US History Encyclopedia: Atheism Defined

Atheism has regularly been defined as the denial of the existence of a deity. Under such a definition—one that implies a positive, dogmatic assertion of antitheism—the role of atheism in American history (and in most other histories) would be limited. It is important to note, however, the existence of some unabashedly atheistic individuals and organizations in America, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism (founded in 1925). A more capacious definition of atheism is available, however, one in which the stress is on a lack of belief or even a sheer lack of philosophical interest, in God, rather than on a positive denial of God’s existence. Such an atheism, grounded in Enlightenment rationalism and supported by a scientific paradigm insisting that the matter of the physical world represents reality in its entirety, was bolstered (albeit in different ways) by the nineteenth-century attempts of Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche to offer naturalistic accounts of religion, and by a positivist current within twentieth-century philosophy in which any and all questions about the existence of God were dismissed as unintelligible. While these intellectual movements derived much of their energy and personnel from Europe, they have intersected dynamically with the broader tradition of American free thought. Individuals such as Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Robert G. Ingersoll, Abner Kneeland, and Joseph Lewis (some of whom can be defined as atheists; others, not) have all helped to define the varieties of atheism, antitheism, and agnosticism. An important contribution to the history of atheism has been the recent effort, beginning with those of the American Atheists organization, founded by the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, to comprehend and protect atheism within the terms of the First Amendment and Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state. The 1963 Supreme Court decision on school prayer in Murray v. Curlett marked the beginning of a strenuous effort to defend the civil rights of atheists through the court.


2 Responses

  1. Christians.
    Christ died on the cross for your sins. How do you repay him? By wearing crosses around your neck. Why would he want to come back to a world where there are a couple of 2 BILLION people sporting a reminder of the worst experience of his life. AMDG

    • Imagine if death by lethal injection was norm for the Romans, Christians would be wearing small gurney’s with IV’s instead of crosses around their necks.

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