Atheism and religion
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Some movements or sects within traditionally monotheistic or polytheistic religions recognize that it is possible to practice religious faith, spirituality and adherence to tenets without a belief in deities. People with what would be considered religious or spiritual belief in a superhuman controlling power are defined by some as adherents to a religion; the argument that atheism is a religion has been described as a contradiction in terms.
In general, formulations of Jewish principles of faith require a belief in God (represented by Judaism's paramount prayer, the Shema). In many modern Jewish religious movements, rabbis have generally considered the behavior of a Jew to be the determining factor in whether or not one is considered an adherent of Judaism. Within these movements it is often recognized that it is possible for a Jew to strictly practice Judaism as a faith, while at the same time being an agnostic or atheist. Reconstructionist Judaism does not require any belief in a deity, and certain popular Reform prayer books, such as Gates of Prayer, offer some services without mention of God. Jewish atheists who practice Humanistic Judaism embrace Jewish culture and history, rather than belief in a supernatural god, as the sources of their Jewish identity. One study found that only 48% of self identified Jews believe in God.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish community in Palestine, held that atheists were not actually denying God: rather, they were denying one of man's many images of God. Since any man-made image of God can be considered an idol, Kook held that, in practice, one could consider atheists as helping true religion burn away false images of God, thus in the end serving the purpose of true monotheism.
High rates of atheism have been found among self-identified Christians in the United States. For example, 10% of self-identified Protestants and 21% of self-identified Roman Catholics were found to be atheists in a HarrisInteractive survey from 2003.
There is no single Christian approach toward atheism. The approach taken varies between Christian denominations, and Christian ministers may intelligently distinguish an individual's claims of atheism from other nominal states of personal perspective, such as plain disbelief, an adherence to science, a misunderstanding of the nature of religious belief, or a disdain for organized religion in general.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this explicit. While it identifies atheism as a violation of the First Commandment, calling it "a sin against the virtue of religion", it is careful to acknowledge that atheism may be motivated by virtuous or moral considerations, and admonishes the followers of Roman Catholicism to focus on their own role in encouraging atheism by their religious or moral shortcomings:
- (2125) [...] The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion."
A famous idiosyncratic atheist belief is that of Thomas J. J. Altizer. His book The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1967) proclaims the highly unusual view that God has literally died, or self-annihilated. According to Altizer, this is nevertheless "a Christian confession of faith". Making clear the difference between his position and that of both Nietzsche's notion of the death of God and the stance of theological non-realists, Altizer says, "To confess the death of God is to speak of an actual and real event, not perhaps an event occurring in a single moment of time or history, but notwithstanding this reservation an event that has actually happened both in a cosmic and in a historical sense."
A 2001 survey by "Faith Communities Today" found that 18% of Unitarian Universalists (UU) consider themselves to be atheists, with 54% considering themselves humanist. According to this study 16% of UUs consider themselves Buddhist, 13% Christian, and 13% Pagan.
In Islam, atheists are categorized as kafir (كافر), a term that is also used to describe polytheists, and that translates roughly as "denier" or "concealer". Kafir carries connotations of blasphemy and disconnection from the Islamic community. In Arabic, "atheism" is generally translated ilhad (إلحاد), although this also means "heresy".
The Quran is silent on the punishment for apostasy, though not the subject itself. The Quran speaks repeatedly of people going back to unbelief after believing, and gives advice on dealing with 'hypocrites':Sura 9:73,74
"O Prophet, strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell,-- an evil refuge indeed. They swear by God that they said nothing [evil], but indeed they uttered blasphemy, and they did it after accepting Islam; and they meditated a plot which they were unable to carry out: this revenge of theirs was [their] only return for the bounty which God and His Apostle had enriched them! If they repent, it will be best for them; but if they turn back [to their evil ways], God will punish them with a grievous penalty in this life and in the Hereafter. They shall have none on this earth to protect or help them."
The Hadith expound upon dealing with apostates:
Narrated Abdullah: Allah's Messenger said, 'The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Messenger, cannot be shed except in three cases: in Qisas (equality in punishment) for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (Apostate) and leaves the Muslims."— Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:83:17
Narrated Abu Qilaba: Once Umar bin Abdul Aziz sat on his throne in the courtyard of his house so that the people might gather before him....He replied 'By Allah, Allah's messenger never killed anyone except in one of the following three situations: 1) A person who killed somebody unjustly, was killed (in Qisas,) 2) a married person who committed illegal sexual intercourse and, 3) a man who fought against Allah and His messenger, and deserted Islam and became an apostate....'— Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:83:37
Narrated Ikrima: Some Zanadiqa (Zanadiqa refers to those who innovate within Islam, adding rules to Islam which didn't previously exist) were brought to 'Ali and he burnt them. The news of this event, reached Ibn 'Abbas who said, "If I had been in his place, I would not have burnt them, as Allah's Apostle forbade it, saying, 'Do not punish anybody with Allah's punishment (fire). I would have killed them according to the statement of Allah's Apostle, "Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him."— Sahih al-Bukhari, 9:84:57
The Qur'an refers to atheism in this verse: The term commonly used for atheists is "Dahriyyah" from the Arabic word for "time" in a verse which speaks of people "who says that our death and Decimation are caused only by the passing of time". (in aljathiah,) 24)
[045:024] And they say: "There is nothing but our life of this world, we die and we live and nothing destroys us except Ad-Dahr (time)." And they have no knowledge of it, they only conjecture.
Other relevant Hadithic verses include Bukhari, volume 9, #58, 64, 271.
Muslims are not at liberty to change their religion or become atheists. Atheists in Islamic countries and communities frequently conceal their non-belief (as do people with other condemned qualities, such as homosexuality).
Among the six fundamental Astika schools of Hindu philosophy, the Samkhya do not accept God and the early Mimamsa also rejected the notion of God. Samkhya lacks the notion of a 'higher being' that is the ground of all existence. It proposes a thoroughly dualistic understanding of the cosmos, in which two parallel realities Purusha, the spiritual and Prakriti, the physical coexist and the aim of life is the gaining of liberating Self-knowledge of the Purusha. Here, no God (better stated theos) is present, yet Ultimate Reality in the form of the Purusha exists.
Cārvāka (also Charvaka) was a materialist and atheist school of thought in India, which is now known principally from fragments cited by its Astika and Buddhist opponents. The proper aim of a Cārvākan, according to these sources, was to live a prosperous, happy, productive life in this world (cf Epicureanism). There is some evidence that the school persisted until at least 1578.
- The existence of a creation, and therefore of a creator deity
- That a god (deva), gods, or other divine beings are the source of moral imperatives. Instead, the Dharma is an attribution of the universe
- That human beings or other creatures are responsible to a god or gods for their actions
However, all canonical Buddhist texts that mention the subject accept the existence (as distinct from the authority) of a great number of spiritual beings, including the Vedic deities. From the point of view of Western theism, certain concepts of the Buddha found in the Mahayana school of Buddhism, e.g. of Amitabha or the Adibuddha may seem to share characteristics with Western concepts of God, but Gautama Buddha himself denied that he was a god or divine.
Some forms of Confucianism and Taoism do not explicitly affirm, nor are they founded upon a faith in, a higher being or beings. However, Confucian writings do have numerous references to Tian (Heaven), which denotes a transcendent power, with a personal connotation. Neo-Confucian writings, such as that of Chu Hsi, are vague on whether their conception of the Great Ultimate is like a personal deity or not. Although the Western translation of the Tao as "god" in some editions of the Tao te Ching is highly misleading, it is still a matter of debate whether the actual descriptions of the Tao by Laozi has theistic or nontheistic undertones. Religious forms of Taoism do believe in a variety of cosmological beings, which are analogies to the cosmic forces within the universe.
LaVeyan Satanism is atheistic, rejecting belief in God and all other deities, including, to the surprise of many, Satan. "Satanism begins with atheism," said Church of Satan High Priest Peter H. Gilmore in an interview. "We begin with the universe and say, 'It’s indifferent. There’s no God, there’s no Devil. No one cares!'" The function of God is performed and satisfied by the satanist him/herself. The needs of worship, ritual, and religious/spiritual focus are directed inwards towards the satanist, as opposed to outwards, towards a deity. It rejects concepts such as prayer, the after-life, and divine forces.
Legal status of atheism
Generally, religion and law have been synonymous throughout recorded history from the Code of Hammurabi through (unwritten) common law to modern codex or formal written law. The practice of a state religion has generally been a legal obligation, and remains so in many traditional jurisdictions such as those incorporating sharia principles. Notably ancient law such as Babylonian law and Roman Law regulated the treatment of slaves and wives
Despite the separation of church and state in late 18th century France and early USA it was only in the later part of the 20th century, following the so-called Post–World War II baby boom and subsequent sexual revolution that certain religious offenses have been selectively excluded from some European and North-American legal constraints. In most of the world many agnostic or atheistic expressions remain legally discouraged and sometimes very severely punished even by execution.
The most common (religious) offenses are heresy (wrong choice), blasphemy (evil-speaking) and apostasy (revolt or renunciation) or any behavior that implies or abandoning of a prescribed religious duty, especially disloyalty sedition and defection, but also occult mysterious or secret activities such as freemasonry, sorcery, witchcraft, alchemy and private practices such as homosexuality, contraception and of course atheism, since it challenges 'received wisdom' which is mandated as 'Absolute' or 'Truth' in many traditional legal codes which do not incorporate freedom of religion which has only evolved in the latter half of the 20th century following the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Great Britain (English Law)
United States of America
Atheism in the USA is protected under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. There are also online churches that have been created by atheists to secure legal rights, to ordain atheist clergy to hold ceremonies, as well as for parody, education, and advocacy.
In 1797, the United States Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli that stated in Article 11:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
- Rachmani 2002a; Rachmani 2002b.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, English version, section 18.104.22.168.3
- Altizer 1967, p. 102.
- Altizer 1967, p. 103.
- Surveys: 'Uuism' unique Churchgoers from elsewhere, Christian Century Foundation
- Quran 9:73–74
- Interview with Peter H. Gilmore, David Shankbone, Wikinews', November 5, 2007.