Alan Charles Kors
This article discusses the meanings, origin, context, scope, and central intellectual claims of atheism in the Age of the European Enlightenment. It emphasizes debates about proofs of the existence of God and about the problem of categorical naturalism, that is, of whether or not the world we observe and its seeming design could be the product of unintelligent causes. It explores the philosophical origins of Enlightenment atheism both in prior heterodox and Epicurean thought, and, of even greater importance, in the orthodox debates, scholarship, and mutual contestations that generated so many of the themes and often arguments of Enlightenment atheists. It pays special attention to the complexity of the relationship between philosophical skepticism and atheistic thought. Given the flowering of explicitly atheistic thought in the late French Enlightenment, the article looks closely at the work of Denis Diderot, the baron d’Holbach, and Jacques-André Naigeon.
Most analytic philosophers are atheists, but is there a deep connection between analytic philosophy and atheism? The paper argues (a) that the founding fathers of analytic philosophy were mostly teenage atheists before they became philosophers; (b) that analytic philosophy was invented partly because it was realized that the God-substitute provided by the previously fashionable philosophy—Absolute Idealism—could not cut the spiritual mustard; (c) that analytic philosophy developed an unhealthy obsession with meaninglessness which led to a new kind of atheism that dismissed talk of God as factually meaningless (neither true nor false) rather than meaningful but false; but (d) that this new-fangled atheism (unlike the old-fashioned atheism of the founders) is false, since it relies on theories of meaning—verificationism and falsificationism—which are themselves false. The primary focus is on Bertrand Russell, though other analytic philosophers such as Ayer, Neurath and Flew are also extensively discussed.
This essay aims to explain what Aquinas does and does not mean when using the word ‘God’. It also tries to explain why Aquinas thinks it reasonable to conclude that God exists and how Aquinas can be compared and contrasted with certain thinkers both agreeing and disagreeing with this conclusion. The essay places emphasis on Aquinas’s notion of esse and on the fact that he consistently asserts that we do not know what God is.
This essay distinguishes three kinds of arguments for atheism: direct; indirect; and comparative. The article begins with a quick survey of direct arguments, and argues that the prospects for successful arguments of this kind are not good. It then sketches a comparative argument, and argues that, while its prospects are also not terrifically bright—though plainly brighter than the prospects for any argument for theism!—a successful argument for atheism would most likely look something like the comparative argument that it has sketched.
The findings of the cognitive sciences enrich our understanding of atheism by providing a more nuanced and empirically grounded concept of ‘belief’ and by problematizing psychological assumptions often employed in theorizing about atheism. Beliefs are diverse not only in content but also level of cognitive processing, and implicit beliefs can and do diverge from explicit beliefs. This is just as true for beliefs about supernatural agents as it is for beliefs about physical objects. Further, findings from the cognitive sciences call into question the notion that human beings are ‘rational’ and the notion that beliefs can be explained by their ability to provide comfort. The cognitive sciences are replacing such assumptions with an empirically grounded vision of mind and belief.
David P. Barash
Although evolution by natural selection does not necessarily disprove the existence of God (thus, it does not ‘prove’ the validity of atheism), it negates two of the more potent pro-religion arguments, here dubbed the ‘Argument from Complexity’ and the ‘Reassurance of Specialness’. In addition, it provides support for one of the strongest challenges to traditional religious belief, by contributing to the ‘Reiteration of Theodicy’.
Erik J. Wielenberg
This essay addresses two popular worries about morality in an atheistic context. The first is a psychological or sociological one: the worry that unbelief makes one more disposed to act immorally than one would be if one had theistic beliefs (of a certain sort) and, consequently, widespread atheism produces societal dysfunction. This essay argues that the relationship between atheism and human moral beliefs and behaviour is complex, and that highly secularized societies can also be deeply moral societies. The second worry is philosophical in nature: the worry that if there is no God or gods, then there are also no objective moral truths or facts. This essay make the case that the question of whether there are objective moral truths is independent of the existence or nonexistence of God. In the final section, the essay discusses the nature and possible grounds of objective morality in an atheistic context.
This article examines the strong correlation that currently exists between high levels of secularity in a given society positive societal well-being. By looking at the most and least theistic nations on earth, as well as the most and least theistic states in the United States, and by taking into consideration a wide array of indicators of societal well-being, the correlation is clear: the most secular societies on earth with the highest rates of non-belief fare much better, on average, than the most religious, strongly-believing societies. While understanding that correlation does not equal causation, this article still maintains that theism is clearly not the societal panacea many claim it to be, nor is atheism a source of societal degradation.
Kimberly A. Blessing
Both theists and atheists have attempted to show that their opponent’s orientation towards religion prevents them from living truly meaningful lives. But exclusivists on both sides are wrong. For neither atheists nor theists are necessarily committed to meaninglessness. This essay focuses attention on two key components of theistic meaning of life theories that theists argue are importantly missing from atheistic theories, immortality and a Divine Plan. It also considers atheistic alternatives to theistic accounts of meaningfulness that involve subjectivism, intrinsic values, and Susan Wolf’s hybrid theory of meaning. We come to see that genuine meaning for either theists or atheists requires some conceptual commitments, and the dispute about which side can live meaningfully is yet another case of the two sides talking past each other. Alternatively, if we allow for the different kinds and degrees of meaning we may conclude that both theists and atheists are able to offer rationally acceptable theories of life’s meaning(s).
Victor J. Stenger
While belief in gods was almost universal in the ancient world, Thales of Miletus introduced the notion that observed phenomena could be explained in natural terms without invoking imagined spirits. Leucippus and Democritus, and later Epicurus and Lucretius, proposed that everything was composed of particulate atoms in an otherwise empty void. Any gods that existed played no role in the human world. The universe was infinite, eternal, uncreated, and included many worlds besides our own. These ideas conflicted with the other philosophical schools of the time and were suppressed by the Church during the Dark Ages. Atomism reappeared during the Renaissance and became a crucial ingredient in the scientific revolution that followed. The atomic picture of matter has now been solidly confirmed. Furthermore, the notion of an infinite, eternal, and uncreated ‘multiverse’ is strongly suggested by modern cosmology.
Atheists, conservative theists, and religious liberals often read the history of science in ways that support their own position. Atheists expect continual mutual support between science and nonbelief, conservatives emphasize theistic metaphysical foundations for science; and liberals find a historical development toward separate spheres for science and religion. The rise of science was more complicated than anticipated by any of these stories. Atheism and science have usually developed almost independently, with weak connections. Today, the naturalism of modern scientific descriptions of the world is consonant with an atheistic position. But even now, significant tensions between science and atheism remain.
Frank L. Pasquale and Barry A. Kosmin
There are signs of both secularization and religionization in the world today. Consistent with the modernization-secularization thesis, structural factors such as increasing economic security, societal complexity, and information flow are broadly associated with greater personal autonomy, worldview individualization, and erosion of some religious forms. At the same time, ‘counter-secular’ reassertions or transformations of religion have arisen for psychological, cultural, and political reasons. Amid these broad developments, active or public forms of atheism have also (re-)emerged, particularly in Europe and the Anglophone world. Self-conscious, assertive atheism and other forms of philosophical or ideological secularism have both intended and unintended effects in the processes of secularization and religionization. But a quieter and potentially more pervasive result of all these forces may be greater worldview diversity and individualization across the secular-religious spectrum.
Melanie Elyse Brewster
The present article explores scholarship regarding links between atheism, gender, and sexuality. A review and analysis of available theory and research is presented through a social scientific lens. Specifically, research suggesting that more men than women identify as atheist is contextualized through reviews of gender role socialization, structural location, personality, and evolutionary theories. Ties between atheism, women’s issues, and feminism are also discussed. Moreover, data about atheism and religiosity amongst lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) groups is presented. Findings regarding rates of atheist identification and sexual orientation indicate that atheism may be higher among LGBTQ individuals than heterosexually identified people; such research is discussed in the context of anti-LGBTQ religious stigmatization and oppression. Lastly, in an effort to deconstruct ‘coming out’ as atheist identity development processes, parallels between LGBTQ and atheist movements are examined and critiqued. Directions for future research are proposed.
The last few years have seen a great deal of research on the association between religion, spirituality, and medical outcomes. This research has not been without controversy however, in terms of methodological and analytical issues. One particular under-researched area concerns the increasingly visible sub-population of individuals who identify themselves as ‘nonreligious’, a group that includes atheists, agnostics and individuals who believe in god(s) but do not identify with one particular religion. As a result, relatively little is known about the health and quality of life within this particular group, not only in comparison to religious individuals, but also within nonreligious populations as well. This essay covers three major issues: (1) a brief summary of the controversies concerning religion-health research; (2) what the current research does indicate about the nonreligious, particularly about affirmative atheists (as opposed to simply ‘nonreligious’); and (3) reasons for the neglect of nonreligious individuals to date and reasons for increasing attention to them.
The article examines evidence for characteristic Buddhist positions regarding the nature and soteriological status of deities. It establishes that deities are but one of several classes of transient entities that need spiritual guidance and argues that by accepting the existence of such entities Buddhism is, according to the operating definition of the volume, a theistic tradition. It also shows that, whereas later Buddhist thinkers developed sophisticated critiques of concepts of a universal God developed within Indian Hindu tradition and are committed to a strongly atheist stance, texts representing early Buddhism tend to be epistemologically cautious rather than directly atheist. This is picture is explored through the exposition of verses from Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra and supplemented by reference to suttas and jātakas from the Pali canon. Finally, it dismisses a quasi-theistic interpretation of some aspects of Buddhist traditions.
T. J. Mawson
This essay begins by remarking that the broad understanding of atheism (‘absence of belief in a God or gods’) is not a position that theism per se commits one to claiming is unreasonable. The essay then, however, proceeds to present an argument against atheism being reasonable. This constitutes a variant of the fine-tuning version of the Design Argument, and contends that both the universe’s fine-tuning to us, and our fine-tuning to the universe, are better explained by the ‘God hypothesis’ than by a range of alternatives (including the ‘maximal multiverse hypothesis’). While admitting that there is no single ‘killer argument’ against atheism, the essay argues that a persuasive, cumulative case for the God hypothesis—with cosmic fine-tuning as its strongest suit—can nevertheless be constructed.
Irena Borowik, Branko Ančić, and Radosław Tyrała
This essay offers a fresh exploration of atheism in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), while also providing an overview of existing research into atheism and non-religion in the region. In light of the legacy of state-imposed atheism, and the subsequent (apparent) ‘religious awakening’ in some countries, the authors demonstrate the significance of national religious traditions and confessional structures for understanding diversity of atheism’s nature and extent within the area. Analysis of European Values Survey data show that confessional structures of societies play more important role in spread of atheism than religious tradition (Catholicism or Orthodoxy) and that religious mono-confessionality supports vitality of religion, while religious pluralism makes more space for further differentiations of world-views, including atheism. The analysis also confirm that in CEE atheists, both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’, are not coherent as a group, and that some of them profess belief in supernatural powers and/or declare a religious affiliation.
Ralph W. Hood Jr. and Zhuo Chen
Research on deconversion can largely be seen as a mirror image of research on conversion. While the latter focuses upon gradual or sudden acceptance of a religion, the former focuses upon the abandonment of a religion which also may be sudden or gradual. To define either religion or atheism simply in terms of belief is what has been termed the objectivist fallacy. Atheism like religion is a multidimensional construct. Empirical studies document that belief is only one factor in accepting or rejecting religion. Participation in religion as well as deconverting from religion is seldom simply a cognitive matter. Atheistically motivate deconversion may be sudden or gradual and motivated by emotional or positive factors that may involve various reasons for rejecting specific religious beliefs, including the existence of God.
A. C. Grayling
Within the history of western philosophy, there have been a number of classic ways of arguing for the existence of God. The most important of these are the teleological argument (or argument from design), the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the moral argument, and a loose family of pragmatic considerations affirming the prudence or desirability of theistic belief (including, most famously, ‘Pascal’s wager’). Demonstrating the weaknesses of these approaches is crucial for establishing the ‘negative’ case for atheism. This essay begins by defining what it is that philosophers normally means by ‘God’—i.e., what it is that the classic arguments in the philosophy of religion are arguing about. It then outlines and critiques each main approach in turn, focusing primarily on its most classic and influential expressions within the western philosophical tradition.
‘Atheism’ is a term that has historically carried a wide range of meanings and connotations. Popular speech, in particular, admits of a range of definitions, but the same is true of contemporary scholarly usage also. This chapter therefore surveys the sheer variety of ways of defining ‘atheism’, before outlining the pressing need for a generally agreed-upon usage in the growing—and, thus far, Babel-like—field of scholarship on atheism. It then outlines and explains the precise definition used throughout the Handbook: an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods. The utility of such a broad definition, taking atheism to be an ‘umbrella concept’ that admits of a range of subdivisions (e.g., ‘positive’ and ‘negative’), is then explored and defended at length.