Atheism is on the rise in the United States. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center poll, 2.4 percent of Americans identified themselves as atheist. This was up from 1.6 percent just five years earlier, in 2007. The same poll revealed that most atheists tend to be male (67 percent) and are proportionally younger and more likely to have college degrees than the general American population. Books by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins have been regularly appearing on the New York Times best-seller list in recent years. Dawkins’s The God Delusion reached number four on the list.
Given that atheism is on the rise, some questions ought to be explored. First, what is atheism? The simple definition, according to Oxforddictionaries.com, is “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” This definition of atheism and the reality of the beliefs of those who identify themselves as atheist differ. According to the Pew Research Center poll cited above, 14 percent of those who call themselves atheist still claim to believe “in God or a universal spirit.” 26 percent of atheists think of themselves as “spiritual,” and 82 percent say they feel a deep connection with the earth or nature.
Atheism is different from agnosticism. According to Oxforddictionaries. com, an agnostic is defined as “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” It seems like some of those who claim to be atheist might be more appropriately described as agnostic, according to this definition.
A study by researchers at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga confirms there’s a wide disparity amongst those who identify themselves as atheist. The study identifies six “types” of atheists and admits there are probably even more than that. “In 30 years, we may be looking at a typology of 32 types,” said Christopher Silver, co-author of the study.
The six categories range from the “intellectual atheist/agnostic,” who likes to learn and debate about religion, to the “ritual atheist,” who likes to participate in rituals, perhaps with music and meditation, but doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife. In between these types are those who are militantly atheist, such as the “activist,” and those who “embrace uncertainty,” meaning they don’t know what they believe, and they’re okay with that. This group is described as the “seeker-agnostic.”
Atheism through history
The history of atheism goes back to ancient times. Greek philosophers such as Epicurus argued that the only thing that really existed was the material world. These ancient philosophers didn’t necessarily deny the existence of God or gods; they just didn’t think gods had any interaction with human beings if they did exist.
This way of thinking is similar to the concept called deism, which became popular in the 18th century. Deism holds that “God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs through miracles or supernatural revelation.” Some notables in American history were deists, such as Thomas Jefferson, an early advocate of the separation of church and state. Thomas Paine, famous for his pamphlet Common Sense, also published a pamphlet called The Age of Reason, which critiqued the Bible and “sought to open up the questioning of organized religion among the common people of Britain, America and France.”
The publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 gave a scientific grounding for the deist belief that God set the world in motion and then backed away. Some took the theory of evolution even further and said there was no need for God at all. In the 19th century, prominent German philosophers began publishing books critical of religion, including Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously proclaimed that “God is dead” and that humanity killed him.
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