Gavin Hyman explains in his 2007 contribution to Martin’s Cambdride Companion to Atheism as well as in his 2010 A Short History of Atheism that atheism is always the refusal of a given form of theism. In particular, in European history, atheism is the refusal of theism as conceived in modern times, with God as one “thing” among others. This claim might raise the eyebrows of readers of Julian Baggini, who in his 2003 Atheism. A very short introduction maintained that atheism is independent of theism, since it is tantamount to naturalism. The two claims are, however, less far than it might look like.
Modern atheism as naturalism refutes God because it considers him as a natural cause and shows (or believes to show) that there is no need to accept his existence, since the other natural causes are more than enough to explain the world.
By contrast, Hyman explains that the transcendental God of negative theology or of analogical theology* could not be attacked by atheism-as-naturalism. In short, Richard Swinburne’s God can be attacked by atheism-as-naturalism, whereas this would have much less to say against the God of Meister Eckhart (the example is mine).
The other important move of Hyman is that he discusses the origins of the concept of God which could be attacked by atheism. The shift from analogical theology to God as a thing among many is not the result of the external pressure of secularism. Rather, it is due to a development internal to theology. Hyman especially discusses in this connection the role of Duns Scotus and his attribution of “being” to God in the same sense in which it is attributed to the world.
Now, for scholars of Indian philosophy the parallels with the Indian scenario are hard to avoid. First of all, atheism in India is mostly targeted at two concepts of god, on the one hand the gods (devatā) of mythology and on the other the Lord (īśvara) of rational theology. The first kind of refusal is historically the most ancient one, but it is the second one that comes conceptually closer to European atheism. This second atheism would not be conceivable without the prior elaboration of rational theology, mostly within the Nyāya school, thus indirectly confirming Hyman’s hypothesis.
Later, Indian theology of the second millennium sees the arisal of a post-atheism theism. Authors like Veṅkaṭanātha (13–14th c.) developed a form of theism after the attacks of atheism. They did it by means of two kinds of arguments. On the one hand, they embedded the Lord of rational theology, but “blew him up” in the direction of pantheism, in a way which might remind one of Thomas More’s approach as described by Hyman. On the other, they incorporated the mysticism of the Āḻvārs and moved in the direction of a personal relation to God, thus moving away from an understanding of God as a “thing” towards a God as “Thou”.
*I am using the abbreviated formulation “analogical theology” to refer to the Aquinas’ insistence that all theological understanding is necessarily only analogical.
(cross-posted, with minor variations, on my personal blog, here).