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Atheism, as an explicit position, can be either the affirmation of the nonexistence of gods, or the rejection of theism. It is also defined more broadly as synonymous with any form of nontheism, including the simple absence of belief in deities.

Many self-described atheists are skeptical of all supernatural beings and cite a lack of empirical evidence for the existence of deities. Others argue for atheism on philosophical, social or historical grounds. Although many self-described atheists tend toward secular philosophies such as humanism and naturalism, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere; and some religions, such as Jainism and Theravada Buddhism, do not require belief in a personal god.

The term atheism originated as a pejorative epithet applied to any person or belief in conflict with established religion. With the spread of freethought, scientific skepticism, and criticism of religion, the term began to gather a more specific meaning and has been increasingly used as a self-description by atheists.


The Greek word αθεοι (atheoi), as it appears in the Epistle to the Ephesians ( 2:12) on the early 3rd-century Papyrus 46. It is usually translated into English as "[those who are] without God".

In early Ancient Greek, the adjective atheos ( ἄθεος, from the [[privative a|privative -]] + θεός "god") meant "godless". The word began to indicate more-intentional, active godlessness in the 5th century BCE, acquiring definitions of "severing relations with the gods" or "denying the gods, ungodly" instead of the earlier meaning of ἀσεβής (asebēs) or "impious". Modern translations of classical texts sometimes render atheos as "atheistic". As an abstract noun, there was also ἀθεότης (atheotēs), "atheism". Cicero transliterated the Greek word into the Latin atheos. The term found frequent use in the debate between early Christians and Hellenists, with each side attributing it, in the pejorative sense, to the other.

In English, the term atheism was derived from the French athéisme in about 1587. The term atheist (from Fr. athée), in the sense of "one who denies or disbelieves the existence of God", predates atheism in English, being first attested in about 1571. Atheist as a label of practical godlessness was used at least as early as 1577. Related words emerged later: deist in 1621, theist in 1662; theism in 1678; and deism in 1682. Deism and theism changed meanings slightly around 1700, due to the influence of atheism; deism was originally used as a synonym for today's theism, but came to denote a separate philosophical doctrine.

Karen Armstrong writes that "During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the word 'atheist' was still reserved exclusively for polemic ... The term 'atheist' was an insult. Nobody would have dreamed of calling himself an atheist." Atheism was first used to describe a self-avowed belief in late 18th-century Europe, specifically denoting disbelief in the monotheistic Abrahamic god. In the 20th century, globalization contributed to the expansion of the term to refer to disbelief in all deities, though it remains common in Western society to describe atheism as simply "disbelief in God". Most recently, there has been a push in certain philosophical circles to redefine atheism as the "absence of belief in deities", rather than as a belief in its own right; this definition has become popular in atheist communities, though its mainstream usage has been limited.

Definitions and distinctions

A chart showing the relationship between the definitions of weak/strong and implicit/explicit atheism. An implicit atheist has not thought about belief in gods; such an individual would be described as implicitly without a belief in gods. An explicit atheist has made an assertion regarding belief in gods; such an individual may eschew belief in gods (weak atheism), or affirm that gods do not exist (strong atheism).

Writers disagree how best to define and classify atheism, contesting what supernatural entities it applies to, whether it is an assertion in its own right or merely the absence of one, and whether it requires a conscious, explicit rejection. A variety of categories have been proposed to try to distinguish the different forms of atheism, most of which treat atheism as "absence of belief in deities" in order to explore the varieties of this nontheism.


Some of the ambiguity and controversy involved in defining atheism arises from difficulty in reaching a consensus for the definitions of words like deity and god. The plurality of wildly different conceptions of god and deities leads to differing ideas regarding atheism's applicability. In contexts where theism is defined as the belief in a singular personal god, for example, people who believe in a variety of other deities may be classified as atheists, including deists and even polytheists. In the 20th century, this view has fallen into disfavor as theism has come to be understood as encompassing belief in any divinity.

With respect to the range of phenomena being rejected, atheism may counter anything from the existence of a god, to the existence of any spiritual, supernatural, or transcendental concepts, such as those of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Implicit vs. explicit

Definitions of atheism also vary in the degree of consideration a person must put to the idea of gods to be considered an atheist. Minimally, atheism may be seen as the absence of belief in one or more gods. It has been contended that this broad definition includes newborns and other people who have not been exposed to theistic ideas. As far back as 1772, Baron d'Holbach said that "All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God." Similarly, George H. Smith (1979) suggested that: "The man who is unacquainted with theism is an atheist because he does not believe in a god. This category would also include the child with the conceptual capacity to grasp the issues involved, but who is still unaware of those issues. The fact that this child does not believe in god qualifies him as an atheist." Smith coined the term implicit atheism to refer to "the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it" and explicit atheism to refer to the more common definition of conscious disbelief.

In Western civilization, the view that children are born atheist is relatively recent. Before the 18th century, the existence of God was so universally accepted in the western world that even the possibility of true atheism was questioned. This is called theistic innatism—the notion that all people believe in God from birth; within this view was the connotation that atheists are simply in denial. There is a position claiming that atheists are quick to believe in God in times of crisis, that atheists make deathbed conversions, or that "there are no atheists in foxholes." Some proponents of this view claim that the anthropological benefit of religion is that religious faith enables humans to endure hardships better (c.f. opium of the people Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher February, 1844). Some atheists emphasize the fact that there have been examples to the contrary, among them examples of literal "atheists in foxholes."

Strong vs. weak

Philosophers such as Antony Flew and Michael Martin have contrasted strong (positive) atheism with weak (negative) atheism. Strong atheism is the explicit affirmation that gods do not exist. Weak atheism includes all other forms of non-theism. According to this categorization, anyone who is not a theist is either a weak or a strong atheist. The terms weak and strong are relatively recent; however, the equivalent terms negative and positive atheism have been used in the philosophical literature and (in a slightly different sense) in Catholic apologetics. Under this demarcation of atheism, most agnostics qualify as weak atheists.

While agnosticism can be seen as a form of weak atheism, most agnostics see their view as distinct from atheism, which they may consider no more justified than theism, or requires an equal conviction. The supposed unattainability of knowledge for or against the existence of gods is sometimes seen as indication that atheism requires a leap of faith. Common atheist responses to this argument include that unproven religious propositions deserve as much disbelief as all other unproven propositions, and that the unprovability of a god's existence does not imply equal probability of either possibility. Scottish philosopher J. J. C. Smart even argues that "sometimes a person who is really an atheist may describe herself, even passionately, as an agnostic because of unreasonable generalised philosophical scepticism which would preclude us from saying that we know anything whatever, except perhaps the truths of mathematics and formal logic." Consequently, some popular atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins prefer distinguishing theist, agnostic and atheist positions by the probability assigned to the statement "God exists".


"A child of the mob once asked an astronomer who the father was who brought him into this world. The scholar pointed to the sky, and to an old man sitting, and said: 'That one there is your body's father, and that your soul's.' To which the boy replied: 'WHAT IS ABOVE US IS OF NO CONCERN TO US, and I'm ashamed to be the child of such an aged man!' O WHAT SUPREME impiety, not to want to recognize your father, and not to think God is your maker!" Emblem illustrating practical atheism and its historical association with immorality, titled "Supreme Impiety: Atheist and Charlatan", from Picta poesis, by Barthélemy Aneau, 1552.

The broadest demarcation of atheistic rationale is between practical and theoretical atheism. The different forms of theoretical atheism each derive from a particular rationale or philosophical argument. In contrast, practical atheism requires no specific argument, and can include indifference to and ignorance of the idea of gods.

Practical atheism

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 denied, 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
  • Ignorance—lacking any idea of gods.

Historically, practical atheism was considered by some people to be associated with moral failure, willful ignorance and impiety. Those considered practical atheists were said to behave as though God, ethics and social responsibility did not exist; they abandoned duty and embraced hedonism. According to the French Catholic philosopher Étienne Borne, "Practical atheism is not the denial of the existence of God, but complete godlessness of action; it is a moral evil, implying not the denial of the absolute validity of the moral law but simply rebellion against that law."

Theoretical atheism

Theoretical, or contemplative, atheism explicitly posits arguments against the existence of gods, responding to common theistic arguments such as the argument from design or Pascal's Wager. The theoretical reasons for rejecting gods assume various psychological, sociological, metaphysical, and epistemological forms.

Epistemological arguments

Epistemological atheism argues that people cannot know God or determine the existence of God. The foundation of epistemological atheism is agnosticism, which takes a variety of forms. In the philosophy of immanence, divinity is inseparable from the world itself, including a person's mind, and each person's consciousness is locked in the subject. According to this form of agnosticism, this limitation in perspective prevents any objective inference from belief in a god to assertions of its existence. The rationalistic agnosticism of Kant and the Enlightenment only accepts knowledge deduced with human rationality; this form of atheism holds that gods are not discernible as a matter of principle, and therefore cannot be known to exist. Skepticism, based on the ideas of Hume, asserts that certainty about anything is impossible, so one can never know the existence of God. The allocation of agnosticism to atheism is disputed; it can also be regarded as an independent, basic world-view.

Other forms of atheistic argumentation that may qualify as epistemological, including logical positivism and ignosticism, assert the meaninglessness or unintelligibility of basic terms such as "God" and statements such as "God is all-powerful". Theological noncognitivism holds that the statement "God exists" does not express a proposition, but is nonsensical or cognitively meaningless. It has been argued both ways as to whether such individuals classify into some form of atheism or agnosticism. Philosophers A. J. Ayer and Theodore M. Drange reject both categories, stating that both camps accept "God exists" as a proposition; they instead place noncognitivism in its own category.

Metaphysical arguments

Metaphysical atheism is based on metaphysical monism—the view that reality is homogeneous and indivisible. Absolute metaphysical atheists subscribe to some form of physicalism, hence they explicitly deny the existence of non-physical beings. Relative metaphysical atheists maintain an implicit denial of a particular concept of God based on the incongruity between their individual philosophies and attributes commonly applied to God, such as transcendence, a personal aspect, or unity. Examples of relative metaphysical atheism include pantheism, panentheism, and deism.

Epicurus is credited with first expounding the problem of evil. David Hume in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779) cited Epicurus in stating the argument as a series of questions: "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?"

Psychological, sociological and economical arguments

Philosophers such as Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud argued that God and other religious beliefs are human inventions, created to fulfill various psychological and emotional wants or needs. This is also a view of many Buddhists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, influenced by the work of Feuerbach, argued that belief in God and religion are social functions, used by those in power to oppress the working class. According to Mikhail Bakunin, "the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, in theory and practice." He reversed Voltaire's famous aphorism that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him, writing instead that "if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him."

Logical and evidential arguments

Logical atheism holds that the various conceptions of gods, such as the personal god of Christianity, are ascribed logically inconsistent qualities. Such atheists present deductive arguments against the existence of God, which assert the incompatibility between certain traits, such as perfection, creator-status, immutability, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, transcendence, personhood (a personal being), nonphysicality, justice and mercy.

Theodicean atheists believe that the world as they experience it cannot be reconciled with the qualities commonly ascribed to God and gods by theologians. They argue that an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God is not compatible with a world where there is evil and suffering, and where divine love is hidden from many people. A similar argument is attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism.

Anthropocentric arguments

Axiological, or constructive, atheism rejects the existence of gods in favour of a "higher absolute", such as humanity. This form of atheism favors humanity as the absolute source of ethics and values, and permits individuals to resolve moral problems without resorting to God. Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre all used this argument to convey messages of liberation, full-development, and unfettered happiness.

One of the most common criticisms of atheism has been to the contrary—that denying the existence of a just God leads to moral relativism, leaving one with no moral or ethical foundation, or renders life meaningless and miserable. Blaise Pascal argued this view in 1669.


Although the term atheism originated in 16th-century France, ideas that would be recognized today as atheistic are documented from classical antiquity and the Vedic period.

Early Indic religion

Atheistic schools are found in Hinduism, which is otherwise a very theistic religion. The thoroughly materialistic and anti-religious philosophical Cārvāka School that originated in India around 6th century BCE is probably the most explicitly atheistic school of philosophy in India. This branch of Indian philosophy is classified as a heterodox system and is not considered part of the six orthodox schools of Hinduism, but it is noteworthy as evidence of a materialistic movement within Hinduism. Chatterjee and Datta explain that our understanding of Cārvāka philosophy is fragmentary, based largely on criticism of the ideas by other schools, and that it is not a living tradition:

"Though materialism in some form or other has always been present in India, and occasional references are found in the Vedas, the Buddhistic literature, the Epics, as well as in the later philosophical works we do not find any systematic work on materialism, nor any organized school of followers as the other philosophical schools possess. But almost every work of the other schools states, for reputation, the materialistic views. Our knowledge of Indian materialism is chiefly based on these."

Other Indian philosophies generally regarded as atheistic include Classical Samkhya and Purva Mimamsa. The rejection of a personal creator God is also seen in Jainism and Buddhism in India.

Classical antiquity

In Plato's Apology, Socrates (pictured) was accused by Meletus of not believing in the gods.

Western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, but did not emerge as a distinct world-view until the late Enlightenment. The 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher Diagoras is known as the "first atheist", and strongly criticized religion and mysticism. Critias viewed religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. Atomists such as Democritus attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Other pre-Socratic philosophers who probably had atheistic views included Prodicus and Protagoras. In the 3rd-century BCE the Greek philosophers Theodorus and Strato of Lampsacus also did not believe gods exist.

Socrates (c. 471–399 BCE), was accused of being an atheist for impiety (see Euthyphro dilemma) on the basis that he inspired questioning of the state gods. Although he disputed the accusation that he was a "complete atheist", he was ultimately sentenced to death.

Euhemerus (c. 330–260 BCE) published his view that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures. Although not strictly an atheist, Euhemerus was later criticized for having "spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods".

Atomic materialist Epicurus (c. 341–270 BCE) disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity; he considered the soul purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, he believed that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.

The Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99–55 BCE) agreed that, if there were gods, they were unconcerned with humanity and unable to affect the natural world. For this reason, he believed humanity should have no fear of the supernatural. He expounds his Epicurean views of the cosmos, atoms, the soul, mortality, and religion in De rerum natura ("On the nature of things"), which popularized Epicurus' philosophy in Rome.

The Roman philosopher Sextus Empiricus held that one should suspend judgment about virtually all beliefs—a form of skepticism known as Pyrrhonism—that nothing was inherently evil, and that ataraxia ("peace of mind") is attainable by withholding one's judgment. His relatively large volume of surviving works had a lasting influence on later philosophers.

The meaning of "atheist" changed over the course of classical antiquity. The early Christians were labeled atheists by non-Christians because of their disbelief in pagan gods. During the Roman Empire, Christians were executed for their rejection of the Roman gods in general and Emperor-worship in particular. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome under Theodosius I in 381, heresy became a punishable offense.

Early Middle Ages to the Renaissance

The espousal of atheistic views was rare in Europe during the Early Middle Ages and Middle Ages (see Medieval Inquisition); metaphysics, religion and theology were the dominant interests. There were, however, movements within this period that forwarded heterodox conceptions of the Christian God, including differing views of the nature, transcendence, and knowability of God. Individuals and groups such as Johannes Scotus Eriugena, David of Dinant, Amalric of Bena, and the Brethren of the Free Spirit maintained Christian viewpoints with pantheistic tendencies. Nicholas of Cusa held to a form of fideism he called docta ignorantia ("learned ignorance"), asserting that God is beyond human categorization, and our knowledge of God is limited to conjecture. William of Ockham inspired anti-metaphysical tendencies with his nominalistic limitation of human knowledge to singular objects, and asserted that the divine essence could not be intuitively or rationally apprehended by human intellect. Followers of Ockham, such as John of Mirecourt and Nicholas of Autrecourt furthered this view. The resulting division between faith and reason influenced later theologians such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Martin Luther.

The Renaissance did much to expand the scope of freethought and skeptical inquiry. Individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci sought experimentation as a means of explanation, and opposed arguments from religious authority. Other critics of religion and the Church during this time included Niccolò Machiavelli, Bonaventure des Périers, and François Rabelais.

Early Modern Period

The Renaissance and Reformation eras witnessed a resurgence in religious fervor, as evidenced by the proliferation of new religious orders, confraternities, and popular devotions in the Catholic world, and the appearance of increasingly austere Protestant sects such as the Calvinists. This era of interconfessional rivalry permitted an even wider scope of theological and philosophical speculation, much of which would later be used to advance a religiously skeptical world-view.

Criticism of Christianity became increasingly frequent in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France and England, where there appears to have been a religious malaise, according to contemporary sources. Some Protestant thinkers, such as Thomas Hobbes, espoused a materialist philosophy and skepticism toward supernatural occurrences. In the late 17th century, Deism came to be openly espoused by intellectuals such as John Toland, and practically all the philosophes of 18th-century France and England held to some form of Deism. Despite their ridicule of Christianity, many Deists held atheism in scorn. The first known atheist who threw off the mantle of deism, bluntly denying the existence of gods, was Jean Meslier, a French priest who lived in the early 18th century. He was followed by other openly atheistic thinkers, such as Baron d'Holbach, who appeared in the late 18th century, when expressing disbelief in God became a less dangerous position. David Hume was the most systematic exponent of Enlightenment thought, developing a skeptical epistemology grounded in empiricism, undermining the metaphysical basis of natural theology.

Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841) would greatly influence philosophers such as Engels, Marx, David Strauss, and Nietzsche. He considered God to be a human invention and religious activities to be wish-fulfillment.

The French Revolution took atheism outside the salons and into the public sphere. Attempts to enforce the Civil Constitution of the Clergy led to anti-clerical violence and the expulsion of many clergy from France. The chaotic political events in revolutionary Paris eventually enabled the more radical Jacobins to seize power in 1793, ushering in the Reign of Terror. At its climax, the more militant atheists attempted to forcibly de-Christianize France, replacing religion with a Cult of Reason. These persecutions ended with the Thermidorian Reaction, but some of the secularizing measures of this period remained a permanent legacy of French politics.

The Napoleonic era institutionalized the secularization of French society, and exported the revolution to northern Italy, in the hopes of creating pliable republics. In the 19th century, many atheists and other anti-religious thinkers devoted their efforts to political and social revolution, facilitating the upheavals of 1848, the Risorgimento in Italy, and the growth of an international socialist movement.

In the latter half of the 19th century, atheism rose to prominence under the influence of rationalistic and freethinking philosophers. Many prominent German philosophers of this era denied the existence of deities and were critical of religion, including Ludwig Feuerbach, Arthur Schopenhauer, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The 20th century

Atheism in the 20th century, particularly in the form of practical atheism, advanced in many societies. Atheistic thought found recognition in a wide variety of other, broader philosophies, such as existentialism, objectivism, secular humanism, nihilism, logical positivism, Marxism, feminism, and the general scientific and rationalist movement.

Logical positivism and scientism paved the way for neopositivism, analytical philosophy, structuralism, and naturalism. Neopositivism and analytical philosophy discarded classical rationalism and metaphysics in favour of strict empiricism and epistemological nominalism. Proponents such as Bertrand Russell emphatically rejected belief in God. In his early work, Ludwig Wittgenstein attempted to separate metaphysical and supernatural language from rational discourse. A. J. Ayer asserted the unverifiability and meaninglessness of religious statements, citing his adherence to the empirical sciences. Relatedly the applied structuralism of Lévi-Strauss sourced religious language to the human subconscious in denying its transcendental meaning. J. N. Findlay and J. J. C. Smart argued that the existence of God is not logically necessary. Naturalists and materialistic monists such as John Dewey considered the natural world to be the basis of everything, denying the existence of God or immortality.

The 20th century also saw the political advancement of atheism, spurred on by interpretation of the works of Marx and Engels. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, increased religious freedom for minority religions lasted for a few years, before the policies of Stalinism turned towards repression of religion. The Soviet Union and other communist states promoted state atheism and opposed religion, often by violent means. Other leaders like E. V. Ramasami Naicker (Periyar), a prominent atheist leader of India, fought against Hinduism and Brahmins for discriminating and dividing people in the name of caste and religion. This was highlighted in 1956 when he made the Hindu god Rama wear a garland made of slippers and made antitheistic statements.

In 1966, Time magazine asked "Is God Dead?" in response to the Death of God theological movement, citing the estimation that nearly half of all people in the world lived under an anti-religious power, and millions more in Africa, Asia, and South America seemed to lack knowledge of the Christian God. The following year, the Albanian government under Enver Hoxha announced the closure of all religious institutions in the country, declaring Albania the world's first officially atheist state. These regimes enhanced the negative associations of atheism, especially where anti-communist sentiment was strong in the United States, despite the fact that prominent atheists were anti-communist.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the number of actively anti-religious regimes has reduced considerably. In 2006, Timothy Shah of the Pew Forum noted "a worldwide trend across all major religious groups, in which God-based and faith-based movements in general are experiencing increasing confidence and influence vis-à-vis secular movements and ideologies." But Gregory S. Paul and Phil Zuckerman consider this a myth and suggest that the actual situation is much more complex and nuanced.


It is difficult to quantify the number of atheists in the world. Respondents to religious-belief polls may define "atheism" differently or draw different distinctions between atheism, non-religious beliefs, and non-theistic religious and spiritual beliefs. In addition, people in some regions of the world refrain from reporting themselves as atheists to avoid social stigma, discrimination, and persecution. A 2005 survey published in Encyclopædia Britannica finds that the non-religious make up about 11.9% of the world's population, and atheists about 2.3%. This figure does not include those who follow atheistic religions, such as some Buddhists. A November–December 2006 poll published in the Financial Times gives rates for the United States and five European countries. It found that Americans are more likely than Europeans to report belief in any form of god or supreme being (73%). Of the European adults surveyed, Italians are the most likely to express this belief (62%) and the French the least likely (27%). In France, 32% declared themselves atheists, and an additional 32% declared themselves agnostic. An official European Union survey provides corresponding figures: 18% of the EU population do not believe in a god; 27% accept the existence of some supernatural "spiritual life force", while 52% affirm belief in a specific god. The proportion of believers rises to 65% among those who had left school by age 15; survey respondents who considered themselves to be from a strict family background were more likely to believe in god than those who felt their upbringing lacked firm rules.

A letter published in Nature in 1998 reported a survey suggesting that belief in a personal god or afterlife was at an all-time low among the members of the U.S. National Academy of Science, only 7.0% of whom believed in a personal god as compared with more than 85% of the general U.S. population. In the same year Frank Sulloway of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Michael Shermer of California State University conducted a study which found in their polling sample of "credentialed" U.S. adults (12% had Ph.Ds and 62% were college graduates) 64% believed in God, and there was a correlation indicating that religious conviction diminished with education level. An inverse correlation between religiosity and intelligence has been found by 39 studies carried out between 1927 and 2002, according to an article in Mensa Magazine. These findings broadly agree with a 1958 statistical meta-analysis by Professor Michael Argyle of the University of Oxford. He analyzed seven research studies that had investigated correlation between attitude to religion and measured intelligence among school and college students from the U.S. Although a clear negative correlation was found, the analysis did not identify causality but noted that factors such as authoritarian family background and social class may also have played a part.

In the Australian 2006 Census of Population and Housing, in the question which asked What is the person's religion? Of the total population, 18.7% ticked the box marked no religion or wrote in a response which was classified as non religious (e.g. humanism, atheist). This question was optional and 11.2% did not answer the question. In 2006, the New Zealand census asked, What is your religion?. Of those answering, 34.7% indicated no religion. 12.2% did not respond or objected to answering the question.

Atheism, religion and morality

Because of its absence of a creator god, Buddhism is commonly described as nontheistic.

Although people who self-identify as atheists are usually assumed to be irreligious, some sects within major religions reject the existence of a personal, creator deity. In recent years, certain religious denominations have accumulated a number of openly atheistic followers, such as atheistic or humanistic Judaism and Christian atheists.

As the strictest sense of positive atheism does not entail any specific beliefs outside of disbelief in any deity, atheists can hold any number of spiritual beliefs. For the same reason, atheists can hold a wide variety of ethical beliefs, ranging from the moral universalism of humanism, which holds that a moral code should be applied consistently to all humans, to moral nihilism, which holds that morality is meaningless.

Some philosophers, however, have equated atheism with immorality, arguing that morality must be derived from God and cannot exist without a wise creator. Moral precepts such as "murder is wrong" are seen as divine laws, requiring a divine lawmaker and judge. However, many atheists argue that treating morality legalistically involves a false analogy, and that morality does not depend on a lawmaker in the same way that laws do, based on the Euthyphro dilemma, which either renders God unnecessary or morality arbitrary.

Philosophers Susan Neiman and Julian Baggini (among others) assert that behaving ethically only because of divine mandate is not true ethical behaviour but merely blind obedience. Baggini argues that atheism is a superior basis for ethics, claiming that a moral basis external to religious imperatives is necessary to evaluate the morality of the imperatives themselves—to be able to discern, for example, that "thou shalt steal" is immoral even if one's religion instructs it—and that atheists, therefore, have the advantage of being more inclined to make such evaluations.

Atheists such as Sam Harris have argued that Western religions' reliance on divine authority lends itself to authoritarianism and dogmatism. Indeed, religious fundamentalism and extrinsic religion (when religion is held because it serves other, more ultimate interests) have been correlated with authoritarianism, dogmatism, and prejudice. This argument, combined with historical events that are argued to demonstrate the dangers of religion, such as the Crusades, inquisitions, and witch trials, are often used by antireligious atheists to justify their views.

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