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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). Therefore, the literal meaning of the term is without a belief in a god or gods. In common speech and argument one encounters various ways of using the term, some of which seem to directly contradict the root meaning. It may be taken literally to mean lack of belief in gods ("implicit atheism") or quite often, it may be used to mean that and to additionally layer over that a specific belief in the non-existence of gods ("explicit atheism".)

From this basic schism, one can correctly infer that atheism is a stance that is the focus of a great deal of passionate argument, and as such, the meaning of the word is quite often appropriated to mean considerably more than the term itself would seem to warrant.

For instance, as commonly taken within the philosophical tradition, "atheism" is characterized as a specific belief that God does not exist (the distinct additional concept layered upon the idea that one is without a belief in a god or gods), and from this more complicated position, the view is commonly contrasted with theism, deism, and agnosticism.

As the concept of belief is quite distinct and disjoint from knowledge, the agnostic view does not replicate the literal meaning of atheism; nor does it state a position in a middle ground. This is easily understood when consideration is given to the fact that one may hold a belief without any specific knowledge at all (e.g., belief in elves, flying saucers, ghosts, etc.) while one either holds a belief in a god or gods, and hence is a theist, or one does not, and hence is an atheist - without a belief in a god or gods. Knowledge is irrelevant in making the distinction of holding, or not holding, this belief. One could certainly be an atheist-agnostic, or a theist-agnostic; the stance of agnosticism itself does not address the issue of belief.

Atheists, both forms of agnostics, and positivists (who believe that "God"-talk is nonsense) are generally lumped together as nonbelievers by theists. Philosophers, in introducing the philosophy of religion, often point out that it is important to distinguish between these two statements: "I do not believe that God exists" and "I believe that God does not exist." Philosophers often posit that the first claim is consistent with both agnosticism (though what they should specify is atheist-agnosticism) and atheism; the second is consistent only with explicit atheism.

Additionally, these statements do not distinguish between explicit and implicit atheism, which is commonly drawn within the freethinking[?] tradition (as distinguished from the philosophical tradition).

  • "Explicit atheism" (sometimes called belief-based, positive, strong or hard atheism) is the positive assertion (or belief) that God (or some gods, or all gods) does not exist--that is, an explicit atheist may assert that the Judeo-Christian God does not exist, or that all gods do not exist.
  • The literal meaning of atheism is quite often, and quite revealingly, characterized in a pejorative tone: Weak, negative, or soft atheism. Occasionally, one encounters the more level-headed descriptor "implicit atheism" for this stance. It is the straight-forward lack of a god-belief -- someone who is not a theist. "Atheist" is synonymous, or nearly so, with "nontheist" and "nonbeliever";

Furthermore, an atheist might be characterized as both an explicit atheist with respect to the Judeo-Christian God and a literal, or implicit, atheist with respect to any other gods.

Another distinction enforced by some atheist schools discerns "catholic" from "orthodox atheism" referring to the original meanings of these Christian terms. According to it the "catholic" brand of atheist merely denies the existence of God while the self-proclaimed "orthodox atheist" agrees with Mikhail Bakunin's assertion that "if God existed he would have to be abolished". The difference is taken to be significant by those who conceive atheism as a moral position, rather than a theological or metaphysical position.

It is estimated that about 2.5% of the world's population classify themselves as atheist, and that about 12.8% classify themselves as nonreligious (according to the Encyclopędia Britannica). These percentages are generally higher in European and (formerly) Marxist countries, and lower in the United States and developing countries.

By the time one has waded through all this, it becomes clear that the terms atheism and atheist are not definitive in common use, any more than theist definitively outlines the precepts and outlook of a particular religionist. To sort through the variety of positions extant, it is useful to ask basic questions that cover the distinct issues. Is there a belief in a god or gods? If the answer is yes, the position is theist. If not, the position is atheist. Is there a claim that there cannot be knowledge of a god or gods? If yes, the position is additionally agnostic. If the position is atheist, is there a belief that gods do not exist? If yes, then this is the "explicit atheist" position. If morals are pertinent to the analysis, then straightforward inquiry about the specific morals in question should be embarked upon.

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Arguments for atheism

See the rationality of atheism for further discussion.

Atheism as a popular movement

Many atheists are generally misunderstood in many societies, and if they openly express their non-theistic points of view they may be mistreated, ostracized, or subject to discrimination. For example, even in the officially-secular United States, George H. W. Bush said in 1987 during his presidental campaign [1] (http://www.robsherman.com/information/liberalnews/2002/0303.htm), "I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God." See also the controversy surrounding the inclusion of "under God" in the American Pledge of Allegiance. Like their religious counterparts, many atheists align themselves with organizations that express or support a non-theistic worldview.

Atheism throughout history

Stub: In Europe's Middle Ages, atheism was regarded as immoral, sometimes even criminal.

Atheism has been adopted as an official tenet of some states (governments), notably Communist or socialist ones such as the former Soviet Union, the former East Bloc, and the People's Republic of China. This ostensibly derives from the opinion of Karl Marx that religion is harmful to society.

Please feel free to contribute to the history of atheism, or any other part of this entry.

See also: secularism, rationalism, the rationality of atheism, list of atheists, naturalism, deism

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