Atheism FAQ

Scarlet A

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!

My path to atheism (and why I’m staying where it led)

forest path

Image by greeneydmantis on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

EDITORIAL NOTE: What follows is something I wrote as a Facebook “note” way back in July 2010. At that time, my identity as an atheist and a skeptic were just starting to really gel for me. Writing this piece really helped me to get my thoughts in order about what I believe and why. I have edited it slightly, but it turns out that it still describes my thinking on the topic pretty well, so here it is for your enjoyment in 2012! I will probably post more about atheism in the near future, maybe including a sort of FAQ to help any readers who are not familiar with actual atheists to understand atheism a little better.

I first remember becoming aware of religion when my parents started taking my sister and I to church when I was a fairly young kid. We went to the Dexter United Methodist Church (in Dexter, Michigan) when it was still in the village. There was Sunday School starting at about 10 and a service at 11. I remember singing songs in Sunday School (♫Jesus loves me, this I know…♫) and having snacks. I, like most young children, didn’t really think about Jesus or the Bible very much, anymore than children would think about Santa Claus minus the presents. It was just a part of the landscape: on Sunday mornings, we get up and go to church, where we sing and pray and learn about this guy named Jesus. I remember liking going to church when I was that age.

There came a time, when I was about 13 or 14, that I got more serious about God. Like way more serious. I really believed and I prayed with all of my might and considered myself a very devout Christian. I liked my youth group (I still smile when I think back to our mission trip to Louisiana to help build a flood-proof house for a Native American Methodist pastor). I even attended a Promise Keepers event at the Pontiac Silverdome. During that weekend, I was “born again” during an especially fervent prayer session in the arena. If you have never been in a place where a whole lot of people are all getting worked up into a religious frenzy, it is kind of hard to understand the atmosphere. I very truly and sincerely felt the presence of God and His approval when I asked to be born again, dedicating myself to serving Him and repenting of all my sins. It was quite a feeling, like nothing I had felt before or have felt since. I’ve read stories that people have written about their deconversions from Christianity to atheism, and some of them describe how difficult it was to give up a certain high they got when they really worked at praying or otherwise worshiping. My experience in the Silverdome that day gave me a glimpse of what those people felt. It was amazing and left me feeling energized and righteous for days afterward.

I don’t really remember my religious views for the next few years. I think that they sort of gradually slid from active Christianity to a sort of passive belief–from “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth” to “I guess I believe in God, doesn’t everyone?” I guess that my final years in high school made other demands on my attention: maintaining good grades, developing a social life, meeting girls who didn’t immediately walk the other direction, “managing” a deepening depression. I didn’t really think about God that much–I had already sorted that, right? I don’t remember for sure, but I think that I prayed from time to time, but it wasn’t like my earlier teenage years. It was more of a “just in case this works” practice, like wishing on a star. It was around this time that I independently thought of Pascal’s Wager, which guided my religious views for a long time.

I can say for sure that I stopped regularly attending church services by the time I went away to college. I never even bothered to find a church in East Lansing to attend, although I thought about it. It was during my time at Michigan State University that I started thinking of myself as an agnostic. Maybe there was a god, maybe not, how could I know? My faith continued its slow decline until all that was left was the Wager–I had better believe because I’ll be tortured for all eternity if the Christians are right and I don’t. By the time I graduated, I didn’t pray at all or even really think about the matter very much. I was more focused on trying to figure out what to do with a BA in Sociology and how I was going to meet a nice girl to settle down with. Of course, about 3 months after graduation, I started seeing the wonderful woman I eventually married and she helped me decide to go to law school. By this point, religion was not even on my radar. It simply didn’t have any mindshare. I’ve heard this referred to as “apatheism,” but I still thought about myself as an agnostic whenever I thought about it at all.

It wasn’t until sometime in 2008 that my deconversion became complete. A webcomic I had been reading for some time linked to two sites: The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepchick. The Skeptic’s Guide is a podcast and I wasn’t really into podcasts then, so I started poking around Skepchick, which is a multi-author blog about science, feminism, and critical thinking. I pretty much immediately recognized that I had found my people. The bloggers and commenters were snarky, funny, and unashamed of their disbelief in a lot of things that the average American takes for granted. This was really the first time I had ever been exposed to the idea that atheism is not a dirty word and atheists are not automatically bad people. This was a huge relief to me because I was functionally an atheist myself at that point, but I was really afraid of the label. It wasn’t long until I had internally embraced my identity as an atheist, although it would still be a while before I would be comfortable expressing it to others. I followed links around the web to a bunch of blogs about atheism and skepticism. I started listening to skeptical podcasts. I formalized my doubts about things for which there was no proof and started trying to think critically about more or less everything. I could go on and on about skepticism and critical thinking, but here it is really only relevant because my atheism is simply a specific case of my general skepticism. Perhaps I will write another post later about skepticism more generally. [note from 2012: I will definitely write something about skepticism soon]

That was my journey from childish belief, through born-again Christianity, to atheism. It certainly is not the most exciting deconversion story of all time (if anyone is interested, Ebon Musings has a collection of very interesting deconversion stories), but it is mine. That takes care of the “how,” but what about the “why”?

Once I started really thinking about it, I realized that my reasons for being an atheist were pretty simple actually. First, I like to believe in things that I can be pretty sure are real. Second, the only way I know of to reliably tell real things from non-real things is, broadly speaking, science. I need data that supports a claim before I can accept the claim as true. In the case of theism, the rather extraordinary claim is made that the entire Universe is controlled by a human-like (although claimed to be infinitely superhuman) intelligence and this being demands and likes to be worshiped by the higher primates on one average planet revolving around one average star in one particular galaxy. Of course, specific religions make other specific claims, but they all really rely on “there is or are a god or gods and we should worship it or them.” Once I started examining the evidence available for this claim, I found that the great weight of it has little value, being either easily explained by non-supernatural phenomena, anecdotal, or of dubious credibility. To me, the only piece of evidence that really has any weight is that a lot of people believe in various religions and, more importantly to me, some people I love and respect very much are pretty serious about their religions. However, even great numbers of people can be wrong (e.g., the Earth is flat and the Universe revolves around it) and my love and respect for my family and friends does not mean that they cannot be wrong. Once I properly valued the available evidence, it was clear to me that there could potentially be a god or gods, but the evidence just isn’t there to support that conclusion. It seems to me that religion has had plenty of time to turn out to have been true all along simply by producing credible evidence, but it has failed to do so. I feel like it is therefore a pretty safe conclusion that theism is simply not a reflection of reality and that it is better to live my life as if that is the case.

Although the above paragraph is the basic outline of the underpinnings of my non-belief, I have some other reasons for being even more committed to atheism. The most important one is the harm that religion has caused and continues to cause to human beings. I guess this is more about my humanistic beliefs than my atheistic beliefs, but they go hand in hand for me. Religion has brought us the Crusades, the Dark Ages, witch hunts, shame about human sexuality, justification for slavery, Sharia law, 9/11, the dumbing down of American science classes, and a worldwide child rape ring, just to name a few of the worst harms. It can certainly be said that religion also has good effects, like providing comfort to those most in need of it; great contributions to architecture, sculpture, painting, and music; and acting as a focus for charity for the needy. However, none of the good effects of religious belief are exclusive to religion (to be fair, evil behavior is also hardly exclusive to the religious) and, in any event, the good that religion can do is far outweighed by the evil that comes along. The price in human suffering is simply too high. Another serious problem with religious belief is that it makes it acceptable and even desirable for people to believe in things that cannot be proven to be true (or that can be proven to be untrue). This helps people believe in a variety of directly harmful things, like the anti-vaccination movement or treating cancer with herbal supplements instead of medicine.

I recognize that this post is not particularly warm and fuzzy when it comes to religious beliefs. I do not apologize for my tone, however. It was clear and direct messages like this that first gave me the courage to claim my true beliefs and lose the shame that I felt at being a secret atheist. Atheists are terribly misunderstood by the American public and more of us need to stand up and show that we are among you, paying our taxes, helping our neighbors, and raising our children–even here in Jackson, Michigan, whose city limit signs proclaim this to be “the birthplace of the Republican Party.” There is no reason for us to moderate our expression of non-belief, not when we are surrounded daily by endorsements of belief (“in God we trust”, “one nation, under God”). I also should note that I don’t mean to attack anyone who holds religious beliefs. I think those people are wrong on that subject, but I can still like and respect people who I think are wrong about something. Please think about that before you start shouting at me in the comments!

Speaking of comments, feel free to ask me about the experiences I’ve written about here or about atheism generally. I really love to talk about this stuff!