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Definition of Atheism for Early Freethinkers

How the Freethought Movement Defined Atheism


Charles Bradlaugh

Charles Bradlaugh

Photo: Hulton/Getty

Atheists and freethinkers have defined atheism relatively consistently over the past couple of centuries. Although a few have focused solely on the sense of "strong" atheism, many more have differentiated between "weak" and "strong" atheism. Included here are definitions of atheism from nonbelievers and freethinkers from the early 20th century and before.


Paul Henri Holbach:
In 1772, he wrote what was probably the first openly atheistic book ever published, The System of Nature. In another book, Good Sense, he stated that "All children are atheists, they have no idea of God." This statement only makes sense if the term "atheism" includes a passive sense which does not mean the explicit denial of the existence of any gods.


Charles Bradlaugh:
One of the England's leading atheists and freethinkers in the19th century, Bradlaugh wrote in 1876 in his book The Freethinker's Text Book that

    Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. The atheist does not say that there is no God, but he says 'I know not what you mean by God. I am without the idea of God. The word God to me is a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception, and the conception of which by its affirmer is so imperfect that he is unable to define it for me.


Annie Besant:
Before she became a Theosophist, Besant was one of England's most well known atheists and advocates of freethought. In her 1877 book The Gospel of Atheism, she stated

    The position of the atheist is a clear and reasonable one. I know nothing about God and therefore I do not believe in Him or it. What you tell me about your God is self-contradictory and is therefore incredible. I do not deny 'God,' which is an unknown tongue to me. I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without God.

Here it is made explicit how an atheist might go so far as to deny certain, specific gods without also necessarily deny all possible gods — a position taken by most atheists today.


Charles Southwell:
An outspoken activist, he founded England's first openly atheist periodical. I have no statements from him defining atheism, but J.M. Robertson, a historian of freethought, described Southwell's atheism thus:

    The Oracle pursued a logical course of confuting theism, and leaving "a-theism" the negative result. It did not, in the absurd terms of common religious propaganda, "deny the existence of God." It affirmed that God was a term for an existence imagined by man in terms of his own personality and irreducible to any tenable definition. It did not even affirm that "there are no Gods"; it insisted that the onus of proof as to any God lay with the theist, who could give none compatible with his definitions.


G.W. Foote:
A prolific writer about atheism and editor of the Freethinker, he stated in What Is Agnosticism (1902): "Refer me to one Atheist who denies the existence of God.... Etymologically, as well as philosophically, an ATheist is one without God. That is all the "A" before "Theist" really means."


Chapman Cohen:
President of Britain's National Secular Society and author of numerous works about atheism and freethought, he wrote in Deity and Design that

    Atheism, the absence of belief in gods, is a comparatively late phenomenon in history.

Elsewhere, he also stated:

    If one believes in a god, one is a Theist. If one does not believe in a god, then one is an A-theist — he is without that belief. The distinction between atheism and theism is entirely, exclusively, that of whether one has or has not a belief in God.


Edward Royle describes the "negative atheism" of nineteenth-century freethinkers like Carlile, Southwell, Cooper, Holyoake:

    Logically, this kind of atheism did not prove that there was no God.... On the contrary, Southwell was typical in placing the onus probandi on those who affirmed the existence of God and Holyoake regarded himself as an atheist only in his inability to believe what the churches would have him believe. They were content to show that the Christian concept of the supernatural was meaningless, that the arguments in its favor were illogical, and that the mysteries of the universe, insofar as they were explicable, could be accounted for in material terms.

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