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atheism (āˈthē-ĭzˌəm), denial of the existence of God or gods and of any supernatural existence, to be distinguished from agnosticism, which holds that the existence cannot be proved. The term atheism has been used as an accusation against all who attack established orthodoxy, as in the trial of Socrates. There were few avowed atheists from classical times (although a number of distinguished thinkers in classical Greece were atheists) until the 19th cent., when popular belief in a conflict between religion and science brought forth preachers of the gospel of atheism. Subsequently, there have been many individuals and groups professing atheism, including Bertrand Russell, Madalyn Murry O'Hair, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins.


See T. Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (2015).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a denial of the existence of god and of any supernatural being or force, and the concomitant rejection of religion. The content of the conception of atheism has changed in the course of history; it was closely bound up with the nature of the religious doctrines which predominated at different periods. Atheism should not be identified with deism, pantheism, or religious freethinking (the free interpretation of religious dogmas, the condemnation of religious intolerance, the criticism of church rites, and so on), which may have many points of close contact with atheism and may serve in many cases as a transition from belief to unbelief. Philosophical, historical, and natural-scientific critiques of religion are constituent parts of atheism.

In antiquity, atheism in its pure form was encountered rarely (the teachings of the Charvaka school in India, Lucretius in ancient Rome). Various forms of religious free-thinking were evident more frequently. In ancient Greece, people who rejected the gods of popular religions were called atheists (Sextus Empiricus notes the five best-known atheists of antiquity: Protagoras of Kos, Euhemerus of Crete, Protagoras of Abdera, Diagoras of Melos, and Theodorus of Cyrene). Xenophanes counterposed a single world deity to the anthropomorphism of the gods of Greek popular religion, which he criticized; he advanced the idea that it was precisely human beings who created gods after their own image and likeness. Various conceptions of the origin of religion have arisen: the idea, which can be traced back to Democritus, that belief in gods arises out of fear of the terrible forces of nature; the view of religion, ascribed to the Athenian tyrant Critias, as an invention of a cunning politician in order to rule over people; and so on.

In the Middle Ages, open atheism was not found; only anticlerical and freethinking tendencies can be observed in a number of medieval heresies, in the doctrine of double truth of ibn-Rushd and ibn-Sina, in the legend of the “three deceivers” (Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad), and so on.

The formation of the capitalist mode of production necessitated the development of science, which led to conflicts between science and the church and religious dogma. “Science rose up against the church; the bourgeoisie needed science and took part in this rebellion” (F. Engels, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 22, p. 307). The anticlerical work of the humanists of the Renaissance (P. Pom-ponazzi, L. Valla, U. von Hutten, and Erasmus of Rotterdam), and the works of N. Copernicus, G. Bruno, G. Galileo, and others, which substantiated the heliocentric picture of the world, played a prominent role in undermining the spiritual dictatorship of the church. The criticism of the Christian ideas of a personal god, of the transcendental nature of god, of the creation of the world out of nothing, and the like led many thinkers to pantheism (G. Bruno, L. Va-nini, B. Spinoza), deism (F. Bacon, T. Hobbes, and I. Newton), and skeptical rationalism in questions of religion (M. Montaigne, P. Bayle, and Voltaire).

The French materialists of the 18th century (J. Meslier, P. Holbach, J. Naigeon, D. Diderot, C. Helvetius, J. La Mettrie, S. Maréchal) emerged as exponents of consistent atheism—“a facile, lively, and talented publicism which wittily and openly attacked the prevailing religious superstitions” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 45, p. 26). The narrow-mindedness of the French atheists of the 18th century was connected to their antihistorical approach to religion and their failure to understand its social nature. Seeing in religion only the products of deceit and ignorance, they fought for liberation from religious prejudices by means of the enlightenment of the masses and the dissemination of knowledge. In the 19th century, L. Feuerbach was a prominent exponent of atheism. He criticized religion and idealism from the standpoint of anthropological materialism (The Essence of Christianity, 1841). Feuerbach saw the key to the explanation of religion in the “self-alienation” of man, the projection of human feelings and desires onto images of imaginary beings—gods. The limited nature of Feuerbach’s anthropological conception of religion was reflected, in particular, in his effort to replace traditional religion with a new “religion of the love of mankind.”

Atheism in the 19th century was connected, in large measure, to the achievements of natural-scientific thought. In particular, the materialism of L. Büchner, C. Vogt, and J. Moleschott and the evolutionary theory of C. Darwin served as the ideological basis of atheism. Drawing on Darwinism, E. Haeckel developed his notion of natural-scientific “monism” and organized the Union of Monists to struggle against the religious world view. F. Nietzsche criticized Christianity and religion from the standpoint of an ir-rationalist philosophy of life (for example, his famous words, “god is dead”).

In the 20th century, irrationalist criticism of religion was developed in so-called atheistic existentialism (M. Heidegger, J. P. Sartre, A. Camus). In the spirit of his conception of psychoanalysis, S. Freud rejected religion (The Future of an Illusion, 1927; Russian translation, 1930). Bourgeois atheistic associations began to spring up at the end of the 19th century; they published journals and almanacs and held congresses. During the present period, national societies of freethinkers of different countries are joined together in the World Association of Freethinkers (founded in 1880 in Brussels; 34th congress in 1963). B. Russell’s work (Why I Am Not a Christian, 1927; Russian translation, 1958) is an example of the present-day elucidative critique of Christianity.

In Russia the development of freethinking and atheism was connected with progressive Russian thought of the 18th and 19th centuries. At its sources stood M. V. Lomonosov and A. N. Radishchev, whose world view took shape in the channel of deism. The Russian revolutionary democrats V. G. Belinskii, A. I. Herzen, N. G. Chernyshevskii, and D. I. Pisarev linked atheism directly with the tasks of the struggle against serfdom. The natural-scientific tradition of the critique of the religious world view was developed in the works of I. M. Sechenov, I. I. Mechnikov, and K. A. Timiriazev.

The materialist conception of history worked out by K. Marx and F. Engels led to the elaboration of scientific views of religion as a social phenomenon. In his work Toward a Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right, Marx showed that it was not enough to reduce religion to false views and errors resulting from limited knowledge of nature; he regarded religion as the realization of objective social necessity in the illusory supplementation of reality. In Marx’s words, “religious poverty is at the same time the expression of real poverty and a protest against this real poverty. Religion is the sigh of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a callous system. Religion is the opium of the people” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Sock., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 415). A false social reality engenders false ideas, the elimination of which is bound up with the implementation of the most profound transformations of real human relations and becomes possible when “the relations of people’s practical daily lives are expressed in transparent and reasonable ties among themselves and with nature” (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 23, p. 90). Thus, the problem of overcoming religion and the concomitant analysis of those socio-historical conditions which engender religiosity and those social tendencies and mechanisms which assure the maintenance and reproduction of religious prejudices become central in the Marxist critique of religion.

Developing the teachings of Marx and Engels, V. I. Lenin formulated a conception of the social, economic, historical, and gnoseological roots of religion, demanding “the materialistic explanation of the source of faith and religion among the masses” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17, p. 418). Noting the earthly origin of religion as one of the forms of “spiritual oppression” (ibid., vol. 12, p. 142), Lenin writes that “in addition to fantasy, Gemüth [feeling], the practical side, the search for something better, for protection, for aid, etc.” (ibid., vol. 29, p. 53) are extremely important in religion. G. V. Plekhanov, A. Bebel, P. Lafargue, J. Dietzgen, and other Marxists played important roles in the dissemination and development of scientific atheism.

After the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution and the mass withdrawal of believers from religion, the Soviet Union became the world’s first country of mass atheism; the right of atheistic propaganda was secured in the Constitution (art. 127). The decree of Feb. 5, 1918, separating church from state and school from church, initiated the actual implementation of freedom of conscience. Emancipation from religious prejudices is a constituent part of the communist education of the people and is carried out by the Party at all stages of socialist construction.

In the USSR, the voluntary League of Militant Atheists was established in 1925. At various times, atheistic publications have been issued; they included the newspaper Bezbozhnik (Atheist, 1922–41) and the journals Bezbozhnik (1925–41), Ateist (Atheist, 1922–30), and Voinstvuiushchii ateizm (Militant Atheism, 1931). The atheistic journals Nauka i religiia (Science and Religion, since 1959) and Liudina i svit (Man and the World, since 1965) are presently published. The course Fundamentals of Scientific Atheism has been introduced into universities and pedagogical, medical, agricultural, and cultural and educational institutions of higher education and specialized secondary schools. Training of cadres in atheistic propaganda is conducted by special atheistic departments of evening universities of Marxism-Leninism, in study groups, and the like. The specialized Institute of Scientific Atheism was established as part of the Academy of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the CPSU in 1964. The current stage of communist construction in the USSR confronts atheistic education with new tasks. Broad dissemination has been given to concrete sociological research on religiosity, which aids in explaining the specific reasons for the existence of religious prejudices under socialism and aids in developing real means to overcome them. The course of social progress is evidence that, despite the power of religious traditions, the process of secularization now involves the most diverse strata of the populations of many countries of the world and is establishing the necessary solid foundation for the development of the atheistic world view. The radical changes taking place in the world, as well as a certain evolution in the social doctrine of Christianity, has created the preconditions for genuine cooperation between believers and nonbelievers in their joint social struggle.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. O religii. Moscow, 1955.
Lenin, V. I. O religii i tserkvi. Moscow, 1966.
Plekhanov, G. V. O religii i tserkvi. Moscow, 1957.
Deiateli Oktiabria o religii i tserkvi. Moscow, 1968.
Mauthner, F. Ateizm v epokhu Velikoi Frantsuzskoi revoliutsii. Leningrad-Moscow, 1924. (Translated from German.)
Voronitsyn, I. P. Istoriia ateizma, 3rd ed. Riazan’, 1930.
Kazhdan, A. P. Religiia i ateizm v drevnem mire. Moscow, 1957.
Frantsev, Iu. P. U istokov religii i svobodomysliia. Moscow, 1959.
Kublanov, M. M. Mysliteli drevnosti o religii. Moscow, 1960.
Klibanov, A. I. Reformatsionnye dvizheniia v Rossii v XIV—pervoi polovine XVI vv. Moscow, 1960.
Istoriia i teoriia ateizma. Moscow, 1962.
Kryvelev, I. A. Marks i Engei’s o religii. Moscow, 1964.
Levada, Iu. A. Sotsial’naia priroda religii. Moscow, 1965.
Ugrinovich, D. M. Filosofskie problemy kritiki religii. Moscow, 1965.
Istoriia svobodomysliia i ateizma v Evrope. Moscow, 1966.
Sukhov, A. D. Filosofskie problemy proiskhozhdeniia religii. Moscow, 1967.
Mauthner, F. Der Atheismus und seine Geschichte im Abendlande, vols. 1–4. Stuttgart-Berlin, 1920–23.
Robertson, J. M. A History of Free Thought, Ancient and Modern . . ., vols. 1–2, 4th ed. London, 1936.
Borne, E. Atheism.New York, 1961.
Lilje, H. Atheism, Humanism and Christianity.Augsburg, 1964.
Oursler, W. G. The Atheist.New York, 1965.
Ley, H. Geschichte der Aufkldrung und des Atheismus, vols. 1–2. Berlin, 1966–67.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


rejection of belief in God or gods
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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