I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously.
- Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt
One of many 'isms', the word 'atheism' comes from the Greek atheos meaning 'without God'. While there are several definitions of atheism, a typical atheist is generally someone who has made a conscious decision that they do not believe in any form of god. However, they are still allowed to believe in aliens, soulmates, human kindness and so forth, and it should be noted that lacking belief in a supernatural being does not preclude such things as moral values or a full and happy life. While it is usually clear to atheists that they are normal people who just aren't religious, some parties tend to deliberately equate atheism with nihilism in order to devalue the atheistic way of life.
Great care should be exercised to avoid confusing atheism with terms such as agnosticism or antitheism.
Agnosticism comes from the Greek meaning 'without knowledge', and concludes, not unreasonably, that it is impossible to determine absolute truth. Agnostics thus suspend judgement regarding the possible existence of god(s) and tend to make no argument either for or against such beliefs. Agnosticism is thus a state of uncertainty rather than a form of atheism.
Antitheism is a state of active opposition to theism, and some antitheists even work to promote the removal of religion from legislature and public institutions. Not all atheists are antitheists!
Why be an Atheist?
The reasons for being an atheist are many, ranging from the lack of evidence that there is a god to the assertion that the existence of one would be either contradictory or downright silly. Being a 'strong' atheist allows a person to use their own set of morals and to look at the world in their own way, and it is up to them to use their conscience to decide what they should do with their life. However, atheism has its downsides in that you have no religious figure to turn to in times of need, but fortunately the near-equality of the modern world means that atheists are generally not discriminated against as they were centuries ago1.
Atheists think religions are a waste of time - some atheists are quite happy to coexist with those who are religious, though 'strong' atheists tend to find evangelism and attempts at proselytisation very irritating. Some consider the existence of religion a mixed blessing as it makes so many people happy but also provides pretexts for hatred which are exploited by a minority of believers2.
Atheists are offended by and want to rename or secularise religious festivals - most atheists do not find religious festivities the slightest bit offensive, and it is therefore best to ask their feelings instead of assuming they will be upset by greetings cards that read 'Merry Christmas'.
Atheists lack moral values - this is not necessarily true, as the morals of an atheist depend on who they are, just as the morals of those who observe monotheisms and polytheisms can vary greatly. Many atheists believe that no religious grounding is required to lead an ethical life3.
Atheism is responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity - while it is claimed by some that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot acted the way they did due to a lack of religious belief, it was in fact their extreme political dogma that led to these occurrences. Meanwhile, it should be pointed out that Hitler was not an atheist.
Atheists consider life to have no meaning or purpose - actually, some simply think we should be kind, happy and make the most of what we have4. Some also think it's '42'.
Atheists are just a small minority - actually, a BBC study in 2004 found that 15.5% of those living in the UK were atheists, coming third after the Protestants (47%) and the Roman Catholics (16%), and with agnostics making up 4% of the total. Around 8% of those living in the USA were atheists, and this was also found to be the average across all the countries included in the study. In total, 1.1 billion people worldwide do not believe in any god, and at least 220 million of that number are atheists.
There is no such thing as discriminating against atheists - in the UK, atheists now receive the same protection from discrimination as those who are religious.
Atheists feel a need to prove they are right - some do, some don't. However, the ones that do can often be the noisier ones.
Atheists will recoil at the sight or sound of god - some religious people do in fact believe this to be the case and may be surprised to hear that atheists do not melt upon contact with holy icons.
Atheists are afraid to die - this is very much a matter of each to his own, and also depends on the culture in which the atheist lives. An atheist is just as likely to give their life to save another as anyone else.
Atheists subscribe to the Big Bang and Darwin's theory of Evolution - they don't have to, though some atheists simply see these theories as being sensible and helpful in their understanding of who they are. However, few atheists rely solely upon these as validation of their decision to reject god, and most will eventually lose patience if forced to listen to in-depth arguments in favour of creationism.
Atheists deny the existence of god solely due to lack of evidence or scientific explanation - atheism is a personal choice in the same way as following a religion is, and isn't necessarily to do with a need for explanations.
Atheism is just an easy way out - this is true for some, but does not mean that all atheists are such because they cannot cope with the deeper questions in life. In fact, atheism can be more complicated as it removes the explanation that a god governs everything. The idea that atheists deny the existence of god in order to live easier, guilt-free lives is deemed by some to be very offensive.
Atheists are such only due to their ignorance and apathy, and therefore need teaching about religion - this is simply not the case, and it is unwise for evangelists to treat all non-believers as clean slates in need of filling.
The Bible claims that atheists know there is a god, so they must all be liars - the Bible is a religious text and is not considered to be factual by all. Atheists may even consider it to be imaginative mythology mixed with personal opinion, and so the above claim could well be met with a Paddington hard stare.
There are no atheists in foxholes - the claim that in times of stress, atheists will turn to religion is considered offensive by some atheists and is not supported by the stories told by various atheist military veterans.
Atheists will never find out if they were right - being right isn't always everything, and there is in fact an easy way to die as an atheist. Simply smile ironically as you die in the knowledge that you were right - if you've got it wrong, you'll have all the time you need to think about your mistake, but assuming that you're right you should make the most of the little time you have. Also, remember that you can either be happy that life has been good to you or, if it hasn't, then you can be glad it won't be bothering you for much longer.
Weak and Strong Atheism
As with those who follow classical theism, atheists are spread across a spectrum which marks how certain their feelings are. 'Strong' atheism positively affirms the non-existence of any form of god or gods, and is generally regarded as 'genuine' atheism. On the other hand, 'weak' atheists do not believe in a god, but do not go as far as positively affirming the non-existence of any form of god or gods. Some weak atheists are such only due to the implicit nature of not having learnt of the matter, making them atheists only implicitly. Others occupy the 'weak' category due to apathy. Agnostics who do not believe in a god can also be said to be weak atheists, and weak atheists who are such due to uncertainty can be labelled agnostics. Thus it is only the so-called 'strong' atheists that formally assert an absolute disbelief in god.
Subgroups of Atheism
While not all atheists consider themselves as occupying a particular subgroup, there are several different types of atheist with varying opinions. Some common examples are:
Humanism - humanism encourages a view of the world based only on what is really there, along with a positive outlook on life in which humans can gain and share knowledge and moral values without the help of a supernatural being. Though humanism does not require atheism as a basis, its views do not conflict with it either.
Naturalism - naturalists such as the Brights consciously reject the idea of the supernatural and the mystical, preferring instead to base life upon a 'naturalistic worldview'. Though naturalism does not require atheism as a basis, its views do not conflict with it either.
Secularism - secularism demands the separation of the state and the church such that countries do not have an institutional religion. This is due to the view that it is unfair for the religious to receive privileges, for atheists to be forced to take religious oaths in public sector jobs, and that blasphemy should not be criminalised. They also encourage the teaching to school children of all religions equally and as being equal. Note that being a secularist doesn't make someone an atheist - it's just that some atheists are secularists. In fact, an enforcement of atheism by the state would go against the ideals of secularism.
Rationalism - the scientific approach to atheism, rationalism encourages acceptance of facts based on reason and evidence. Rationalists believe in equality and an open society in which beliefs may be held without prejudice.
Postmodernism - this approach states that all religions are derived from human interactions and social groupings, with the effects of religion being due to the underlying motives of the people involved.
There are also some religions which allow individuals to choose their beliefs, hence allowing room for atheism:
Atheist Buddhism - always one to confuse the definitions of theism and atheism, Buddhism actually teaches the path to enlightenment and does not endorse any god or claim to be in some way divine. It is therefore possible for a Buddhist to decide that no god exists and that there is no such thing as reincarnation or the afterlife.
Unitarian Universalism - created in opposition to Christian doctrines, this religious movement presents a grey area in that it does not represent atheism, but instead allows for beliefs of all kinds. They do however hold moral values and ethical living quite highly.
Some misnomers also exist, such as 'Christian Atheism', which refers to Christians who chose not to indulge in Christian mythology but still believe in their god. Meanwhile, Humanistic Judaism is closer to agnosticism in that followers do not accept any evidence of the presence or lack of a god.
Naturally, many scientists over the years have been atheists, including Francis Crick and James Watson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and Steven Weinberg. However, famous atheists have come from all walks of life, ranging from businessmen and politicians to authors and musicians. Atheist authors include Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Phillip Pullman and Isaac Asimov, while non-believers also include Pink Floyd singer David Gilmour, musician Billy Joel, screenwriter Joss Whedon, actor Sir Ian McKellen, comedian Woody Allen and Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel. Finally, a mention should be made of the atheist philosophers, which include Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre.
You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't and that's just how that works.
- Joss Whedon
When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.
- Emo Phillips
No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.
- George HW Bush
When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, 'Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don't believe?'
- Quentin Crisp
And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt His existence.
- Bertrand Russell
Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?
- Douglas Adams
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins6 explores arguments against religion and looks at how atheists can lead happy and fulfilling lives. Although Dawkins is highly critical of religion, he makes some interesting points such as his belief that children should not be labelled by their parents' religion. Meanwhile, 'The Evolution of Cooperation' by Robert Axelrod7 looks at how those with selfish aims may in fact end up cooperating without any guiding force, and 'The Origin of Virtue' by Matt Ridley8 explores the ways in which biology can explain morality and altruism, thus negating the need for a god to impose moral values. The latter two books both make use of game theory, with variations of the Prisoner's Dilemma featuring.
When I was a small child, I once told my friend's Sunday school teacher that I was an atheist. She called me a Godless Heathen. I liked it so much that Godless Heathen has been my answer to all questions regarding my religion ever since.
- An h2g2 Researcher