Atheism

The denial that God exists. Atheism in the strict sense is rare; self-styled atheists are often agnostics or secularists. Tillich (1948) defines atheism as the view that “life has no depth, that it is shallow.” For Toulmin (1957) atheism is the view that cosmic powers are indifferent or “positively callous” to man. Atheists have been classified as “tough” and “tender,” or “crude” and “sensitive.” The tender atheist accepts higher values (empathy, truth, beauty, etc.) and so has a good deal in common with the Christian, even though his intellectual position differs radically.

Arguments for atheism are based on: (1) logical positivism and linguistics: God's existence cannot be empirically verified, and the word “God” is asserted to be meaningless; (2) alleged fallacies in the traditional proofs of God's existence; (3) the claim that theism does actual harm, e.g., by encouraging persecution; (4) the claim that science offers an adequate explanation of the world without need for the supernatural; (5) the claim that accepted psychological laws or principles explain belief in God.

To these arguments, taken in order, it may be replied: (1) we cannot determine truth by the way we talk which, in any case, is often equivocal; a criterion of meaning which makes God meaningless cannot be sustained-no one doubts the reality of the past even though it cannot be perceived or empirically verified; (2) the classical “proofs” can be restated in modern terms, and one or two of them are remarkably cogent; (3) persecutions by atheists and pagans (Communists, Nazis) have been more cruel in our time than those perpetrated in the past by theists; cruelty is not the result of theism-genuine belief in a forgiving God predisposes to kindness; (4) this is not true. Science gives no account of the very small, of the very large, or of origins. Nor can it be shown that scientific explanations exclude explanations of other kinds (artistic, teleological as applied to machines, as well as theological); (5) psychological explanations are double- edged weapons. Atheism can be explained psychologically by disappointment in the father; alternatively a masochistic desire not to be happy may result in a repudiation for oneself of the happiness associated with belief.

E.T. Whittaker, The Beginning and End of the World (1942); H. de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (1949); R.E.D. Clark, The Universe, Plan or Accident? (3rd ed., 1961); A.O.J. Cockshut, The Unbelievers (1964); R. Robinson, An Atheist's Values (1964); F.H. Cleobury, A Return to Natural Theology (1967); P. Edwards, “Atheism,” in Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (1967); H.D. Lewis, The Elusive Mind (1969).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(atheos, "without God" (Eph 2:12)): Ordinarily this word is interpreted to mean a denial of the existence of God, a disbelief in God, the opposite of theism. But it seems better that we should consider it under four heads, in order to obtain a clear idea of the different meanings in which it has been used.

(1) The classical.

In this sense it does not mean a denial of the existence of a Divine Being, but the denial of the existence or reality of the god of a particular nation. Thus the Christians were repeatedly charged with atheism, because of their disbelief in the gods of heathenism. It was not charged that they did not believe in any god, but that they denied the existence and reality of the gods worshipped, and before whom the nation hitherto had bowed. This was considered so great a crime, so dangerous a thing to the nation, that it was felt to be a just cause for most cruel and determined persecutions. Socrates’ teaching cast a shadow on the reality of the existence of the gods, and this charge was brought against him by his contemporaries. Cicero also uses the word in this sense in his charge against Diagoras of Athens. Indeed, such use of it is common in all classical literature.

(2) Philosophic.

It is not meant that the various philosophic systems to which this term is applied actually deny the existence of a Divine Being or of a First Cause, but that they are atheistic in their teaching, and tend to unsettle the faith of mankind in the existence of God. There is indeed a belief in a first cause, in force, in motion, in a certain aggregation of materials producing life, but the Divine Being as taught by theism is absolutely denied. This is true of the Idealism of Fichte, of the Ideal Pantheism of Spinoza, the Natural Pantheism of Schelling, and similar forms of thought. In applying the word atheism to the teaching here given, theism does not intend to assail them as wholly without a belief in a Divine Being; but it affirms that God is a person, a self- conscious Being, not merely a first cause or force. To deny this fundamental affirmation of theism is to make the teaching atheistic, a denial of that which is essential to theism (Heb 11:3).

(3) Dogmatic.

It absolutely denies the existence of God. It has often been held that this is, in fact, impossible. Cousin has said, "It is impossible, because the existence of God is implied in every assertion." It is true, however, that in all ages there have been persons who declared themselves absolute atheists. Especially is this true of the 18th century a period of widespread skepticism--when not a few, particularly in France, professed themselves atheists. In many cases, however, it resulted from a loose use of the word, careless definition, and sometimes from the spirit of boastfulness.

(4) Practical atheism.

It has nothing at all to do with belief. Indeed it accepts the affirmations of theism. It has reference wholly to the mode of life. It is to live as though there was no God.

It takes the form often of complete indifference to the claims of the Divine Being or again of outbroken and defiant wickedness (Ps 14:1). That this form of atheism is widely prevalent is well known. It is accompanied in many cases with some form of unbelief or prejudice or false opinion of the church or Christianity. Dogmatic atheism is no longer a menace or even a hindrance to the progress of Christianity, but practical atheism is widespread in its influence and a dangerous element in our modern life (compare Isa 31:1; Jer 2:13,17,18; 18:13-15). Whatever the form, whether it be that of religious agnosticism, denying that we can know that God exists, or critical atheism, denying that the evidence to prove His existence is sufficient, or dogmatic, or practical atheism, it is always a system of negation and as such tears down and destroys. It destroys the faith upon which all human relations are built. Since there is no God, there is no right nor wrong, and human action is neither good nor bad, but convenient or inconvenient. It leaves human society without a basis for order and human government without foundation (Ro 1:10-32). All is hopeless, all is wretchedness, all is tending to the grave and the grave ends all.

Arguments against atheism may be summarized as follows:

(1) It is contrary to reason. History has shown again and again how impossible it is to bring the mind to rest in this doctrine. Although Buddhism is atheistic in its teaching, idolatry is widespread in the lands where it prevails. While the Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte was based on a denial of the existence of God, his attempt to found the new religion of humanity with rites and ceremonies of worship reveals how the longing for worship cannot be suppressed. It is a revelation of the fact so often seen in the history of human thought, that the mind cannot rest in the tenets of atheism.

(2) It is contrary to human experience. All history testifies that there are deep religious instincts within the human breast. To regard these as deceptive and unreasonable would itself be utterly unreasonable and unscientific. But the fact of such spiritual longing implies also that there is a Being who is responsive to and can satisfy the cry of the heart (Heb 11:6). In his Bampton Lectures Reville has said on this subject: "It would be irrational in the last degree to lay down the existence of such a need and such a tendency, and yet believe that the need corresponds to nothing, that the tendency has no goal."

(3) It fails to account for the evidence of design in the universe.

See Cosmology.

(4) It fails to account for the existence of man and the world in general. Here is the universe: how did it come to be? Here is man: how is he to be accounted for? To these and like questions, atheism and atheistic philosophy have no adequate answer to give. See also COSMOLOGY; CREATION; GOD.

Jacob W. Kapp

See also

  • Theism