In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Atheism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Important Historical Works
  • Histories of Atheism
  • Comprehensive Treatments
  • Influential Popular Works
  • Atheistic Naturalism
  • Recent Continental Philosophy and Atheism

Philosophy Atheism
Matt McCormick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 May 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0009


The term “atheist” describes a person who does not believe that God or a divine being exists. The sort of divine being that has received the most attention in atheological arguments has been the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator of the universe that is the central focus of the major monotheistic traditions. It has come to be widely accepted that to be an atheist is to deny that a God or gods exist. Atheism can be narrow or wide in scope; that is, a person can be a narrow atheist about the existence of a particular divine being, such as Zeus. Or a person can lack belief in the existence of any supernatural beings. Theism and atheism are primarily ontological positions about what sorts of things exist. Some theists believe that there is sufficient evidence to rationally justify the conclusion that God is real; others believe in God, but take a weaker view about the state of the evidence, sometimes invoking faith. Atheists typically take the view that there is sufficient evidence to justify concluding that there is no God. Agnosticism is an epistemological category; it describes someone who is not sure whether there is a God or not. Typically, the agnostic has the view that there is insufficient available evidence to draw a reasonable conclusion one way or the other, and as a result the responsible attitude is to suspend judgment. While some authors in the past have offered criticisms of believing or argued against the existence of God, atheism as we know it is a relatively recent development. People began to consider the possibility of a fully viable alternative to theism after Darwin, and the practice of giving a direct philosophical argument for the nonexistence of God became common even later.

General Overviews

There are surprisingly few good general overviews of the topic. Rowe 1998 covers the central issues, particularly concerning the problem of evil, but it does not summarize several important recent threads of argument. McCormick 2010 parallels this bibliography and discusses the important arguments at some length. Smart 2004 is not up to date with the key literature. Baggini 2003, Krueger 1998, and Flynn 2007 give useful but introductory accounts of the central issues.

  • Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    A useful philosophical introduction to the topic and several related issues such as atheism and ethics.

  • Flynn, Tom, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007.

    A useful but somewhat eclectic survey of important people, movements, and concepts in atheism. Not confined to philosophical sources.

  • Krueger, Douglas E. What is Atheism? A Short Introduction. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1998.

    An introduction addressing many of the important issues, written for a general audience. This book is good but too brief. Useful only for the most basic distinctions and lines of justification.

  • Le Poidevin, Robin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. London: Routledge, 1996.

    A useful introduction and survey of the problems with the standard arguments for the existence of God. Written for undergraduates.

  • McCormick, Matt. “Atheism.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2010.

    A more detailed survey of the atheism literature and the arguments that have become influential in the 20th and 21st centuries; parallels this bibliography.

  • Rowe, William L. “Atheism.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 1. Edited by Edward Craig, 530–534. London: Routledge, 1998.

    Covers the problem of evil, but leaves out several recent trends in the argument.

  • Smart, J. J. C. “Atheism and Agnosticism.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2004.

    An outdated and idiosyncratic survey of the topic. Heavily influenced by early 20th-century positivism.

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