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Atheist vs. Heathen: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on November 2, 2023
An atheist does not believe in any gods, while a heathen is someone who does not follow a major or accepted religion, often used pejoratively.

Key Differences

Atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Atheists are people who do not subscribe to any form of theism or belief in gods. A heathen historically referred to someone from a non-Christian culture or religion, especially a pagan, and often carried a connotation of being uncivilized or irreligious according to monotheistic religions.
An atheist's stance is typically based on a lack of evidence for deities or a philosophical position regarding theistic claims. It is a specific position on belief that is independent of cultural background. On the other hand, heathen is a broader term that has been used to label people as outsiders to the dominant religious culture, especially in a historical context, and it is not necessarily tied to the individual's beliefs about gods.
The term atheist does not imply any particular moral framework or religious practice and is solely a descriptor of belief about deities. In contrast, the term heathen has often been used to suggest moral or cultural inferiority, stemming from religious ethnocentrism, and can be seen as derogatory.
Atheism is a clear and defined concept in religious discourse, subject to philosophical debate and discussion. Conversely, the definition of heathen has changed over time and has been used variably as a cultural, religious, or moral judgment, rather than a strict categorization of belief.
While atheism is a globally relevant concept, applicable to modern religious discussion, the term heathen is less common in contemporary discourse, often replaced by terms like "pagan" or "non-religious" when referring to religious identity without the historical baggage of judgment or otherness.

Comparison Chart


Disbelief in any deities
Non-adherence to a dominant religion


Neutral, descriptive
Historically pejorative, othering

Based on

Personal belief or lack thereof
Cultural or religious background


Modern, applicable globally
Less common, historically bound


Specific to belief in gods
Broader, often including culture and practice

Atheist and Heathen Definitions


An individual without a theistic religious faith.
He was the only atheist in his religious family.


An individual who does not acknowledge the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
The term 'heathen' was commonly used during the religious wars.


Someone who lacks belief in the supernatural.
Being an atheist, she did not pray.


A person regarded as lacking culture or moral principles.
In ancient times, conquerors often labeled the conquered as heathens.


A person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being.
As an atheist, he sought evidence-based explanations for the universe.


Someone from a people not subscribing to the major world religions.
The villagers were considered heathens by the missionaries.


One who is skeptical about spirituality and deities.
The atheist community often gathers to discuss secularism and science.


An uncivilized or irreligious person as perceived by those with religious beliefs.
Heathen practices were often misunderstood by the religious elite.


A person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods.
The atheist debated the theist on the existence of a divine being.


A historically used term for a non-Christian or a pagan.
Norse pagans were called heathens by Christian Europeans.


Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.


An adherent of a religion that does not worship the God of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.


(religion) A person who does not believe in deities.


Such persons considered as a group.


Can someone be both an atheist and a heathen?

By definition, yes, if they do not believe in gods and are outside the major religions.

Do atheists have moral values?

Yes, atheists have morals that can come from many sources, not necessarily religion.

Is atheism a religion?

No, atheism is the lack of belief in deities, not a religious system.

Do heathens have their own religious practices?

Historically, yes, heathens could have various indigenous or pagan practices.

Is "heathen" an offensive term?

It can be, depending on context and intent, as it has historically been used derogatorily.

Can an atheist be spiritual?

Yes, atheists can experience awe and wonder about the universe without belief in deities.

Can an atheist celebrate religious holidays?

Yes, atheists can celebrate holidays for cultural or family reasons.

Is it possible to convert to atheism?

Atheism is not a belief system to convert to; it's a personal realization or conclusion.

Are all heathens atheists?

No, heathens may believe in gods or spiritual practices not recognized by major religions.

Are there different types of atheists?

Yes, including strong atheists (deny gods' existence) and weak atheists (lack belief in gods).

How do atheists explain the origin of the universe?

Many atheists look to scientific explanations like the Big Bang theory.

Can heathens belong to organized religions?

Historically, heathens would not belong to what were considered organized religions of the time.

What is a modern alternative to "heathen"?

"Pagan" or "non-religious" are terms often used in a more neutral sense.

Are atheism and secularism the same?

No, secularism is the separation of religion from civic affairs and government.

How do heathens view modern religions?

This varies widely depending on the individual's cultural and personal beliefs.

Was "heathen" always a pejorative term?

Often, but not always, it has been used descriptively in some anthropological contexts.

Do atheists celebrate life events like births and marriages?

Yes, atheists celebrate such events in secular or non-religious ways.

Can the term "heathen" be reclaimed or redefined?

Some modern pagans have reclaimed "heathen" as a positive identifier for their beliefs.

Is atheism based on science?

Atheism is a position on belief that often, but not always, aligns with a scientific worldview.

Are atheists against religion?

Not necessarily; atheism is simply non-belief in gods, not an anti-religion stance.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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