Atheism and religion

Atheism and religion

Atheism, in its broadest definition, is the absence of theism, viz., of belief in a God or gods. The degree to which one can be considered an atheist while simultaneously being and adherent of a sect of a traditionally monotheistic, polytheistic, or non-theistic religion is the subject of ongoing theological debateFact|date=February 2007. Some people with what would be considered religious or spiritual beliefs call themselves atheists; others argue that this is a contradiction in terms.


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, giving rise to the joke: :"Q: What do you call a Jew who doesn't believe in God? A: A Jew." 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, [ref_harvard|Rachmani-a|Rachmani 2002a|none] [ref_harvard|Rachmani-b|Rachmani 2002b|none] 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. Few if any atheists 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.


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,fn|1 there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." Additionally, according to John 3:18-19,

3:18 "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.fn|2
3:19 "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darknessfn|1 instead of light because their deeds were evil." (NIV)

But while the religious determination of "heresy" would appear to be absolute, in reality, Christian proselytism has a great deal of variance. 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 naturally 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." [Catechism of the Catholic Church, English version, [ section] ]

As a religious community that attempts to hold civil discourse with adherents to original Jewish as well as other descendant offshoots (Islam, Mormonism, etc.) Christians likewise have great variance with regards to non-Christian religious beliefs, though the general consensus of Christian religious leaders appears to be toward the non-inclusive (such as supersessionism), other views have tended to prevail (dispensationalism) perhaps largely as a result of modern Judeo-Christian interaction.

A famous but idiosyncratic atheistic 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". [ref_harvard|Altizer|Altizer 1996, p. 102|a] 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. [ref_harvard|Altizer|Altizer 1996, p. 103|b]

However, many 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. For further discussion, see Lyas (1970).

A 2001 survey by "Faith Communities Today" [ [ Surveys: 'Uuism' unique Churchgoers from elsewhere, Christian Century Foundation ] ] found that 18% of Unitarian Universalists (UU) consider themselves to be atheists, with 54% considering themselves Humanist (i.e. secular humanism). For comparison, 16% of UUs consider themselves Buddhist, 13% to be Christian, and 13% to be Pagan, according to this study.


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".

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." (Abdullah Yusuf Ali)

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

Bukhari, volume 9, #17 "Narrated Abdullah: Allah's Messenger said, 'The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Messenger, cannot be shed except in three cases: in Qisas (equality in punishment) for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (Apostate) and leaves the Muslims.'"

Bukhari, volume 9, #37 "Narrated Abu Qilaba: Once Umar bin Abdul Aziz sat on his throne in the courtyard of his house so that the people might gather before him....He replied 'By Allah, Allah's messenger never killed anyone except in one of the following three situations: 1) A person who killed somebody unjustly, was killed (in Qisas,) 2) a married person who committed illegal sexual intercourse and, 3) a man who fought against Allah and His messenger, and deserted Islam and became an apostate....'"

Bukhari, volume 9, #57 "Narrated 'Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa (atheists) were brought to 'Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn 'Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's Apostle forbade it, saying, 'Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire).' "I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Apostle, 'Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him."' [italics added] "

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.

Asian spirituality

It is difficult to categorize Eastern belief systems in distinct terms of theism or atheism. Beliefs that would be characterized as atheistic in the western sense, often have some theistic tendencies, and vice versa.

Samkhya, though a school in the Orthodox (Astika) variety of Hinduism, can be considered atheist because of the lack of a 'higher being' that is the ground of all existence. Sankhya 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.

Buddhism is often described as atheistic, since Buddhist authorities and canonical texts do not affirm, and sometimes deny, the following:

* The existence of a creation, and therefore of a creator deity
* That a god, gods, or other divine beings are the source of moral imperatives
* That human beings or other creatures are responsible to a god or gods for their actions

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.

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 atheistic undertones.


Although Theistic Satanism believes in deities, LaVeyan Satanism does not believe that Satan is 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!'" [ [ Interview with Peter H. Gilmore] , David Shankbone, "Wikinews', November 5, 2007.] 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.


Scientology claims to be universally compatible with all other religionsFact|date=February 2007. Although there is some question about the extent of the claim's veracity, the Church of Scientology does not overtly make any claims about the existence of a deity.

Scientology does have a concept known as a Thetan, which is equivalent to a human soul. Through intensive Dianetic therapy, a person is supposedly able to achieve the level of a pure Operating Thetan, similar to the concept of a super-human or trans-human.


Humanism tends to be atheistic because it tends to focus on the happiness of humanity without referring to a god nor to a life after death. A majority of HumanistsFact|date=November 2007 are atheists and argue that humanity should go by evidence, not faith to understand the world.


Marxism tends to be atheistic because of Marx's philosophy of nature that matter comes first and mind comes second, there is no design and this is all an accident. Marx even argued that "Religion is the opium of the masses", that it was used by the bourgeoisie to control the people. The Communist parties in the Communist countries only allowed atheists into their party, in fact some went far by persecuting religions, like Albania under Enver Hoxha where it was declared the world's first atheist state. However, the Communist party in Cuba, since 1991, has allowed theists and people of all other religions into their party. Many parties which have roots in Marxism have a more tolerant view of religious faith than many communist parties in the communist countries had.Fact|date=September 2008


fnb|1 Note, the phrase "said in his heart" is meant to indicate a much deeper personal belief than a similar statement 'said in the mouth.' Similarly, the phrase "men loved darkness" indicates not just a passing flirtation with darkness (evil), but a deep attachment, formed not because they initially 'loved evil,' but "because their deeds were evil."

fnb|2 The Christian concept of "God's one and only Son", also referred to as "the Son of Man" is complex, and though it has less dogmatic interpretations, the dogmatic ones (i.e. associating the reverence of God with the reverence to Jesus) tend to dominate popular Christian belief, hence implying that all who reject the divinity of Jesus "stands condemned already." Within this debate, the definitions of divinity and even Jesus (as (arch)angels may have other names) factor heavily.



*note_label|Altizer|Altizer 1967|anote_label|Altizer|Altizer 1967|bcite book
first=Thomas J.J.
title=The Gospel of Christian Atheism
publisher=London: Collins

*note_label|Amoss|Amoss 1999|nonecite web
title=The Making of a Quaker Atheist

*note_label|Rachmani-a|Rachmani 2002a|nonecite web
title=Introduction to the Thought of Rav Kook, Lecture #16: "Kefira" in our Day
first=Rav Hillel

*note_label|Rachmani-b|Rachmani 2002b|nonecite web
title=Introduction to the Thought of Rav Kook, Lecture #17: Heresy V
first=Rav Hillel

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