Basics


What do atheists believe?
How do you know there isn’t a god?
How can you tell right from wrong without a god?
Isn’t atheism just another religion?
What do you think will happen when you die?
Aren’t you afraid you’ll go to hell? Doesn’t it make more sense to believe, just in case?
Atheists are “arrogant”, “too militant”, “just as bad as the fundamentalists”, etc.
What’s so bad about religion?
Can theists and atheists co-exist?
I will pray for you.

What is atheism?

We are defining atheism here as disbelief of claims for the existence of supernatural forces, beings or concepts, such as gods, spirits, the soul, the afterlife, karma, heaven, or hell. Depending on emphasis or personal preference, atheists also call themselves agnostics, non-theists, skeptics, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, or brights.
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What do atheists believe?

Most of the terms used above actually refer to specific aspects of the beliefs and positions of non-believers generally. Atheism is a philosophical position denoting disbelief in the existence of gods or the supernatural. Humanism is an ethical philosophy concerned with the problems of being good without gods or supernatural revelations. Secularism is the position that matters of religion and belief are personal and private and should be kept separate from public affairs such as politics and government. Skepticism is the position that claims, say for the efficacy of homeopathic medicine or for the existence of gods, need to be tested before they are accepted. Most atheists accept all these positions.

More generally, atheists believe in the use of evidence-based reasoning to determine issues of right and wrong, meaning and purpose.
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How do you know there isn’t a god?

Atheism is a position regarding belief, not a claim of knowledge. Most atheists don’t make the claim that they know or can prove that gods do not exist (though some do; this position is called “strong” atheism), nor do they need to. A theist is someone who accepts or believes the claim “this particular god exists” and an atheist is someone who rejects or disbelieves the claim. Most theists accept one such claim and reject other claims: for instance, a theist may accept the monotheistic god worshiped in Christianity, Judaism and Islam while rejecting Thor, Krishna, or Apollo. That is, he is a theist with regard to the Abrahamic god but an atheist with regard to gods from other cultural traditions.  Rarely, if ever, are such theists challenged as to how they know such gods do not exist.

Most atheists base their disbelief on the lack of evidence for the existence of gods, insisting that the burden of proof lies on religion to provide such evidence, since it is religion that is proposing the existence of a god in the first place. To be satisfactory, this evidence must be this evidence must be publicly and independently verifiable. A religious text such as the Bible does not constitute evidence, nor do personal subjective experiences. A religious person may “feel in his heart” that the divine exists, but this cannot be examined, verified or duplicated. Confronted with the absence of evidence for the existence of a god or gods, the atheist responds with a reasonable and prudent attitude of skepticism to the claim, “This god exists.”

Atheists do not need absolute certainty for disbelieving in the existence of gods, since many rationally justifiable beliefs do not require absolute certainty. We do not know that the sun will come up tomorrow or that the brakes will work on our car next time we drive it, but we have sufficient experience and knowledge to assume that they will. And even if we were to concede for the sake of argument that evidence for the existence of a god may be found at some point in the future, it is by no means certain that such evidence will point to a god that matches any found in any religion known to us.
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How can you tell right from wrong without a god?

head-28741By using your head! By considering the consequences of your actions, by considering the needs, responses and interests of others as well as yourself, and by acting towards others in a way you would have others act towards you (called the ethic of reciprocity, or sometimes, the “Golden Rule”).

Theists often insist that a sense of right and wrong only began when a supernatural being came down and laid down a set of rules for personal conduct, as well as a system of rewards and penalties, and say that anyone who does not rely on a higher power can only rely on his or her own arbitrary personal opinions and whims. Laws, goes this line of thinking, necessarily imply a law-giver, one detached enough to determine right and wrong objectively. But this brings up a problem: if this law-giver makes those rules up “out of the blue”, those rules are necessarily the opinions of the law-giver, and are just as necessarily arbitrary and whimsical. Who is the law-giver of the law-giver’s laws? Does that law-giver have another law-giver of his own, one to which he must refer to determine right and wrong? And does that law-giver have yet another law-giver of his own? And so on indefinitely.

And there’s another problem. Humans throughout history have worshiped a lot of different gods, and yet there is more commonality than difference when you consider their day-to-day practical dealings with others. Humans, whatever the specifics of their religious, spiritual, or theological convictions, condemn violence, theft, and deception, for instance, and praise kindness, generosity, and compassion. The standards for moral behavior tend to be the same more than they are different, yet theists tend to insist that their god is right and the others are wrong, which suggests that those standards come from somewhere other than a specific god or gods, and also from somewhere other than a lawgiver outside of humanity. So where does morality come from?

If we look at the animal world, we see simpler, more rudimentary forms of the same behavior that we also see in ourselves: animals caring for their young until mature enough to fend for themselves, animals forming groups (packs, flocks, troops) temporarily or permanently for mutual aid and protection. They bond, form relationships, and when you get to our closest animal relatives, the primates, the parallels to human societies get downright scary: they share food, comfort each other in distress, groom each other, play together, grieve when a member of the group dies, and get together to defend the group in times of danger. The survival strategies of nurture and cooperation which allow these animals to survive and hand on their evolutionary benefits to the next generation compound over time to form even more close and complex social relationships: the origins of human morality.

When human communities place sanctions against behavior like violence, theft, and deception, we see a continuation of those survival strategies that began with nursing young and hunting in packs. Such anti-social behaviors directly threaten trust and cooperation within the group, without which the group would have a much less likely chance of survival. Such rules don’t gain any further validity if one says that a god decrees them: secular grounds alone suffice for their justification. The same cannot be said concerning rules about decorum, private behavior, ritual or devotion. Such rules as keeping the Sabbath, abstaining from forms of consensual sexual activity deemed sinful by religious law, obedience to god or to religious authority, etc., are not necessary to trust and cooperation among members of a community and are only justifiable on religious grounds.

For theists, the source of morality must come from outside humanity and must maintain an absolute standard; otherwise right and wrong cannot be reliably judged. For secular moralists, the opposite is true. Morality arises from human needs and desires, and from human circumstances and relationships. Since, as we said, humans tend to condemn certain actions and value others regardless of their religious beliefs, we have, if not an absolute standard for judging right and wrong, than at least a reliable one. We know, for instance, that if our actions have prevented suffering that is preventable, or resolved a situation to the satisfaction of all parties involved, then we’re on the right track.

And we might mention here that even most theists understand that certain injunctions cannot be followed strictly, but must be compromised with human needs and contingencies. Even theists who are strict about the Biblical injunction not to work or to cause work to be done on the Sabbath would not take it so far as to expect police, fire, or ambulance services to cease during that period.

Linking right and wrong to religious dogma results in two conundrums: if it is agreed that God condemns murder because it is wrong, that is a tacit admission that morals can be developed outside of religion by means of reasoning. But if murder is wrong because God condemns it, then the only moral principle is obedience to God, and any behavior can be justified, provided one believes that God wills it, has planned it, or will be pleased by it (beliefs like this are responsible for any number of atrocities, from the Crusades to witch hunts to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks). The second conundrum concerns a person who believes that a god and religion is necessary for us to be good. If we ask him whether he would steal, kill or perform other immoral acts in the absence of a god and he answers “yes,” he reveals himself to be an immoral person, and possibly a dangerous one as well. If he answers “no,” that is, in the absence of a god he would continue to be moral, then he undermines his own argument that a god and religion is necessary for us to be good.

None of this means that I can simply follow the rules I agree with and ignore the rest, nor does it mean that “all humans are good” or that I can always trust people. I am part of a society, and if I am to function at all within that society, then there are rules I need to follow. And humans are neither intrinsically good or bad, they’re… human.  Some humans’ circumstances are different than others, and this affects how people address their individual needs, desires, and problems. Many people, for whatever reasons, are not as inclined to consider the needs of others as being as important as their own, or to consider the consequences of their actions. The issue is whether such ways of thinking are workable and beneficial to oneself and others.

By way of concluding, here’s Fred Edwords, former executive director of the American Humanist Association, from his 1985 article on “The Human Basis of Laws and Ethics”:

When we realize that right and wrong cannot exist without beings with needs, and that human beings have proven themselves capable of devising and then abiding by their own rules, then there is no longer any way to deny that the pursuit of human interest, for the individual and for society, for the short and for the long run, is the broad goal of laws and ethics. Further, this does not really need an explanation or justification, except to those who have lost sight of the actual basis for their own values. That is, no one needs to be asked why he or she pursues his or her own interests, and no planet of people needs to be asked why it seeks to pursue common goals. Only when people try to depart from this most automatic of pursuits, only when someone posits a law higher than what is good for humanity, need any questions be raised — for it is only THEN that an explanation or justification of a moral base is necessary.

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Isn’t atheism just another religion?

No. Atheism simply means disbelief in the existence of gods and implies no set of beliefs, nor any system of personal or insitutionalized worship. To put it in perspective, theism, or the belief in a god or gods, isn’t a religion either. Both positions are simply philosophical or theological points of view, not religions.

Most atheists are also humanists. Humanism is defined as the belief that humans can be good without gods, by using reason, not revelation, to determine morals and values.    Humanism isn’t a religion either, but an ethical philosophy.

There are two main reasons that theists tend to characterize atheism as a religion: one being simply a tendency to see everything in the light of their own paradigms: they imagine religion as something so inseparable from human existence that everyone must be religious in one way or another. One sometimes hears the more extreme Christian apologists refer to science and evolution as religions as well. As a result, theists are are often surprised to hear that many American atheists celebrate Christmas, and fail to comprehend how it’s not necessarily a violation of an atheist’s principles to do so. But there is no “law” in atheism or humanism demanding that atheists not celebrate a religious holiday, particularly one with so many secular aspects to it—gathering of friends and family, the exchange of gifts, the music, etc. And many atheists do enjoy Christmas, for those reasons.

The other reason that atheism gets characterized as a religion by theists is mainly as a political argument: in response to efforts to maintain the wall of separation between church and state, many conservative Christians accuse secularists of attempting to persecute Christians and to establish atheism as an official “religion.” This is an example of projection, since most of the conservative Christians who make this argument frequently also make arguments for the introduction of laws intended to enforce specifically religious values in civil government.
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What do you think happens when you die?

silhouette-68957Nothing. You simply stop existing, or rather, your consciousness stops existing. Everything that you call “you” is simply the sum of the processes of your own brain. When that stops, your consciousness stops.
This is often disturbing or scary for people to contemplate. It is difficult to imagine non-existence, but it is a reality that we are matter and energy, matter and energy that over billions of years has organized itself into a configuration that can be aware of itself. It may be helpful to consider this question: “What happened before you were born?” Were you aware? Were you conscious? No. You were not aware or conscious, and after death, you return to that state of unawareness. The processes that resulted in consciousness cease, and what is left is the materials of which you are made.

This was expressed very well by the classical philosopher Epicurus, who said in his Principal Doctrines, “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us.” We also find this bit of wisdom in his Letter to Menoeceus: “The wise person does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil. And even as people choose of food not merely and simply the larger portion, but the more pleasant, so the wise seek to enjoy the time which is most pleasant and not merely that which is longest” (both texts can be found here).

No one wants to die, which is usually why people embrace religion, because it promises eternal life to us and to those we love. Being aware that we have only this life, atheists believe that it is important that we enjoy life to the full and to help others to enjoy it too, that we understand the reality of what is before us and appreciate it, that we love and cherish our fellow creatures and try to make this one life meaningful—ours and theirs, and that we leave the world a better place than we found it.
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Aren’t you afraid you will go to hell? Doesn’t it make more sense to believe, just in case?

No, atheists are not afraid of hell. Just as there is no evidence of the existence of a god, there is also no evidence to support the idea that individual consciousness will continue to exist after death, nor the idea that places exist to eternally reward or punish people after death.

Blaise_Pascal_2

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

The second question is essentially an argument called Pascal’s Wager, advanced by the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal, who dealt with the issues of belief and non-belief, and the possible consequences thereof in the form of a wager, which goes something like this: If you believe and God exists, you will go to heaven and win the wager; while if he doesn’t exist, you lose nothing. If you disbelieve and God exists, you’ll lose the wager and go to hell, and if he doesn’t, then you, again, lose nothing.

Pascal is saying that if you believe, the odds are in your favor, whether God exists or not, but there are problems with this argument. First, the argument doesn’t tell us which is the correct god to believe in. Second, the wager calls for more than just a simple admission of belief, but also for a commitment to a whole system of theology and worship, and standards of behavior to go with it.

Also, it’s important to realize that creating fears of eternal divine punishment after death is, in its essence, an immoral act, an exploitative means of compelling obedience to authority, particularly when such fears are instilled in children at an age when they are least inclined to question adults and are least able to judge ideas against their own knowledge and life experience.
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Atheists are “arrogant”, “too militant”, “as bad as the fundamentalists”, etc.

megaphone-50092These and similar statements are ad-hominem characterizations meant to malign one’s opponent and prejudice people against atheism and atheists by criticizing their tone or style. They don’t work as valid arguments against non-belief or for belief. They are simply meant to foster a negative emotional response against people who openly and publicly argue for non-belief.

The imputing of arrogance to atheists can mean a number of things, such as: “Atheists think they are smarter than Christians”, or “Atheists think they know everything”, or “Atheists can’t understand the simplicity and humility of people who place their faith in God.” Again, these are simply labels that are stuck on atheists to make them seem less pleasant and to make people put less credence in their statements, but they also refer to a whole history of anti-intellectualism in Christianity and in American culture that continues today in such things as opposition to evolutionary science.

The other statements mentioned above are both attempts to make atheism seem like an extreme position and to make atheists seem like fanatics. In fact, there is nothing extreme about being skeptical of claims for which there is no good evidence. If the claim were for anything other than the existence of a god, no one would consider such a position anything but prudent and reasonable. Some synonyms for the word militant include aggressive, warlike, fighting (the word comes from the Latin root militare, meaning to serve as a soldier), and while there are numerous historical instances of Christians, Jews and Muslims taking up arms and fighting for their religion, there are relatively few or no instances of atheists taking up arms for atheism: atheists do not attempt to promote their views by force. The comparison with fundamentalists works something like the phrase “extremists of the left and right”: by setting up two extremes, the comparison tries to define a sympathetic “middle” position which here, always implies some form of belief.

There are many other such statements: “Atheists are too angry”, “Atheists believe in nothing”, “Atheists just want to sin” and so on.  Like the above, none of them are substantive criticisms of atheism, but are simply remarks that show ignorance of atheist arguments and a desire to show atheists and atheism in an unfavorable light.

At the heart of such characterizations lies the idea that there is something inappropriate about openly making criticisms of religion. “If only atheists weren’t so strident in their arguments,” theists seem to be saying, “maybe their views would be taken more seriously.” But criticizing the tone or style of atheists only means that theists are picking and choosing who they will take seriously as opponents based on their level of deference to the privilege assumed by religion in any discussion. If atheists are not satisfactorily polite or deferential to religious believers, then the believers tend to take their ball and go home.

In recent years secular groups all over the country have taken out advertising on billboards and city buses in order to raise the visibility of secular Americans. None of these ads attack believers, none of them use provocative language, and the overwhelming majority of them are addressed, not to believers, but to non-believers who are still “in the closet” and haven’t come out to their family, friends and communities. Usually, the messages are very soft indeed: “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone”, or “Millions of Americans are good without gods”. One bus ad simply showed the word “Atheists” along with a website address. Almost uniformly across the board, these ads draw criticisms of being “offensive” regardless of the softness of the message, and are often the targets of vandalism, which says something about the real importance of the tone and style of atheists. It is not the tone or style of atheists that really counts, but the fact that public statements made by atheists are tolerated at all.

This is why I don’t buckle to the pressure to “dissociate” myself with any particular atheist just because of the way they prefer to express their views. Depending on the audience, the point made, and the purpose of making the point, whether it be a patient explanation of an idea or just “venting spleen”, atheists may use neutral, precise, extra friendly language, or they may use ridicule, satire, or sarcasm. The tone or style that any atheist uses is his or her unique prerogative, and the point made stands or falls on its own merits just as it does with anyone else; and speech that is not libelous or an incitement to riot or violence does no harm to anyone.
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What’s so bad about religion?

September_11_2001_just_collapsed

After the collapse of the WTC towers, Sept. 11, 2001

It’s often asked of atheists: “Why spend so much time and energy opposing something that gives so many people meaning and happiness? Why do you care what other people believe? Why not just live and let live?”

All fair questions. Certainly, there are many religious people who are rational, decent, and tolerant and who can live alongside people with whom they disagree. Nevertheless, criticism of religious belief and religious faith remains valid and important.

It would be very well to say “religion is at bottom a benign force for good,” and let it go at that, to say that it’s not fair to lay abuses of religion at the door of religion itself, instead of blaming fanatics and extremists. But history won’t let us do that, nor will any look at contemporary events. For most of our history, what most of us now would consider to be intolerable social abuses—slavery, genocide, capital punishment, judicial torture, the stifling of intellectual inquiry, inequality between races, classes, and genders, and scapegoating of certain minorities—were sanctioned and justified by religion. The extent to which mainline religious authorities in the West no longer countenance such actions is precisely the extent to which they have been influenced by the ideas of the European Enlightenment: reason, skepticism, human rights, equality, the rule of law and secular governance.

Shirley_Roper-Phelps

Shirley Phelps-Roper of the Westboro Baptist Church

When we look at the world today, we still find numerous examples of religious thinking unchecked by reason causing suffering and misery. In the Muslim world, where no secularist revolution happened and where religious authorities enjoy a power similar to that held by their Western counterparts in pre-modern times, women are second-class citizens, girls’ genitalia are mutilated, and apostasy is punished by imprisonment and, in some countries, death. In other parts of the world, children have been identified by their communities as witches or demonically possessed and as such, tortured and killed. And in the US, parents motivated by religious thinking rely on faith and prayer against ailments which can respond to appropriate medical treatment or vaccination, or cite Biblical authority for using brutal punishments with objects such as lengths of PVC hose, while religious authorities oppose equal rights for LGBT citizens, education in science and policies based on scientific understanding of environmental problems.

Taliban beat a woman in Kabul Sep.2001

Afghani woman beaten in public by Taliban member for removing part of her niqab, or full head and face covering, Sept. 2001. Image courtesy RAWA.org

Through the centuries up to the present day, religion has taught blind, unquestioning obedience to authority and punished dissent, fearing disagreement and inquiries which might lead to disagreement. It has suppressed intellectual growth and curiosity and promoted ignorance, citing the “sin” of “intellectual pride”. It has taught people that they are miserable sinners rather than good and intelligent human beings, and reconciled people to oppression and misery, teaching that their reward will come after death. It has taught people to fear and mistrust their sexuality, starving them of the physically-expressed love and affection which is part of the joy of life. It has dehumanized and taught hatred of classes of people and justified violence and oppression against them.

These are some of the reasons why atheists cannot simply say “follow your bliss” and keep our doubts and skepticism about the “truth” of religion to ourselves, even at the risk of making some people upset with our criticisms. Many people derive meaning and happiness from religion, but many more derive suffering and misery as well. We care what others believe because what they believe informs their actions, and beliefs that are not held to the test of reason usually results in very bad actions. And we cannot “live and let live” when religious believers have such a poor track record living and letting live, not only explicit non-believers but other believers who do not agree with them.
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Can theists and atheists coexist?

silhouettes-78013I just wrote about the reasons why I feel that religion exerts a negative rather than a positive influence in the world, but I hope that in reading this document you will have also understood the reasons why I don’t feel that an “either them or us” policy makes sense when confronting religion. As an atheist, I think that humanity can and eventually will outgrow religious thinking, but for the foreseeable future, believers and non-believers can and must live together. The democratic principles of human rights, church-state separation, free expression, free association and freedom of thought provide a framework for this coexistence, wherein the free exchange of ideas can thrive and people of all ways of thinking can live without imposing on the freedoms of others.

The biggest obstacle to the coexistence of theists and atheists is the persistent mischaracterization of atheists as bad, disagreeable, or undesirable people. In recent years, atheist, humanist and secular organizations in the US and world-wide have focused their energies on outreach and on raising the visibility of non-believers, encouraging those who do not believe to come out as such to friends, family, and neighbors, whenever possible. But in many parts of the world, and even in many parts of the US, it is still not possible for many people to be open about their atheism: they risk isolation, ostracism, harassment or even retaliation from friends, family, co-workers, and community: in many parts of the world, to be an open atheist is to risk imprisonment or even death. Theists must get over their fear of non-theists if the situation is to change at all.

The tradition of democracy, rule of law, equality and human rights owes its existence to the efforts of rationalists, skeptics, and freethinkers, efforts which have improved the lives of believers and non-believers alike through its humanizing influence on government, justice, thought, and even religion.

Nothing of what I say should seriously disturb or shake the faith of those who are truly committed to their view of the world. You disagree? Fine then, you disagree, and that is certainly your right. Those believers who are upset when hearing criticism of religious belief should consider, not that I am saying something outrageous or inflammatory, but whether it is you as a believer who are upsetting yourself when you hear ideas that contradict your own.

This website was not designed to be a deconversion tool, but as a sounding board for my own ideas and as a guide for the curious: if you are happy, secure, and fulfilled as a believer, if you are tolerant and non-judgemental of those who think differently from you, and if you do not seek to force your views or your religious laws on others, I as an atheist thank you and wish you well. If you are questioning your beliefs, I certainly hope that what I say here is of use to you on your own journey.
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I will pray for you.

Well, if you are determined to pray to your god on my behalf, I certainly cannot stop you. But don’t be surprised or offended if I do not say “thank you.” Being an atheist, I consider prayer a waste of time and energy that does not result in tangible benefit to anyone. If you wish to do some good, there are many things you can do that can be of benefit to people: volunteer your time to a charity that does useful work, teach someone to read, donate to a good cause, give someone a hug, give someone a meal.