If Atheism and secularism and Materialism are not belief systems what are they? They are not facts ; nothing one way or the other has been proven. They are more like a set of assumptions and beliefs and opinions but all together they are not to be considered a belief system. If you call them a world view this is still like a belief system ; using a set of beliefs and opinions and personal interpretations of some facts that all lead to 'handling' various important philosophical questions. Some of these questions if left unanswered are VERY disquiting when unresolved. So if Atheism , secularism and Materialism are not belief systems WHAT ARE THEY?

  • Is there a particular work (or other context) where the meanings of these terms are unclear? – Dave Oct 7 '14 at 13:50
  • @Dave I've seen these words used with varying definitions. Is an atheist someone who doesn't believe in God, or someone who believes there is no God? Does a materialist reject the idea of telepathy outright or just considers the evidence far from convincing, and figures that if it exists, it's subject to laws of nature? Is a secular society one where all religions are welcome, or one where religion is disdained? – David Thornley Dec 5 at 21:22
up vote 5 down vote accepted

They are belief systems. Any conjecture on a situation that has no proven answer is a belief. No exceptions. Nobody knows for certain the meaning or lack of meaning in the universe and thus any opinion on the matter is exactly that, opinion, belief, idea, or philosophy.

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    a belief is different from a belief system. – Dave Oct 9 '14 at 13:29
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    A set can have one element. Various fundamentalisms that proceed from single belief are still belief systems. – jobermark Oct 9 '14 at 18:18
  • I noticed people who are atheistic, materialistic or secular do not want to consider their views as belief systems partly because they want to consider their 'world views' as 'separate' from religion or beliefs in the 'supernatural'. As such they feel their beliefs are more 'grounded' in 'reality' and have a 'special connection' to what is 'real'; and therefore anyone who is 'religious' can't hold a candle to their arguments. By 'being separate' from any religious belief they assume their views are superior. This is why they don't want to think of atheism as a belief system or a religion. – user128932 Oct 12 '14 at 4:22
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    That is the downfall where those of realistic beliefs succumb to ignorance. I am secular but I can not consider myself an atheist because I realize that every speculation on life or death is impossible to prove. Therefore, they are all beliefs, each one as valid as the next, whether it be the Christian God, a flying bowl of spaghetti, or nothing at all. – user3708752 Oct 14 '14 at 5:25
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    Is the belief it is absolutely impossible to ever prove there is an after-life or not itself a belief or a fact? Also one can't say one 'set' of beliefs is as valid as the next as many beliefs 'contradict' one another; i.e., the Mormons believe only they will 'make it' to an after-life. You could call this an 'exclusionary' belief system. The Jahovah's Witness is exclusionary, so is 7 Day Adventists , and the Christian Faith. Most Faiths are exclusionary except the Hindus and the Ba'hai Faith. All religious beliefs can not be correct at the same time. – user128932 Oct 18 '14 at 2:40

In the absence of further context:

  • Atheism and materialism (physicalism) are individual beliefs about the world.

  • Secularism is a belief system, i.e. group of inter-related beliefs about the world.

Quick google results:

  • atheism: Most inclusively, atheism is the absence of belief that any deities exist (definition that pops up on Google)
  • materialism: the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications (defintion that pops up on Google)
  • secularism: Secularism is a code of duty... (quote from George Jacob Holyoake via

Thus, they are variously, (absence of) belief, a doctrine, and a code of duty.

Secularism (as used by Secular Humanists) involves a whole series of beliefs about what should (and shouldn't) be considered when trying to identify moral goods. Thus, at many levels of discussion, it would be worth considering secularism as an aggregate belief system (as opposed to a more or less atomic belief).

For materialism, the case that it is an aggregate belief system, as opposed to a single belief is harder to make. It's pretty much just that the material world is all that there is. Although one can poke at it to try to clarify what exactly any given materialist philosophy means by material, world, or examine any of the various consequences of adopting this belief, but the term materialism itself ends up referring to, essentially, a singular belief.

Atheism is in the same boat as materialism: it is essentially, an atomic belief. Again, if you get into it, you might be able to identify aspects of it that are arguably component sub-beliefs, but at the level of general discussion, it fits nicely into the category of being a belief.

In the absence of any context that indicates that you're going to drill into the details, the first two are individual beliefs, while the third is a network of inter-related beliefs. I keep hedging about context because I cannot rule out the possibility that there are situations where would would want, and be able to, break materialism or atheism into component sub-beliefs. However,I cannot think of a specific context where this is breaking down is necessary or useful, so the descriptions here should apply in general.

It's also worth pointing out, that no one of these items, by itself, provides resolution to all (or even most of) the "disquieting" questions.

  • You should have stayed with the Google definition that atheism is an absence of belief. You can add to that a belief that the subject of religion is quite irrelevant. – gnasher729 Oct 8 '14 at 22:52
  • Is Atheism the BELIEF that an absense of belief in ANY theistic philosophies is the 'best' wisest option? – user128932 Oct 9 '14 at 2:25
  • @user128932 Informally, that statement might be okay; but speaking more formally there are two issues: the rejection of theistic philosophies is a logical consequence of taking the atheistic stance "No gods exists", but "atheism" and "rejecting all theistic philosophies" are not the same thing (c.f. hard agnosticism). Second, your use of term "best wisest" in your statement injects an undefined utility measure (wisestness?) into the discussion, which is not necessary for defining atheism. – Dave Oct 9 '14 at 13:53
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    @gnasher729 'An absence of belief' would not have a version with less belief, and atheism has agnosticism as a weaker fallback. So the Google definition is just wrong. – jobermark Oct 9 '14 at 14:48
  • @jobermark a weakened version of "absence of belief in X" is "allowing some degree of belief in X", i.e. agnosticism (about X in this case). – Dave Oct 9 '14 at 20:08

I think calling atheism a "metaphysical position" might be the best term. It's general enough to capture beliefs and absence of beliefs.

Secularism, in the sense of beliefs about separation of church and state or things like that, might be more of a sociopolitical position.

It seems to me that atheism, like theism, is in and of itself a belief rather than a belief system — though, like theism, atheism is personal, subjective, and spectral, which is why both labels mean different things to different people.

For example, I personally believe there is no God. This doesn’t mean I’m certain about it: beliefs are, by definition, unprovable. (Otherwise, they’d be facts, in which case faith — i.e., personal commitment to belief — would be gratuitous.) It also doesn’t mean I'm antitheistic. I respect and support religion, since it provides significant benefits such as hope, comfort, strength, belonging, and structure to billions of people. The only thing I’m "anti" about is disrespecting each others’ personal, spiritual, existential boundaries.

Regarding belief vis-à-vis belief system as they apply to atheism (or theism), I believe beliefs beget belief systems. Here, too, I can reference experience: Once I admitted/accepted my belief, I recognized the need for a moral compass — a set of primary values to govern behavior, facilitate growth, and assist in considering conflicts. Then, I realized the need to base those values on what I care about most of all in life: how people treat each other. So I chose the principal values of equality, respect, understanding, and coexistence. They work well together in guiding me through life; thus, at least in my case, the belief, supporting values, corresponding worldview, and resulting behavioral code constitute a belief system.

Then again, "belief system" also means different things to different people: e.g., whether or not it involves a group rather than an individual; whether it’s formally codified; etc.

Please note that, as I see it, neither atheism nor theism is a moral position. One can embrace either belief and, independently, choose one’s personal moral code. (In contrast, "morality" implies a much higher degree of subjectivity, encompassing both one’s own perception and others’ perceptions, any or all of which may irreconcilably disagree.)

As to secularism and materialism, I’m not sufficiently knowledgable to discuss either term.

Whoever said they are not belief systems? Atheism, for instance, is a moral position. Belief that something is false is a belief, and an atheist generally considers religion immoral in some way, or he would just be an agnostic.

In fact there are numerous atheisms. Different groups of people reject the notion of a possible deity for multiple conflicting reasons

  • out of reaction to the violence of religion historically
  • out of 'Occam's razor' as a moral principle
  • out of distrust of institutions of moral conformity generally
  • out of trust that science can base morality if only we could agree on it as basic
  • out of a hatred of the waste of effort spiritual practices represent
  • out of a devotion to some spirituality based inside psychology or human identity
  • out of a reaction to the kinds of personality religions have promoted in the past
  • because Marx said so, or because the notion of religion is basically patriarchal...

These are beliefs, and they spawn others, and grow easily into a world-view. So there are collections of atheists across time who rebuild the parts of experience usually ceded to religion in different ways, usually shaped by their reasons for abandoning religion.

In the same way secularism is a basic political position, an materialism is a basic epistemological one. And a lot of people build two of these off the third, so there are people for whom atheism proceeds from a secularist defense of religious minorities, or for whom a materialist epistemology proceeds from a form of atheism arising out of an abhorrence of the wastefulness of ceremony.

So the premise of the question is wrong. Atheists may want to factor their position off from the range of other ethical systems based upon unfounded beliefs, but they are not actually in that privileged position.

  • I asked a question similar to this on this site ,something like 'can Atheism be considered a religion?' and some responded to the effect it was not a religion or a belief system, it was simply a denial of ANY theism. – user128932 Oct 8 '14 at 5:52
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    @Dave (Ebola on the brain?) Materialism is an epistemological position. It presumes that our jointly perceived reality is real, and we need know no more. So it sets the boundaries of worthy knowledge, which is kind of what an epistomology is supposed to do. – jobermark Oct 8 '14 at 14:43
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    @user128932 It is not the same question. Religion, etymologically at least, requires tradition and the intention of continued tradition (it is etymologically "tie-back" in Latin, as in "that to which one's bonds go back".) Some forms of secularism want to escape tradition, in favor of some state of dynamic equilibrium. So you can argue that some atheisms are not religions. (Then again, it is, by that standard, questionable whether modern Hicksite Quakerism is then a religion, and they consider themselves Christians. I am sure certain forms of Sufism would also get counted out.) – jobermark Oct 8 '14 at 14:47
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    @jobermark ; I didn't say Atheism is a denial of any theism , I said SOMEONE ELSE responded to my question with that statement about denial.. – user128932 Oct 10 '14 at 4:16
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    @user128932 I was not actually at odds with that statement, but with the two other parts. Religion is different from belief, in that it preserves tradition. And any denial that is strong enough to call for action, is a belief. I quibble above with the assertion that atheism is the absence of the belief in any theism, but I would accept the definition proposed to you. Just not the defensive wrapping they put around it. Also, excuse my style, if it makes me sound angry. I am naturally verbose and edit stuff very closely here, which can make people feel like I am writing them angry email. – jobermark Oct 10 '14 at 16:02

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