The Cambridge Companion to Atheism

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In this 2007 volume, eighteen of the world's leading scholars present original essays on various aspects of atheism: its history, both ancient and modern, defense and implications. The topic is examined in terms of its implications for a wide range of disciplines including philosophy, religion, feminism, postmodernism, sociology and psychology. In its defense, both classical and contemporary theistic arguments are criticized, and, the argument from evil, and impossibility arguments, along with a non religious basis for morality are defended. These essays give a broad understanding of atheism and a lucid introduction to this controversial topic.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This timely volume appears in the midst of what many see as a resurgence of interest in and enthusiasm for atheism, a resurgence that may result from a reaction to resurgent religious fundamentalism at home and abroad[...]the book does contain some resources that scholars will find valuable, and its introductory-level approach is appropriate given the book's aims."
-Stephen Maitzen, Acadia University, Social Theory and Practice
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521842709
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 12/31/2006
  • Series: Cambridge Companions to Philosophy Series
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Martin is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Boston University. He is the author of over 150 articles and reviews as well as several books including Atheism, Morality and Meaning, The Impossibilty of God with Ricki Monnier and Atheism: A Philosophical Justification.
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Cambridge University Press
978-0-521-84270-9 - The Cambridge companion to atheism - by Edited by Michael Martin

General Introduction

The purpose of this volume is to provide general readers and advanced students with an introduction to atheism: its history, present social context, legal implications, supporting arguments, implications for morality, and relation to other perspectives. This general introduction will set the stage for the chapters that follow.


The concept of atheism was developed historically in the context of Western monotheistic religions, and it still has its clearest application in this area. Applied, for example, to premodern non-Western contexts, the concept may be misleading. Moreover, even in the modern Western context “atheism” has meant different things depending on changing conceptions of God. Nevertheless, it will be assumed in this volume that, if applied cautiously outside its clearest historical context, the concept of atheism can be illuminating for contemporary Western readers.

   If you look up “atheism” in a dictionary, you will find it defined as the belief that there is no God. Certainly, many people understand “atheism” in this way. Yet this is not what the term means if one considers it from the point of view of its Greek roots. In Greek “a” means “without” or “not,” and“theos” means “god.”1 From this standpoint, an atheist is someone without a belief in God; he or she need not be someone who believes that God does not exist.2 Still, there is a popular dictionary meaning of “atheism” according to which an atheist is not simply one who holds no belief in the existence of a God or gods but is one who believes that there is no God or gods. This dictionary use of the term should not be overlooked. To avoid confusion, let us call it positive atheism and let us call the type of atheism derived from the original Greek roots negative atheism.

   No general definition of “God” will be attempted here,3 but it will prove useful to distinguish a number of different concepts of God that have figured in the traditional controversies and debates about religion. In modern times “theism” has usually come to mean a belief in a personal God who takes an active interest in the world and who has given a special revelation to humans. So understood, theism stands in contrast to deism, the belief in a God that is based not on revelation but on evidence from nature. The God assumed by deists is usually considered to be remote from the world and not intimately involved with its concerns. Theism is also to be contrasted with polytheism, the belief in more than one God, and with pantheism, the belief that God is identical with nature.

   Negative atheism in the broad sense4 is then the absence of belief in any god or Gods, not just the absence of belief in a personal theistic God, and negative atheism in the narrow sense is the absence of belief in a theistic God. Positive atheism in the broad sense is, in turn, disbelief in all gods, with positive atheism in the narrow sense being the disbelief in a theistic God. For positive atheism in the narrow sense to be successfully defended, two tasks must be accomplished. First, the reasons for believing in a theistic God must be refuted; in other words, negative atheism in the narrow sense must be established. Second, reasons for disbelieving in the theistic God must be given.

   These categories should not be allowed to mask the complexity and variety of positions that atheists can hold, for a given individual can take different atheistic positions with respect to different concepts of God. Thus, a person might maintain that there is good reason to suppose that anthropomorphic gods such as Zeus do not exist and therefore be a positive atheist with respect to Zeus and similar gods. However, he or she could, for example, be only a negative atheist with respect to Paul Tillich’s God.5 In addition, people can and often do hold different atheistic positions with respect to different conceptions of a theistic God. For example, someone could be a positive atheist with respect to Aquinas’ God and only a negative atheist with respect to St. Teresa’s God.

   Agnosticism, the position of neither believing nor disbelieving that God exists, is often contrasted with atheism. However, this common opposition of agnosticism to atheism is misleading. Agnosticism and positive atheism are indeed incompatible: if atheism is true, agnosticism is false and conversely. But agnosticism is compatible with negative atheism in that agnosticism entails negative atheism. Since agnostics do not believe in God, they are by definition negative atheists. This is not to say that negative atheism entails agnosticism. A negative atheist might disbelieve in God but need not.

   Elsewhere I have evaluated the main arguments for agnosticism.6 Here I will explore what is at issue between positive atheism and agnosticism. An agnostic, one might suppose, is skeptical that good grounds exist, whereas an atheist is not. However, this is not the only way the difference between these positions can be construed. An agnostic might think that there are good grounds for disbelieving that God exists but also believe that there are equally good grounds for believing that God exists. These opposing reasons would offset one another, leaving no overall positive reason to believe or disbelieve.

   Let us call the view that there are no good reasons for believing that God exists and none for believing that God does not exist skeptical agnosticism and the view that that are equally good reasons for believing both theism and atheism that offset one another cancellation agnosticism.

   Arguments that are intended to establish both negative and positive atheism refute both skeptical and cancellation agnosticism. Showing that negative atheism is justified undermines cancellation agnosticism, for it assumes that both atheism and theism have good grounds that cancel each other out, and negative atheism entails that there are no good grounds for theistic belief. Moreover, arguments showing that there are good grounds for the nonexistence of God undermine skeptical agnosticism since skeptical agnosticism assumes that there are no good grounds for either atheism or theism.


Atheism has a long and distinguished history as several of the background chapters in this volume attest. Jan Bremmer in “Atheism in Antiquity” argues, on the one hand, that the Greeks discovered theoretical atheism, which some scholars maintain is one of the most important events in the history of religion. On the other hand, Bremmer maintains, “Greeks and Romans, pagans and Christians, soon discovered the utility of the term ‘atheist’ as a means to label opponents. The invention of atheism would open a new road to intellectual freedom, but also enabled people to label opponents in a new way. Progress rarely comes without a cost.” Gavin Hyman in “Atheism in Modern History” outlines the development of atheistic thought in the Western world, arguing that atheism and modernity are so linked that modernity seems almost necessarily to culminate in atheism. He concluded that we can be sure of one thing: “the fate of atheism would seem to be inescapably bound up with the fate of modernity.” And Paul Zuckerman in “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns” brings together a vast amount of data on the number and distribution of atheists throughout the world. Among other things, he shows that atheists make up a signification portion of the world’s population, that nonbelief tends to be associated with social health, and that the pattern and distribution of atheists in the world calls into question the now fashionable theory that belief in God is innate.

   Needless to say, many contemporary philosophers have defended theism against the criticisms of atheists.7 In this volume William Lane Craig in “Theistic Critiques of Atheism” presents the theistic position. Readers must decide for themselves whether his defense of theism succeeds or whether atheism has been successfully defended by the arguments put forward in other chapters in this volume.8

   Several chapters in this book contribute to the task of defending negative atheism. Richard Gale in “The Failure of Classical Theistic Arguments” brings up objections to such classical arguments for the existence of God as the ontological argument. Keith Parsons in “Some Contemporary Theistic Arguments” criticizes the arguments for God defended by two leading contemporary Christian philosophers, Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne. Daniel Dennett offers criticisms of creationism and intelligent design theories, both of which are often associated with theism. Evan Fales in “Naturalism and Physicalism” raises objections to supernaturalism, of which theism is a special case, and David Brink in “The Autonomy of Ethics” argues that ethics is independent of belief in God, although theists often claim that ethics is dependent on God.9

   Other chapters contribute to the task of defending positive atheism. In “The Argument from Evil,” Andrea Weisenberg defends the traditional argument from evil – the attempt to show that the large amount of evil in the world makes the existence of the theistic God either false or improbable. Quentin Smith in “Kalam Cosmological Argument for Atheism” maintains that cosmology has atheistic implications. Patrick Grim in “Impossibility Arguments” attempts to show that the concept of God is inconsistent.10 It should be noted, however, that many other arguments also contribute to the second task that are not considered in this volume.11 Elsewhere, for example, Ted Drange has defended positive atheism by attempting to show that the large amount of nonbelief in the world makes the existence of a theistic God improbable.12 John Schellenberg13 has attempted to demonstrate that the belief in the existence of nontheistic religions makes a theistic God’s existence improbable. In addition, Schellenberg has argued that the existence of reasonable nonbelief is itself grounds for supposing that God does not exist.14

   Several chapters in this volume draw out some of atheism’s important and exciting implications. Atheism has been accused of being antireligious, but Michael Martin in “Atheism and Religion” shows that although atheism is not a religion, there are atheistic religions. Christine Overall in “Feminism and Atheism” concludes, “Being a feminist also requires that one be an atheist.” According to Steve Gey in “Atheism and the Freedom of Religion,” “the religious liberty of atheists has come a long way since the days in which serious political theorists could argue that atheists should be put to death, denied the ability to give evidence in court, or prohibited from becoming a Member of Parliament....[But] atheists will not enjoy the same religious liberty as religious adherents unless the government under which they live is comprehensively secularized.” John Caputo in “Atheism, A/theology, and the Postmodern Condition” reviews some of the important challenges postmodernism poses for theism and atheism and maintains that “postmodernism turns out to be not a particularly friendly environment for atheism, either, not if atheism is a metaphysical or an otherwise fixed and decisive denial of God.”

   An important, although not primary, part of the case for atheism is to show that religion can be explained as a natural phenomenon. Stewart Guthrie in “Anthropological Theories of Religion ” reviews different types of naturalistic explanations of religion and advocates a cognitive explanation of religion in which animism and anthropomorphism are central notions. Finally, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi in “Atheists: A Psychological Profile” reviews the psychological data and concludes that atheists tend to be more intelligent and better educated than believers; less authoritarian, less suggestible, less dogmatic, and less prejudiced than believers; and more tolerant of others, law-abiding, compassionate, and conscientious. “In short, they are good to have as neighbors.”


For introductions to atheism, see Douglas Krueger, What Is Atheism? (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998), and Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Excellent references to atheistic literature can be found in the bibliographies and end notes of the chapters in this volume. In addition, extensive bibliographies can be found in Nicholas Everett, The Non Existence of God (London: Routledge, 2004); Finngeir Hiorth, Atheism in the World (Oslo, Norway: Human-Etisk Forbund, 2003), Ethics for Atheists (Mumbia, India: Indian Secular Society, 1998), and Hiorth, Introduction to Atheism (Oslo, Norway: Human-Etisk Forbund, 2002); S. T. Joshi (ed.), Atheism (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000); and Gordon Stein (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Unbelief, vols. 1 and 2 (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985). For more on feminism and atheism, see Annie Laurie Gaylord (ed.), Women without Superstition: No God – No Masters (Madison, Wis.: Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1997), and Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So (Madison, Wis.: Freedom from Religion Foundation, 1981). Moreover, a Google search of the Secular Web ( turns up over 700 items on atheism and related topics.

I. Background

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Part I. Background: 1. Atheism in antiquity Jan Bremmer; 2. Atheism in modern history Gavin Hyman; 3. Atheism: contemporary rates and contemporary patterns Phil Zuckerman; Part II. The Case Against Theism: 4. Theistic critiques of atheism William Lane Craig; 5. The failure of classical theistic arguments Richard Gale; 6. Some contemporary theistic arguments Keith Parsons; 7. Naturalism and physicalism Evans Fales; 8. Atheism and evolution Daniel Dennett; 9. The autonomy of ethics David Brink; 10. The argument from evil Andrea Weisberger; 11. Kalam Cosmological argument for atheism Quentin Smith; 12. Impossibility arguments Patrick Grim; III. Implications: 13. Atheism and religion Michael Martin; 14. Feminism and atheism Christine Overall; 15. Atheism and the freedom of religion Steven Gey; 16. Atheism, a theology and the postmodern condition John Caputo; 17. Anthropological theories of religion Stewart Guthrie; 18. Atheists: a psychological profile Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2008

    Useful study of atheism's implications

    This is a very thought-provoking collection of essays, edited by Michael Martin, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Boston University. Eighteen leading scholars, mostly from the USA, discuss aspects of atheism and its implications for philosophy, religion, law, anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology and physics. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman estimates that there are about 500-750 million atheists, agnostics and unbelievers, which is 58 times the number of Mormons, 41 times the number of Jews, 35 times the number of Sikhs, and twice the number of Buddhists. Atheists, agnostics and unbelievers are the fourth largest group, after Christians (two billion), Muslims (1.2 billion) and Hindus (900 million). Daniel Dennett examines the relationship between atheism and evolution. He shows how matter has evolved to produce mind, rather than matter being produced by an originating mind. Philosopher David Brink discusses the need for a secular ethics based on objective standards. He notes that in ethical subjectivism, ethics depends on the beliefs of an appraiser, but God is an appraiser too. So religion brings subjectivity into ethics. Also, if ethics depends on God¿s will, then it is relative to God¿s will, so religion brings relativism into ethics. Again, if God commands an action because it is good, then God and his commands are unnecessary. If an action is good because God commands it, then ethics is unnecessary and obedience to God is the only virtue. So religion, which supposedly sets ethics on an objective basis, with independent values and standards, in fact reduces ethics to subjective opinions, with no independent values or standards. Also religion compromises morality. When eternal bliss is the reward for goodness, then selfish considerations cannot but intrude, inevitably corrupting goodness. Belief in God becomes an insurance policy. Philosopher Andrea Weisberger writes, ¿The existence of evil is the most fundamental threat to the traditional Western concept of an all-good, all-powerful God.¿ If we are morally obliged to reduce evil, then God must also be obliged. If he is all-powerful, why doesn¿t he prevent unnecessary suffering? Those who argue that God uses evil for some greater good are saying that God immorally uses people and their suffering as means to ends. Philosopher Patrick Grim shows that God¿s traditional attributes - omnipotence, omniscience and moral perfection - are all intrinsically impossible, self-contradictory idealist fantasies.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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