The A-Z of Atheism

<b>Heaven</b> A word found in the lyrics of Cole Porter; a nightclub in Villiers Street, London WC2 (above); a word that designates a state of bliss such as might be found in the arms of a lover; a place on earth, according to Belinda Carlisle.
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Agnostic Those who neither affirm nor deny the existence of a creator, a creative cause or an unseen world, believing them either unknown or unknowable. See also: Wanting all the options

Anti-theist An atheist in a rage.


Brights An American initiative that attempts to rebrand atheists by calling them "Brights" ("A Bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements... "), much the same way as the chinese gooseberry was rebranded as a "kiwi fruit". However, unlike kiwi fruit, "Bright" has yet to take on universally. Find out more at See also: Spot an atheist, how to


Cathedrals Glorious cultural monuments; excellent acoustic chambers; unreliable places of refuge (viz Thomas à Becket); hospitable homes, especially during harvest festival, to mice and bats.

Conversions, spurious deathbed Stories are often circulated of atheists recanting their views before death, but these are just as often disputed. Charles Darwin (below) for example, was alleged by the Christian evangelist Lady Hope to have renounced his theories of evolution and called for Jesus; his daughter Henrietta, who was with him at the time, strongly denied this. "I believe he never even saw Lady Hope," she wrote in 1922.


Darwin Day 12 February, Charles Darwin's birthday. Currently celebrated with a lecture; some humanist campaigners call for it to be a public holiday.

De-baptism "After due deliberation, I,(insert name), having been subjected to the rite of Christian baptism in infancy before reaching an age of consent, hereby publicly revoke the implications of said rite and the church that carried it out. I reject its creeds and all other such superstition - in particular, the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed by baptism of alleged original sin, and the evil power of supposed demons. I wish to be excluded henceforth from enhanced claims of church-membership numbers based on past baptismal statistics used, for example, for the purpose of securing legislative privilege." This certificate of de-baptism can be downloaded free from the website of The National Secular Society ( It can be seen framed in the porch, loo, lean-to etc of many godless homes.

Dedication The dedication of some atheists inspires awe. Free-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600; shortly before the faggots were lit he was offered a crucifix to kiss, but refused.


Epicurus As well as giving his name to a range of tinned condiments, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270BC) was arguably one of the first great atheist thinkers. Here is his famous paradox of evil:

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able, and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither willing, nor able? Then why call him God?"


Fundamentalism Adherence to strictly orthodox religions or doctrines. Richard Dawkins's adherence to the doctrine of evolution is not fundamentalist, because, he says: "I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the evidence were forthcoming." (The God Delusion, 2006)


'God Is Not Great' The title of a forthcoming book by Christopher Hitchens.

Godless institution of Gower Street, the Slang term for University College London, founded in 1826 as a secular alternative to the then strictly religious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. See also: Surprising ways to affirm one's lack of faith, part one


Humanism "The thinking person's unthinking creed" - John Gray. Its principles, which are constantly evolving rather than fixed for all time, were refreshed at the Amsterdam Declaration 2002. Key points include:

* Humanists have a duty of care to all of humanity, including future generations.

* Humanism advocates the application of the methods of science and free inquiry to the problems of human welfare.

* Humanism insists that personal liberty be combined with social responsibility; it recognises our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world.

* Humanism values artistic creativity and imagination. For the full text see: See also: Prose, workaday

Hymns Even atheists like a good hymn. Grudgingly, though. Interviewed by Jonathan Miller for his television series A Brief History of Disbelief, the journalist Polly Toynbee declared, "I loved the hymns we sang at school," with a warm fuzzy smile. Then she added: "Though their content was absurd, of course."


Infidel In Washington, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Afghanistan, one who does.


Jesus Christ "I feel about Jesus Christ much the same way as I feel about JB Priestley" - William Donaldson, author of Brewer's Rogues Villains and Eccentrics.


Katrina, Hurricane The Reverend Pat Robertson was reported as having blamed the hurricane on Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian comedian who lived in New Orleans and had incited God's wrath by being chosen to host the Emmy awards. The story is now denied by Robertson, but he is on the record as saying, of an earlier Gay Pride march in Orlando, Florida: "I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you."

Kindness An evolutionary imperative, according to Richard Dawkins, who cites four Darwinian reasons for individuals to be generous or "moral" towards each other: genetic kinship, reciprocation, and two types of ostentatious altruism. It is also a key part of the humanist outlook, which emphasises the innate goodness of humanity over its innate capacity for evil.


Language Atheism sometimes requires language to be remade. Examples include:

Vicar - celebrant/ officiant

Commandments - humanist actions

Act of God - natural disaster

Christening - baby naming

God parents - guide parents

Concomitant with this is the secular reclamation of words with strong Biblical resonances, eg charity.


Marriage ceremonies, humanist Legally binding in Scotland but not yet in England and Wales, where couples usually combine a visit to a Registry Office with a separate humanist ceremony. Ceremonies are tailored specifically to each couple, and officiated at by a humanist celebrant (fees vary but typically do not exceed £350). Some couples choose to stand facing their guests; some, if they have children, involve them in the ceremony; some perform ancient Celtic rites such as hand-binding, etc etc.


Nation under God, One The terms of a treaty with Tripoli, drafted under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797, indicate America was not always such: "... the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion..." See also: Unamerican

Naturalist Alternative term for "atheist" used by those who object to being defined by what they don't believe in. As the character Grace remarks in AC Grayling and Mick Gordon's play On Religion: "You don't call someone "a-goblin" or "a-fairy" if they don't believe in goblins or fairies, do you?" Indeed. But "naturalist" may not have been the best word to pick, being easily confused with the movement for outdoor nudity.


Oaths If the oath takes my God in vain it is punishable; if the oath takes your God in vain it is witty. It's a minefield.

Omigod Expression of alarm or excitement, popular in the post-theist world. What it once meant is anyone's guess.


Pascal's Wager The French Mathematician Blaise Pascal applied decision theory to belief in God. If you believed and were wrong you got nothing; if you believed and were right you got eternal salvation. If you didn't believe and were right you got nothing; if you didn't believe and were wrong you got a fast train to hell. A no-brainer! In his words: "God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline? Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is." - Pascal's Pensées.

Atheists are not the only people to point out that this is all a bit too William Hill to be proper theology. Atheists are probably the only people to point out, though, that if you don't believe you get a benefit he hasn't accounted for - a life lived more fully and more freely.

Prose, workaday Humanist texts tend to be matter-of-fact, clear, effortfully inoffensive ("mankind" is off-limits), lucid, unadorned by allegory and utterly characterless. The King James Bible they ain't.


Quest, Camp Unlike most American summer camps, which offer religious instruction, Camp Quest encourages children to think sceptically.


Reliquary "A receptacle for such sacred objects as pieces of the true cross, short-ribs of saints, the ears of Balaam's ass, the lung of the cock that called Peter to repentance, and so forth. Reliquaries are commonly of metal, and provided with a lock to prevent the contents coming out and performing miracles at unseasonable times" - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911.


Spot an atheist, how to You might want to go up and embrace him or her as a fellow non-believer, or you might want to cross the road. Either way, a piece of wearable kit would be useful. Suggestions for what atheists should wear include:

* A badge of the double helix.

* A knowing smile.

* An "Atheist and Proud" T-shirt from The Secular Society, £14.99.

* A "Bright" lapel pin. "A lapel pin is a great conversation starter," runs the rubric on the Brights' website. "You'll have many opportunities to respond to the curious persons who notice it. You can divulge/ discuss your naturalistic worldview in amiable and informative ways." (Don't you love that "amiable"?)

Surprising ways to affirm your lack of faith, part one Utilitarian philosopher and UCL leading-light Jeremy Bentham dedicated his mortal remains to his colleagues, whom he wanted to dissect him in the name of science. His final resting place was not a grave but a wooden display case or "auto-icon" in the lobby of UCL, where he remains to this day.

Surprising ways to affirm your lack of faith, part two While an Oxford undergraduate, Percy Bysshe Shelley (right) wrote a series of letters in which, in order to try to undermine the faith of the recipient, he masqueraded as a vicar. The letters, found in a trunk of papers in 2005, stated "Christ never existed... the fall of man, the whole fabric indeed of superstition which it supports can no longer obtain the credit of philosophers," and were signed "the Reverend Percy Bysshe Shelley." He was, admittedly, only 18 at the time.


Treats at Christmas, top atheist While friends and family are at Evensong or carol service, atheists will be found applauding:

* What Would Judas Do? Written and performed by Stewart Lee (of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame) at the Bush Theatre, London, 9 January to 3 February (tel: 020 7610 4224 ).

* On Religion, a play by sceptics AC Grayling and Mick Gordon based on interviews with Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams and others at Soho Theatre, London, to 6 January (tel: 0870 429 6883;

Teapot, celestial Bertrand Russell asked why atheists had to disprove Christianity, saying it was like trying to disprove a celestial teapot in orbit round the earth that was smaller than a telescope could see.

Twenty-six: nil The number of Anglican Bishops in the House of Lords compared with the number of humanist representatives.

Transcendence Atheists experience it too, you know, in the mundane, or in opera houses, theatres, museums, libraries, concert halls, hospitals, galleries and, admittedly sometimes, shops.


Unamerican "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots," George Bush Snr was cited as saying in 1988

(Free Enquiry magazine).


Virginity A state of innocence; a state in which a woman is unlikely to become pregnant. Not, in the secular world, a condition that is unduly fetishised.


Warm signals "Ever since it took office in 1997 Tony Blair's government has been sending warm signals to religious groups, inviting them to consult with ministers, influence new legislation and run state schools in return for a paltry financial contribution" - Joan Smith, 22 November 2006. An Ipsos Mori poll published on 24 November showed that, of a sample of 975 nationally representative respondents, 42 per cent think the government "pays too much attention to religious groups and leaders."

Wanting all the options See: Agnostics


Xtrme unction A rarely seen text-message abbreviation.


Young, right to exercise choice of the There is no such thing as a Muslim, Christian or atheist child.


Zarathustra Nietzsche's prophet, who spake the words "God is dead". But was He ever living?