal Society. Among the several hundred Nobel Prize laureates in science over the last hundred years, the number of religious believers remains in single digits.

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