Atheism is often defined as "the absence of god-beliefs". This

definition is useful in debate, because it does not assume any burden of

proof. George H. Smith defined it this way in his influential book

ATHEISM: THE CASE AGAINST GOD, and many since have followed this

approach; insist that those claiming the existence of a god or gods make

their case, and sit back and skeptically critique whatever they say.

This kind of "passive atheism" does not by itself imply much else, if

anything. Certainly it does not imply a commitment to reason, science,

tolerance, fairness, compassion, democracy, or "secular humanism". There

can be and have been non-scientific, dogmatic, intolerant ideologies

that were also atheistic.

Defined this way, atheism is like not being from Ohio, or not having

brown eyes. We could classify all newborn babies, who have not yet been

taught any religion, as atheists in this sense.

According to surveys, something like 14% of the American population is

nontheist (as of 2001), and higher percentages of some European

countries. Most of these millions of nontheists do not CALL themselves

atheists; they do not belong to atheist organizations. Why should they,

what would be the point? They call themselves environmentalists, or

libertarians, or motorcyclists, or poets; whatever they are passionate

about. People who CALL themselves atheists do so for a reason: they

think it is important to be free of religion. They are passionate about

the message that religion is both false and harmful, and life is far

better without it.

I once made the proposal that all atheists should redefine themselves as

Freethinkers, because in my humble opinion the enemy is not religion as

such but specifically "revealed" religion, the acceptance of

"revelation" as a reliable source of knowledge. As far as I can tell,

religions that don't make any claims to "revelation" (Deists, Quakers,

Pantheists, some Pagans) are harmless and may provide some people with

emotional comfort.

Nevertheless a number of activists have chosen the banner of "atheism"

rather than "humanism" or "freethought", I think because they want to

make it clear what they are against. Who is the enemy? What is the root

of the evil we are fighting? These people are not primarily

philosophers, engaged in intellectual exploration for the fun of it.

They have seen organized religion doing harm in people's lives and want

to oppose the harm that it does. Even granting that in a free society

there will always be organized religion, it is the role of atheists to

force religion to be benign, keeping it separate from the State and on

the defensive about its other irrationalities and injustices. I think

they do not call themselves "humanists" because they perceive humanists

as being on the defensive themselves, seeking to avoid confrontation,

often "wannabee religious" who can't believe that stuff any longer but

still wish they could. It may be that it would be better for all

concerned if all these activist atheists were to redefine themselves as

humanists, but they are not going to.

There is no reason to take "absence of god-beliefs" as being THE one and

only "correct" definition of atheism. Words often have multiple

definitions, depending on the context in which they are used. The

philosopher's definition may not capture what the word means in

practical life. Some use "atheism" to mean "rejection and denial of

god-beliefs", some use it to mean "active opposition to theism".

In real life and history, theism is not just the proposition that some X

or other exists. Theism claims that (1) at least one supernatural,

superpowerful person exists, (2) this person wants obedience from

humans, and offers rewards and threats (3) local human representatives

will accurately report this god's wishes. Theism usually also makes

ethical claims; that this god is good, a loving parent and perfect

authority, that obedience to this god is right and virtuous, that doubt

of the god or the prophets is wicked, and so forth. Historically

religion teaches that the meaning and purpose of life lies in getting to

"heaven", not in living this life well on this Earth. Prophets and

clergy have taught the value of "otherworldliness". Believers not only

accept the above propositions, they embrace the values of faith and

obedience, they accept the moral superiority and authority of their god,

and their own relative inferiority to the god (but superiority to

nonbelievers.) They accept the role of obedient children, and "love

their chains." The self-appointed "prophets" and their clergy operate

this swindle precisely in order to get that obedience.

"Active Atheism" is not just the rejection of the simple existence of

any god, it is the rejection of the whole package. As a practical

matter, rejecting religion requires replacing these other aspects,

acting differently in practice. Several writers and atheist

organizations have taken this larger view; I will quote a few in what


Religion historically includes theism, faith in "revealed" dogma, and

otherworldly ethics; so the practical challenge to it would include

atheism, a freethinking and scientific approach to knowledge, and a

well-defined ethic for living well in this life, on this Earth.

Instead of accepting revelation, we shall seek truth by the methods of

science. Jacob Bronowski has written a book, SCIENCE AND HUMAN VALUES,

(1956), in which he argues that the practice of science, doing the work

of science, implies and requires a certain (admittedly limited and

incomplete) set of values and virtues. There is a philosophical doctrine

that argues that science is "value-free", that it does not presuppose or

imply or say anything about right and wrong, good or bad. Bronowski says

this view is radically mistaken. It is not the results of science that

imply or include values, it is the practice of it, the requirements of

doing the work. Aristotle wrote of the "practical syllogism": if you

want X, then you ought to do Y. Bronowski writes: "Science seeks to find

out what IS; as a practical necessity, if we want to find out what IS,

then we OUGHT to act in ways that allow what IS to be discovered and


Most obvious is "the habit of truth"; the seeking and sharing of truth,

the virtue of honesty, humility before the evidence and the possibility

of mistakes, the openness to new evidence and new ideas. Bronowski

argues that doing science requires independence in observation and in

thought; therefore it requires a tolerance for dissent. "And as

originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a

science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. No one can be a

scientist, even in private, if he does not have independence of

observation and of thought. But if in addition science is to become

effective as a public practice, it must go further; it must protect

independence.... free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance.

These values are familiar to us.... but they are self-evident, that is,

they are logical needs, only where men are committed to explore the

truth: in a scientific society. These freedoms of tolerance have never

been notable in a dogmatic society, even when the dogma was Christian.

They have been granted only when scientific thought flourished once

before, in the youth of Greece.... Tolerance among scientists cannot be

based on indifference, it must be based on respect. Respect as a

personal value implies, in any society, the public acknowledgements of

justice and due honor.... Science confronts the work of one man with

that of another, and grafts each on each; and it cannot survive without

justice and honor and respect between man and man... If these values did

not exist, then the society of scientists would have to invent them to

make the practice of science possible." There is much else in his book;

the above is drastically summarized.

In the same way, rejecting the other aspects of theism involves acting

differently in practice. Instead of being obedient children, we will be

responsible self-governing adults. Instead of praying for benefits from

our Cosmic Parent, we will be self-reliant- as Marie Castle, past

president of the Atheist Alliance and founder of Atheists For Human

Rights, writes: "look to ourselves and to each other for the

satisfaction of human needs.... through the thoughtful exercise of

initiative, responsibility and mutual cooperation and assistance."

Practical atheists must replace the supernatural theory of ethics with a

natural theory. If we do not understand ethics as obedience to our

(cosmic) parent, how can we understand it? In THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL

PHILOSOPHY, (an introductory textbook), James Rachels writes (p. 129):

"The key idea [of the social contract approach to ethics] is that

morally binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living.

It is obvious... that we could not live together very well if we did not

accept rules prohibiting murder, assault, theft, lying, breaking

promises, and the like. These rules are justified simply by showing that

they are necessary if we are to cooperate for our mutual benefit." Marie

Castle also follows this approach. She writes: "Atheism accepts the

evidence of the biological and social sciences that humans are social

animals, evolved to cooperate in social groups as a requirement for

survival. It follows that rules are necessary to achieve and maintain

social harmony.... Over time, rules that are basic to group cohesion and

survival (e.g., don't commit murder, theft or perjury) may come to be

viewed as ethical or moral standards."

In politics, religion has historically supported authoritarian rule,

either theocracy or "divinely anointed" monarchy. If you take "divine

revelation" seriously, then the local representatives of "God" would

logically carry absolute authority. The historical exception of the

United States actually proves the rule; the "Founding Fathers" were

influenced by Deism, which rejected the authority of alleged

"revelation". Authoritarian religion has not gone away; theocracy is a

present and growing threat to democracy.

Instead of divinely ordained heirarchy, we will insist on equality

before democratically-written human law. Marie Castle has written (begin

extended quote):

"Atheism is more than a simple lack of god beliefs. It is a rejection of

the slave mentality inherent in deity worship; therefore, it is the

definitive condition of freedom and equality.

By freeing the mind from subjection to mythical all-powerful,

all-controlling gods, atheism requires us to control our own lives- to

look to ourselves and to each other for the satisfaction of human needs.

This can be accomplished only through the thoughtful exercise of

initiative, responsibility and mutual cooperation and assistance.

The logic of atheism is that, if one person is free to control her or

his own life, all must be free. To deny this would be to validate

enslavement at the same time one rejects it. This would be irrational.

Atheism, being incompatible with a slave mentality, rejects all forms of

tyranny, whether religious, political, economic or cultural. Atheism is

compatible only with democratic institutions. A nation of people that

frees itself of the slave mentality will never endure oppression in any

form for any significant length of time. Free minds ensure free nations."

(end of extended quote.)

The same broad vision is displayed in the statement of purpose of

American Atheists, Inc., printed inside the front cover of American

Atheist magazine. It states: "Atheism is the weltanschauung

(comprehensive conception of the world) of persons who are free from

religion.... Atheism involves the mental attitude which unreservedly

accepts the supremacy of reason and aims at establishing a life-style

and ethical outlook verifiable by experience and the scientific method,

independent of all arbitrary assumptions of authority and creeds....

Materialism restores dignity and intellectual integrity to humanity. It

teaches that we must prize life on Earth and strive always to improve

it. It holds that humans are capable of creating a social system based

on reason and justice." It declares one of the purposes of that

organization is "to encourage the development and public acceptance of a

humane ethical system stressing the mutual sympathy, understanding, and

interdependence of all people and the corresponding responsibility of

each individual in relation to society."

Summing up: Active atheism must, as a practical necessity, include much

more than the absence of god-beliefs. It also includes a critique of

religion as both false and harmful, and must offer alternatives to

religious ways of knowing and living. As Karl Marx said, "The

philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point

is to change it."

Views: 267

Tags: Active, Atheism, Passive, definition, ethics, science


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Comment by John B Hodges on August 30, 2010 at 3:56am
Replying to Dean Baker-

There have been many words attempted. Ignostic, Nullifidian, Gesargenplotzian. There have been many distinctions made within atheists; "gnostic" atheism versus "agnostic" atheism, "strong" versus "weak", even "Catholic" versus "Protestant" (by Bertrand Russell). Some have tried "negative" versus "positive". See for example
I have quoted (in the essay) from leaders of the Atheist Alliance and American Atheists, who took the same position, that atheism is more than a simple absence.

You seem to be saying that all of these folks are mistaken, that the only valid use if the word "atheist" is purely negative, indicating vacuum and vacuum only, and these folks should all rename themselves and either disband or rename their organizations. This website itself, Atheist Nexus, would in this view be utterly pointless. In this view, the word "atheism" could never be a noun, only an adjective. Indeed, the word "atheism" should not exist, because there is nothing there to make an "ism"; you could say that something or some person was atheist, but not that they had adopted or practiced atheism.

In my essay I am arguing, in a nutshell, that "atheism" is a perfectly good word, that like many other words it can have multiple meanings, that definitions report how a word is used, and the activist atheists who make and join organizations with "atheist" in their names use the word to mean a number of positive things.

The distinction I make, between "passive" and "active" atheism, recognizes and allows the use of the word as an adjective denoting absence. I am pointing out that this is not the only way the word is used, and it is not the way activist atheists use the word.

I was never a Marxist, but in my eight years as a passionate Libertarian, and in my many years of studying economics, I learned a little ABOUT Marxism, and there is a Marxist concept that says it nicely. It is summed up by the quote at the end: The philosophers have only explained the world, the point is to change it. We are not doing philosophy here, we are doing Praxis. Theism, and religion generally, is not only a philosophical proposition that some X exists. It is a historical practice, a way of knowing and living, that has affected the lives of most of humankind for all of history. Activist atheists go beyond failing to accept the philosophical proposition that some X exists. They create an alternative historical practice to challenge and displace religion.
Comment by Dean Smith on August 29, 2010 at 9:30pm
Pick an ideology or philosophy. Atheism isn't one. An atheist can be a humanist, rational skeptic, existentialist, nihilist, bare-bones Buddhist, Raellian, Bright, naturalist, monist, etc. You may need a new word for what you have in mind, for which atheistic would be an appropriate adjective, but redefining atheism isn't the way to go. I admit anti-theistic Secular Humanism doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but that seems to be roughly what you're talking about.

I like the gist of what you're saying, you're right about a lot, but it's not a word problem.
Comment by John B Hodges on August 29, 2010 at 4:03pm
Greyfoot, please enlighten me then, about how secularism differs from atheism.

My argument is, that if atheism is to be considered significant, it must involve a rejection of theism, not just an absence of it. If Theism (or more generally "religion") is to be rejected, it must be considered both false and harmful. If it is both false and harmful, then it is implied that alternatives to religious ways of knowing and living must exist. Active atheism, by itself, implies little about what those alternatives are, but, science is the only alternative way of knowing I've ever heard of that has any credibility. The practice of science, as Bronowski argued, implies at least some humanist, classical liberal, and egalitarian values.

I'll give you a distinction: there is a world of difference between an ideology and a philosophy. Freethought as a method and a set of values is radically different from a dogmatic system like Marxism or Islam or Christianity. Or Libertarianism.

Among animals, it is eat or be eaten. Among people, it is define or be defined.
Comment by greyfoot on August 29, 2010 at 1:35pm
It wasn't just the Marx quote, John. Portions of your piece indeed only echoed what most of us already know. But the implication of the piece as a whole is the issue.

"Active atheism must, as a practical necessity, include much more than the absence of god-beliefs." What you're describing isn't active atheism, it's active secularism. There are plenty of theists who fight for secularism. It's very important to distinguish between the two. Your definitive phrase is really just "anti-theism," which is a completely different creature than secularism. Of course the English language's vocabulary is full of ambiguous words, but few of them stray from the central meaning. While technically adumbrating the adjectives you did to "atheism" doesn't really change its definition, your following words certainly attempt it.

"The logic of atheism is that, if one person is free to control her or his own life, all must be free." I could be an atheist and not feel that a person is free to control his or her own life. So if I am an atheist by definition, how could I be following the "logic of atheism?" What I'd be following is the logic of an ideology or philosophy, like Marxism or Islam or Christianity.

Point here is that at the very least, your descriptions are inaccurate. It isn't just that you describe an atheist who is not humanistic as "passive", but that you strongly suggest that the crucial intent behind atheism is humanistic. A rejection of something is simply that: a rejection. I'm attempting to show you how logically tenuous it is to entwine broad definitions with very specific ones. This is the trouble with modern polemics. While semantics are indeed tedious, and while I certainly defend one's moral and logical right to a creative discourse, we can't forget the central meaning.
Comment by John B Hodges on August 29, 2010 at 11:39am
Greyfoot, as far as I can tell, my quoting Marx at the end wiped out your memory of the rest of the essay. For a companion piece that may avoid pushing your buttons or activating your filters, see my essay "Who Is The Enemy", at
Comment by greyfoot on August 29, 2010 at 10:10am
In my very first post for this site, I erroneously suggested that atheism was a philosophy. It is not. It is merely a label. It doesn't symbolize anything but a lack of belief. The phrase "active atheism" doesn't make it any more than a label either. Stalin could easily be described as an "active atheist."

If you follow a certain social movement or ideology, that's your prerogative. However, let's be accurate with our terminology. Be whatever kind of atheist you want to be, but the suggestion that an atheist who doesn't follow a social movement is "passive" is, as I said, incorrect. Consciously being an individualist is anything but passive. Individualists (some of whom can even be theists; your assumption that all "believers" are by default mindless "slaves" is also erroneous) constantly question the wisdom behind vaulting collectivism.

Compartmentalize. Theism vs atheism, though not insignificant, remains an intangible debate. However, slavery, collectivism, dictatorial tyranny, injustice and most of what we consider the humanities are all things that directly affect human lives. Non (traditional)-religious and people and non-believers have been and are guilty of all the aforementioned. Secularism vs religion is a wholly different debate.

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