The doctrine or belief that there is no God. There are no founders of atheism, but Voltaire, Feuerbach, Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche are claimed to be some of the earliest leaders in this belief system.
Followers of Atheism: Less than 2% of the world's population (note).
"It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme, and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason."
Voltaire was a French author known for classical tragedies and theatre who later studied science, history, religion, and culture. He was also known for defending religious freedom. By his own observations, he came to the conclusion that life's purpose is not about getting into heaven through repentance but to find happiness by fulfilling our destiny in the sciences and arts. He was known for being a crusader against tyranny and bigotry and moral injustice, but he himself was guilty of indiscretions, mockery, and violence. Voltaire died at the age of 84, his final words being "For God's sake, let me die in peace."
Authoritative Texts: Voltaire authored historical, philosophical and scientific writings, novels, pamphlets, plays, poems, and over 20,000 letters comparing different systems of government. The topics centered on morals, politics, and religious belief systems. His controversial writings pushed the limits of what was accepted in his time. Voltaire is remembered most for his tragedies and epic poems. Candide is considered his most read story.
Candide: A fictional short story about the travels of Candide, a young man who is painfully disillusioned after living a sheltered life. The story has a sarcastic tone as it follows him through many hardships dealing with military, government, romance, philosophy, and religion but he finally finds happiness in the end, when he chooses a simple life, working in a garden with his friends.
"There is no God, it is clear as the sun and as evident as the day that there is no God…"
Feuerbach was a German philosopher, moralist, and writer who abandoned theology to study natural science. He promoted materialism and believed that the rejection of religion and idealism would improve human development. His attacks on religion increased his popularity within political circles, but he never sought leadership there. It was said that he was considered a hero to the revolutionaries of his time. He pursued his endeavors while being supported by his wife's share in a porcelain factory. In the last twelve years of his life, he wrote very little, losing his philosophical presence in Germany. When his wife’s porcelain factory declared bankruptcy, he was forced into poverty, depending on support from friends and a socialist political party. In 1870, he had a stroke that left him confused and apathetic. Two years later, he died at the age of 68.
Authoritative Text: The Essence of Christianity
Feuerbach's arguments for why he believed there is no God including:
• Humanity has a limited understanding of the world, and because of this, it has put its hopes and convictions under a covering of an imagined God.
• Religious rituals and symbolism are an illusion used in the hopes of rising up against weaknesses while attempting to fulfill normal human needs.
“In my most extreme fluctuations I have never
been an atheist in the sense of denying the
existence of a God.”
Charles Darwin became a naturalist who studied wildlife during a five-year voyage along the west coast of South America and islands of the Pacific. He had a curious and an adventurous spirit, excited about the study of living beings. He spent years refining his theories, one being that species evolved gradually over time. His discoveries impacted many in the scientific and religious circles of his time. He never claimed to be an atheist, and could more appropriately be described as agnostic, but when his daughter, Annie, died, his grief added to his skepticism. He died of a heart attack on April 19,1882.
Authoritative Texts: Origin of Species, Voyage of the Beagle, The Descent of Man
Darwin's writings contain his scientific research and arguments for his research including:
• Living beings change over time and are connected through common ancestry.
• Humans evolved from animals.
• The sex of a species is chosen through competition for sexual selection rather than environmental pressures.
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
"My object in life is to dethrone God and destroy capitalism."
Marx was a writer and revolutionary communist born in Trier, Germany, who focused on economics and history of social systems. He was considered outspoken in his writings, and was opposed to all things that damage a man’s freedom. He thought it important to change the world instead of simply understanding it. He became a journalist to support himself and spent much of his time doing research for his newspaper articles and books. Hoping for a revolution of the working class, he was encouraged by the revolt of the Paris Commune in 1871, but after they lost the battle against government troops, his energy began to weaken. He later claimed to be harassed by chronic mental depression and in 1883 died of pleurisy.
Authoritative Texts: The Communist Manifesto
(co-written by Friedrich Engels); On the Jewish Question; Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Introduction; Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts; Theses on Feuerbach
Marx's writings include:
• The suffering of workers under capitalism and how socialism, and later communism, would replace it.
• Private property, money, and communism.
• Liberal rights, freedom found in community not in isolation.
• Political freedom is the way to human emancipation.
• His reactions to philosophy, religion, materialism, idealism.
• Explanation of why people fall into religion and follow an imaginary God: People cannot be free of religion until their material needs are met, and once they are, religion would disappear. To fix this problem, he claimed that the working class must transform itself and rise up in revolution.
"There cannot be a God because if there were one, I could not believe that I was not He."
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher and writer who attempted to expose the motives behind religion, morality, and philosophy. Although he disagreed with German nationalism, anti-Semitism, and power politics, his name was used to promote the things he despised. Through his study and writings, he decided that philosophy and religion hinder achievement in life. During his last twenty-one years, he remained mainly isolated and seriously ill, eventually suffering a mental collapse, and spending his last eleven years in mental asylums.
Authoritative Texts: The Birth of Tragedy;
Unfashionable Observations; Human, All Too Human, A Book for Free Spirits; The Gay Science; Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Beyond Good and Evil; On the Genealogy of Morals; Nietzsche Contra Wagner
Nietzsche's writings include:
• His understanding and critiques of the Greek and European cultures, metaphysics, psychology, religion, moral concepts and their origins.
• Accusations against philosophers.
• Explanations of why he and his long-time friend, Richard Wagner, went their separate ways.
• A fictitious story about the preaching of Zarathustra.
• His negative views on Christianity and his rejection of God, good and evil. He claimed it is better to focus on the here and now and to demand individual power than to be stuck in "slave-morality."
• Rewritten passages and critiques of his previous assumptions.
• Responses to future accusers.