Denial of the existence of God. Term used in various senses, depending on definition of God. Pagans applied it to early Christians because they rejected heathen idolatry. In theol. controversies of early ch. contending parties at times called each other atheists, and the RC Ch. justified the burning of heretics by applying this epithet to them. Aside from this improper use the term has been variously used in scientific literature. In its widest sense it denotes the antithesis of theism and includes pantheism and deism. In a more restricted sense it denotes the denial of the Deity above and outside of the physical universe. In the most commonly accepted sense it is a positive dogmatic denial of anything that may be called God. The term is also used to express a merely negative attitude on the question of the existence of God, such as agnosticism* and the so-called practical atheism, which is not based on scientific reasoning, but is merely a refusal to worship any deity.
The materialism of the 18th and 19th c. and biological evolution have given strong impetus to atheistic trends of thought. In Fr. the 18th c. produced many antitheistic writers, among them the Encyclopedists D. Diderot,* P. H. D. d' Holbach,* and Voltaire.* The latter called Holbach's Système the Bible of atheism. F. K. C. L. Büchner,* L. A. Feuerbach,* E. H. P. A. Haeckel,* K. H. Marx,* and K. C. Vogt,* Ger. materialists of the 19th c., were aqually outspoken. A. Comte's* Positivism,* Eng. secularism (main exponents include G. J. Holyoake* and C. Bradlaugh*), and continental socialism* are essentially atheistic. Of the great religions of the world, Buddhism,* Jainism,* and the Sankhye system of Brahmanic philosophy (see Brahmanism) deny the existence of a personal God.
It is not possible for a man to be an atheist, in the commonly accepted sense, in his innermost conviction. No amount of reasoning will erase from the human heart the God-given conviction that there is a Supreme Being; those who theoretically deny God's existence replace Him with something else. Likewise, no people has ever been found entirely devoid of religious belief. The difficulties that atheism involves are expressed by Bacon: I had rather believe all the fabulous tales in the Talmud and the Koran than that the universal frame is without mind. The hopelessness of antitheism is apparent in the confession of Romanes, who speaks of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine and the lonely existence as now I find it.
See also Evolution; God, Arguments for the Existence of; Humanist Manifesto, A; La Mettrie, Julien Offroy de.
T. Graebner, God and the Cosmos (Grand Rapids, 1932); F. A. Lange, The History of Materialism, and Criticism of Its Present Importance, tr. E. C. Thomas (London, 1925); A. B. Drachman, Atheism in Pagan Antiquity (London, 1922): Fritz Mauthner, Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande, 4 vols. (Stuttgart, 192023; reprint Hildesheim, 1963).
Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
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