|EBON MUSINGS: THE ATHEISM PAGES||INTRODUCTION|
I am an atheist.
And no, I don't kick puppies or steal candy from babies. I don't hate God, but I don't have any secret desire to worship him either. Nor do I worship Satan. I'm not angry or depressed; I'm quite happy as I am, actually. In fact, I'm a person just like you. You probably wouldn't recognize me if you passed me on the street.
But I am indeed an atheist. What this means, quite simply, is that I don't believe in any gods. Not Jesus, not Yahweh, not Allah, not Vishnu, not Odin, not Zeus, not Gaea, not Quetzalcoatl, not Marduk, not Ahura Mazda, nor any other of the thousands and thousands of deities humanity has invented throughout its history. I don't single out any of them - I treat them all the same, and lack belief in each one equally. As far as I'm concerned, they're all imaginary - mere products of the human imagination and nothing more.
In this respect, I'm probably not that different from you. After all, most theists reject all but one of the many gods humans have invented. I just reject one more god than most people do.
I'm not an atheist because I hate God. To hate God I would first have to believe in him, and then I wouldn't be an atheist anymore. Nor am I an atheist because I hate my father or any other authority figure; I don't. I'm also not an atheist because I had a bad experience with the church, or because I want to live a hedonistic life free of moral restriction, or because I'm too proud to acknowledge the possibility of something bigger than me. None of these things are true. Simply put, the reason I am an atheist, and the reason most people are atheists, is the complete lack of convincing, credible evidence for the claims of any religion. This is not the only reason not to believe, however. Some people have become atheists after seeing the terrible harm caused by religion, the malice, cruelty and suffering inflicted in God's name. Others have deconverted after coming to the realization that a loving god would not allow pain and suffering. Still others may simply have been raised without religion; after all, atheism is our default state. No one is born believing in gods - we have to be taught that. (For a more comprehensive list of reasons not to believe, see "The Necessity of Atheism"; for more on why evil is incompatible with the existence of a loving god, see "All Possible Worlds".)
Atheism is a much more consistent and unified position than the swamp of squabbling sects that is theism. However, it does come in various flavors. Some atheists prefer to call themselves freethinkers or humanists; the former term emphasizes free, unrestricted thought and the forming of opinions based on evidence and reason rather than tradition and authority, while the latter advocates the essential liberty, dignity and freedom of humanity and the need to take responsibility for one's own life. Other descriptive terms include rationalist, empiricist, naturalist, secularist, skeptic, and so on. Another term was coined by the originators of the "Brights" movement, who proposed this word as a positive and optimistic description of those who hold a naturalistic worldview. Yet another subgroup of atheism is the agnostics, who hold that the answer to the question of God's existence is unknown and perhaps unknowable. There is considerable overlap between these groups, of course. For example, I consider myself both a freethinker and a humanist, and I sympathize with the goal of the Brights movement, but I generally call myself an atheist.
In addition, there are two subgroups of atheism itself. There are the weak atheists, who state that they do not believe in gods, while strong atheists go further by asserting that gods do not exist. The difference is subtle but important. Most atheists are weak, some (a few) are strong, while others may be weak atheists in general but strong with respect to certain gods (such as those whose attributes are defined such as to make their very existence self-contradictory and thus impossible). I personally consider myself a weak atheist, though this should not be taken to imply that I am uncertain about my position. It is merely that I recognize that a supernatural being that did not want to provide evidence of its existence could never be ruled out. On the other hand, there is no evidence for such beings either, and I believe only in propositions for which there is a reasonable quality of evidence.
The only ironclad requirement for atheism is a lack of belief in gods. Almost invariably, however, atheists lack belief in supernatural phenomena in general, including psychic powers, angels and demons, or a soul that survives the physical death of the body. Like gods, we hold these things to be superstitious fantasies, invented by primitive groups of people for a variety of reasons and still in existence today mainly because of human credulity and their potential to allow a privileged few to make money from or rule over and oppress others. Other than a lack of god-belief, however, there are no requirements for being an atheist. Atheism has no dogmas - it does not impose a moral code, set rules of behavior or demand obedience to a central authority, and individual atheists are free to form their own opinions on whatever topics they choose. There are atheists from all walks of life, atheists of all ages, genders and ethnic backgrounds. Some atheists are liberal, some are conservative; some are pro-choice, some are pro-life; some support communism, others support socialism, and others support capitalist republican democracy.
In short, atheists are ordinary people, just like everyone else. We hold jobs, pay taxes, raise families, and do all the other things that normal people do. We don't ask for much, either. I fully respect the right of people to hold and practice whatever beliefs they want, as long as they don't attempt to force those beliefs on me or use them as justification to cause harm to others. What that means is strong separation of church and state: no teaching of religious myths in public school science classes, no religious commandments posted in public school classrooms or courthouses, no taxpayer money going to fund churches, no state-supported prayers, and no religious litmus test of any sort for any public position; in short, no government preference of one religion over any other or religion in general over non-religion. We also ask for the freedom of speech to disseminate information about our position free of censorship, freedom of conscience to think and believe as we feel best, and the freedom to pursue happiness in whatever form we find it so long as doing so does not interfere with the equal rights of others to do the same. I feel that these rights are nothing more than what we should expect from a modern, enlightened democratic society.
Unfortunately, some people persist in spreading misinformation about what it really means to be an atheist. Listed below are a few of the most commonly heard myths about atheism, along with their refutations.
Myth: Atheism is a religion.
Fact: Atheism fails every ordinary qualification for being a religion - it has no prayers or rituals, no prophets or holy books, no priests or ministers, no churches or temples, and no belief in gods, the soul, the afterlife, or any other supernatural manifestations of any sort. Most importantly, atheism requires no faith in any unevidenced entities. It has been wryly observed that atheists will be glad to admit that atheism is a religion just as soon as they get the tax breaks afforded to churches.
Myth: It requires omniscience to be an atheist, because only a person who knew every fact about the universe could know that God does not exist.
Fact: As explained above, weak atheists do not claim to know absolutely that there is no god. Instead, they claim that God is unproven, and so they choose to withhold belief until and unless evidence for God's existence can be provided. In much the same way, few theists would say they believe by faith that no unicorns exist - instead, they simply choose to withhold belief in unicorns until they see evidence for the existence of such creatures. Strong atheists, who do affirm the non-existence of certain gods, typically do so out of logic and reason: if a deity is defined with self-contradictory or impossible attributes, then we can know absolutely that that deity does not exist, just as we know absolutely that square circles or married bachelors do not exist without needing to conduct a search of the entire universe. For example, a strong atheist might reason that if God is all-powerful and all-loving, there would be no evil or suffering, but since there clearly are, such a being cannot possibly exist.
Myth: Atheists hate God or are angry at God.
Fact: This is impossible by the very definition of atheism. To hate God, it would be necessary to first believe in him, but an atheist is by definition one who does not believe. Anyone who hated God would not be an atheist, but a theist. However, some people do become atheists after suffering personal tragedies - not because they "hate God", but because their experience brings them to the realization that the existence of pain, evil and suffering is impossible to reconcile with belief in a loving god.
Myth: Atheists know God exists but choose not to follow him.
Fact: This statement is entirely untrue, a myth propagated by theists who are either so thoroughly indoctrinated they cannot even conceive of someone believing differently from them, or of such weak faith that the very idea of people who have a different opinion is threatening to them. The fact is that atheists simply do not see any good evidence for the existence of a god. Many atheists, in fact, are former theists who were raised religious or converted and tried unsuccessfully to experience some sense of God's presence before finally realizing that there was nothing to be experienced. See the deconversion stories section for testimonials.
Myth: Atheists worship Satan.
Fact: Atheists consider Satan just as fictitious as God. Satan worshippers would not be atheists, but theists. However, there are some atheists (such as myself) who consider Satan symbolic of the things dogmatic religion opposes - free thought, intelligence and rational skepticism, personified as an avatar of evil by religions which seek to stifle doubt and questioning through fear. In the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretation of the Genesis story, for example, God is the one who seeks to keep Adam and Eve ignorant, while Satan urges them to gain knowledge, think for themselves, and question even God if his ways do not make sense to them. See the review of Paradise Lost, as well as the article "Thoughts in Captivity", for more on this topic.
Myth: The existence of atheism itself proves there is a god. Atheists say they don't believe in God, but then why do they spend so much time and effort denying him? If they really were atheists, it wouldn't even be an issue for them.
Fact: Atheists who do argue against religion do so because of the undeniable and very real harm that god-belief has caused and is continuing to cause, and because they must defend their rights against theistic encroachment. To cite one example, in America many Christian groups are attempting to legislate the posting of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public school classrooms, in blatant violation of the principle of separation of church and state. Creationists, if they had their way, would do severe injury to real science by having their pseudoscientific religious beliefs presented alongside the well-tested and solidly supported theory of evolution as if the two were equally valid. And this is not even to address the countless lives lost, wars waged, acts of terrorism committed, rights denied, people oppressed, and pains and tortures inflicted throughout human history in the name of God. Atheists believe that showing humanity the folly of theism is a valuable task if we are ever going to put an end to ignorance and suffering and make the fullest use of the potential we possess.
Myth: Atheists are immoral or have no basis for morality.
Fact: See "The Ineffable Carrot and the Infinite Stick", which lays out the basis for atheist morality and critically examines the simplistic theist conception of reward and punishment.
Myth: Argument X proves that there is a God.
Fact: See "Unmoved Mover" for rebuttals to the most common pro-theistic arguments, including the ontological, cosmological and teleological arguments; see also "A Flip of the Coin" for a response to Pascal's Wager.
Myth: Atheists have no purpose in life.
Fact: Atheists believe that it is the right of every human to set his or her own goals and direction; our purpose is whatever we wish it to be. Atheists hold that we are uplifted, not diminished, by the freedom to fearlessly seek our own destiny and reason for being. See "Life of Wonder" for further rebuttals to these and other claims about the alleged nihilism of atheism.
Myth: There are no atheists in foxholes.
Fact: See the "Atheists in Foxholes" section of the main index for testimonials from atheists and non-believers who served in the military or were otherwise placed in dangerous or life-threatening situations without crying out to a god to save them.
Myth: Atheists are members of a secretive evil conspiracy whose objective is world domination.
Fact: Well, okay, that one's true. But don't tell anyone.