Atheism and religion

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The degree to which one can be considered an atheist while simultaneously being an adherent of a sect of a traditionally monotheistic, polytheistic, or non-theistic religion is the subject of ongoing theological debate.[citation needed] Some people with what would be considered religious or spiritual beliefs call themselves atheists; others argue that this is a contradiction in terms.[1]

A modern view[edit]

The essence of the argument presented by Alain de Botton[2] is that many problems of modern life have been addressed successfully by theologians, and that therefore, if they can be dislodged from the supernatural structure in which these solutions were conceived they can be released for the benefit of all mankind.

What is needed (according to de Botton) is some selective restructuring because religions intermittently embrace and control too many aspects of human life and thus proscribes intelligent inquiry and debate in matters of philosophy and science, rather than integrating those new disciplines into the human commonwealth.

Religion he compares to art: both appeal to the emotions, but different artists produce work that individuals may appreciate or depreciate - it is not necessary to love every piece from one and hate anything from another. Religion has been a sponsor of the arts, and has produced magnificent ceremonies, dramatic performance and beautiful language.

What is proposed in this work is a sort of 'coffee-bar Catholicism' preserving the original meaning of the word (Latin catholicus = universal, general and the Greek phrase kath' holou = on the whole, in general). Atheists, Botton suggests may 'pick and mix' the best socially desirable attributes (prayer/praise/celebration) but without the lex talonis/Jus ad bellum/Jus in bello - where religion mandates the right to revenge, provides pardon for war and legal absolution for crimes committed in the name of God.

Desmond Morris described mankind as "the naked, killer ape"[3] whereas Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene) more charitably believes altruism to be a strong genetic survival feature of "all five apes" and most strongly developed in humans.[4][5]

Legal status of atheism[edit]

Generally, religion and law have been synonymous throughout recorded history from the Code of Hammurabi through (unwritten) common law to modern codex or formal written law. The practice of a state religion has generally been a legal obligation, and remains so in many traditional jurisdictions such as those incorporating sharia principles. Notably ancient law such as Babylonian law and Roman Law regulated the treatment of slaves and wives[6]

Despite the separation of church and state in late 18th century France and early USA it was only in the later part of the 20th century, following the so-called Post–World War II baby boom and subsequent sexual revolution certain religious offenses have been selectively excluded from some European and North-American legal constraints. In most of the world many agnostic or atheistic expressions remain legally discouraged and sometimes very severely punished.(See: Religion and capital punishment)

The most common (religious) offenses are heresy (wrong choice), blasphemy (evil-speaking) and apostasy (revolt or renunciation) or any behavior that implies or abandoning of a prescribed religious duty, especially disloyalty sedition and defection, but also occult mysterious or secret activities such as freemasonry, sorcery, witchcraft, alchemy and private practices such as homosexuality, contraception and of course atheism, since, even in its milder form (agnosticism) it challenges 'received wisdom' which is mandated as 'Absolute' or 'Truth' in many traditional legal codes which do not incorporate freedom of religion which has only evolved in the latter half of the 20th century following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[7]

Great Britain (English Law)[edit]

The chief law officer is called Lord Chancellor and holds the title of 'the conscience of the monarch.[8] British subjects have a long history of religious upheaval from the time when Henry VIII of England ordered the English Reformation. There followed a long period of alternate suppressions and liberalizations until, following the Restoration when common law became progressively more descriptive than prescriptive judges were allowed some latitude in determining guilt (which is why English law is so ambiguous.[9] British 'religious atheists' are numerous and might include George Fox, John Wesley and, notably Jeremy Bentham whose body is displayed in the South Cloister of University College London[10]

United States of America[edit]

The United States was an association of former British Colonies which incorporated much of English law and culture in its Federal Constitution. Atheism in the USA is protected under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. In August 2005, in a case where a prison inmate was blocked by prison officials from creating an inmate group to study and discuss atheism, the court ruled this violated the inmate's rights under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recognized the previous Supreme Court precedent by ruling atheism be afforded equal protection with religions under the 1st amendment.[11][12]

There are also online churches that have been created by atheists to secure legal rights, to ordain atheist clergy to hold ceremonies, as well as for parody, education, and advocacy.[13][14][15][16]


See also: Satanism

Historically severely castigated as evil in the Liberalism of the late 20th century, some sects have appeared, mostly in the Anglosphere. One of these, called Theistic Satanism believes in deities, others such as LaVeyan Satanism do not believe Satan to be a god; rather the function of God is performed and satisfied by the satanist him/herself. "Satanism begins with atheism," said Church of Satan High Priest Peter H. Gilmore in an interview. "We begin with the universe and say, 'It’s indifferent. There’s no God, there’s no Devil. No one cares!'"[17] The needs of worship, ritual, and religious/spiritual focus are directed, effectively, inwards towards the satanist, as opposed to outwards, towards God. It follows that Satanism shuns the idea of belief in all other deities as well, including, to the surprise of many, Satan. It rejects outright concepts such as prayer, the after-life, and divine forces and is therefore atheist per se.

There are some organizations falling between these two extremes. The First Church of Satan, formed as an offshoot to LaVeyan Satanism and makes no claims about the personification of Satan. Individual members are left to decide for themselves whether Satan is real, fictional, or conceptual.

Atheism in Abrahamic religions[edit]

Atheism in Judaism[edit]

Main article: Jewish atheism

In general, formulations of Jewish principles of faith require a belief in God (represented by Judaism's paramount prayer, the Shema). In many modern movements in Judaism, Rabbis have generally considered the behavior of a Jew to be the determining factor in whether or not one is considered an adherent of Judaism. Within these movements it is often recognized that it is possible for a Jew to strictly practice Judaism as a faith, while at the same time being an agnostic or atheist.

It is also worth noting that Reconstructionism does not require any belief in a deity, and that certain popular Reform prayer books, such as Gates of Prayer, offer some services without mention of God.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook,[18] first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Palestine, held that atheists were not actually denying God: rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of God, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism. Atheists generally do not accept this point of view.

Some Jewish atheists reject Judaism, but wish to continue identifying themselves with the Jewish people and culture. Jewish atheists who practice Humanistic Judaism embrace Jewish culture and history, rather than belief in a supernatural god, as the sources of their Jewish identity. One study found that only 48% of self identified Jews believe in God.[19]

Atheism in Christianity[edit]

Main article: Christian atheism

Christianity, as a theistic and proselytizing religion, tends to view atheism as heresy. According to the Book of Psalms 14:1, "The fool hath said in his heart,1 there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." However, high rates of atheism have been found among self-identified Christians in the United States. For example, 10% of self-identified Protestants and 21% of self-identified Roman Catholics were found to be atheists in a HarrisInteractive survey from 2003[19]

There is no single Christian approach toward atheism. The approach taken varies between Christian denominations, and Christian ministers may intelligently distinguish an individual's claims of atheism from other nominal states of personal perspective, such as plain disbelief, an adherence to science, a misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief, or a disdain for organized religion in general.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this explicit. While it identifies atheism as a violation of the First Commandment, calling it "a sin against the virtue of religion", it is careful to acknowledge that atheism may be motivated by virtuous or moral considerations, and admonishes the followers of Roman Catholicism to focus on their own role in encouraging atheism by their religious or moral shortcomings:

(2125) [...] The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion."[20]

A famous idiosyncratic atheist belief is that of Thomas J. J. Altizer. His book The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1967) proclaims the highly unusual view that God has literally died, or self-annihilated. According to Altizer, this is nevertheless "a Christian confession of faith".[21] Making clear the difference between his position and that of both Nietzsche's notion of the death of God and the stance of theological non-realists, Altizer says, "To confess the death of God is to speak of an actual and real event, not perhaps an event occurring in a single moment of time or history, but notwithstanding this reservation an event that has actually happened both in a cosmic and in a historical sense."[22]

Many[who?] would dispute whether this is an atheist position at all, as belief in a dead God implies that God once existed and was alive. Atheism typically entails a lack of belief that any gods ever existed, as opposed to not existing currently.[23]

A 2001 survey by "Faith Communities Today"[24] found that 18% of Unitarian Universalists (UU) consider themselves to be atheists, with 54% considering themselves humanist. For comparison, 16% of UUs consider themselves Buddhist, 13% Christian, and 13% Pagan, according to this study.

Atheism in Islam[edit]

See also: Muslim atheist

In Islam, atheists are categorized as kafir (كافر), a term that is also used to describe polytheists, and that translates roughly as "denier" or "concealer". The noun kafir carries connotations of blasphemy and disconnection from the Islamic community. In Arabic, "atheism" is generally translated ilhad (إلحاد), although this also means "heresy". Muslims are not at liberty to change their religion or become an atheist.

The Quran is silent on the punishment for apostasy, though not the subject itself. The Quran speaks repeatedly of people going back to unbelief after believing, and gives advice on dealing with 'hypocrites':

Sura 9:73,74

"O Prophet, strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell,-- an evil refuge indeed. They swear by God that they said nothing [evil], but indeed they uttered blasphemy, and they did it after accepting Islam; and they meditated a plot which they were unable to carry out: this revenge of theirs was [their] only return for the bounty which God and His Apostle had enriched them! If they repent, it will be best for them; but if they turn back [to their evil ways], God will punish them with a grievous penalty in this life and in the Hereafter. They shall have none on this earth to protect or help them."

— Qur'an, sura 9 (At-Tawba), ayat 73-73 [25]

The Hadith expound upon dealing with apostates, whether they become Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or atheist:

The Qur'an refers to atheism in this verse: The term commonly used for atheists is "Dahriyyah" from the Arabic word for "time" in a verse which speaks of people "who says that our death and Decimation are caused only by the passing of time". (in aljathiah,) 24)

[045:024] And they say: "There is nothing but our life of this world, we die and we live and nothing destroys us except Ad-Dahr (time)." And they have no knowledge of it, they only conjecture.

Other relevant Hadithic verses include Bukhari, volume 9, #58, 64, 271.

Atheists in Islamic countries and communities frequently conceal their non-belief (as do people with other condemned qualities, such as homosexuality). Many sociologists interested in the Islamic nations wonder how Islam will continue to deal with these issues as these nations are exposed to Western worldviews, traditionally founded on Enlightenment-based secularism and tolerance, the Enlightenment being a movement that was largely absent from the Muslim world.

Atheism in Indian religions[edit]

Atheism is often considered acceptable within Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Although atheism is valid in Hinduism, it views the path of the atheist as very difficult to follow in matters of spirituality.[26]

Among the six fundamental Astika schools of Hindu philosophy, the Samkhya do not accept God and the early Mimamsa also rejected the notion of God.[27] Samkhya lacks the notion of a 'higher being' that is the ground of all existence. It proposes a thoroughly dualistic understanding of the cosmos, in which two parallel realities Purusha, the spiritual and Prakriti, the physical coexist and the aim of life is the gaining of liberating Self-knowledge of the Purusha. Here, no God (better stated theos) is present, yet Ultimate Reality in the form of the Purusha exists.

Cārvāka (also Charvaka) was a materialist and atheist school of thought in India, which is now known principally from fragments cited by its Astika and Buddhist opponents. The proper aim of a Cārvākan, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, productive life in this world (cf Epicureanism). There is some evidence that the school persisted until at least 1578.

Jainism believes that the emancipated soul is itself God.[28] Jains do not believe in a creator God, but there is belief in numerous gods within the cosmos.[29] Buddhism is often described as non-theistic, since Buddhist authorities and canonical texts do not affirm, and sometimes deny, the following:

However, all canonical Buddhist texts that mention the subject accept the existence (as distinct from the authority) of a great number of spiritual beings, including the Vedic deities. From the point of view of Western theism, certain concepts of the Buddha found in the Mahayana school of Buddhism, e.g. of Amitabha or the Adibuddha may seem to share characteristics with Western concepts of God, but Shakyamuni Buddha himself denied that he was a god or divine.

Atheism in Chinese religions[edit]

Some forms of Confucianism and Taoism are arguably agnostic in the sense that they do not explicitly affirm, nor are they founded upon a faith in, a higher being or beings. However, Confucian writings do have numerous references to 'Heaven,' which denotes a transcendent power, with a personal connotation. Neo-Confucian writings, such as that of Chu Hsi, are vague on whether their conception of the Great Ultimate is like a personal deity or not. Also, although the Western translation of the Tao as 'god' in some editions of the Tao te Ching is highly misleading, it is still a matter of debate whether the actual descriptions of the Tao by Laozi has theistic or nontheistic undertones. Religious forms of taoism do believe in a variety of cosmological beings, which are analogies to the cosmic forces within the universe.


  1. ^ Bill Maher (2012-02-03). Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO. "Religion is defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, and atheism is — precisely not that. Got it? Atheism is a religion like abstinence is a sex position."
  2. ^ Alain de Botton (2012). Religion for Atheists. Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 978-0241144770. Retrieved 29 June 2013. 
  3. ^ Desmond Morris (1999). The Naked Ape: A Zoologist's Study of the Human Animal. Delta London. ISBN 978-0385334303. 
  4. ^ Richard Dawkins (2004). The Selfish Gene. Scientific American. ISBN 978-1582881140. 
  5. ^ Richard Dawkins. "The Root of All Evil". Retrieved 2013-04-12. 
  6. ^ Henry James Sumner Maine. Ancient Law. Cosimo Classics (New York, 2005). ISBN 978-1596052260. 
  7. ^ Kelly James Clark, ed. (2012). Abraham's Children: Liberty and Tolerance in an Age of Religious Conflict. Yale University Press (USA). ISBN 978-0300179378. 
  8. ^ Walter Bagehot (1867). The English Constitution (Oxford World's Classics). Oxford University Press (USA 2001). ISBN 978-0192839756. Retrieved 29 June 2013. 
  9. ^ Most Reverend Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury (2009). The English Religious Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism. Wipf & Stock Publisher. ISBN 978-1606082096. 
  10. ^ Stephen Kim, ed. (1996). John Tyndall's Transcendental Materialism and the Conflict Between Religion and Science in Victorian England (Distinguished Dissertations). ISBN 978-0773422780. 
  11. ^ Matt Dillahunty. "Atheism and the Law". Atheist Community of Austin. Retrieved 20 July 2009. 
  12. ^ [James J. Kaufman, v. Gary R. McCaughtry, et al. United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit No. 04-1914 (19 August 2005). Retrieved 26 July 2011 from]
  13. ^ "About First Church of Atheism". Archived from the original on 11 July 2011. Retrieved July 2011. 
  14. ^ "North Texas Church of Freethought". Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved July 2011. 
  15. ^ "Houston Church of Freethought". Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved July 2011. 
  16. ^ "Do Atheists Need a Church?". Retrieved July 2011. 
  17. ^ Interview with Peter H. Gilmore, David Shankbone, Wikinews', November 5, 2007.
  18. ^ Rachmani 2002a; Rachmani 2002b.
  19. ^ a b Taylor, Humphrey. (2003). "While Most Americans Believe in God, Only 36% Attend a Religious Service Once a Month or More Often". Archived from the original on 9 January 2011. Retrieved January 2011. "Protestants (90%) are more likely than Roman Catholics (79%) and much more likely than Jews (48%) to believe in God. Protestants (47%) are also more likely than Catholics (35%) to attend church once a month or more often. Only 16% of Jews go to synagogues once a month or more often." 
  20. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, English version, section
  21. ^ Altizer 1967, p. 102.
  22. ^ Altizer 1967, p. 103.
  23. ^ For further discussion, see Lyas (1970).
  24. ^ Surveys: 'Uuism' unique Churchgoers from elsewhere, Christian Century Foundation
  25. ^ Quran 9:73–74
  26. ^ Chakravarti, Sitansu (1991). Hinduism, a way of life. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 71. ISBN 978-81-208-0899-7. 
  27. ^ Dasgupta, Surendranath (1992). A history of Indian philosophy, Volume 1. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 258. ISBN 978-81-208-0412-8. 
  28. ^ Sangave, Vilas (2006). Aspects of Jaina religion – Issue 12 of Jñānapīṭha Mūrtidevī granthamālā: English series. Bhartiya Jnanpith. p. 27. ISBN 978-81-263-1273-3. 
  29. ^ Chambliss, Joseph (1996). Philosophy of education: an encyclopedia – Volume 1671 of Garland reference library of the humanities. Taylor & Francis. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-8153-1177-5.