|SERMONS, ESSAYS AND OPINIONS||
Atheism is the denial or disbelief in the existence of God or supreme beings.
The word is derived from the Greek words a and theos, literally "without God".
Broadly speaking, atheism is the lack of belief in any deity, or the positive belief that there are no deities. This is an important distinction that has more to do with epistemology (the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge) than with the definition of a non-religious person. The arguments which outline this distinction are further discussed below.
In the past however, belief in a particular God or gods along with denial of other gods has been held to be atheism. For instance, Christians were accused of atheism for not believing in the Roman gods. Atheism is clearly incompatible with Christianity, since all branches of the faith accept the existence of God as a central tenet of belief.
Atheism vs. agnosticism
Atheism's stance is that the existence of Gods is logically impossible or is incompatible with strongly held beliefs such as rationalism and materialism, whereas agnosticism neither recognizes nor actively denies the existence of God or gods. While some agnostics may find the the possibility of supreme deities extremely unlikely, blurring the line between the two philosophies, they should not be confused with atheists.
History of atheism
Epicurus is the most widely known atheistic thinker of ancient times, though his theories emphasized living life as if gods do not exist or can be ignored, rather than a flat statement of the non-existence of God or gods. However epicureanism is clearly a secular philosophy, not dependent on God.
The 18th century is the first time that thinkers took up an avowedly atheist position. Among the 18th and early 19th century atheists were D'Holbach, Feuerbach, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.
The move towards religious toleration in Europe and the USA in the 19th century first extended such toleration to rival Christian sects, then to Jews and Muslims, and finally to atheists. A major step in this movement towards toleration was that it was permitted to "affirm" rather than swear an oath on the Bible or other holy book in criminal trials or when taking up public office.
Charles Darwin, while not an atheist, by his theories allowed an explanation of the diversity of life that did not require that life had been created in a single event by a deity. His theory, however, did not rule out the existence of God or the basic tenets of Christian beliefs, so that many Christians accept the main thrust of evolutionary theory, and in addition accept that the universe is billions of years old, rather than thousands as a literal reading of Genesis suggests.
Karl Marx was an atheist himself and took up a skeptical position about religion in his writings. Marxism itself has little to say about religion, being a secular, materialistic philosophy, but Communist states have taken up a hostile position to all religions, though have not succeeded in eradicating religious belief. Poland and Russia retained a high proportion of churchgoers throughout decades of Communist rule.
Atheism is accepted in most Western Countries. Atheists have been prominent in the defense of church-state separation in the United States. Atheism remains a minority position in most countries.
Arguments in Favor
The arguments in support of atheism can either gear towards the existence of god(s) or towards religions themselves.
Believers rationalize evidence
Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist, has argued that "god is an infinitely expanding tautology." Two examples of this are the shift from geocentricism to heliocentricism and the shift from special creation to theistic evolution.
During the trials of Galileo, many biblical verses were used to argue that the sun revolved around the earth such as 1 Chronicles 16:30 and Joshua 10:12-13. Geocentricism, the belief that all heavenly bodies revolve around the earth, matched several biblical verses as well as the Christian framework itself: God made earth for his special creation, and had sent his only son to earth. However, heliocentricism would come to triumph, but this, Hitchens argues, is of no consequence since belief in a god can be made to fit with any evidence.
A similar story occurs with evolutionary theory, he claims. Christianity supported the doctrine of special creation until Darwin. However, today, believing scientists such as Francis Collins will hold to a theistic version of evolution. Theistic evolution is the belief that evolution is God's chosen method to create diversity in life. According to critics however, this is just another case of rationalizing evidence to fit a presupposed conclusion: is creation true? God exists! Is creation false? God still exists!
Reasons for and against atheism
In essence, these arguments are the reverse of the arguments for and against the existence of a supreme being or God (which deserve a separate article owing to their centrality to Christian belief).
However some additional arguments exist against atheism, even if it is accepted that absolute proof of God's existence cannot be presented.
Without belief in God, an objective moral standard does not exist.
Atheists counter by pointing out various moral systems not dependent on God, such as utilitarianism, and by suggesting that theists are not notably more "moral" in practice than atheists.
Others counter by pointing out that, indeed, no moral standards do exist other than popular custom.
In the absence of proof of God's existence, nothing can be lost and much can be gained by assuming that God does exist.
The atheist's riposte is that the application of Pascal's wager would require Christians to worship other gods as well as their own.
It is also arguable that belief or disbelief, unlike actions or words, is not something that can be the subject of conscious choice - that is "today I'll start - or stop - believing in God" doesn't make sense. Therefore whatever practical advantages or disadvantages there are to a belief are irrelevant to whether one accepts such a belief or not.
Return to Religions