The term atheism\ is formed of the Greek prefix a- (meaning "without" or "not") and the Greek-derived theism, meaning a belief in a god or gods. The literal meaning of the term is therefore without a belief in a god or gods, making any person who does not believe in the existence of gods an atheist.


In modern usage as reflected in most dictionaries, atheism is the assertion that no god exists, or that the existence of gods has infinitesimal probability. Atheism is not synonymous with irreligion; the idea of an eternal non-created universe is an important concept held by some members of religions and philosophies such as Buddhism and Taoism. Also, some members of god-embracing religious organisations secretly hold atheist beliefs (particularly in cultures where atheism is a criminal act).

Other definitions and distinctions of atheism have been proposed. Some distinguish between a narrow, strict category "strong atheism" (the explicit rejection of the existence of gods) and "weak atheism" (a lack of belief in gods but no explicit rejection). Another use for these two distinctions is in describing whether one believes in the existence of gods as an impossibility (strong atheism), or that the existence of gods is possible but no evidence indicates one does exist (weak atheism). In the freethought tradition, analogous terms are "positive" and "negative" atheism.

The term agnosticism (coined by T. H. Huxley in 1869) describes a form of philosophical skepticism in which the existence of gods is considered undecidable or in which inquiry into the existence is considered unproductive.

Many cultures have also called anyone who did not believe in their particular religion an atheist; for example atheism was a frequent accusation of the pagan Romans against the early Christians, and vice versa.


The Encyclopędia Britannica estimates that about 2.5% of the world's population classifies itself as atheist. People are considerably more likely, about 12.8%, to describe themselves as "non-religious". Atheism is somewhat more prevalent in Europe and Russia than in the United States and is rarely found in the Third World. For instance, according to a 2003 poll, 33% of French adults say that "atheist" defines their position on religion rather well or very well.

Atheists who openly express their views have often been mistreated, ostracized, discriminated against, or, in some countries, killed. For this reason, it is possible that atheism is more prevalent than polls suggest, as people may be reluctant to express their true views. Those who hold theistic views often consider those without a belief in gods to be amoral or untrustworthy--unfit as members of society. The scriptures of most religions contain denunciations of non-believers; see, for example, the story of Amalek. In Europe's Middle Ages, atheism was regarded as amoral, often criminal; atheists could be sentenced to death by burning, especially in countries where the Inquisition was active. While Protestantism suffered from discrimination and persecution by the then-dominant Roman Catholic Church, Calvin was also in favor of burning atheists and heretics.

On the other hand, atheism has at times been the official stance of Communist countries, such as the former Soviet Union, the former Eastern Bloc, and the People's Republic of China. Karl Marx, an atheist and son of a Jewish rabbi, wrote that religion is "the opiate of the masses", meaning that it exists in order to blind people to the true state of affairs in a society, and thus make them more amenable to social control and exploitation. Any Marxist doctrine aside, such states may have found it quite expedient to discourage all religions so as to weaken any possible centers of opposition to their complete control over these states. In the Soviet Union and in the People's Republic of China, some churches that submitted to strict state control were tolerated. It is notable that resistance to Communism has often found a focus in matters of religion, and Pope John Paul II is often credited with having helped to end Communism in Eastern Europe.

Every military buildup in the United States since WWII has been accompanied by frequent use of the saying "There are no atheists in foxholes." During the Cold War, the fact that the communist enemies of the United States were officially atheists ("godless communists") added to the view that atheists were unreliable and unpatriotic. As recently as the 1987 presidential campaign in the (officially secular) United States, George H. W. Bush said [1], "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." Similar statements were made during the controversy surrounding the inclusion of the phrase "under God" in the American Pledge of Allegiance, words which were added to the pledge early in the Cold War period.

Notwithstanding Cold War attitudes, atheists are legally protected from discrimination in the United States and they have been among the strongest advocates of the legal separation of church and state. American courts have regularly, if controversially, interpreted the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state as protecting the freedoms of non-believers, as well as prohibiting the establishment of any state religion. Atheists often sum up the legal situation with the phrase: "Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion." [1]

See also: list of atheists, Pascal's Wager, arguments for and against the existence of God, secularism, rationalist, rationalism, naturalism, deism, agnosticism, universism, Jainism, Buddhism, irreligion

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