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
    Commented Oct 7, 2014 at 13:50
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    @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? Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 21:22

4 Answers 4


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
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 at 13:29
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    A set can have one element. Various fundamentalisms that proceed from single belief are still belief systems.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 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
    Commented Oct 12, 2014 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. Commented Oct 14, 2014 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
    Commented Oct 18, 2014 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
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 22:52
  • Is Atheism the BELIEF that an absense of belief in ANY theistic philosophies is the 'best' wisest option?
    – user128932
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 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
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 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.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 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
    Commented Oct 9, 2014 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.

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