Atheism (literally “without theism”) refers to a spectrum of belief systems that do not include a belief in a deity. In the modern West, dominated by Christian theism, atheism has often been defined in relation to Christianity as “denial” of belief in God. While on a practical level atheism is frequently in debate with theistic beliefs and often contrasted with them, atheists contend that atheisms are belief systems that have been constructed apart from any affirmation of God or a deity. Atheisms do not in and of themselves deny God. Rather they find no rationale for such an additional affirmation. Many atheists find no meaning in the term “God.”
There have been thinkers throughout history who have proposed ways of thinking about the world that were nontheistic, and while atheism is often seen as a nonreligious way of viewing the world, several prominent religious systems (notably Jainism and Theravada Buddhism) are also atheistic. Most modern Western atheists trace their beliefs to Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), who authored a series of works, most published anonymously, that denounced the Roman Catholic Church. In 1772 the first openly atheist book, written by him, The System of Nature, appeared. His books denounced what he saw as the erroneous systems of the past and advocated a new order in which a nature-based ethical system would be operative.
In the 19th century, several atheist systems gained widespread support and became the basis of a developing organizational life. Most widely held was Marxism, as developed by Karl Marx (1818-1883), Friederich Engels (1820-1895), and their followers. Marxist thought, in its several variations, has offered a complete worldview without God that is basically antireligious. Marx attacked religion for defending oppressive socioeconomic systems and drugging the masses of humanity into accepting their exploited state. No form of atheist thinking has been so successful in perpetuating itself as has Marxism, which rose to a position of dominance in the Soviet Union, the countries of Eastern Europe, and many Third World nations through much of the 20th century, and still is the controlling philosophy in the People’s Republic of China. Marxism also continues to be espoused by some Western intellectuals, though its support in academia has measurably declined since the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.
In its rise to political dominance, Marxism has developed an extremely poor record in human rights, and many Western atheists have attempted to separate themselves from it. They instead follow a lineage of atheists that includes such notable writers as Revolutionary philosopher Thomas Paine, poet Percy Shelley, popular lecturer Robert G. Ingersoll, 19th-century Freethought movement leader Robert Bradlaugh of the National Secular Society (in Great Britain), and a spectrum of 20th-century thinkers and organizations. These organizations and individuals (many of whom have edited periodicals) have been known as defenders of free speech and advocates of a variety of liberal political causes, including those related to sexual education and birth control. In the 20th century, prominent atheist spokespersons included Joseph Lewis (1889-1968) of Freethinkers of America; Charles Lee Smith (1887-1964) of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism; and R. M. Bennett, editor of the Truth Seeker. A variety of intellectuals identified with atheism would include Ludwig Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, Bertrand Russell, Clarence Darrow, and John Dewey. Contemporary atheists have attempted, with some success, to identify atheism as the chosen worldview of the majority of contemporary academics, especially scientists.
Since World War II, non-Marxist atheism has appeared under a variety of guises, including Humanism (a nontheistic system that emphasizes human values and ethics), Secularism (which offers a worldview apart from any reference to the sacred), and Rationalism (emphasizing the essential role of reason in establishing a worldview). Humanism has developed both as a religious system and a nonreligious alternative to religion. Atheism as an organized alternative to religion received a significant boost from Madalyn Murray O’Hair (1919-1995), who in 1963 organized American Atheists, one of the largest atheist organizations ever created. Her acerbic personality eventually led to the organization’s splintering, and her own life was ended in 1995 when she, along with her son and granddaughter, was murdered. However, American Atheists had a definite impact in raising the profile of atheism within American culture.
Although North American atheist groups are among the best organized in the world, other nonreligious and atheist groups, not associated with the spread of Marxism, have appeared in other countries, including the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the Mexican Ethical Rationalist Association, the Finnish Freethought Union, the Union Rationaliste (France), the International League of Non-Religious and Atheists (Germany), the Deutscher Freidenker Bund (Germany), the Union degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti (Italy), the Portuguese Freethought Association, the Forbundet for Religionfrihet, and the World Union of Freethinkers (Belgium). Some of these groups are members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
Though still a minority belief system, atheism had a significant impact on the intellectual climate in the 20th century and is especially important in the political arena in many countries such as France and the former Communist countries of Europe. Contemporary atheists have identified themselves with such causes as the separation of religion and the state, the fight against prescientific and pseudoscientific thinking, and the promotion of ethical systems apart from religious foundations.
As the 21st century began, the atheist community, most notably in the English-speaking world, has been energized by a new movement generally referred to as neo-Atheism, built around the writings of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. The neo-Atheists have become known not so much for any new perspectives as for their aggressive stance relative to traditional atheist positions. They pointedly denounce religion and champion Darwinian evolution. While their assertiveness has been rejected by some atheists, most appear to appreciate the attention to their position that the neo-Atheists have brought.