By Jo Banks, Inform
Atheism means being without (a-) god (-theos). It is a response to the claims of people who believe in a god, a rejection of theism, the position that a god exists. Beyond this basic definition, however, there is little agreement about what it means to be an atheist. The term “atheism” has meant many different things at different times, and is often used interchangeably with other words like “humanism” and “secularism”.
Which god is denied?
According to atheist politician and philosopher Paul Cliteur, being an atheist means that you deny only the existence of the personal, theistic god — the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam who has communicated to humans through religious texts. Cliteur argues that there are too many different concepts of god that people have believed in, ranging from the pantheon of ancient Greek deities to the idea that “God is love”. If an atheist was someone who had to deny all these concepts, then atheism becomes too vague, and must reject things that we might not even think of as religious. However, philosopher Michael Lou Martin argued that atheism is a denial or rejection of belief in any God or gods, not just a personal God.
Facts and stats
The number of people who identify as atheist is difficult to define, as the question is not routinely asked in surveys.
Sociologists say that the number of people who say they have no belief in God is typically larger than the number of people with atheist identities. In the 2021 census for England and Wales, 14,000 people said they were atheist, while the number of people identifying as non-religious increased to 22.2 million (37.2 per cent).
In the United States, Pew Research found in 2014 that 3.1 per cent identified as atheist, but 9 per cent said they did not believe in God.
It is hard to find global figures for atheism, but according to Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera in The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, about 7 per cent of the global population might be considered atheist: 450-500 million people.
Numbers vary enormously across countries, with more than half of the population of the Czech Republic, for example, saying that they do not believe in God, compared with under half a per cent in Indonesia, where publicly identifying as a non-believer carries great social stigma, even danger.
“Atheism” often has different meanings or connotations outside the West. Many Japanese might identify as “atheist” or “non-religious” and yet engage in ritual practices associated with multiple traditions (Buddhism, Shinto, Christianity, etc) that scholars often describe as religions.
In India, “rationalism” and “anti-superstition” have much more salience than “atheism” among contemporary non-believers and talking about atheism in India can be seen as anachronistic, if not colonial. Such similarities counter the stereotype of the non-West as intrinsically theistic.
Is atheism a worldview?
Alister McGrath, a Christian theologian and physicist, writes that an atheist is someone who has a worldview in which everything in the universe is explained, all of life’s questions are answered, and a conviction that there is no God. McGrath implies that there is a single belief system that all atheists would agree on.
There are, however, many sorts of worldviews that atheists have held. Some religions do not include a god or gods. Some people do not believe in God but do believe in the existence of spiritual entities or phenomena such as ghosts or astrology. Other people do not believe in anything beyond that which can be studied in science. These outlooks are all atheistic but have little in common beyond that.
Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion, describes two sorts of atheism. Positive atheism is the kind described by McGrath, where an atheist “holds a specific belief … that there is no God or gods”. Negative atheism is “the absence of belief in the existence of a God or gods”.
There are many atheist organisations and charities that encourage atheists to come together and work toward shared goals and reject religious worldviews. These include the British Humanist Association, American Atheists, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. There are also so-called “atheist churches” such as the Sunday Assembly and Seattle Atheist Church, which aim to replicate much of the church service atmosphere, but without the worship of a supreme being or deity.
Because there is no official atheist belief system that all atheists would agree with, and no books of ethics or philosophy that every atheist would consider authoritative, there is no orthodox “atheist belief” or position on topics such as the afterlife or spirituality.
Bullivant et al found that the number of atheists believing in life after death differed depending on the nationality of atheists surveyed. Fewer than 20 per cent of UK atheists believed in an afterlife, for example, compared with about 30 per cent of Brazilian atheists.
History of atheism
The ancient Greek ἄθεος (atheos) meaning “without god or gods” is the original root of the words atheism and atheist. This term originated before the fifth century BCE and was used as a pejorative to condemn those who rejected the gods worshipped in Ancient Greek society, Many of the arguments that atheists use against the existence of God today were originally raised by the philosophers of ancient Greece, including Socrates, who was executed in 399 BCE for, among other things, “not believing in the gods of the city”.
Socrates’s example was not the norm however. Ancient philosophers did not refer to themselves as atheists and atheism was largely tolerated by ancient Greco-Roman society until the time when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity.
Labelling someone an atheist continued to be a form of condemnation into the late fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I passed laws against a group referred to as “atheos”. This term described everyone opposed to the teachings of the church and included both non-Christians and Christian heretics alike. After Imperial Rome’s adoption of Christianity as its state religion, there was little serious thought about atheism in the West for more than a millennium.
It is arguable that there are several atheist schools of thought in philosophical traditions outside the West, including Buddhism, Jainism, and some branches of Hindu philosophy.
Buddhist philosophy, for example, considers the question of the existence of God no more than an irrelevant distraction from the practical problem posed by the experience of suffering in the world. Many Buddhist thinkers between the 5th and 10th centuries raised arguments against the existence of an eternal, all-loving creator God, arguably because they saw the existence of God as incompatible with their belief in karma. Other Buddhists adopted an attitude of worship towards Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which resembles the worship of a supreme being in other religious traditions.
Some European thinkers, writers, and criminals were called atheists in the centuries leading up to the Enlightenment. Many of these challenged the reliability of the Bible, the morality of the church, or whether the universe was created, but we do not know how many denied God’s existence.
John Locke (1632-1704), while a theist, questioned some aspects of religious doctrine, including the immateriality of the soul, original sin, and the Trinity, and potentially opened the way for a more confident rejection of belief in God itself.
Central to the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment was the use and celebration of reason, the search for truth through the faculties of the mind, and a rejection of submission to faith, authority, and tradition. Many writers including Immanuel Kant, Thomas Paine, and Voltaire published challenges to the traditional readings of religious texts, and to church authorities.
In the late 1700s, texts that explicitly denied the existence of God were published in Europe, and people began to openly describe themselves as atheists without fear of imprisonment or execution.
During the French Revolution of 1789-99, revolutionaries opposed the Roman Catholic Church and sought to establish a new atheistic state religion that rejected belief in God. In the centuries since, non religion has increased. In France, 23.8 per cent of French residents had no religion as of 2020, although a 2021 survey suggested that a higher number – 51 per cent – do not believe in God.
Atheism and naturalism
Naturalism is the belief that everything that exists can be recorded, measured, and studied through the natural sciences, and usually rules out a belief in supernatural beings like God.
It is, however, not true that every atheist is a naturalist; a study conducted by Bullivant et al found that many people who do not believe in God do believe in supernatural things that can’t be studied, including the afterlife, reincarnation, and astrology. Some Eastern religions like Jainism, which are atheist in the sense that they do not teach belief in a supreme being, do teach belief in supernatural concepts like karma.
It is also not true that naturalists always reject a belief in God. Christian theologians including Arthur Peacocke (1924-2006) argue that we can measure and study God’s work through natural processes like biological evolution, where life is continually created.
Atheism and deism
Deism was traditionally a term used to describe an 18th-century European school of thought where followers believed in a supreme being but not in communication from gods or religious texts and scriptures. It is often defined as the belief in a God who created the world but has since done nothing to influence it in any way. Instead, deists believed that we could gain knowledge about the creator of the universe by observing nature and using rational thought. They rejected what the texts said about God, the afterlife, sin, or how to worship. But they believed in a version of God, even if that god hasn’t communicated with humans or provided us with a religious text.
Atheism and agnosticism
The term agnosticism comes from the Greek ἀγνῶσις (agnosis), meaning “without knowledge”. T. H. Huxley, the scientist and anthropologist who coined the term, intended that an agnostic would be someone who would not act as if something is certain or obvious if they did not have good evidence for believing in it.
An agnostic acknowledges that they do not have any way to determine whether or not God exists. Someone who is an agnostic in this more recent, narrower sense could be either a theist or an atheist. An agnostic theist might believe that there is no way to prove that God exists, and that belief in God instead comes through a leap of faith. An agnostic atheist could believe that it is not possible to know whether God exists or not and say that they therefore remain unconvinced that God exists.
Atheism and humanism
The Humanists UK website defines humanists as “non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical, meaningful, and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity”.
For this organisation, humanism is a movement that denies the afterlife and the existence of anything supernatural. They state that humanists will be either atheists or agnostics, and also be naturalists, believing that everything in the world can be studied and understood by science. This perspective on humanism is also shared by organisations like the American Humanist Association, which describes humanism as being “without theism or other supernatural beliefs”.
Atheism and secularity
Dr Lois Lee, senior lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent, explains that the concept of secularity is “inclusive of everything which is not religious or primarily religious … The study of the secular would, strictly speaking, incorporate anything from supporting a football team to the practice of drinking tea.” Unlike atheism, which is defined as a response to belief in God, secular is the word we use for everything that is not religious, for example secular governments. We think of secular as meaning something that has removed religion or has decided it has no place for religion.
New Atheism is a movement that popularised a more hostile stance against religion, bump-started by such books as The God Delusion (2006) by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007), and The End of Faith by Sam Harris (2004). These three authors never referred to themselves as belonging to a “New Atheist movement”, but along with the philosopher Daniel Dennett they are sometimes referred to as the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism”.
The movement emerged during a time in which religion was being cited as the cause or a motivating factor in several global conflicts. According to Dawkins, the public became receptive to books advocating for atheism only after four years of George W. Bush, who famously said that God had told him to invade Iraq.
Harris explained that his book The End of Faith was a reaction to the 9/11 attacks by Islamic terrorists, and what he saw as the encroachment of organised religion into world politics. Out of this context arose a version of atheism that didn’t just deny theism, but sought to destroy it, characterised by journalist Simon Hooper as believing that religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticised, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.
New Atheists were described in the media as religious themselves, being evangelical and dogmatic in their advocacy for atheism, with Dawkins labelled a “high priest of atheism” engaged in a crusade to win new recruits to the “church of nonbelievers”.
In The God Delusion, perhaps the best-known of the books written by the Four Horsemen, Dawkins describes scientific thinking and faith as existing on opposite ends of a spectrum, enemies that can’t be given equal respect in society. Dawkins ridicules the idea of believing in God, stating that it is a false belief and comparing it to a belief in fairies or leprechauns. Religion is described as standing in the way of a progressive and forward-thinking society, as it subverts science, encourages bigotry, and divides people. The imposition of religion on children is, for Dawkins, child abuse, and religion itself dangerous to society.
In contrast to this regressive, irrational belief in God, Dawkins proposes philosophical naturalism, a worldview that only accepts as true that which can be verified through the scientific method. Atheists are encouraged to be proud of their lack of belief, and to see it as a mark of a rational, healthy, independent person who respects science.
The Four Horsemen and other popular advocates for atheism also participated in a number of high-profile debates with religious speakers, for example, a two-hour debate between Sam Harris and Christian apologist William Lane Craig, uploaded in 2011, has had 12 million views on YouTube as of December 2022.
A subculture of atheist content developed online around this time, with compilations of the “greatest comebacks” or best arguments from atheist speakers drawing millions of views. Content creators like Thunderf00t and The Amazing Atheist adopted a similar tone to Dawkins and Harris. These online personalities, who today each have about a million subscribers, became popular by participating in debates against defenders of religion and making videos that advocated for atheism and challenged or criticised theism.
Organisations representing atheists in the UK
Founded in 2007, this organisation was set up to challenge the stigma against leaving Islam, fight for the right to criticise Islam, and take a stand against Sharia. The council’s website describes its membership as non-believers, atheists, and ex-Muslims, and adopts a confrontational stance against the “devastation caused by religion”. Among other activities like the organisation of international events with other organisations, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain runs monthly meet-ups, socials, and support groups for its members. The organisation has more than 20,000 followers on Facebook and 35,000 followers on Twitter.
Founded in 2009, this organisation takes a hostile stance to religion like members of the New Atheism movement, and states that its sole objective is the “advancement of atheism”. Atheism UK characterises religious faith as false and irrational, and religion itself as harmful, especially to children. According to their website, Atheism UK engages in community building, distribution of atheist resources, and protests. The group has no official membership numbers, but has 3,500 followers on Twitter, 1,500 likes on Facebook, and 300 subscribers on YouTube.
This group was founded in 1896 and has adopted a view of humanism as explicitly atheist, rejecting belief in God and life after death. However, unlike such groups as Atheism UK, Humanists UK is not hostile to religion. The organisation seeks to provide non-religious people with some of the services traditionally offered by religious organisations. It holds non-religious versions of ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, pastoral support, and education services for the non-religious. Humanists UK’s website claims to have more than 100,000 members and supporters, has over 200,000 followers on Facebook, and 110,000-plus followers on Twitter.
This group, founded in 2013 is an example of an atheist church that holds non-religious services in the place of those offered by religious organisations. Starting in London, this movement has become international, and today there are more than 40 Sunday Assemblies worldwide. The original and largest community, based in London, holds two assemblies every month. The organisation also facilitates self-help groups, engages in charity work, and encourages members to socialise. Sunday Assembly has more than 12,000 likes on Facebook and 7000 followers on Twitter.
References and further reading
Bullivant, S., 2013. Defining atheism. The Oxford Handbook of Atheism, pp.11-21.
Bullivant, S., Farias, M., Lanman, J. and Lee, L., 2019. Understanding Unbelief: Atheists and agnostics around the world.
Cliteur, P., 2009. The definition of atheism.
Kapstein, M.T., 2005. The Buddhist refusal of theism. Diogenes, 52(1), pp.61-65.
Lee, L., 2012. Research note: Talking about a revolution: Terminology for the new field of non-religion studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1), pp.129-139.
Martin, M., 1992. Atheism: A philosophical justification. Temple University Press.
McGrath, A., 2004. The twilight of atheism: The rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world. Doubleday.
Peacocke, A., 2004. Evolution: The disguised friend of faith?. Templeton Foundation Press.
Whitmarsh, T., 2016. Battling the gods: Atheism in the ancient world. Vintage.
Wilson, B.R., 1966. Religion in secular society. Oxford University Press.
Wootton, D., 1992. New histories of atheism. Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, pp.13-53.
Jo Banks is a researcher at Inform. based at King’s College London, [email protected]. Inform can often put journalists in touch with academics with recent evidence-based research on specific movements