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A Prejudice Thousands of Years Old

David Rand

"Better to be hated for what one is than loved for what one is not."

— André Gide

Ever since human beings invented their first gods, the atheist has been marginalized. This antipathy towards atheists and atheism remains omnipresent to this day, even among nonbelievers.
This article appeared in the January-March 2012 issue of Secular World, a publication of Atheist Alliance International and Atheist Alliance of America, under the title "A Prejudice as Old as Antiquity".
This is an English translation of an article which appeared in No. 12 of Cité laïque, humanist journal of the Mouvement laïque québécois (MLQ: Quebec Secular Movement).



A Prejudice as Old as Antiquity

Ever since human beings invented their first gods, the atheist has been marginalized. Alienating themselves from their own innate moral sense by projecting it onto imaginary divinities, or onto the unique, despotic "God" of a monotheistic religion, humans convinced themselves that any individual who fails to recognize these divinities must be amoral and depraved. Such individuals became targets of utter distrust, accursed and anathematized. This hatred for and antipathy towards atheists and for atheism is called atheophobia.

Plato was apparently the first to formulate and codify this hatred. In his Tenth Book of the Dialogue on Laws or Plato Against the Atheists[1], he advocates draconian measures against atheists, the impious and several other categories of individual (magicians, sorcerers) which he tends to lump together with atheists. According to the historian Georges Minois[2], Plato thus invented, in one fell swoop, religious intolerance, the inquisition and concentration camps.

The bible asserts the moral degradation of atheists: "The depraved says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good." (Psalms 14.1) Throughout the long history of Christianity, miscreants, "buggers," heretics and Jews were condemned and often confused with each other in an attitude of all-encompassing intolerance. During a papal audience in 1999, John-Paul II reminded his listeners that "The psalmist calls foolish" anyone who does not believe in god.[3]. As for the coran, it declares: "the curse of Allah will be upon the disbelievers." (Surah 2.89) "And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief in Allah] is worse than killing. [...] Such is the recompense of the disbelievers." (Surah 2.191).

Few voices were raised against this monolithic hatred. One notable exception was that of Pierre Bayle, a dissident protestant Christian, who dared to write that "Atheism does not necessarily lead to the corruption of morals."[4] To us in the 21st century, such a sentence sounds banal, even timid, but in the 17th, it expressed exemplary courage.

The Enlightenment

In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers denounced religious intolerance and obscurantism, but not all broke with the old anti-atheist prejudice. In his novella The Story of Johnny; or, The Atheist and the Sage[5], Voltaire writes: "Belief, then, in a God who rewards good actions, punishes the bad, and forgives lesser faults, is thus most useful to humanity. It is the only restraint on powerful men, who insolently commit public crimes, and on others who skillfully perpetrate secret offences." It follows therefore that "The atheist is a monster," although less to be feared than the superstitious.

Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, although a deist like Voltaire, belonged to a more recent generation and began to question this attitude of general mistrust. Observing that Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach and Condorcet were reputed to be both atheists and virtuous, it followed that their virtue must have some basis other than the love of god.[6].

Atheophobia is founded on the belief that the divinity is the source and guarantor of all morality. This is probably the most widespread and the most dangerous of all religious beliefs. In The Sacred Contagion[7], D'Holbach succinctly explains this danger: "If it is divine will which decides what is just and what is not, then God is the master of all virtue; by his word, crime may become virtue, and virtue crime. Thus morality is subordinated to the whims of those who interpret that divine will. [...] Any man vain enough to believe himself to be chosen by his god must regard with contempt all those who do not benefit from such favour."

A consequence of atheophobia is the myth that religious believers are morally superior to nonbelievers. This notion is the sugar coating on the poison pill of irrational belief, making it easier to swallow.

Modern Atheophobia

In the modern era, expressions of blatant, explicit atheophobia have become rarer -- except of course among fundamentalists and creationists -- as the absurdity and injustice of this nasty old prejudice begin to be recognized. One exception is the priest Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of the American religious journal First Things, who in 1991 published an article baldly claiming that atheists cannot be good citizens[8]. Furthermore, laws in several American states still forbid atheists to hold certain public offices. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, atheophobia normally manifests itself in a more subtle form; it has evolved under the corrosive effect of reason. It is transformed into a profound mistrust of atheist activism, associating its upfront criticism of religion with extreme repression -- a threat to freedom of conscience -- and with totalitarianism. To observe this, it is enough to read, for example, the words of the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor[9].

Whether explicit or subtle, atheophobia is behind all sorts of myths and distortions. Some say that atheism is a question of blind faith, just like religions. Yet the atheist does nothing more than abstain from belief. If atheism is a religion, then health is a disease. Those who disagree strongly with atheists accuse them of "fundamentalism"; this is nonsense, as the only fundamental principle of atheism is the simple affirmation of lack of belief in gods. This non-belief implies nothing about the what attitude to adopt towards believers, nor what particular form of government to prefer. Some say atheists are arrogant, but how could one possibly attain even an infinitesimal fraction of the arrogance of a religious leader who claims to have detailed intimate knowledge of the will of "God"?

Some even make the gratuitous assertion that atheism is a cause of totalitarianism. But in order to begin the complex task of analysing, for example, the Soviet dictatorship, one must instead undertake a deconstruction of the pseudoscience known as "scientific socialism," a sort of final solution to all the ills of society, implemented by attempting to build a utopia through totalitarian means. Furthermore, totalitarian regimes have more often than not been theocracies or allies of a religion. The expressions "atheist fundamentalism" and "secular fundamentalism" are oxymorons, functionally identical to each other, invented and spread by the enemies of the Enlightenment and of modernity in order to distract from very real religious fundamentalisms.


Among Nonbelievers

Atheophobia is no less prevalent among nonbelievers. Even atheist spokespersons for secular organizations rarely dare to mention publicly their nonbelief in order not to offend the exaggerated sensibilities of believers, as if the mere mention of atheism constituted a threat to freedom of belief. The negative connotations of the word "atheism" are often invoked to justify its omission from the names and statements of principles of such associations. But given the fact that the stigmatization of atheism is founded on religious intolerance, this situation constitutes a very solid argument for the use of the word.

An individual who openly declares himself or herself an atheist is taking a stand against the suffocating silence which sustains atheophobia. If every non-religious humanist association changed it public discourse in order to promote "atheistic humanism" or "humanist atheism", they would be taking a major step to advance freedom of conscience, and not only for atheists. Indeed, although atheists constitute a marginalized minority, atheism can be seen, paradoxically, as a universal value, because every person is an atheist with respect to the gods of others. To fight for the freedom of conscience of atheists is to defend that freedom for everyone.

Although the reluctance to identify oneself as an atheist is unhealthy, the decision whether or not to declare oneself nevertheless remains a question of personal choice. Similarly, the decision to include or not the word "atheism" in the name or mission statement of an organization obviously depends on the will of its members. However, some humanist spokespersons occasionally go beyond merely remaining silent in the face of atheophobia: they in fact contribute actively to the stigmatization of atheism by adapting anti-atheist religious language to a secular context and repeating it in their own words. Now it is obvious that one of the first duties of a secular humanist activist is to fight against atheophobia. To do the opposite is a betrayal of the humanist's own principles.


In light of the above considerations, I propose the following detailed definition:

Atheophobia, noun: literally, fear of or antipathy towards atheists and/or atheism.

To be more precise :

  1. the belief that atheists are morally inferior to religious believers;
  2. the belief that atheism leads necessarily to moral degradation;
  3. the notion that atheism, especially atheist activism, leads necessarily to extreme repression of religion, to the persecution of religious believers and even to totalitarianism;
  4. fear or shame of being identified as atheist.

Points number 3 and 4, especially the latter, typify internalized atheophobia, that is, the form which manifests itself among non-believers themselves.

The use of the term "atheophobia" should in no way be construed as an attempt to limit free discussion of the reality it is meant to describe (as opposed to the term "islamophobia" for example, which was invented with the evident intention of stifling criticism of islam). I use the term with the aim of opening a debate, not to forestall one, by explicitly identifying a social phenomenon which is almost omnipresent.


In order to attain the goal of a secular society, it is not enough merely to imitate our heroes of the past who, although working for the moral and intellectual advancement of humanity, were often severely limited in their options by the mores of their time. In order to continue and broaden their work, we must do better, we must go beyond their achievements. In particular, as atheists, we owe it to ourselves to take a major step which most of those who came before us were prevented from doing: come out of the closet and affirm our atheism, fully, openly and without compromise. In so doing, we take aim at the most malicious of all beliefs, the myth of the moral inferiority of atheists, and, by weakening that odious old fiction, all other baseless religious beliefs will consequently be weakened as well.


  1. . Plato, Plato Contra Atheos or Tenth Book of the Dialogue on Laws, Tayler LEWIS, New York, 1845.
  2. . MINOIS, Georges, Histoire de l'athéisme, Fayard, 1998.
  3. . Jean-Paul II, "Christian response to modern atheism", General Audience, 14th April 1999.
  4. . BAYLE, Pierre, Pensées sur l'athéisme, Paris, 2004.
  5. . Voltaire, The Story of Johnny; or, The Atheist and the Sage, 1775. (I have modified the quoted text somewhat in order to conform more closely to the original French.)
    See also his comments on the subject of atheism in his Treatise on Tolerance, On the Occasion of the Death of Jean Calas, 1763, in which Voltaire associates atheism with depravity and declares that "it is better [...] to be subject to all possible superstitions, as long as they are not murderous, than to live without religion."
  6. . JEFFERSON, Thomas Letter to Thomas Law, 13th June 1814
  7. . D'HOLBACH, Paul-Henri, La Contagion sacrée, 1768, Éditions coda 2006.
  8. . NEUHAUS, Richard John, "Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?" in First Things, Aug./Sept. 1991
  9. . See, for example, Interview with Charles Taylor transcribed on the web site of the Templeton Foundation, or the analysis of Marie-Michelle Poisson in her article "Malaises avec Charles Taylor" in No. 10 of Cité laïque, humanist journal of the MLQ.