Sometimes I think it would be helpful to be able to just link someone to a page that answers the common questions/”concerns” about atheism. So I decided to write such a page!
DISCLAIMER: The answers here are purely drawn from my own experiences, reflection, and opinions. I cannot speak for all atheists any more than a random Christian could speak for all Christians. But this is my blog, so it has my answers!
Q: What is atheism, anyway?
A: The simplest definition of atheism is the lack of belief in any divine supernatural beings. In this definition, there can certainly be atheistic religions, like Zen Buddhism or Shinto. However, the term is used in the US and Europe mostly to refer to the lack of any religious beliefs. Sometimes, atheism is broken down into two strains: “strong” and “weak”. “Strong” atheism holds that there are no gods, whereas “weak” atheism holds that there has not been sufficient proof offered to conclude that there are any gods. That’s a pretty significant simplification of the difference, but I don’t think that there is any meaningful distinction for any practical purpose. Both would answer the question “do you believe in god?” with “no.” Many atheists go beyond simply rejecting divine beings and also reject the trappings of religion as well. For example, my atheism informs my feminism, as I believe that religion plays a critical role in propping up the patriarchy. Other atheists think that atheism should only encompass the lack of belief in gods and that it is for other groups to tackle other problems.
Q: So you hate God? Did something bad happen in your life to make you so mad at Him that you deny Him?
A: Absolutely not. I don’t hate gods any more than you hate leprechauns. I’m not mad at god because I don’t think that he exists.
Q: Do you hate religious people? Do you think that they’re stupid?
A: No and no. I couldn’t hate all religious people for the simple reason that there are so many of them! Also, two of the people who have played “parent” roles in my life (my family is a little bit complicated) have gone so far as to study to become ministers. On the other hand, I wouldn’t shed a tear if someone like Pat Robertson fell into a hole, either. It’s more of a case-by-case basis–the same way everyone decides who they love and hate. I also don’t think that being religious means that you’re stupid. At worst, it means that you are deluded and that you probably have some very good reasons for believing what you believe. My values, experiences, and personal reflections have led me to believe that there probably is no god or anything like that. However, other people have had other experiences and might value being able to demonstrate the truth of beliefs less than I do. And, of course, there is always the possibility that I am just wrong on this issue. I’m pretty sure I’m not, but I’m not immune to the sort of cognitive biases that lead other people to believe some pretty strange things.
Q: How do you deal with believing that death is the actual end? Aren’t you terrified of simply ceasing to exist rather than going on to some afterlife?
A: This is still a difficult area for me. I believed–knew–that there was a heaven for most of my life. It is only really in the last 10 or so years that I have developed any real doubt about it and only the last 3 or 4 years that I shed that belief completely. I find that I am really not a fan of thinking that death will cause me to wink out of existence completely. It does scare me some, but it makes me really value my life. For me, this is not the audition to determine where my soul will spend eternity, this is it. And this is, in the end, enough. I know other atheists have completely made peace with the idea of a final death; I am still working towards that peace. Of course, the universe doesn’t care if I’m comfortable with dying; I’ll die when it’s my time regardless of how I feel about it.
Q: If you don’t believe in God, what stops you from raping, murdering, stealing, and parking in handicap spaces?
A: The same thing that stops you: my conscience. I know that a lot (certainly not all!) of Christians especially seem to believe that the Bible invented morality and is the only possible source. I find it more than a little bit disturbing that the only thing holding these people back from a crime spree is that they think a magic man in the sky is watching them. I think that general moral rules don’t come from a supernatural source, but rather from “human nature”. What I mean is that we evolved to be social creatures and there have to be rules prohibiting certain kinds of antisocial behavior to ensure that the entire group can prosper. Basically, my sense of morality is derived from the general principle that I should treat other people the way that I understand they want to be treated (a version of the Golden Rule). That principle seems to me to be the lubrication that allows humans to live in tightly packed groups of strangers. I’m sure that anyone with any formal training in philosophy could poke a dozen holes in that, but it serves me well most of the time. And when it breaks down, I do the best I can, just as we all do.
Q: If you’re an atheist, does that mean that you’re also a “Darwinist”? Do you believe that the theory of evolution should be taken to its natural conclusion of a full-blown eugenics program? (Thanks to M. Rodriguez for contributing to this question.)
A: This question contains several common mistakes regarding evolution and atheism. First of all, the science of evolution is secular–that is, it simply has nothing to do with religion. Many religious beliefs are perfectly compatible with the theory of evolution by natural selection. In fact, it is really only a specific literalist strain of Christianity (also Judaism and Islam? Not sure.) that seems to have a serious problem accepting the theory on religious grounds. Atheism is not simply a rejection of fundamentalist Christianity, but a rejection of all religious beliefs. I’m sure many atheists “believe” in evolution simply because there is no non-religious reason to reject it. The science is sound. As you can probably tell, I count myself among them. The second problem with the question is the use of the word “Darwinist”. Pretty much no one outside of the creationist community would use that term. The theory of evolution by natural selection was first articulated in a systematic form by Charles Darwin, but the science of biology has come a long way in the last 150 years. For example, the existence of genes was completely unknown in Darwin’s time. The term “Darwinist” implies a blind allegiance to Charles Darwin and his texts, but that is not how science works. If you really need an “-ist” word to describe people who accept evolution, “evolutionist” is probably better, although it still sounds strange to non-creationists. Finally, the idea that accepting evolutionary theory necessarily leads to accepting eugenics as desirable is a pretty common strawman used by creationists. Eugenics, or the practice of intentionally controlling the frequency of genes in the human gene pool by means of restricting the breeding of certain groups, was a fairly popular idea in the early twentieth century. Of course, it was used to provide a pseudo-scientific veneer for a very ugly strain of racism and xenophobia. Some in the Nazi party during Hitler’s reign in Germany advocated eugenics programs to eliminate what they thought were undesirable Jewish genes. This is what makes this such a tempting strawman for creationists. It allows them to paint people who believe differently than they do as objectively evil, like the Nazis. However, this argument misses the point in two important ways. First, eugenics is not evolution by natural selection, it is very much artificial selection. Basically, it is treating humans the same way we treat cattle or chickens: control breeding to decrease negative traits and increase positive traits. I guess you could call that evolution, but it is not the natural process described by modern biology. Second, accepting evolution does not deprive one of all morality and ethics. It is pretty clearly immoral to intrude on other humans’ autonomy by restricting or requiring their reproduction. Anyway, humanity will evolve just fine without human intervention–in fact, it’s happening right now! (and all the time forever)
Those are the main questions I can think of at the moment that seem to be popular when someone encounters a real live atheist for the first time. If I think of more, I’ll add them–and please leave any suggestions in the comments!