The Three Phases of Atheism

by Bill Muehlenberg

Atheism has been around, in various forms, for some time now. At the risk of oversimplification, one can speak of three phases or periods of atheism.

Types of atheism have been in existence in antiquity. In ancient Greece Socrates was accused both of atheism and of corrupting the youth. But there were many different meanings of atheism then, and they could often be contradictory as well. But generally, as in the case of Socrates, it meant denying the Athenian gods and the traditional religions of the day.

The wide diversity of meaning associated with the term back then can further be seen in the fact that the early Christians were even accused of being atheists by their critics. Of course for ancient Rome, an atheist could be anyone who would not worship the official deities of the Roman state. Thus political concerns tended to trump religious concerns, and refusal to bow to the emperor and imperial symbols, for example, was seen as sedition.

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It is only the second phase, or modern atheism, that most people would recognise today. This was part of the modernist project, especially the Enlightenment. It is most well-known and associated with the French Revolution. Modern atheism is much less nebulous and ambiguous than its ancient counterpart, and the term means much more specifically the explicit denial of the existence of supernatural beings.

Names like Voltaire, Feuerbach and Marx come to mind here. These and other thinkers offered a more nuanced and sophisticated version of atheism, and as such, it can be seen as a relatively recent innovation in Western intellectual history.

Modern atheism has developed over the past few centuries, and won many converts. But a third phase might be demarcated, known as militant atheism, or the new atheism. The new atheists are not only true believers in their cause, but also believe that until atheism reigns supreme, the world will always be in strife. Until all religion is eliminated, and atheism takes its place, the world will find no rest. For according to the new atheists, religion is the root of all evil. Indeed, religion simply is evil…


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