I’m an atheist.
But it’s not quite that simple. It’s a word that means different things to different people, and not everyone hearing me say “I’m an atheist” will immediately understand everything about my position. They can’t be expected to – we’re not an entirely homologous group, with all the same ideas about everything. We don’t have any particular leader to follow, or any book which says what we’re supposed to be like. There is a uniform we’re supposed to wear, but nobody ever bothers, even though it has stripes and everything.
So, different atheists have subtly different takes on a number of things. This is a list of some of the things generally meant by people who call themselves atheists, along with some other accusations often levelled at them.
1. Atheists do not believe in any god.
Let’s start with the basics: atheists don’t believe in God. Any god. If you believe in Yahweh, or Allah, or Zeus, or any particular god, or if you follow any god-based religion, then you’re not an atheist. If you believe (or think, or reckon, or opine, or suppose) that some god exists, even if you’re not committing to any specifics, then you’re not an atheist. But if you don’t, then you are.
2. Atheists do not believe in any god.
I know Fight Club references have been done to death, but some people seem to have trouble even with this. No, we don’t “know deep down” that God really exists. We don’t care what the fool hath said in his heart. However unfathomable it might be that someone believes something so incomprehensibly far from your own worldview, this is really how we think. If we thought God was really there, why would we want to pretend otherwise? Wouldn’t that just piss him off?
So, atheists don’t believe in any god. And in a way, that’s all there is to it (certain baffling statistics to the effect that 21% of atheists believe in God notwithstanding). But this is still somewhat imprecise, and can be misconstrued. Hence the need for the other items on this list. For instance:
3. Not all atheists insist that there is no god.
Generally speaking, we don’t totally rule anything out. We can’t know there’s nothing out there that’s divine, omnipotent, and pretty pissed at us for not being more respectful. But it seems unlikely enough that we can essentially ignore it, for the same reasons we don’t tend to lie awake at night worrying about the monster that we can’t be certain isn’t hiding somewhere in the closet.
Now, you might not think that’s a fair comparison, the way I kinda just equated your supreme being with the Bogeyman. But you and I can probably agree that the Bogeyman, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Zeus, Thor, and all those other gods you don’t believe in, are probably all made-up fictional characters, on about the same level as far as their grounding in reality goes. Atheists just go one step further, and lump your god in with the rest of them, for the same reasons. It’s just a story. It’s not real. Which brings me to:
4. We’re not all atheists because we’re pissed at God, or we had a crappy childhood and no strong father figure, or we can’t face being morally accountable for our actions.
The morality thing in particular is an important point to address, and on which I’ve tried to elaborate here. For now, just understand that most atheists aren’t rebelling against anything, or angry with anyone, or any more emotionally disturbed than the rest of the species. Even if you happen to think we’re mistaken in our conclusions, some of us do deserve credit for reaching our conclusions on an intellectual basis, not just an emotional one. I doubt that any of you reject Loki because he did something to offend you. And look:
5. Most atheists don’t universally dislike religious people.
Honestly, we’re quite a friendly bunch. Many of us come from religious families, who we still talk to and get along with just fine. My own circle of friends includes Catholics, Methodists, Christian Scientists, Jews, Wiccans, Buddhists, and some people who I’ve just never asked. Many of them are more intelligent people than me. I discuss religion with some more than others; I don’t respect any of them any the less for their godliness, and they tolerate my heathen impudence with considerable patience. It’s all a lark.
We’re pretty decent people. Okay, there are a few assholes, but try naming one group of people which doesn’t have at least one subgroup that the rest would rather not be associated with. Which segues with no particular neatness or relevance to:
6. Atheists are not inherently immoral.
See this page for more details, but it’s worth reiterating here. We’re not monsters, we’re not evil, we’re not without a moral compass, we’re not incapable of love and compassion and other good stuff, whatever it might have once said in the dictionary. Oh, and this is very important, so pay close attention:
7. Atheists don’t worship Satan.
Really. None of us. This is just silly. Lucifer is as made-up as the rest of them. No atheists take the concept of Satan at all seriously, let alone revere the guy. Satanist is a word that can refer to various differing belief systems, some of which may not be entirely incompatible with atheism. I haven’t looked into it that much, and I’m not especially interested to. Atheists don’t believe in any such being as the traditional Christian notion of the Devil.
But, even though we can be relied upon to steer clear of believing certain things:
8. Some atheists believe in some pretty crazy shit.
For me, atheism is one aspect of a skeptical approach I try to apply to everything. But not all atheists are skeptics. It’s entirely possible that there are people out there without any faith in God, who still devote much time and effort to the pursuit of the Loch Ness Monster, or investigating alien abductions, or arguing that the Holocaust never happened, or many other ventures generally deemed by the wider community as “wacky”. I doubt that my own belief system is free from at least some bizarre irrationalities that I wrongly maintain, though I’m not in the best position to look for them.
It’s also worth noting that, whatever the heck they believe:
9. A lot of atheists are pretty happy.
However much it seems to you like it ought to be a depressing and hopeless philosophy, most of us are actually doing okay, thanks for asking. I certainly can’t speak for every godless person out there, but often we’re not struggling painfully with any residual faith, or despairing over the emptiness of life. We have happy things around us, like friends and family and delicious cake. We get by just fine.
There are probably plenty of other things which deserve to be addressed here and which I’m forgetting. For now, I’ll just add one more important point not yet considered:
10. Not all atheists give a crap about any of this.
I have some loosely atheist friends who wonder why I spend so much time on all this. Some people just aren’t that keen on following any particular religion, haven’t given it much thought, and have no interest in devoting any more brainpower to the subject. Plenty of people without a god-belief just don’t think about it, aren’t involved in any kind of atheist or skeptical community, and don’t have any personal issues or deeply thought-out philosophy that’s led to them to their position. They’re doing other things with their lives. They don’t particularly stand out from the crowd, or act differently enough from anyone else to notice. That’s fine too.
This is just a quick overview. I’ll have some more specific articles on some of the points raised here later. If you think something else deserves a brief mention with the above, or I haven’t explained something well enough, or I’m wrong about something, let me know.
(Last updated 4th October 2008.)