Theism is belief in one or more deities. Gnosticism is belief in an imperfect god. You add an “a” and atheism takes a position that there is no god, while agnosticism is more an attitude that this matter is unknown. In a way, an agnostic rests somewhere between a theist and atheist, in that a person who believes in a god, but is not sure if a god exists, can be called an agnostic theist, while, if he denies belief without claiming to know for sure if no gods can or do exist, he is then called an agnostic atheist. These definitional exercises plague religion.
In the United States, you cannot be elected President if you are an atheist, and could not even run for any public office in some states. You would be among the most mistrusted of minorities. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) do not allow atheist, homosexual or woman members. Even the U.S. Supreme Court passed judgment in favor of the BSA, but this is the governmental body that picked George Bush over Al Gore, even though Gore received more popular votes.
Atheists and agnostics claim about 1% of the American population each, just below Islam and Buddhism. For all of my adult life I looked upon myself as a neo-agnostic—that I did not know, but actively searched for a Supreme Being, and more importantly, the potential for an afterlife. In the process of writing this chapter, partly because of Richard Dawkins, but mostly because I did not think the search would get anywhere, anyway, I became an atheist. But, later, there was a minor re-adjustment.
In the 6th Century BC, Buddhists were atheists, as they remain today. However, Diagoras, a 5th Century Greek philosopher, is commonly known as the first atheist. Socrates was sentenced to death for impiety, and all throughout history atheists have been subjected to persecution. So much so that it was not until Baron d’Holback in the late 18th Century finally could write on this topic and survive. Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche were similarly honest about their belief. Joseph Stalin was one, but Adolf Hitler either was or was not. Other atheists, from the Time-Life 100 Most Influential People of the Millennium compilation are: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Carl Sagan (Ann Druyan was later quoted to say that Sagan was an agnostic, not an atheist), Bertrand Russell, Billy Joel, Clarence Darrow, Galileo Galilei, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, James Madison, John Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, James Watson, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Lennon, Walt Disney, George Orwell, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, William Howard Taft, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud. The following were either atheist or agnostic: Woody Allen, Fidel Castro, Michael Crichton, Jodie Foster, Linus Pauling, Mao Tse-tung, Richard Leakey, Francois Mitterand, Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, Mikhail Gorbachev, Warren Buffet, Richard Feynman, and Marie Curie.
For the record, here is the estimated by country Atheist/Agnostic percentage top ten:
Czech Republic 54-61%
South Korea 30-52%
Germany and Estonia 49%
Russia just missed the cut at 48%. The USA, of course, is way back, at 3-9%, and China is at 8-14%.
Atheists don’t have a holiday, but we (they) can watch NFL football on Sunday morning in Hawaii without having family or psychological conflicts. There are no charismatic leaders, commanding traditions nor common literature. The God Delusion might, though, suffice as a galvanizing document. Oh yes, there is The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World (Doubleday, 2004), by Alistair McGrath, also of Oxford University, who does not share similar views with his colleague. In fact, McGrath published in 2007 The Dawkins Delusion.
One of the problems with atheism is that it’s so, so negative to say there is no God, nor an afterlife. But the thought is pure and not saddled with the baggage of having to defend the impossible or promise the unattainable. There is no dogma. Just believe in the real truth.