Atheism is the absence of belief in a god or gods. In it's simplest form an atheist is a person who is without a belief in god(s).
The term atheism originated from the Greek ἄθεος (atheos), meaning "without god(s)", used as a pejorative term applied to those thought to reject the gods worshipped by the larger society. With the spread of freethought, skeptical inquiry, and subsequent increase in criticism of religion, application of the term narrowed in scope. The first individuals to identify themselves using the word "atheist" lived in the 18th century.
Arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to social and historical approaches. Rationales for not believing in any supernatural deity include the lack of empirical evidence, the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Although some atheists have adopted secular philosophies, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere.[ Many atheists hold that atheism is a more parsimonious worldview than theism, and therefore the burden of proof lies not on the atheist to disprove the existence of God, but on the theist to provide a rationale for theism.
Since conceptions of atheism vary, determining how many atheists exist in the world today is difficult. According to one estimate, atheists make up about 2.3% of the world's population, while a further 11.9% are nonreligious. According to another, rates of self-reported atheism are among the highest in Western nations, again to varying degrees: United States (4%), Italy (7%), Spain (11%), Great Britain (17%), Germany (20%), and France (32%). According to a 2009 report by the American Religious Identification Survey, people claiming to adhere to "no religion" made up 15% of the population in the US.
In practical or pragmatic atheism, also known as apatheism, individuals live as if there are no gods and explain natural phenomena without resorting to the divine. The existence of gods is not rejected, but may be designated unnecessary or useless; gods neither provide purpose to life, nor influence everyday life, according to this view. A form of practical atheism with implications for the scientific community is methodological naturalism—the "tacit adoption or assumption of philosophical naturalism within scientific method with or without fully accepting or believing it."
Practical atheism can take various forms:
- Absence of religious motivation—belief in gods does not motivate moral action, religious action, or any other form of action;
- Active exclusion of the problem of gods and religion from intellectual pursuit and practical action;
- Indifference—the absence of any interest in the problems of gods and religion; or
- Unawareness of the concept of a deity.
While many of the celebrities listed as agnostic on our site are in fact atheist, our site has chosen to list people in the agnostic category if that is the word they choose to use to identify themselves.
Weak and Strong Atheism
Positive atheism (also called strong atheism and hard atheism) is the form of atheism that asserts that no deities exist. Negative atheism (also called weak atheism and soft atheism) is any other type of atheism, wherein a person does not believe in the existence of any deities, but does not explicitly assert there to be none. The terms negative atheism and positive atheism were used by Antony Flew in 1976, and appeared again in Michael Martin's writings in 1990.
Because of flexibility in the term god, it is possible that a person could be a positive/strong atheist in terms of certain conceptions of God, while remaining a negative/weak atheist in terms of others. For example, the God of classical theism is often considered to be a personal supreme being who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent, caring about humans and human affairs. One might be a positive atheist for such a deity (see problem of evil), while being a negative atheist with respect to a deistic conception of God by rejecting belief in such a deity but not explicitly asserting it to be false.
Positive and negative atheism are distinct from the philosopher George H. Smith's less-well-known categories of implicit and explicit atheism, also relating to whether an individual holds a specific view that gods do not exist. "Positive explicit" atheists assert that it is false that any deities exist. "Negative explicit" atheists assert they do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert it is true that no deity exists. Those who do not believe any deities exist, but do not assert such non-belief, are included among implicit atheists. Among "implicit" atheists are thus sometimes included the following: children and adults who have never heard of deities; people who have heard of deities but have never given the idea any considerable thought; and those agnostics who suspend belief about deities, but do not reject such belief. All implicit atheists are included in the negative/weak categorization.
Under this positive/negative classification, some agnostics would qualify as negative atheists. The validity of this categorization is disputed, however, and a few prominent atheists such as Richard Dawkins avoid it. In The God Delusion, Dawkins describes people for whom the probability of the existence of God is between "very high" and "very low" as "agnostic" and reserves the term "strong atheist" for those who claim to know there is no God. He categorizes himself as a "de facto atheist" but not a "strong atheist" on this scale. Within negative atheism, philosopher Anthony Kenny further distinguishes between agnostics, who find the claim "God exists" uncertain, and theological noncognitivists, who consider all talk of gods to be meaningless.
New Atheism is the name given to a movement among some early-21st-century atheist writers who have advocated the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises." The movement is commonly associated with Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger. Several best-selling books by these authors, published between 2004 and 2007, form the basis for much of the discussion of New Atheism.