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date: 25 August 2019

Introduction: The Study of Atheism

Abstract and Keywords

This introduction outlines the vision and scope of The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. While, historically speaking, the academic study of atheism has not always and everywhere received the attention it deserves, that does not mean that there is not already a significant body of scholarship on the subject. In particular, a great deal of new and exciting work—in a wide range of disciplines, and from scholars in many different countries—has emerged within the past decade. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism seeks to bring much of this together in one volume, not only as a synthesis and survey of what is already out there, but (we very much hope) as an aid and prompt to current and future researchers going ever further. This introduction also includes an overview of the contents of the Handbook.

Keywords: vision, scope, contents, study of atheism, body of scholarship, academic, disciplines, future researchers

The Death of God

God is dead!’ A cry greeted with despondency in some quarters—including that occupied by one of the editors of this volume—and with joy tinged with relief in other quarters—including that occupied by the other of the editors of this volume. The cry of course is that of the great nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and it is worth giving the whole passage (in The Gay Science) from which this famous aphorism is taken:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! Yet his shadow still looms. How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! The holiest and mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood from us? With what water could we clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what holy games will we have to invent for ourselves? Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it?

(Nietzsche [1882] 2001: 120)

The death of God is more, far more, than the demise of the distinguished-looking elderly fellow in the paintings of Michelangelo, someone trying hard to imitate Charlton Heston in a bed sheet. The existence of the deity—to be a believer, a theist in some sense, or to be a non-believer, an atheist in some sense—is no mere matter of academic concern and interest. Nor is it something merely of moment for the hereafter, beyond the deaths of each and every one of us. A world with God and a world without God are two very different places, with very different meanings and obligations for us humans who occupy them. Humans created, loved, and supported by the deity are humans very different from those who wander alone, without external meaning or purpose, creating their own destinies. Whether Nietzsche was right about the death of God, he was surely right about the importance and significance of the death of God. Hence this volume.

(p. 2) Studying Atheism

It would be fair to say that the scholarly study of atheism—understood in this volume in the broad sense of ‘an absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods’—has, historically, been something of a mixed bag. In certain times and places, and in specific disciplines, a reasonable amount of careful and serious attention has been devoted to the subject. Theologians, not surprisingly, have a longstanding interest—and one which, at least in the West, almost certainly predates the existence of (m)any actual atheists (see Buckley 1987; and Alan Charles Kors’ ‘The Age of Enlightenment’ chapter). Philosophers of several stripes—not just ‘of religion’, but in across a range of specialisms including ethics, language, science, and the meaning of life—can also hold their heads up high. Albeit to a lesser extent, so too may historians, literary critics, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists.1 In recent years students of atheism have, moreover, been blessed by the publication of several tough-act-to-follow multidisciplinary collections (Baier et al. 2001; Martin 2007; Flynn 2007; Amarasingam 2010; Zuckerman 2010a).

Yet while it is important to give credit where it’s (over)due, it is true that atheism has not always received the attention it both deserves and, we would argue, needs. The familiar academic squalls of ‘unjustly neglected’, ‘significant lacunae’, ‘much work still to be done’—so often a case of protesting too much—can, for once, undoubtedly be justified here (see Pasquale 2007; Zuckerman 2010b). To give but a single example, probably the very first international conference on the social-scientific study of atheism was held in Rome in 1969, featuring a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of contributors (e.g., Charles Glock, Robert Bellah, David Martin, Bryan R. Wilson, Harvey Cox, Karl Rahner, Peter Berger, Henri de Lubac, Milan Machovec—and even Pope Paul VI; see Caporale and Grumelli 1971). And yet, despite other signs of early promise (esp. Campbell [1971] 2013), it would be fully four decades until the next such gathering was held, on a much more modest scale, at Oxford in 2009 (Bullivant and Lee 2012). Those forty lean years coincided—it is worth pointing out—with a time of both unprecedented growth in the numbers and social significance of atheists and other nonreligionists in the West (see Callum Brown’s ‘The Twentieth Century’ chapter), and with the continued rise and subsequent fall of many (though not all) of the world’s first atheist states in the East (see Irena Borowik, Branko Ančić, and Radosław Tyrała’s ‘Central and Eastern Europe’ chapter). Similar—or rather, in most cases, far worse—tales could be told of the fortunes of atheism in other academic fields. Which is not, of course, to say that nothing of scholarly value has been done in these areas already—far from it!—but rather that there is far more that could (and should) be done. Though they need not pretend to be lone voices crying in the scholarly wilderness, working ex nihilo, atheism researchers in all disciplines do indeed (p. 3) face a great deal of terra incognita—a prospect at once daunting (so much tedious bushwhacking…) and exhilarating (‘treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places’ and all that).2

The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, we believe, constitutes a fair reflection of this situation. Evidently, the authors of our 46 chapters have collectively drawn on a huge corpus of existing research—a corpus which, like the authors themselves, spans several continents, and an array of different disciplinary perspectives. In common with other volumes in this august series, readers should be confident of finding in these chapters reliable and sure-footed guides to the existing—and, on certain topics, voluminous—literature. (Though even the most well-trodden of paths can, to the keen and experienced eye, yield surprises.) This Handbook is, however, far from being simply a survey and synthesis. The past several years have witnessed a remarkable growth in studies of atheism and related topics. As editors, it gives us very great pleasure to introduce our readers to some of the first fruits of this. There is scarcely a chapter in this book that has not benefitted from major new pieces of insight or information, in many cases published within only the last five or so years. What is more, a good number of the entries—including, but no means limited to, those on ‘Jewish Atheism’, ‘Atheism, Gender, and Sexuality’, ‘Atheism, Health, and Well-being’, ‘The Islamic World’, ‘Japan’, ‘The Visual Arts’, ‘Music’, and ‘Film’—are among the (or even are the) first such scholarly treatments of the topic to be published. With so rich and diverse a subject, and the growing vim and vigour of the scholarship surrounding it, we look forward to current and future researchers—aided and abetted, we humbly hope, by our current offering—delving deeper into these areas (and, indeed, trailblazing several more). The ‘work-in-progress’, ‘more-to-follow’, ‘stay-tuned’ nature of much that is in this collection is by no means a failing. Rather, it is one of its cardinal strengths. After all, catching up with it all this ever-growing research is precisely what second (and third, and fourth) editions are for…

Finally, as editors we are naturally well aware that atheism is an at-times hotly contested subject. Indeed, in our view, that is a large part of what makes this Handbook so interesting and—given positive atheism’s much commented-upon new ‘visibility’ within (especially) Western society and culture (cf. Taira and Illman 2012)—timely. In choosing topics and contributors we have aimed at balance, rather than a blandly uniform ‘neutrality’; this is most obvious in Parts I (philosophy) and IV (the natural sciences). All our authors can be expected to approach their topics in a scholarly and rigorous manner, and to present the full nuances of their given topics. But as leading experts in their fields—and in some cases, high-profile figures in popular or media discussions in this area—one may also assume them both to have, and to express, their own views. Some of the contributors to this volume are themselves atheists, whether (p. 4) ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ (see Bullivant’s ‘Defining “Atheism” chapter’); some of them are not. All of them, we aver, have something of significant value to say on their chosen subjects.

Overview of Contents

In light of the wide-ranging nature of the current scholarship on atheism—in all its varied and diffuse social, cultural, and intellectual manifestations—the Handbook is divided into seven main sections.

Part I (‘Definitions and Debates’) is primarily philosophical in nature. In the opening chapter, Stephen Bullivant surveys the various meanings of ‘atheism’, while explaining and justifying the Handbook’s own definition as ‘the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods’. The following four chapters engage arguments for and against the existence of God (and vice versa, against and for atheism). Rather than merely offering standard summaries of the various positions (teleological, ontological, moral argument, etc.), the first three of these instead allow three leading philosophers to present their own cases: T. J. Mawson against atheism, A. C. Grayling against theism (i.e., for negative atheism), and Graham Oppy for positive atheism. This is followed by Michael L. Peterson’s in-depth treatment of what has aptly been described as ‘the rock of atheism’ (Küng 1976: 432): the existence and extent of evil and suffering, and its manifold philosophical implications. Bold chapters on two major, academic and ‘real-life’, concerns then follow: morality (Erik J. Wielenberg), and the meaningfulness of life (Kimberly A. Blessing). The section’s final chapter, by Brian Davies, engages the thought of the medieval theologian and philosopher St Thomas Aquinas to explore religious language, the meaning of ‘God’, and the possibility of atheism.

Part II narrates the intellectual and social history of (predominantly) Western atheism,3 from antiquity right up to the present day. David Sedley ranges from the pre-Socratics to Lucretius, noting especially the difficulties of positively identifying actual atheists in this period (as opposed to those denounced as such, as most famously with Socrates). Mark Edwards continues this theme, covering the entirety of the first millennium CE, and discussing, inter alia, the Cynics, Sceptics, and uses of the epithet (p. 5) ‘atheist’ both by and about the early Christians. Chapters on atheism (and accusations thereof) in the medieval period (Dorothea Weltecke), the Renaissance and Reformation (Denis Robichaud), and the Age of Enlightenment (Alan Charles Kors) all follow. Turning more to social history, and the great cultural and societal changes shaping (and being shaped by) unbelief in Europe, North America, and beyond, David Nash narrates the nineteenth century, and Callum Brown the twentieth. Finally, Thomas Zenk brings the section right up to the twenty-first century by exploring the cluster of intellectual, social, cultural, media, and political phenomena loosely (and not un-problematically) referred to as the ‘New Atheism’. Together, these eight chapters are one of the most comprehensive and up-to-date treatments of the history of Western atheism(s) yet available.

Part III offers detailed treatments of eight atheistic systems or worldviews. These are intentionally diverse, and serve to underline the intellectual, cultural and geographical range of atheism. By including such topics as Hinduism (Jessica Frazier) and Buddhism (Andrew Skilton)—traditions that both (historically as well as in their contemporary manifestations) possess strong and influential sceptical strands—alongside Jainism (Anne Vallely) and Judaism (Jacques Berlinerblau), not to mention the classic topics of humanism (Stephen Law), Marxism (Peter Thompson), existentialism (Alison Stone) and analytic philosophy (Charles Pigden), this section helps to balance the Western emphasis of the previous section. In all cases, these chapters incorporate both historical and theoretical aspects, demonstrating the concrete manifestations and implications of unbelief in all its ‘endless forms’.

Part IV will engage a number of significant, and often very contentious, debates in the natural sciences. Rather than dilute the controverted nature of some of these topics, we have instead commissioned leading figures to survey the contemporary terrain, in addition to presenting their own views: Michael Ruse on naturalism; Taner Edis on atheism’s role (or not) in the rise of science; David P. Barash on Darwinism; and Victor Stenger on the physical sciences. These contributions are particularly important and timely, given the high status accorded to scientific arguments and concerns in much recent atheistic literature, and the buoyant media and popular interest in issues relating to science and religion—not all of it explored or expressed in a rigorous scholarly way.

Parts V and VI focus on the contemporary, social-scientific engagement with atheism—an area which, more than any other, has witnessed a notable upsurge in the past decade. Part V reviews and presents some of the most significant work emerging in the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and anthropology, much of it from early career scholars who are opening up new avenues of research. Among these chapters are investigations of: the relationships between atheism and secularization (Frank L. Pasquale and Barry A. Kosmin), the psychological and cognitive-anthropological understandings of unbelief (Miguel Farias and Jonathan A. Lanman respectively), societal health (Phil Zuckerman), gender and sexuality (Melanie Elyse Brewster), health and well-being (Karen Hwang), and conversion and deconversion (Ralph W. Hood Jr. and Zhuo Chen).

Complementing such thematic studies, Part VI explores the contemporary sociology of atheism in specific regions of the globe. Following a comprehensive, global (p. 6) demographics chapter (Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera), we highlight six, notably diverse areas. In line with the overarching aims for this volume, these bring out the sheer breadth and variety of atheism in the modern world. Three of these chapters—on Western Europe (Lois Lee), Central and Eastern Europe (Irena Borowik, Branko Ančić, and Radosław Tyrała), and North America (Ryan T. Cragun, Joseph H. Hammer, and Jesse M. Smith)—engage with existing empirical research, both quantitative and qualitative, while updating this in light of newly emerging work. While each of these three regions forms part of the same Western history of atheism (as delineated in Part II), nevertheless they present markedly different case studies of atheism in contemporary culture and society. The other three chapters in this section—the Islamic world (Samuli Schielke), India (Johannes Quack), and Japan (Sarah Whylly)—have been selected to offer contrasting perspectives from the non-Western world. While exploring key historical considerations—necessary for comprehending the present—these too rely substantially on original, and in many cases pioneering, empirical work.

Finally, Part VII engages historical and contemporary expressions of positive and negative atheism in the arts—subjects which have, until now, received very little attention. Breaking new ground, then, are Bernard Schweizer on literature, J. Sage Elwell on the visual arts, Paul A. Bertagnolli on music, and Nina Power on film. Given the great amount of scholarly and popular interest which the field of ‘religion and the arts’ generates, this section promises to be the most original and influential in the entire volume. It will, therefore, form a fitting conclusion to what we hope our readers will find to be a novel, useful, and illuminating collection.


Amarasingam, A. (ed.). 2010. Religion and the New Atheism: A Critical Appraisal (Leiden: Brill).Find this resource:

Baier, K., S. Mühlberger, H. Schelkshorn, and A. K. Wucherer-Huldenfeld (eds). 2001. Atheismus heute? Ein Weltphänomen im Wandel (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt).Find this resource:

Buckley, M. J. 1987. At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).Find this resource:

Bullivant, S. and L. Lee. 2012. ‘Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 27/1, 19–27.Find this resource:

Campbell, C. [1971] 2013. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (London: Alcuin Academics).Find this resource:

Caporale, R. and A. Grumelli (eds). 1971. The Culture of Unbelief: Studies and Proceedings from the first International Symposium on Belief Held at Rome, March 22-27, 1969 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).Find this resource:

Flynn, T. (ed.). 2007. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).Find this resource:

Küng, H. 1976. On Being a Christian, trans. Edward Quinn (Garden City, NY: Doubleday).Find this resource:

Martin, M. (ed.). 2007. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find this resource:

Nietzsche, F. [1882] 2001. The Gay Science, ed. B. Williams, trans. J. Nauckhoff and A. Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).Find this resource:

Pasquale, F. L. 2007. ‘Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect of’, in T. Flynn (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (Amherst, NY: Prometheus), 760–766.Find this resource:

(p. 7) Stark, R. 1999. ‘Atheism, Faith, and the Social Scientific Study of Religion’, Journal of Contemporary Religion 14/1, 41–62.Find this resource:

Taira, T. and R. Illman (eds). 2012. ‘The New Visibility of Atheism in Europe’ (special issue), Approaching Religion 2/1.Find this resource:

Zuckerman, P. (ed.). 2010a. Atheism and Secularity, 2 vols (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger).Find this resource:

Zuckerman, P. 2010b. ‘Introduction: The Social Scientific Study of Atheism and Secularity’, in Phil Zuckerman (ed.), Atheism and Secularity, Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, Definitions (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger), vii–xii. (p. 8) Find this resource:


(1) Evidence and bibliographical details for all these claims may be found, in abundance, throughout this Handbook.

(2) The reason(s) for the relative lack of attention given by scholars to atheism, and its myriad manifestations and implications, is itself an interesting question. However, it is the study of atheism, and not ‘the study of the study of atheism’, that is our concern here. For some theories concerning atheism’s comparative neglect (at least within the social sciences), see Stark 1999 and Bullivant and Lee 2012.

(3) Ethnocentric though this may seem (and indeed is), it would be fair to say that resources for constructing a truly global history of atheism are not yet available. Those interested in the non-Western history/ies of atheism will, though, find much of value elsewhere in the Handbook, especially in the chapters on ‘Buddhism’, ‘Jainism’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘The Islamic World’, ‘Japan’, and ‘India’. Our focus here on the Western history of atheism may also be justified on positive grounds, since this sets the primary backdrop to so many of the other topics dealt with in this volume. It is also worth pointing out that, such is the nature of things, ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ histories of atheism cannot be neatly disentangled. For example, the Arabic world features prominently in Dorothea Weltecke’s chapter on the ‘Medieval World’ (as does Byzantium in Mark Edwards’ ‘The First Millennium’), and the chapters on ‘The Islamic World’, ‘Japan’, and ‘India’ all highlight the influence of (originally) Western ideas within these contexts.