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Atheism FAQ

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Version 1.2 - 05/2009

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Frequently-Asked Questions for Atheists

This FAQ is intended to be general in nature, but some parts may address specific religions. In most cases, the claims apply to most other religion as well.

What is an atheist?

An atheist is a person who lacks positive belief in god(s). If a person doesn't maintain any active belief any gods exist, they are by definition an atheist, regardless of other labels they may apply to themselves, such as agnostic. There are different types of atheists such as strong atheists, who hold that no gods exist. This position can be harder to defend as one cannot prove the non-existence of gods. Most atheists are of the weak atheist variety, that simply lack belief in gods.

What is an agnostic?

An agnostic in the formal sense is a person who holds that whether god(s) exist is unknown, as nobody truly knows the nature and origin of existence. There are both agnostic atheists (who do not believe in gods) and agnostic theists (who believe, but recognize their belief is based on faith). Like atheism, there are "strong" and "weak" varieties of agnosticism. The strong agnostic suggests that whether or not there are gods will never be known. The weak agnostic simply says, "I don't know." In the colloquial sense, agnostic can mean that a person is undecided about the existence of gods, is unsure of their own beliefs, or doesn't believe but is reluctant to call themselves an atheist due to potential social stigma.

What is a freethinker?

Freethought is a naturalistic philosophy which stresses the importance of reason, skepticism and open‐mindedness in life. Freethinkers tend to be atheistic, non-spiritual, and non-superstitious and reject ideals that are dependent upon any paranormal claims, which are not confirmed by reason, reality and evidence.

Why are you an atheist?

Everyone starts out atheist - nobody is born believing in any gods. Nonetheless, If you ask 100 atheists, you'll get 100 different answers. Here are a few examples of why some people are atheist:

  • I was not raised in a religious household, therefore I was not indoctrinated into religion.
  • I studied the bible and religious scripture and found it to be inaccurate, illogical and inconsistent with our world.
  • There is no evidence to indicate god(s) exist.
  • I recognize that religion is often used as a tool to control and oppress people and refuse to be part of it.
  • I experienced first-hand, the hypocrisy of those claiming to be spiritual leaders, which led me to realize religion is merely mythology and superstition.
  • The idea of an "all loving" god that threatens people with eternal suffering doesn't make any sense.

There are as many different answers to this question as there are atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. Ask one and find out for yourself.

Are atheists anti-religion?

Some are. Some aren't. Atheism by definition does not incorporate any set of rules or advice on how people should think or behave. Many people who lack supernatural beliefs tend to feel that institutions that pander to these superstitious ideals are counterproductive. Other atheists are perfectly comfortable with other religion and philosophies. Some types of Buddhism for example, are atheistic in nature and not at all anti-religion.

Are atheists more intelligent than theists?

Generally speaking, based on all available studies, yes. The most recent study published, March 8, 2008, by Richard Lynna, from University of Ulster in Ireland, John Harvey from Drove Cottages, UK and Helmuth Nyborg form University of Aarhus in Denmark showed a clear correlation between secular ideological positions and increasing intelligence in more than 137 nations.[1] Numerous studies have demonstrated the more intelligent the populace, the less likely they are to be religious.

Isn't atheism a belief too? Therefore it requires "faith?"

No.

Atheism is not a belief. It is a lack of belief. It is no more a belief than "not collecting stamps" is a hobby or "bald" is a hair color.

But atheists say there is no god. You can't prove God doesn't exist.

What you are referring to is known as a strong atheist. The vast majority of atheists do not go around saying they know for sure god doesn't exist. Most atheists are weak atheists which is a position that doesn't go so far as to say anyone knows 100% there is no god. We simply lack belief that any god or gods exist.

This minority of "strong atheists" however, take things a step further and argue that there is no god. While it is true this contention cannot be proven, there are justifiable reasons for holding this view. Occam's Razor dictates that it's more likely that God doesn't exist than he does. Until there's definitive evidence that a god or gods exist, one can reasonably presume they don't, just as in the same way most of us are confident that Santa Claus doesn't really exist. When mainstream media talks about atheists, they often mischaracterize all atheists as being of the "strong atheist" variety, which isn't necessarily true.

Atheists bear no burden to prove God doesn't exist. Until believers can show that their god is more real than any other fictional character, it's perfectly reasonable to presume that he doesn't.

Why are atheists so arrogant?

Compared to? Judeo-Christians? Are you serious?

First let's look at the definition of "arrogance":

having or showing feelings of unwarranted importance out of overbearing pride

Who seems to have more pride? A christian or an atheist?

Who goes around talking about heaven and hell? Who thinks everything on this planet was made for them by a special creator who hovers nearby meticulously concerned about their every whim?

Have atheists injected their religious pride into everyday conversation from "Thank the Lord" to "God Bless You"? Do atheists walk around with symbolic jewelry showcasing the religion to which they subscribe? Religion is constantly, continuously promoted among many theists. This is the epitome of pride: a constant advertisement for ones' special interests.

Furthermore, Christianity and many other religions teach the idea that man is the chosen species and that god made the earth and the universe for us. We are special. However, when you examine history, it becomes obvious that man's presence on this planet amounts to a "blink-of-the-eye" in the presence of time, and that more than 98% of all life that has ever existed on Earth has become extinct, and many other creatures have spent a thousand times more time on this planet than man. Earth is predominately covered in water, but man cannot live in water, yet the earth is a perfect creation for man? 99.99999% of the universe is inhospitable for life, much less human life, yet god created all that for us?

What christianity teaches, that man is so overwhelmingly important, is the pinnacle of arrogance. Everything we know about the universe doesn't back up that claim. For a typical theist to suggest non-believers are more arrogant is really hypocritical.

This notwithstanding, what most theists consider "arrogance" is either a tone-of-voice they get preoccupied with as a Red Herring or usually self-confidence.. the same kind of self-confidence they claim to have in their "faith." Somehow, this gets labeled as "arrogance" when it involves a subject upon which they disagree.

How can you lack belief in God when every society in human history has believed in a creator?

First, this isn't true. There have been societies discovered that do not have beliefs in spirits or gods[2]. Second, the idea of a "creator" implies the monotheistic Judeo/Christian/Muslim god, and ignores the many other societies who believed in multiple gods, animal spirits and other paranormal claims that most Judeo-Christians would easily dismiss. The only consistency throughout human history that might be relative, is that humans have sought to make up stories to explain unanswered questions. Besides this your claim employs the Argument from popularity fallacy: just because at one time, a majority of people believed the Earth was flat or the sun revolved around the Earth, does not make it true.

How can you dismiss/disrespect holy scripture like the Bible?

The Bible is a collection of various writings over thousands of years, by mostly unknown authors, covering a chaotic and often inconsistent array of subjects, assembled by various political committees over the course of another thousand years. As an ancient artifact, it is interesting. As a guide book of moral behavior, it is severely lacking. As a collection of scrolls, it yields information on old myths, history and traditions. As a tome to be interpreted in any serious or literal manner, indicating "truth" about our world (beyond the recurring theme of how man can be inhumane towards man) it is appalling. The irony is, most religious people, while respecting their own scripture, have no problems dismissing a contradicting religion's scripture. As atheists, we simply dismiss the seriousness of one more set of scripture than you. And there's no evidence whatsoever that any of the supernatural claims in the Bible are legitimate. There's actually no reliable evidence Jesus ever existed.

Why do you hate God?

Atheists don't "hate God." We lack a belief that God even exists, so it would be foolish to spend any energy loving or hating something that doesn't exist. It's a non-issue. How do you feel about the pink unicorn in my back yard? How dare you be ambivalent! You must hate unicorns!

Why don't you capitalize the "G" in god?

When atheists refer to a hypothetical "god" or "gods", it is not as a proper noun, which implies a specific, named entity. It's only when referring specifically to the Christian deity named "God" that it's appropriate to capitalize.

Are atheists Satanists?

That's ridiculous. If we don't believe in God or the Bible, why would we believe Satan or any of the other characters exist? In fact, people who believe in satan are actually more of a satanist than an atheist.

If you don't believe in a god or gods, what do you believe in?

Atheists have a wide variety of beliefs. Atheism is not a world view. It does not dictate how one should live his life or what rules to follow; what is and isn't moral behavior; who to worship or on what day he can purchase alcoholic beverages. There are people who are atheist who practice Buddhism; there are atheists who are secular humanists, etc. A philosophy such as Humanism is a world view that is compatible with atheism. Every atheist will likely answer this question differently.

If you aren't afraid of god's judgment, what is there to keep you from being a sociopath?

Our rationale for acting good and honorable is based on the fact that we are a social species and we live together in groups. Doing something that hurts our fellow man increases the likelihood that we ourselves will be hurt. So the Golden Rule, or treating others the way you'd like to be treated, makes sense. We don't need such common sense notions handed to us from a supernatural source. Besides, if you do something horrible to another person, it's more likely you'll deal with judgment from society first and foremost. God only supposedly comes into play after you're dead and atheists don't waste time entertaining "What Ifs" of that nature.

Religious people get their morals from scripture. Where does an atheist get his moral guidelines?

In truth, all people get more of their moral guidelines from society and culture, specifically the laws which govern our society. Scripture is not that reliable a source for moral guidelines. The bible promotes everything from slavery to rape and genocide. Those activities we all consider immoral and are against the [secular] law in most communities.

Many atheists believe that morality is subjective, not absolute as taught by many religions. Different cultures have different views of the morality of various activities. Even in America, for more than a hundred years, we accepted slavery as a moral thing to do; women were not allowed to vote until fairly recently. What is and isn't moral in a society tends to change over time.

Do you believe man came from a monkey?

No. But both man and monkeys evolved from common ancestors. A monkey didn't suddenly give birth to a man -- this is another ignorant, annoying mischaracterization of atheists that theists promote. See The fact of evolution.

If man originated from primates, why are primates still here?

You're assuming that evolution is a one-way process. It is not. The development of a new species or feature, does not necessarily make the earlier one obsolete. If that argument made sense then there should only be one animal on the planet, right?

If most Americans came from Europe, why are there still Europeans? If dogs came from wolves, why are there still wolves?

Do you believe that life just "happened by chance?"

Once life is established, evolution describes it, and the two parts of evolution are natural selection (which is not random at all) and heredity (which does have some randomness). Things wouldn't evolve without randomness, but it's a lie to say that is the whole story.

As for the initial appearance of a life form on our planet, this is a relatively young field of study and there are no solid answers yet, but scientists are finding out more and more each day. Scientists are currently working on creating life forms from chemical compositions.[3] It is expected that breakthroughs will be made in the next ten years confirming that life can come from non-life.[4]

Is lightning random? It might seem like it, but if certain conditions exist, lightning will appear. It's not "by chance" and there is no "intelligent agent" at work making lightning. In one sense, very little (if anything) is actually random. The universe is a big and complicated place, and we might call something "random" if we don't have enough information to predict it. That doesn't mean anything is actually random, though.

How can you not see how perfect this world is for humans? Obviously we are created by an intelligent designer.

Oh really? This perfect world is 4/5ths water, but humans can't live in water. Our universe is 99.9999999% non-life-sustaining but it is perfect for us? The human body works too perfectly? What about cancer, wisdom teeth, the prostate, tonsils, or men with nonfunctional breasts? There's plenty of evidence of remnants from evolution and the "intelligent design" of our bodies and our universe is anything but perfect.

Why do atheists care about what other people believe? What difference should it make if I believe in god?

First and foremost, religion is an integral part of society. It is necessary for everybody to be familiar with religion, which is a cultural component of society among other things.

If theists kept their beliefs private, there would be no need for this discussion. Atheists are not interested in telling people what they can and cannot believe. But atheists are concerned about religious beliefs and principals being mandated, promoted and subsidized by government and society. As taxpayers, atheists care about whether or not their money is funding religion. Religion has been a major factor in oppression of women and minorities, curtailing scientific progress, engaging in war, and much more. If it was merely a personal belief that didn't become influential in public policy, there would be no need for you to even know atheists exist. See Why atheists care about religion for more details. Some say gays are the last minority discriminated against. No. It is atheists.

Why make a big stink out of little religious "molehills?"

Legally, all of these little molehills are what have allowed the mountain to be built.

Legislative prayer before senate sessions and at presidential inaugurations have been used to excuse government funded nativity scenes, "In God We Trust" as the national motto (how is this not a violation of the Endorsement test, btw?), and "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance, as well as the National Day of Prayer. And vice-versa to the nth degree. The Establishment Clause has been thrown out in these cases without any actual judicial scrutiny merely because certain acts have become part of the "fabric of our culture". Instead, the courts have devolved into using a holistic “I’ll know it when I see it” gut-check system when ruling on such violations.

And generally, it always boils down to this flawed "Any more than..." syllogism:

IF legislative prayer is constitutional (clearly it must be because nobody's complained about it even though they get death threats when they try)... AND "under God" is not any more a violation than legislative prayer... THEREFORE "under God" is constitutional.

Every time one violation of the Establishment Clause comes up in court, the court simply cites a similar violation as precedent for excusing other conflations between church and state. Read cases like Lynch v. Donnelly or Marsh v. Chambers, or Justice O’Connnor’s formulation of the legal construction of “Ceremonial Deism” in the Newdow v Elk Grove cases. What you’ll find is the court has perpetually been bending over backwards to accommodate religious entanglement, allowing new molehills to pop up on the argument that nobody managed to declare previous molehills illegal in time. For example, the courts have recognized that the statute that created “under God” in 1952 was illegal, but because we went fifty-some years without doing anything about it, it gets grandfathered in as part of the “fabric of our culture.”

Furthermore, because “under God” is now legal, any similar violation of the Establishment Clause can cite “under God” in order to justify its own legality. The sad part is that this can be done pre-emptively. For example, in Lynch v. Donnelly, which occurred sometime between the signing of the 1952 “under God” statute, and the Newdow case when “under God” was contested, the government-sponsored nativity scene was actually found to be legal partly because it was no worse a violation than “under God” in the pledge or “in God we trust” as our national motto. Mountains out of mole hills? I believe the snowball metaphor is more appropriate.

All right, but why do you have to be such dicks about it?

Name me one minority that ever got equal recognition by merely shutting up, sitting down, playing nice, and trying to talk with the few supposedly open-minded representatives of the hateful majority that marginalized them. Of course I’m angry, and if you’re holding that against me, well…fuck you. What minority that ever tried to get equal rights in this country wasn’t called “uppity”, or “pompous”, or “radical”, or “militant”? Likewise, when in the history of civil rights has the majority not used the same excuse to deny rights to the minority, citing the same tired argument of “Oh, if only they’d be more agreeable in their protests, they might actually make progress…”? It happens every single time.

The dominant religious majority in America isn't going to be talked into pulling its head out of its ass, and it should not be our responsibility to gently coax it out for them. Offering the olive branch and trying to play nice carries a significant risk for us. It means waiting in silence for years while the religious majority makes up their mind as to whether to accept the peace offering or not, and judging by their past behavior, chances are they won't.

What does atheism promote? What does it stand for?

Atheism is not a world view. It doesn't make rules to live by. It's simply a word to describe the state of lacking belief in gods and similar supernatural mythology and claims. As such, it doesn't stand for anything. Atheists are not compelled to promote anything. At most, atheism suggests that critical thinking and rationality is of much higher priority than fear and superstition.

Why not believe in god? What does an atheist have to lose if he's wrong?

This is called Pascal's Wager. It's a fallacy. If there really was a god what is there to lose by believing? When you start down that slippery slope, the first question is, "Which god?" You can't believe in them all, because some apparently will condemn you for believing in their competition. And what if god's true test is to see who has the strength to deny he exists? This is a no-win situation and Pascal's Wager is a fool's bet.

See the next question, "Why would you risk going to hell and suffering eternal damnation?"

Why would you risk going to hell and suffering eternal damnation?

Because we're that sure that all the deity stories we've heard are silly or untrue.

You have exactly one story's punishment in mind, even though there are hundreds of gods that men have followed throughout history. We don't think yours is any more believable than the others. When you think about why you're not worried about the consequences of disbelieving in some of those, you'll understand why other people are not worried about yours.

Why are atheists so closed-minded about believing in God?

It's exactly the opposite. If you show us evidence that God actually exists, we'll change our position. But that evidence has to be something more substantive than your "personal experience" and quotes from a 2000+ year old storybook written by a collection of unknown people about events that happened decades or millennia earlier. That's not convincing.

Ironically, it is religious people who are closed-minded. If Zeus came down from the heavens on a flaming chariot in front of a Christian church, chances are even in the face of obvious proof of Zeus' existence, most Christians would still continue to believe in Jesus. That's why they call it "faith" = belief in absence of evidence = closed-mindedness.

Maybe your problem is you don't know enough about my god? Maybe you should read my holy book!

Ironically, your average atheist is probably much more knowledgeable about religion and scripture than your average theist. Most atheists are very familiar with the bible, because a thorough examination of such scripture was likely a key component in their dismissal of the religion as being irrational. If you don't believe this, go into any atheist forum online and start asking questions about scripture. You'll find that most atheists know ten times more about scripture, dogma, history, philosophy and science than their religious counterparts.

If you don't believe in god, what is the meaning of life?

Who says there has to be a meaning of life? Maybe there is; maybe there isn't. But arbitrarily making one up that isn't based on any rational evidence seems hollow and un-satisfying to an atheist.

Aside from that, just like with theists, it's up to each individual to determine what gives his/her life meaning.

Isn't atheism selfish?

What does selfishness have to do with believing or not believing in gods? You can find plenty of selfish god-fearing people in real life as well as in scripture.

Do atheists celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter?

It varies from person-to-person, but most do. After all, these holidays are not Christian in origin anyway. Most are derived from earlier pagan solstice and fertility celebrations. In any case, atheists can differentiate between the cultural/ritualistic aspect of these celebrations and any specific paranormal belief associated with it.

Is there an atheist bible?

No, just as there is no handbook on how to live your life for people who don't believe in a tooth fairy.

We generally don't think that bronze-age books have more than a passing applicability to 21st century life. Don't kill, steal, perjure -- all good -- but those ideas predate the Christian Bible, too. Much of those are common sense, and you ignore that much of the Christian Bible is spent forbidding people to eat shrimp, forbidding letting a witch live, and forbidding working on particular days of the week -- none of which we miss very much, thanks.

Isn't Richard Dawkins worshiped by atheists?

No. He's just a popular person in the community. He does have a lot of respect, but to suggest he is an "atheist god" is foolish and ignorant. In fact, many atheists do not like Dawkins and actively argue against his approach. [Citation suggested]

Everybody serves somebody. Who or what do atheists worship?

You're wrong that "everybody serves somebody." We're not willing to grant that postulate, so the question doesn't have a good answer, and it certainly doesn't apply to all atheists. The best answer you're likely to get from any particular object of high-regard is "Some do. Some don't."

That said, atheists more than other groups seem to hold observation of the universe through their senses, and the resulting compilation of rules of existence -- called "logic" -- as one of the most important facets of their lives. Everyone uses logic every waking moment, but atheists are especially unlikely to subordinate it to wishes. That's not "worship", though by most people's definition.

The irony is, religious people also depend upon the validity and legitimacy of logic and rationality all the time too. When you board an airplane, you're not expecting god to keep it aloft -- you expect secular science to have done its homework. When you go to the doctor, you hope to be treated by someone who is prescribing treatment that has been tested and proven to work based on the laws of secular logic and evidence. If you don't think so, next time you get sick, skip the hospital and go to church instead.

You claim to be atheist, but I know many atheists who have come to know and accept God.

Have you ever known someone who stopped believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy and then later on, changed their mind and started to believe again? Because that's how we feel about religion. Many theists like to claim they used to be "atheists" (it's part of their shtick) - maybe in the most shallow sense, but we suspect they were simply confused and didn't know what they believed, which is different from understanding what god is supposed to be and consciously rejecting the likelihood of his existence.

Do atheists believe that when you die, that's it?

Atheism doesn't dictate any particular beliefs, so what happens when we die is a theory that each individual will think about and address personally. Many atheists do not believe in any type of afterlife, that is true. But others simply feel they don't know, and don't spend any time worrying about it because it seems pointless. Who wouldn't want to live forever? Who wouldn't want to have some essence or "soul" that continues after our death, but we cannot pretend there is actual evidence for this when there isn't. Many atheists believe that one way to live forever (figuratively) is through having children and passing your values on that way.

If you don't answer to God, who do you answer to?

This is a complicated question that probably varies from atheist-to-atheist. But many of us consider ourselves Humanists and as such we have to answer to each other, our community, et. al. Theists have to answer to their fellow men as well, but they have an extra, convenient excuse to pull ("It's God's will") when they can't explain something or it doesn't jive with what people expect. We like to think our motivations are more consistent and honorable because we don't use superstition as an excuse to explain our behavior.

Wasn't Hitler, Stalin and others atheist? Was their atheism responsible for their atrocities?

First, Hitler was Roman Catholic. Many claims like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists are not accurate. Second, the idea that a person's non-theist stance is responsible for their behavior is about as realistic as suggesting since both Hitler and Stalin had mustaches, it's the mustache that is responsible for genocide.

Einstein and Darwin believed in God, and many other famous scientists

This is another fallacy. Contrary to what theists claim by taking his quotes way out of context, Einstein was not a Christian, and not even a Deist. He might have been Pantheist but it was more a symbolic thing than any substantive belief in a creator deity. He made it quite clear in later letters. The same thing goes for Darwin, whose supposed deathbed conversion to Christianity is a lie.

That notwithstanding, yes, there are some prominent scientists who are theists. However, the overwhelming majority of the world's most respected scientists are atheist.[5] And you can't find for example, any prominent evolutionary biologists who believe in creation.

Have you heard this evidence for the existence of god?

Probably. This FAQ isn't going to address various claims made that supposedly "prove God exists". Instead, check the Top ten arguments for the existence of God page, which probably has what you're about to say, with detailed responses.

References

  1. . Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6W4M-4SD1KNR-1&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=82c88cd709652a9a24d1a902d8106a8f
  2. . http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/ath/blathp_primitive.htm
  3. . Harvard Univ; Using the first living thing on Earth as a model; http://www.hno.harvard.edu/gazette/1996/09.12/CreatingLifeina.html
  4. . Scientists expect to create life in the next 10 years; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20249628/
  5. . http://www.atheists.org/flash.line/atheism1.htm http://www.physorg.com/news102700045.html http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/sci_relig.htm

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