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What is Atheism?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 25, 2024
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Atheism or nonthesim is a term used to describe a disbelief in God or Gods, which may be active or passive. Atheists should not be confused with agnostics, people who are open to the existence or lack thereof of God. Negative connotations are associated with atheism by many people, thanks to widespread beliefs that atheists lack morals or a sense of personal mission due to their lack of belief in God.

The concept of atheism is quite ancient; people have been expressing a lack of belief in God for a very long time. The Greeks developed the term, using it to describe people who are “without God,” and disbelief in God appears to date back even further, according to archaeological evidence. There are a number of different types of atheism and various approaches to atheist belief, ranging from an active disbelief in God to a more passive sort of atheism, in which people simply reject the idea of God but do not feel that strongly about it.

Atheists who actively disbelieve have dealt with a great deal of stigma over the ages, as many cultures place a heavy emphasis on the role of religion in society, stressing the idea that God is present and important. For some people, the idea of actively expressing disbelief is extremely repugnant, as it seems to cast aspersions on cultural values as well as religion. Atheists historically have been persecuted during periods of religious fervor, although at other periods, they became prominent social figures and philosophers.

In some instances, atheism involves an active effort to disprove the existence of God, often through the use of scientific and philosophical arguments. Many notable philosophers including Nietzsche and Karl Marx were atheists, and they included discussions of faith and God in their works. Arguments against the existence of God can get quite complex and evolved, with some theists suggesting that atheists might be trying just a bit too hard to prove something.

An atheist believes that there are perfectly natural and scientific explanations for phenomena, and he or she may supply evidence to back this belief up. For example, atheists reject the idea that God created the heavens and the Earth, using evidence from physics, biology, and other branches of the sciences to support an alternative view of creation. The rejection of the idea of God is also often linked with a belief in free will, the idea that people are able to make their own choices in the world, and that both good and bad choices are possible.

In other cases, an atheist simply embraces the idea that there is no God or higher power, and behaves accordingly. On occasion, people have jumped to conclusions about atheists, assuming that they carry on in licentious, immoral ways because they lack the guidance of a higher power. However, atheists can have very strong moral compasses without believing in the existence of God.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon155160 — On Feb 22, 2011

@Pachomius: the problem for any atheist if asked to define god is that there are so many hundreds of gods that humans have believed in throughout history to start listing all those gods would be tedious work.

As such, most anyone who calls themselves an atheist can be said to not believe in any gods or supernatural higher powers, not to mention there are plenty of things atheists quite likely do not believe in such as unicorns and leprechauns, and although these are far from anything one would consider a "god" the majority of atheists do not waste time disputing these. Just as any religious person does not renounce every other god in history when saying prayers to their god, an atheist dose not have to define every supernatural higher power in which they have no belief.

Regarding anon140232: if you want to know how "dust particles" became babies, I'd start with reading about abiogenisis which explains how life arises from inorganic matter. Evolution explains how through small genetic mutations and natural selection this life that arose can now be seen in millions of forms throughout the world. This is not a matter of a monkey giving birth to a human baby, this is a process that takes place slowly over time with minute changes.

These principles have been demonstrated and observed in the fossil record, geology and genetic biology among other fields. Hope this is helpful for you.

By anon140232 — On Jan 06, 2011

I don't see how atheism makes any sense. I'm sorry but i have done a lot of research and how can some of you all say there is a heavan but no god? And how is it we came from a dust particle, because I'm pretty sure that when someone becomes prego, it didn't happen from dust or a monkey.

By Pachomius — On Dec 14, 2010

I have always noticed that writers on atheism usually eschew defining what is God or gods or goddesses or higher power, etc., which atheists are supposed to lack belief in.

Please revise your article to have at least a paragraph on what is God or gods or goddesses or higher power whatever.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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