1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Atheism
ATHEISM (from Gr. ἀ-, privative, and θεός, God), literally a system of belief which denies the existence of God. The term as generally used, however, is highly ambiguous. Its meaning varies (a) according to the various definitions of deity, and especially (b) according as it is (i.) deliberately adopted by a thinker as a description of his own theological standpoint, or (ii.) applied by one set of thinkers to their opponents. As to (a), it is obvious that atheism from the standpoint of the Christian is a very different conception as compared with atheism as understood by a Deist, a Positivist, a follower of Euhemerus or Herbert Spencer, or a Buddhist. But the ambiguities arising from the points of view described in (b) are much more difficult both intellectually and in their practical social issues. Thus history shows how readily the term has been used in the most haphazard manner to describe even the most trivial divergence of opinion concerning points of dogma. In other words, “atheism” has been used generally by the orthodox adherents of one religion, or even of a single sect, for all beliefs which are different or even differently expressed. It is in fact in these cases, like “heterodoxy,” a term of purely negative significance, and its intellectual value is of the slightest. The distinction between the terms “religion” and “magic” is, in a similar way, often due merely to rivalry between the adherents of two or more mutually exclusive religions brought together in the same community. When the psalmist declares that “the fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” he probably does not refer to theoretical denial, but to a practical disbelief in God’s government of human affairs, shown in disobedience to moral laws. Socrates was charged with “not believing in the gods the city believes in.” The cry of the heathen populace in the Roman empire against the Christians was “Away with the atheists! To the lions with the Christians!” The ground for the charge was probably the lack of idolatry in all Christian worship. Spinoza, for whom God alone existed, was persecuted as an atheist. A common designation of Knox was “the atheist,” although it was to him “matter of satisfaction that our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason.”
In its most scientific and serious usage the term is applied to that state of mind which does not find deity (i.e. either one or many gods) in or above the physical universe. Thus it has been applied to certain primitive savages, who have been thought (e.g. by Lord Avebury in his Prehistoric Times) to have no religious belief; it is, however, the better opinion that there are no peoples who are entirely destitute of some rudimentary religious belief. In the second place, and most usually, it is applied to a purely intellectual, metaphysical disbelief in the existence of any god, or of anything supernatural. In this connexion it is usual to distinguish three types of atheism:—the dogmatic, which denies the existence of God positively; the sceptical, which distrusts the capacity of the human mind to discover the existence of God; and the critical, which doubts the validity of the theistic argument, the proofs for the existence of God. That the first type of atheism exists, in spite of the denials of those who favour the second or the third, may be proved by the utterances of men like Feuerbach, Flourens or Bradlaugh. “There is no God,” says Feuerbach, “it is clear as the sun and as evident as the day that there is no God, and still more that there can be none.” With greater passion Flourens declares “Our enemy is God. Hatred of God is the beginning of wisdom. If mankind would make true progress, it must be on the basis of atheism.” Bradlaugh maintained against Holyoake that he would fight until men respected the name “atheist.” The answer to dogmatic atheism, that it implies infinite knowledge, has been well stated in John Foster’s Essays, and restated by Chalmers in his Natural Theology, and its force is recognized in Holyoake’s careful qualification of the sense in which secularism accepts atheism, “always explaining the term atheist to mean ‘not seeing God’ visually or inferentially, never suffering it to be taken for anti-theism, that is, hating God, denying God—as hating implies personal knowledge as the ground of dislike, and denying implies infinite knowledge as the ground of disproof.” But dogmatic atheism is rare compared with the sceptical type, which is identical with agnosticism (q.v.) in so far as it denies the capacity of the mind of man to form any conception of God, but is different from it in so far as the agnostic merely holds his judgment in suspense, though, in practice, agnosticism is apt to result in an attitude towards religion which is hardly distinguishable from a passive and unaggressive atheism. The third or critical type may be illustrated by A Candid Examination of Theism by “Physicus” (G. J. Romanes), in which the writer endeavours to establish the weakness of the proofs for the existence of God, and to substitute for theism Spencer’s physical explanation of the universe, and yet admits how unsatisfying to himself the new position is. “When at times I think, as think at times I must, of the appalling contrast between the hallowed glory of that creed which once was mine, and the lonely mystery of existence as now I find it—at such times I shall ever feel it impossible to avoid the sharpest pang of which my nature is susceptible.”
Atheism has to meet the protest of the heart as well as the argument of the mind of mankind. It must be judged not only by theoretical but by practical arguments, in its relations either to the individual or to a society. Voltaire himself, speaking as a practical man rather than as a metaphysician, declared that if there were no God it would be necessary to invent one; and if the analysis is only carried far enough it will be found that those who deny the existence of God (in a conventional sense) are all the time setting up something in the nature of deity by way of an ideal of their own, while fighting over the meaning of a word or its conventional misapplication.