Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Conventionally assumed to refer to disbelief in a supreme being, or to belief in the non-existence of God or gods. However, as the famous Victorian atheist Charles Bradlaugh noted, it is rather illogical to use the term atheist to refer to someone who believes in the nonexistence of something. His position was that, because theistic claims were either contradictory or incomprehensible, they were necessarily to be rejected. This meant that an a-theist was one who was "without" a belief in God rather than someone who "believed" in anything. This point has not always been carefully noted in discussions of atheism, with the result that atheism is still used to refer to disbelief. Conventional distinctions in forms of atheism reflect this, with dogmatic atheism—which is seen as positive in its assertion—distinguished from skeptical or critical atheism—both of which resemble agnosticism in assuming that the question cannot be resolved. Atheism is usually employed with reference to matters of belief, although it can be noted that the Romans called Jews atheists because they did not pay honor to the emperor. This suggests not only that the term has a long history but that it also may have different meanings. Atheism was certainly a concept present in the ancient world—it being the charge leveled against Socrates.

It would be wrong to assume that atheism is always and everywhere at odds with religion, as there is a strong atheistic strand in such major world religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Even within Christianity, atheism has been incorporated into modern theological developments such as the "New Theology" and "Death of God" movements of the 1960s.

In many societies, atheism has been equated with immorality and—labeled as "blasphemy"—treated as a criminal offence, while atheists themselves have suffered both civil and political discrimination. Although in western Europe and North America, the laws against atheists that still exist are rarely invoked (the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in England was John Jacob Holyoake in 1841), it is noticeable that few individuals who aspire to public office are prepared to identify themselves as atheists.

Methodological atheism is a term coined by Peter Berger (1967) to describe a sociological approach that seeks to understand religion as a human creation and deliberately leaves open the question of the truth of religious beliefs.

Colin Campbell


P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967)

J. Thrower, A Short History of Western Atheism (London: Pemberton, 1971).

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