Definition of Godless, Godlessness

Atheist Dictionary
Atheist Dictionary. Anthony Bradshaw; Getty

Godless is broadly defined as a state without any god or gods. This definition of godless is almost identical to the broad definition of atheism. Thus the definition of godless and godlessness track closely with atheistic, nontheistic, and ungodly. Godless also tracks closely with irreligion and irreligious, even though being without gods isn't quite the same as being without religion because there are religions where gods at unimportant or play no role at all.

While the basic definition of godless is neutral, the label godless has historically been used with negative intent due to the popular assumption that belief in gods is necessary for morality and civilization - much the same reason why the label "atheist" carries so many negative connotations. Throughout history the label "godless" been applied to states, institutions, system, and people as a criticism rather than a neutral, factual description.

Indeed, it's often the case that anything labeled "godless" has, at the same time, been described as something that needs to be "saved" - as something that is at best inferior, but is often a threat to others. Such an attitude make animosity and hostility almost inevitable, and anything like productive dialogue is unlikely at best.

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, offers the follow definition of godless:

godless: a. Of persons, systems of thought, etc.: Without a god; not recognizing or worshipping God; irreligious, ungodly. b. Of actions, etc.: Done without regard to God; impious, wicked.

The use of "wicked" as a definition of godless occurs in the definition of atheism as well, which won't come as a surprise to any atheists who still get treated as if they were wicked, immoral individuals simply due to their not believing in any gods. This underscores not just the how the two terms are essentially the same, but also the hostility which people have had towards atheism and godlessness.

That a godless person or atheist could be as kind, decent, and moral as everyone else simply wasn't accepted by most people.

Fortunately, most dictionaries put the most negative definitions of "godless" at the very end of its entry, sometimes even labeling them "archaic," though not as often as one usually finds with entries about "atheism" and "atheists." Despite the fact that the "atheist" label seems to come with more negative baggage, explicitly negative uses of the "godless" label continue to be more common. This has not prevented many atheists from using the label, though, especially in names of various groups and organizations.

 

Godlessness in Modern America

Despite how negatively the term has been used through history, there are contexts in which it is coming to be used in a somewhat neutral manner. Sociologists and polling firms have in recent years discovered that religion and theism have been on the decline in the United States — long after the trend had taken hold in Europe. Because all of those people have no single, unifying ideology or belief system, there isn't an easy, obvious label to use to refer to them.

The most popular label has been to call them "nones," a reference to the fact that they check "none" when asked about their religion.

The label "irreligious" would be more accurate, but it's used much less often, perhaps because it isn't catchy enough. The label "godless" though has been catching on a bit, even though it isn't always appropriate. Many of those who say they have no religion haven't necessarily abandoned belief in any sort of god — just as one can be godless and religious at the same time, a person can be a theist and irreligious at the same time. Neither combination has been very common, at least historically, but they aren't self-contradictory like some seem to assume.

 

Related Terms

 

Synonyms for Godless

  • atheist
  • atheistic
  • nontheist
  • irreligious
  • ungodly

 

Examples

"Behold God's indignation on these Godless pourd."
- Milton, 1667

"Military men rushed thither to partake of all sorts of godless delights."
- Thackeray Four Georges, 1861

"For centuries the Romans were godless, full of the grossest thoughts, and void of natural affection. Cato starved his old servants; and Pompey was a monster of selfish ambition; Caesar of remorseless cruelty." - Sir Leslie Stephen, History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 1876

Hitler had told the German people that defeat of Franco's forces would mean victory for Bolshevism over Europe. As the National Socialist government exploited the civil war to gain support for their fight against Bolshevism, Galen encouraged Catholics to fight against the dangers posed by such a godless system.
- Beth A. Griech-Polelle, "The Impact of the Spanish Civil War upon Roman Catholic Clergy in Nazi Germany", in Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust