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Editor: Lindsay Jones
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Religion
From: Encyclopedia of Religion(Vol. 1. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 11
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 576


ATHEISM. The term atheism is employed in a variety of ways. For the purpose of the present survey atheism is the doctrine that God does not exist, that belief in the existence of God is a false belief. The word God here refers to a divine being regarded as the independent creator of the world, a being superlatively powerful, wise, and good. The focus of the present study is on atheism occurring within a context of thought normally called "religious."

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Already in the writings of Cicero (c. 106–43 BCE), the question was raised whether there might be some "wild and primitive peoples" who possess no idea of gods of any kind. The view of David Hume in his Natural History of Religion (1757) was that polytheism, in his view the earliest religion of humankind, was devoid of a belief in God. According to most nineteenth-century anthropological theories, the belief in God was a late development in the evolution of religious ideas. Contemporary ethnographic research supports the view that a belief in a supreme creator is, at least, a pervasive feature of the religion of many primitive peoples.

The complete absence of the idea of God would not qualify as atheism as it has here been defined, but the role of the supreme being among primitive peoples is instructive for an understanding of religious forms of atheism as they occur under other cultural conditions. Where primitive religion includes the belief in a supreme being, the creator of all that exists, this being is not always the center of religious life and worship. In the traditional religion of many African peoples the most common acts of worship are directed toward spiritual beings known as the living-dead. These are individuals of the community who have died, but whose influence is still profoundly felt by the living. In some cases God is approached directly only when the living-dead have failed, or in cases of severe distress. Where a belief in the supreme being occurs among primitive peoples, the possibility of atheism is remote, for like other conceptions among such societies the supreme being is not so much a belief, in the sense of a credal affirmation that might be rejected, as an integral component of a total conception of reality through which experience is ordered.

The first step toward religious atheism occurs in the context of religious thought in which a variety of beings, each believed to be supreme, or in which a variety of conceptions of the supreme being, appear concurrently and compete. The earliest documents of the Hindu religious tradition, the Vedas (c. 900 BCE), refer to a variety of gods who preside over various powers of nature and are often practically identified with them. In the Ṛgveda any one of these diverse gods can stand out as supreme when he is the object of praise. In this context no god of the Vedas is more often praised than Indra, the king of the gods. It is interesting, then, that among the hymns that praise him are also found passages that ridicule his reputed power and that cast doubt upon his existence.

Such doubt is hardly representative of the praises sung to Indra. Yet it is significant that this kind of skepticism is included in the most authoritative of Hindu scriptures. It seems to arise concurrently with new ways of conceiving the divine expressed among some of the late hymns of the Ṛgveda. Here, beside the hymns to the nature gods, one finds reference to an unknown god who has encompassed all created things. Here are found hymns to Viśvakarma, the father who made all. And here is found that One wherein abide all existing things, that One which, before all existing things appeared, "breathed windless" by its own inherent power. In these late hymns is also found reference to an impersonal order to the universe, a law (ṛta) to which even the highest gods are subject or which by their power they uphold.

The possibility of conceiving of the ultimate source of the universe not as a god, but as something quite impersonal, is also reflected in the early Upaniṣads (c. 700–600 BCE), the concluding portions of the Vedas. The Upaniṣads are the repository of diverse currents of thought, but the quest that pervades them is for that supreme object of knowledge in which all that has being has its ultimate ground. The Upaniṣads refer to this reality, called brahman, in two significantly differing ways. On the one hand, the Upaniṣads speak of brahman as having qualities (saguṇa). In this context it is the ultimate cause, the true creator of all that is, the personal God, the Lord (Īśvara) of the Universe, and the supreme object of worship. On the other hand, they speak of brahman as beyond qualities (nirguṇa). No concepts are adequate to describe it. The most that one can say about it is by way of negation. With such opposing conceptions, the possibility emerges of a rejection of the existence of God that is nevertheless religious.

The possibility of conceiving of the ultimate as something other than a god, even the highest of gods, can be seen in the writings of other civilizations as well. In the Chinese classics and in inscriptions of the Shang dynasty in China (c. 1750–1100 BCE), are found frequent reference to a supreme ruler in heaven known as Shangdi. This god is not known as creator, but he was undoubtedly a personal being, a divine supervisor over human society, whose decrees determine the course of events on earth. At about the time the Shang dynasty was supplanted by the Zhou (c. 1100 BCE) the name T'ien appeared alongside of Shang-ti as a designation for the supreme ruler in heaven. But the word tian, meaning both "heaven" and "sky," gradually lost the connotation of a personal being and came to suggest the more universal conception of a cosmic rule that impartially determines the affairs of men on earth by their conformity to a moral order. Closely related to tian, the ultimate ordering principle of things, was the completely impersonal Dao, literally "way" or "road." By extension it means the way to go, the truth, the normative ethical standard by which to govern human life. In the famous Dao de jing, ascribed to Lanzhou (sixth century BCE), it is the metaphysical principle that governs the world. It cannot be described in words, but can be dimly perceived within the intricate balance of nature. It is the law or order of nature identified with nature itself. It is not understood as God or as a god.


Skepticism about the existence of a god, even the king of gods, and the emergence of impersonalPage 578  |  Top of Article conceptions of the ultimate ground of the universe is not yet atheism, as defined above. Such conceptions have yet to advance arguments that belief in God is a false belief. Such arguments begin to appear where emerging theistic conceptions of God and impersonal conceptions of the absolute source and rule of the world confront one another as philosophical options over an extended period of time.

Ancient China

In ancient China the personal concept of a supreme ruler in heaven seems gradually to have been replaced by the impersonal idea of tian often associated with the concept of Dao. For Confucius (551–479 BCE), the most influential of ancient Chinese minds, obedience to the will of heaven is simply the practice of the moral law. By following the rules of duty and protocol handed down from the sage kings of the distant past, one lives in harmony with the moral order that governs the heavens and the life of the earth below. Confucius acknowledged the value of religious ceremonies and endorsed the veneration of ancestors, but he saw the will of Heaven operating by a kind of inherent providence. A person who has sinned against Heaven (tian) has no god to pray to at all.

Opposing the views of some of the early followers of Confucius, Mozi (c. 468–390 BCE) attributed to Heaven more anthropomorphic properties. He held that Heaven loves the world and desires that all human beings should relate to one another in undifferentiated love and mutual aid. Because he ascribed to Heaven such qualities as love and desire, some have suggested that Mozi's understanding of Heaven approximates the Western conception of God. Yet, as with Confucius, the providential care that Mozi sees in the working of Heaven is administered to man through the natural order of things.

By attributing love to the rule of Heaven, Mozi wished to offer an alternative to the fatalistic views of some of the disciples of Confucius. In this effort he also acknowledged the real activity of the dead and of spirits in the daily lives of human beings and therefore justified on more than ceremonial grounds the religious practices that pertained to them. In contrast to this, Xunzi (298–238 BCE) argued that Heaven is no more than a designation for the natural process through which good is rewarded and evil punished and upon which religious acts can have no effect. Because Xunzi denied the existence of supernatural agents, including the popular gods and the spirits of the dead, he might be called an atheist. But the issue that separates the thought of Xunzi from that of Mozi is an issue very different from the question of the existence of God. What divides them is whether one can ascribe personlike qualities to the ordering law of the universe that both of them presume to exist.

Strictly speaking, there was no precise equivalent in Chinese thought to the concept of God before the idea was introduced to China by the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. In the absence of this conception, the atheism of ancient China can hardly be more than implied. It was in India, where both theistic notions of the source and governance of the universe and impersonal conceptions of the ultimate ground were able to challenge one another, that explicit forms of religious atheism emerged.

God in classical Indian philosophy

The early Upani-ṣads form the intellectual background for both the heterodox and the orthodox schools of Indian philosophy that began to develop around the sixth century BCE. These groups of schools are distinguished not on the basis of any specific doctrine but according to whether they affirm (āstika) or do not affirm (nāstika) the authority of the Vedas. Of the heterodox schools, those that do not affirm the authority of the Vedas, the Cārvāka and the Jains are explicitly atheistic. In Buddhism, the third of the heterodox schools, atheism is implied. Of the six orthodox schools (darśanas), Sāṃkhya, probably the oldest, is atheistic. It is associated closely with the Yoga (meditation) school, which affirms the existence of God. Between the sixth and tenth centuries CE, the Nyāya (logic) school became associated with the Vaiśeṣika (atomist) school, and together they developed forceful arguments to prove the existence of God, while the Pūrva Mīṃāmsā attacked and rejected such arguments. Its sister school, the Uttara Mīṃāmsā, better known as Vedānta, acknowledged that arguments for the existence of God have persuasive power at the level of everyday truth but held that at the higher level of religious knowledge the supreme being is really an illusion.

It was argued by the Nyāya school that objects made of parts are invariably the effect of a cause. Because the world as a whole is made of parts, the world must be the effect of a causal agent, and this causal agent is God (Īśvara). To this line of argument it could be objected that the world is so different from other effects that one cannot infer a cause to the world as a whole. The Nyāya, however, replied that a valid inference can be drawn from the concomitance of two things without limiting the inference to the peculiarities of the concomitance observed. Otherwise, if one had observed only small amounts of smoke (say from cigarettes), one could infer only the existence of small amounts of fire. On this "principle of concomitance," the conclusion should be that if a smaller effect has a cause, then the largest of effects must also have a cause. This, it is held, is the invisible and bodiless but infinitely wise and benevolent creator.

A related argument states that since objects characterized by order and design, such as garments, buildings, and devices, are invariably the products of intelligent beings, it follows on the principle of concomitance that the world, which displays the same characteristics, must also be the work of an intelligent being. Further, orthodox Hindu philosophies shared the affirmation of a moral order by which the voluntary actions of persons are rewarded with good or evil in this or a future life. For some exponents of the Nyāya and the Yoga schools, this view implies the existence of God, who as the ultimate arbiter apportions the appropriate reward. In Indian thought there is found no specific effort to infer the existence of God from the fact that the idea of God exists in the mind. There are, however, arguments that try to show, on the assumption that he exists, that he is superlatively powerful and wise. It was noted by some early exponents of the Yoga school that qualities like intelligence andPage 579  |  Top of Article power are found among finite beings in variations of degree. Since the degrees of perfection of any quality represent a continuum of degrees, the qualities of wisdom and power must find their highest degree in an omniscient and omnipotent being.

Heterodox Indian thought

Of the heterodox Indian schools, the Cārvāka represents the most radical departure from the tenor of religious thought in the Upaniṣads. It holds that the Vedas are the work of knaves and fools, and it rejects all sources of knowledge other than the senses. With this, it rejects the principles of inference upon which the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school depends to demonstrate the existence of God. The Cārvāka holds that the visible world alone exists, that the only heaven is that to be found in the wearing of beautiful clothing, in the company of young women, and in the enjoyment of delicious food. The only sovereign is the king. The only hell to be avoided is the difficulties of the present life. The only liberation is death; and that is to be avoided as long as humanly possible.

One could hardly call the Cārvāka a system of religious life and thought unless one saw a religious motivation behind its prodigious effort to liberate its adherents from the sophistry and abuse of the religious setting in which it arose. The exponents of the Cārvāka reject the doctrine of the soul and with it the ideas of karman and rebirth. They reject all forms of religious asceticism and hold that religious rites are incapable of any effect. By contrast, the Jains endorse an intensely ascetic path to the release of the soul (jīva) from an otherwise endless cycle of rebirth. According to the Jains, the soul, by nature, is eternal, perfectly blissful, and omniscient. Yet in consequence of accumulated karman, conceived as a subtle material substance, all but liberated souls are ensnared in a limiting material body.

The Jains depict the cosmos as uncreated and eternal. They therefore require no doctrine of God in order to explain its existence. Their points against theistic ideas are expressed in differing versions of arguments developed over centuries of dispute. Space permits mention of only a few. (1) If the world is held to be an effect from the mere fact that it is made of parts, then space must also be considered an effect. Yet the Naiyāyikas (the adherents of Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika theism) insist that space is eternal. (2) It cannot be held that the world is an ex nihilo effect because the Naiyāyikas also hold that the world is composed of eternal atoms. (3) If the view that the world is an effect means that the world is subject to change, then God too is an effect since he must undergo change by having created the world. (4) But even if it is granted that the world has the nature of an effect, it does not follow that the cause must be an intelligent one. (5) And even if it is granted that the creator is an intelligent being, it is impossible to see how this agent could create except by means of a body. (6) And if the possibility of a bodiless creator is admitted there remains the problem of his motive. If one says that God created from self-interest or need, one has admitted that God was lacking in some perfection. He could not have created out of compassion, for prior to the creation there were no beings to have compassion upon. If he created out of inherent goodness then the world should be perfectly good. If he created out of whim, then the world would have no purpose, and this the Naiyāyikas deny. If he created simply out of his nature, it would be as reasonable to say that the world is the effect of nature itself.

To the argument from design, the Jains reply (7) that if a beehive, or an anthill, is the work of a multitude of beings, there is no apparent reason why the world should not have been the work of a committee of gods. To arguments from moral order, the Jains raise the question whether God is arbitrary in the rewards he gives. (8) If God makes a gift of happiness to those he simply chooses, he is guilty of favoritism. (9) If he rewards precisely in accord with the merit of each individual, then he himself is subject to a moral law beyond him.

In its earliest period, Buddhist thought is less polemical than that of the Jains in its attitude toward belief in God. Yet here as well theistic ideas are found wanting. By nature Buddhism is a path of intense self-reliance, explicitly rejecting the religious system of the Vedas that seeks the favor of the gods. In the Pali canon, the earliest of Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha ridicules the claim of the brahmans to possession of a way to union with a perfect being who has never been seen and who is beyond human knowledge. This, he says, is like the man who claims to love the most beautiful woman in this or another country and desires to make her his own but knows not her name, her caste, where she lives, or what she looks like.

Unlike the Jains, who accept the reality of the material world, the Buddhists hold that all that can be said to have being is but part of a succession of impermanent phenomena, call dharmas. To this way of thinking, the idea of a changeless God is clearly out of place. Later Buddhist writers like Vasubandhu and Yaśomitra (fourth to fifth century CE) argue that if God is the sole cause of all that exists, then, given the cause, all existing things should have been created at once. On the hypothesis that the world is a flux of phenomena, it could never have been the effect of a single, ultimate cause. Buddhism, moreover, holds that the succession of dharmas is governed by an immutable law expressed in the doctrine of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda). The arising of one phenomenon is dependent upon the occurrence of others. Since this law is held to apply without exception, it admits of no room for an uncaused cause.

Among the Buddhist criticisms of theistic belief, there are also found questions about the motive of God's creative act. If he created out of his own good pleasure, then he must take delight in the suffering of his creatures. But it also holds that if God is the ultimate cause of all that occurs, then every performance of every person is ultimately a performance of God. If this is true, it removes from the individual person all responsibility for his actions and finally removes all meaning from the ideas of right and wrong.

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Orthodox Hindu philosophy

Acceptance of the authority of the Vedas does not imply theistic belief. While the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school regards the Vedas as having been created by God, the Sāṃkhya and the Mīmāmṣā schools hold that the Vedas are such that they require no creator. For the Sāṃkhya school the universe consists of two distinct realities: soul (puruṣa) and matter (prakṛti). Neither of them can be identified with God, and neither requires God as cause, governor, or designer. The soul is pure consciousness, devoid of qualities of any kind. But in its ambiguous association with the body it is unconscious of its freedom and independence and falsely identifies itself with one or another aspect of material reality. Prakṛti is the primordial ground from which the universe has evolved. It is composed of three fundamental qualities or kinds of substance (guṇas), like a rope composed of three differing strands. Before the emergence of the universe the chaotic distribution of the three qualities had produced a state of static equilibrium. Subsequently, upon a cosmic disturbance, an unequal aggregation of these qualities proceeded gradually to bring forth all the material realities in the universe.

According to the Yoga school, this disturbance in the primordial equilibrium of prakṛti was an effect of the will of God. The Sāṃkhya hold it was not. Rather, prakṛti, in the Sāṃkhya view, evolves by its own inherent teleology, providing the puruṣa the conditions necessary for its liberation (mukti). To the view of the Yoga school that this sort of teleology points to the existence of a God, the Sāṃkhya school replies that prakṛti is capable in itself of this kind of purpose just as milk, though it is devoid of intelligence, is capable of providing nourishment for the calf. A minority within the Sāṃkhya school hold that the existence of God is simply incapable of proof. The majority hold that belief in God is a mistaken belief. If he is perfect he cannot have created out of selfishness, and he could not have created out of kindness, for his creatures are most unhappy.

The Mīmāmṣā school holds the Vedas to be authoritative, but not as created or revealed by God. The Vedas, rather, are the expression in words—sacred words—of the eternal, ritual, and moral order of the world. The Mīmāmṣā supports the performance of sacrifice to a variety of gods. Yet it holds that it is not the gods as such but the potential (apūrva) energy generated in the performance of the ritual that delivers the heavenly reward, and it explains the creation stories in the Vedas as merely underlining the importance of the ritual action to which these stories pertain.

The Mīmāmṣā shares with the Jains the view that the world is eternal, rendering superfluous the idea of God as the ultimate cause. In the work of the founder of the Mīmāmṣā school, Jaimini (second century CE), there is found no specific reference to the doctrine of God. Later exponents, such as Kumārila and Prabhākara (eighth century CE), advance definite arguments to refute theistic views. It is held by Kumārila that in order to establish that God created the world it would be necessary to provide authoritative testimony. But in the nature of the case no witnesses are available. The view that God revealed the truth of his creative act is without avail, because it would still be necessary to establish the veracity of his claim. Kumārila also objects to the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika view that God created the world out of atoms but has established the varieties of happiness and unhappiness of finite beings in the world in accordance with their merit. If the distribution of happiness and unhappiness can be explained on the basis of the merit of individual souls, then it is unnecessary to attribute this to God. Other arguments of the Mīmāmṣā school are that if God is a material substance he is incapable of being affected by the qualities of merit or demerit of immaterial souls. If he is a spiritual being it is impossible that he could have acted as cause upon the material atoms that compose the world. If God is the explanation for the existence of the world it is impossible to see how he could also be, as he is in the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika view, the destroyer. To these objections the Mīmāmṣā add others familiar among other atheistic schools. It is impossible to think of God as having a body, since this body would require a creator as well, yet it is impossible to see him as creating anything without one. And to these are added again the question of the motivation of God.

Like the Mīmāmṣā, Śaṅkara (788–820 CE), the founder of the Advaita (or nondualist) school of Vedānta, regards the Vedas as eternal and uncreated. Yet Śaṅkara's interest is not in the ritual injunctions that the Vedas prescribe but in the meaning of those sections of the Upaniṣads that refer to that pure Self that pervades all existing things, the knowledge of which is the ultimate truth. Śaṅkara, like the Sāṃkhya school and the Jains, affirms the existence of the soul. But unlike them he holds that souls are not a plurality of beings but One. What seems to be a variety of souls is but the illusory manifestation of this One, like a candle flame seen through a broken lens. He also holds that the variety perceived among objects of experience is also like an illusion. In the final analysis there is no material world and no God. There is but one ultimate reality called brahman.

The study of those sections of the Vedas (the Jñānakāṇḍa) that pertain to this truth should be restricted, according to Śaṅkara, to persons who are beyond the desire for earthly or even for heavenly rewards. Those sections of the Vedas (the Karmakāṇḍa) that pertain to ritual action he recommends to persons less advanced. In the light of this distinction Śaṅkara admits of two differing levels of truth. To say that the world of empirical experience is illusory is not to say that it is completely false. Rather, it begins and moves within the error that identifies the self with the body, the senses, or the objects of sense. It proceeds under the assumption that the knower is an object within the material world. From the standpoint of the absolute truth this kind of knowledge is seen as illusion, on the analogy of illusions encountered in the mundane world. In the world of empirical experience, reality is understood in terms of time, space, and cause. As such it presents a cohesive picture manifesting aPage 581  |  Top of Article measure of order and design. In the light of this, Śaṅkara argues that on the level of mundane experience the world is appropriately seen as an effect, and that from this effect it is reasonable to infer a cause. He also holds that the evident design and adaptation of the world, as seen from this perspective, is sufficient to infer an intelligent being who has fashioned it like a potter makes a pot from clay. And, in accordance with the view of God as lord of the moral order, Śaṅkara argues that the law of karman in itself is insufficient for the just administration of rewards of good and evil.

While Śaṅkara offers these arguments as serious considerations, he acknowledges that the existence of God is not amenable to proof and turns finally to the authority of the Vedas. Any proof for the existence of God is bound to be formulated within the context of a false duality in which the ultimate is seen as acting as cause upon the objects of name and form. The difficulties in proving the existence of God, then, are presumably resolved in the higher knowledge in which appearances like God and world finally give way to the perfect truth.


Religious forms of atheism in India appeared in a context in which differing conceptions of deity and of the ultimate source and order of the universe were each capable of supporting an integrated system of religious thought and action. Early periods of Western thought manifested similarly differing conceptions of deity and of the ultimate ground of all that exists. But just as Chinese intellectual history came to be dominated by the impersonal conception of the natural order of the world, so the personal conception of deity gradually achieved ascendency in the West. While alternative conceptions of deity continued as minor currents of Western thought, the possibility of an atheistic form of religious thought received new attention with the criticism of the philosophical doctrine of God by secular thought.

Ancient Greece

The religion of ancient Greece depicted in the poetry of Homer (eighth century BCE) revolved around a pantheon of gods presided over by the sky god Zeus, who was seen not as a creator but as the upholder of moral order. The gods, here associated with various aspects of the universe, are represented as superhuman immortal beings endowed with human passions, frequently behaving in undignified and amoral ways. Nevertheless, the worship of these gods in temples and other holy places, especially by means of sacrifice, constituted the state religion of Greece throughout the classical period. While there was no precise conception of God in ancient Greece, philosophical criticisms of the gods of popular belief are of interest because of their similarity to arguments later brought against theism and because of the alternative conceptions of the divine they often put in their place. The denial of these gods was a gradual development, finally expressed in uncompromising terms only around 300 BCE.

Xenophanes (c. 570–475 BCE) attacked the anthropomorphic and amoral representations of the gods in the poetry of Homer. He suggested that if animals could draw and paint, they too would represent gods in their image. As the counterpart of his rejection of the gods of the poets, he held a philosophical idea of a higher divine being who must be one, eternal, and unchangeable. There is evidence both for and against the view that he identified this being with the universe as a whole.

The development of Ionic naturalism (c. fifth century BCE) presented a challenge to traditional belief, because it offered natural explanations for phenomena that had been accounted for on the basis of belief in the gods. Naturalistic theories, however, often accommodated belief in the gods or in some conception of the divine. According to Democritus (c. 460–370 BCE), the world and all that occurs within it is but the modification in shape and arrangement of the eternal atoms of which all things are composed. Within this view such events as thunder and lightning popularly ascribed to Zeus are explained in natural terms. At the same time Democritus held that fire is the divine soul-substance that accounts for the life of the body and constitutes the soul of the world. Anaxagoras (c. 499–427 BCE), on the other hand, was accused of impiety and was required to leave Athens, not for an explicit denial of the popular gods, but for his teaching that the heavenly bodies are purely natural objects, that the sun is a red-hot stone and the moon made of earth.

Among the Sophists (c. third to fourth century BCE) criticism of the gods was based on the distinction drawn between law, or human convention (nomos), and nature (phusis). Ideas associated with public worship were assigned to the former category. They were seen as relative to human society and in some cases as the product of the purely human imagination. With the advent of Sophistic thought, criticism of the gods became more visible, because it occurred not simply in the context of a naturalistic theory that left public worship undisturbed but also in the context of higher education. On the other hand, because their fortunes depended largely upon public acceptance, the Sophists did not always extend their criticism of human convention to an outright denial of the gods. Protagoras (c. 485–420 BCE), the best known of the Sophists, was tried and outlawed in Athens for asserting that he could say of the gods "neither that they exist nor that they do not exist." He, however, is, as far as is known, the first to raise the question of the existence of the gods as a question for which an uncompromising negative answer might be given.

Proceeding further along Sophistic lines, Prodicus of Ceos, a younger contemporary of Protagoras, sought to explain the existence of the popular belief in gods. Observing that Homer occasionally used the name of Hephaistos instead of "fire," he inferred that the gods had originally been associated with things that man requires for his existence. In explaining the origin of popular belief, he did not, however, explicitly repudiate the existence of the gods or the divinity of the sun or moon. The earliest expression of thoroughly atheistic belief in ancient Greece appears in a fragment of satiricalPage 582  |  Top of Article drama by Critias, a contemporary and acquaintance of Socrates. In this work the character Sisyphus articulates the view that at its origin humanity was devoid of social organization. Subsequently, men made laws to prevent mere power from prevailing over right. The enforcement of law thus prevented observable evil. Then a wise man conceived of making the people believe that there are gods to police their secret deeds and thoughts. It is not known, however, whether the speech of the dramatic character Sisyphus expresses the view of Critias himself. Thinking along a similar line, Euhemerus (c. 300 BCE) argued that the gods had once been kings and rulers who had become the objects of worship because of the improvements in civilization they had bestowed upon their subjects. Yet he too seems to have held that the heavenly bodies are real and eternal gods.

While many philosophers of this period rejected certain of the gods of popular belief, they also often affirmed the divinity of the celestial bodies and developed alternative ideas of the divine, sometimes in pantheistic or vaguely monotheistic terms. Theodorus of Cyrene (c. 300 BCE), on the other hand, seems to have rejected all such ideas. Diogenes Laertius and Cicero both observe that he did not accept the existence of any god.

Early Christianity

Contemporary research on Christian origins suggests that early Christianity did not unanimously appropriate the view of God set forth in the Hebrew scriptures. A pervading theme of the gnostic literature that circulated widely in early Christian communities is that the world is an untoward environment. It is not the work of an omnipotent and benevolent being but the result of a divine fault. Its creator is unworthy of the religious devotion of man and an obstacle to the religious goal of liberation from the present evil world. The ultimate reality, on the other hand, is not to be thought of as a God at all. It is referred to as the unknown One, the unfathomable, the incomprehensible. Occasionally, this reality is spoken of paradoxically as the One that exists in nonbeing existence. Although by the fourth century, gnosticism was condemned as unorthodox by a majority of Christian churches, it is undeniable that it represented for its adherents a religious way of life.

The emergence of the Western conception of God

Despite the pervasiveness of gnostic ideas in the first centuries of the Christian era, the biblical image of God as father and creator received the stamp of orthodox Christian teaching. The idea that God as creator of the world can be known by means of reason is expressed in the New Testament (Rom. 1:18–23, Acts 17:23) and becomes a persistent theme in Christian theology from the time of the apologists of the second and third centuries. The speculative theologians of Alexandria (Athanasius, Didymus, Cyril) all hold that although God in himself is beyond comprehension, he can be known through the creation and through the human soul, which was created in his image. In the works of Augustine of Hippo (384–430 CE) one finds support for the belief in the existence of God from a variety of facts of experience. With the emergence of Scholasticism, such ideas were developed into rational proofs for the existence of God that were intended to stand to reason without appeal to revelation. According to Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), God is that than which nothing more perfect can be thought. From the fact that an existent being is more perfect than a purely imaginary object, it follows that God must exist.

Thomas Aquinas (1228–1274) rejected Anselm's proof but under the influence of Aristotle's metaphysics elaborated the famous five ways by which the existence of God can be known. According to Thomas, (1) the facts that there is motion in the universe and that everything in motion derives its motion from something else show that there must be an unmoved mover. Secondary movers move only when they are moved by something else. (2) From the fact that all events have an efficient cause, Thomas infers that there must be a substantial agent that is its own cause. If the chain of efficient causes goes on forever, there would be no first efficient cause and therefore no effect. (3) From the fact of contingent and corruptible things about us, Thomas proceeds to the fact that there must be a being that exists by its own very nature, a necessary being. (4) Because the highest degree of any quality observed in any finite thing is always the cause of that quality in anything in which that quality is found, the gradations in goodness, beauty, and truth in objects of experience imply that all being and goodness in the universe must have their source in one who is the perfect being. (5) Finally, from the orderly character of natural events there must be a general order to the universe, and this universal order points to the existence of an intelligent agent who has ordered all things. Following Thomas, other arguments were offered in support of belief in such a God. Among the most influential of these were the arguments of René Descartes (1591–1650), who attempted to demonstrate the existence of God from the presence of the idea of God in the mind.

The attack upon theism

Since the seventeenth century this conception of God and the arguments that claimed to demonstrate his existence have been subject to persistent attack. In the first place, because Thomas took the physics of Aristotle as the basis for his understanding of cause and motion, his arguments were less capable of supporting theistic belief once Aristotle's views on these matters were supplanted by those of Isaac Newton (1642–1727). For Aristotle, an explanation is required both for the initiation and for the continuance of change. The first mover of Thomas, since it is taken as both initiating and continuing change, supports the view of God both as creator and governor of the universe. Newton's first law of motion, on the other hand, holds that a body will remain at rest or in continuous motion in the same direction unless it is subject to a contravening force. When the idea was developed by Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749–1827) that the world is a regular and perfectly determinate system, the idea of God as the source of its movement was rendered superfluous. Moreover, once the idea of the universe as a perfect system was established, eternal existencePage 583  |  Top of Article could be attributed to the material world, as in the work of Paul-Henri d'Holbach (1723–1789). Theistic arguments were further eroded by the view articulated by David Hume (1711–1776) that cause itself is but an immanent habit of thought and not a necessary relation between substances or events. With this the possibility of inferring the existence of God from any classical form of a causal argument was undermined.

Influenced by Hume and others, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), in his famous Critique of Pure Reason (1781), gathered the substance of various arguments for the existence of God into three. (1) The ontological argument proceeds from the idea of God to the existence of God. It holds that this idea is such that the nonexistence of God would not be possible. (2) The cosmological argument proceeds from the fact of the existence of the world to the existence of God as the sufficient reason or the ultimate cause of its being. (3) The physico-theological argument proceeds from the evident order, adaptation, or purposefulness of the world to the existence of an intelligent being who made it.

None of these arguments, in the view of Kant, is adequate to prove the existence of God. The ontological argument treats existence as though it could be the property of an idea. The cosmological argument posits the first cause only to avoid an infinite chain of causal relations. And it presupposes the validity of the ontological argument in its use of the category of a necessary being as the first cause. The physico-theological argument presupposes the validity of the first two, but even if accepted could prove only the existence of a designer or architect of the universe and not a creator.

Such speculative reasoning fails, according to Kant, because it depends upon the illegitimate use of the concepts of the pure theoretical reason that individuals employ in their apprehension of spatial and temporal objects to extend their knowledge beyond the reach of sensuous experience. Kant denies, however, that this analysis should lead to the conclusion that God does not exist. In his Critique of Practical Reason (1778), he argues that it is in the domain of moral action that religious ideas have their real significance, and it is here that belief in God can be justified on rational grounds. The substance of his argument is that it is necessary to postulate freedom, immortality, and God in order to live reasonably according to the "moral law within."

It was precisely the transposition of religious ideas from the realm of metaphysics to the realm of practical reason, the idea of belief in God as the support for moral action, that attracted the most violent assault upon theistic ideas in the following generation. Its significance for the nineteenth century is indicated in the view of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), who argues (1) that religion is the "dream of man," in which he projects his own infinite nature as a being beyond himself and then perceives himself as the object of this projected being; (2) that such a being, as "a contradiction to reason and morality," is quite inadequate to support a genuine human community; and (3) that a new philosophy based upon the being of man must unmask the essential nature of religion, which is to alienate man from himself, and replace theology with the humanistic underpinning for an ethically legitimate order.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) concurred in the judgment that religion is a symptom of alienation. But he argued that a merely intellectual liberation from religion would be unable to bring about the kind of human community that Feuerbach had envisioned. Religion, he argued, is an instrument of economic control. By its construction of an illusory happiness religion presents an obstacle to the liberation of the alienated worker from economic exploitation in the real, that is the material, world. Later in the century Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) articulated a view of the moral significance of theistic faith very different from that of Marx. Yet it is no less hostile to theistic belief. The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition, he held, is the support of a slave morality. God was the instrument of the weak in inflicting a bad conscience upon the powerful and healthy and thus undermining their vitality and love of life. The success of this strategy has brought Western civilization to the brink of a nihilism that signals both the imminent death of God and the dawning of a new day in which Christian morality will be left behind.

In the twentieth century a new challenge to theism arose from the effort of philosophers to develop a criterion to distinguish between meaningful and meaningless language. In order to make sense, it was held, a statement has to be capable of empirical verification. Because statements about God cannot be shown to be true or false by methods of empirical testing, they seem to be without claim to cognitive standing. With this and further developments, the challenge to religious thought was no longer to the justification of theistic belief but to the status of the expression of theistic belief as meaningful language. The threat was not to its intellectual support but to its claim to belong to the domain of serious philosophical dispute.

The twentieth century

To the attack upon theism since the seventeenth century, theologians in the twentieth century responded in a variety of ways. These responses can be discussed as two opposing types: (1) those who continued to affirm the existence of God as the superlatively wise, powerful, and benevolent creator of the world and (2) those who did not affirm the existence of such a God or who even openly deny it. It is within this latter group that the most recent forms of religious atheism are found. The first type includes the revival of scholasticism in Roman Catholic and Anglican theological circles, which was accorded official ecclesiastical support during the First Vatican Council (1870). Among the most influential of these theists were Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange (1877–1964), Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), and Étienne Gilson (1884–1978). Central to this response was a reaffirmation of metaphysics and of the importance of natural theology, at least in the sense of a rational structuring of the truths received through revelation and a clarification of these truths in terms of ordinary experience.

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A second movement that belongs to this type, neoorthodoxy, dominated Protestant thought during the first half of the twentieth century, especially after World War I. Rejecting the prevalent themes of nineteenth-century Protestant thought, neoorthodoxy rediscovered the personal God of the Bible and the Protestant reformers. It repudiated efforts to find God through human effort, and instead affirmed that he is to be known through his revelation attested in sacred scripture and by means of the obedience of faith. The God of Karl Barth (1886–1968), the most influential exponent of this movement, is a God who exists, who lives, and who has made himself known through mighty acts in history of which the Bible is witness.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the significance of change or process in the works of William James (1842–1910), Henri Bergson (1859–1941), Samuel Alexander (1859–1938), and others, together with a widespread criticism of the absolute determinism of Laplace, provided the context for new efforts toward a doctrine of God in the thought of such figures as Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947), Henry Nelson Wieman (1884–1975), and Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000). Claiming independence from what it saw as the static theism of both the Thomistic and neoorthodox traditions, it conceived God as a limited being who is subject to "becoming" in time as natural "process" unfolds. God, in this view, fulfills his own being, as the force for progress, in and through the ordering of the world.

A reply to the attack upon theism very different from all of these was developed in the thought of Paul Tillich (1886–1965). It centers upon his view of faith as a state of "being concerned ultimately." This view of faith, according to Tillich, transcends the three fundamental kinds of theism that have been the object of secular attack. (1) "Empty theism" is the affirmation of God employed by politicians and dictators to produce the impression that they are moral and worthy of trust. Its use of the idea of God exploits the traditional and psychological connotations of the word without any specification of what is meant. (2) Theism as "divine-human encounter" found in the Bible and among the reformers is the immediate certainty of divine forgiveness that is independent of moral, intellectual, or religious preconditions. Its power is evident in the capacity of such a personal image of God, supported by scripture and personal experience, to defeat the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, fate and death. Yet given the doubt prevailing in the present age, the experience of divine forgiveness is subject to psychological explanation, and the idea of sin appears relative at best and meaningless at worst. (3) "Theological theism" tries by means of the various proofs for the existence of God to transform the divine-human encounter into a doctrine about two different beings that have existence independent of one another. This, however, can establish the existence of God only as a being beside others and bound to the subject-object structure of reality. Under the gaze of such a being of infinite knowledge and power the alienated human being is deprived of freedom and creativity. Against this kind of theism, says Tillich, the atheism of the nineteenth century was a justified response.

What Tillich calls "absolute faith," on the other hand, accepts and affirms despair and in so doing finds meaning within the disintegration of meaning itself. In "absolute faith" the depth and power of being is revealed in which the negation of being is embraced. Its object is the "God beyond God," the God who appears when the God of theism has disappeared in the anxiety of meaninglessness and doubt. This God is not a being but the ground of Being itself.

In an effort towards a radical recasting of the fundamental categories of theology, Bishop John A. T. Robinson (1919–1983) of Woolwich, England, employed a number of Tillich's insights together with some of the more famous ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976). Writing in 1963, he affirmed, with Bultmann, that the Bible assumes a cosmology in which God is a being "up there." The Christian who is heir to the Copernican revolution tends to translate such categories into terms compatible with the modern view of the world. When one speaks of God "up there," one really means the God "out there." This he thinks, is poor translation, for there are no vacant spaces in the universe in which God could really be said to reside. Robinson is willing to concede that the skies are empty, and that humanity, as Bonhoeffer had said, has come of age. The divine transcendence, he argues, is to be confronted not in the "beyond" or in the "height" but in the infinite and inexhaustible "depth" or "ground" of being revealed in the midst of life.

Neither Tillich nor Robinson referred to their thought as atheistic. Tillich suggested, however, that to understand God as the depth of being practically requires one to forget everything traditional that one has learned about God, and perhaps even the word itself. Robinson stated that he did not yet have a name for the kind of religious thinking he wanted to bring about. In the United States, on the other hand, reflection of a similar sort was given a name that gained it an instant vogue: the theology of the death of God.

The "death of God" theology was a heterogeneous movement encompassing a variety of issues upon which its members often disagreed. Besides the question of God, it was concerned with a variety of forms of alienation within the Christian community, with the significance of the secular world and its intellectual norms, and with the significance for theology of the person and work of Jesus. The movement received its name from the title of a work published in 1961 by Gabriel Vahanian that announced the death of God as a cultural fact, the fact acknowledged by Bonhoeffer and Robinson that modern man functions intellectually and socially without God as a working hypothesis. This cultural fact, for Vahanian, implies a loss of the sense of transcendence and the substitution of a radically immanentist perspective in dealing with questions of human existence. That the death of God has occurred as a cultural fact in no way implies forPage 585  |  Top of Article him, however, that God himself has ceased to exist. God is, and remains, infinite and wholly other, still calling humanity to existential and cultural conversion. Vahanian's concern is for a transfiguration of culture in which the living God is freed from the false images that have reified him.

Vahanian's view of the reality of God sets him clearly apart from other persons associated with the death of God. For Paul M. Van Buren, writing in 1965, the issue for theology is how the modern Christian, who is in fact a secular being, can understand faith in a secular way. Taking his method from the philosophical tradition known as language analysis, he argues that not only the God of theism but also any other conception of God has been rendered meaningless to the modern mind. He concludes that when the language of Christian faith is sorted out, the gospel can be interpreted as the expression of a historical perspective concerning Jesus that has wide-ranging empirical consequences for the ethical existence of the Christian.

For William Hamilton, writing at about the same time, the death of God means the loss of the God of theism and the loss of "real transcendence." His response is a new understanding of Protestantism that liberates it from religion—from, that is, any system of thought or action in which God is seen as fulfilling any sort of need or as solving any human problem, even the problem of the loss of God. Hamilton's Protestant is a person without God, without faith in God, but also a person in protest against release or escape from the world by means of the sacred. He is a person led into the affairs of the world and into solidarity with his neighbor, in whom he encounters Jesus and where alone he can become Jesus to the world.

In the thought of Vahanian, Van Buren, and Hamilton, the death of God is a metaphor. In the work of Thomas J. J. Altizer, on the other hand, the death of God is to be taken literally. In a work published in 1967 he seems to be saying both that God did once exist and that he really did cease to exist. He believes that the death of God is decisive for theology because in it God has reconciled himself with the world. God, the sovereign and transcendent Lord of the Christian tradition, has taken the form of a servant and entered the world through Christ. With this, the realm of the transcendent and supernatural has become empty and God has died. With the death of God, humans are liberated from fears and inhibitions imposed upon them by an awesome mystery beyond.

The view of these thinkers that belief in God is impossible, unnecessary, or wrong, has apparently not caused them to believe that they are disqualified as theologians. To this extent they stand alongside other forms of religious atheism encountered in the history of religious thought. It has certainly been objected by other theologians that the "death of God" theology does not authentically represent the Christian tradition. For the present it is sufficient that the death of God represents a controversy of significant dimensions in the record of Christian thought and that its influence continues to affect the development of theology in the early twenty-first century.


The forms of atheism that appear throughout the history of religions represent an important resource for the interpretation of twenty-first century religious thought. Much of the reasoning behind the rejection of popular religion in ancient Greece or theism in India can be compared with the reasoning behind the rejection of theism in the West. The naturalism of ancient Greek and classical Indian philosophy invites comparison with naturalism in the West, the atheism of the Sophists with that of nineteenth-century Europe. The widespread secularistic mood in contemporary society bears comparison with the secularism of late Greek and Roman antiquity. And the ethical preoccupation of some exponents of the death of God invites comparison with the ethical practicality of the philosophies of ancient China. The major forms of religious atheism are perhaps less distinguished by the traditions they belong to than by affinities in inner structure.

From the present survey it is possible to conclude that doubt about the existence of God does not in itself imply the end of piety, ethics, or spirituality. Elaborate systems of ethical religious thought and action have been based both on the view that God does and that God does not exist. The question that arises from the present survey is not whether it is possible to speak any longer about God but whether it is necessary to do so. The question whether it is possible for modern philosophy or theology to develop a compelling system of religious thought and action that rejects belief in God will be addressed more effectively as the dimensions of the question that emerge in differing historical situations are compared.


The idea that civilization begins at a stage at which the concept of God is absent is developed by David Hume in The Natural History of Religion (1757), edited by H. E. Root (Stanford, Calif., 1957). A similar view is developed by John Lubbock in The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man (1870), edited by Peter Rivière (Chicago, 1978). An excellent contemporary study of the significance of God in traditional African religion is John S. Mbiti's Concepts of God in Africa (New York, 1970). See also Ake Hultkrantz's Belief and Worship in Native North America (Syracuse, N.Y., 1981). Both of these works contain excellent bibliographies. The question whether native peoples are without a concept of God has received new interest in light of John Nance's The Gentle Tasaday (New York, 1975).

The most thorough work on the classical philosophies of India remains Surendranath Dasgupta's A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. (Cambridge, 1922–1955). Nikunja Vihari Banerjee's The Spirit of Indian Philosophy (New Delhi, 1974) is a thoroughly readable introduction containing a useful discussion of arguments for and against the existence of God in Indian thought. Ninian Smart's Doctrine and Argument inPage 586  |  Top of Article Indian Philosophy (London, 1964) presents the substance of Indian metaphysics in language accessible to the Western reader. It contains also a useful glossary and bibliography. More specialized studies include Kewal Krishnan Mittal's Materialism in Indian Thought (Delhi, 1974); Dale Riepe's The Naturalistic Tradition in Indian Thought (Seattle, 1961); and Helmuth von Glasenapp's Buddhism: A Non-Theistic Religion (New York, 1966). A useful selection of relevant original texts is presented in translation in A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, edited by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N.J., 1957). A concise introduction to Chinese thought is presented in Fung Youlan's A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York, 1948), which offers a short bibliography.

Relevant works on ancient Greek material include Roy K. Hack's God in Greek Philosophy (Princeton, N. J., 1931), which contains a selected bibliography, and Anders B. Drachmann's Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (1922; Chicago, 1977), which provides extensive notes. For a scholarly treatment of the concept of God in ancient Israel, see William F. Albright's Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (London, 1968) and Harold H. Rowley's The Faith of Israel: Aspects of Old Testament Thought (London, 1956). Elaine H. Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels (New York, 1979) is an introduction to gnostic Christian literature based on the recent discoveries at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. The development of theism, from Augustine to its criticism through the nineteenth century, is thoroughly discussed in Frederick C. Copleston's A History of Philosophy, 8 vols. (New York, 1946–1966). A concise introduction to the development of the Christian idea of God is found in the article "God" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed., edited by Frank Leslie Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingston (London, 1974), which contains a useful bibliography. For a thorough discussion of contemporary developments in theology, including the theology of the "death of God," see Langdon Gilkey's Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God-language (Indianapolis, 1969).

Finally, a useful reference work is The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, 2 vols., edited by Gordon Stein (New York, 1985). Although clearly focused on the West, it includes a broad range of articles on various forms of unbelief in most parts of the world.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424500233