Answers to a few questions that are commonly asked of atheists
What is an atheist?
We define an atheist as a person who is not convinced that any gods exist.
Aren’t you just an agnostic, then?
This is a question about labels. In general, it is much more valuable to discuss the actual beliefs people hold rather than what you wish to label them. However, there is some value in explaining why we call ourselves atheists rather than agnostics.
First, we wish to promote a positive view of non-religious people in our community. The term “atheist” carries with it a lot of stigma and misinformation. We desire to eliminate those negative assumptions, and one way is to positively impact our community in the name of atheists. So we will proudly call ourselves atheists.
Second, these labels refer to different things; belief and knowledge. The atheist label refers to a person who is not convinced that any gods exist (belief). The agnostic label refers to the level of confidence that person has in a belief (knowledge). So, a person could be labeled any of the following:
agnostic atheist – doesn’t believe any gods exist, but does not claim to know it.
agnostic theist – does believe a god or gods exists, but does not claim to know it.
gnostic atheist – doesn’t believe any gods exist, and claims to know it.
gnostic theist – does believes a god or gods exist, and claims to knows it.
Is atheism a religion?
No. Atheism is not a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby. There are no authorities, organizations, or dogmas that prescribe how to not believe any gods exist.
Is atheism a worldview?
No. Atheism is a reply to a single question – do you believe any gods exist. A person’s worldview is what comprises their “web” of beliefs. Atheism can only ever be just one strand in that web. Atheists sometimes form their worldview around Skepticism and Humanism, but that is not true of all atheists.
You just want to sin, right?
No. Sin is a transgression against divine law. As atheists are not convinced that divine law exists, we are not convinced sin is real. Atheists definitely believe in living life in a moral and ethical way, and we advocate in favor of that behavior not against it.
Do you worship Satan?
No. Satan is a part of the mythology of the Abrahamic religions. As atheists are not convinced in the truth of those religions, we are not convinced Satan is real. In addition to that, some atheists have moral objection to the concept of worship.
Why do you hate god?
Atheists do not hate god. We are not convinced that any gods are real. Atheists can hate the way people use god and religion to justify their behavior. We hate immoral and unethical actions or inactions. We can be justifiably angry about bigotry, racism, rape, murder, willful ignorance of injustice, and other atrocities that people commit in the name of their gods.
Why do you spend so much time talking about something you claim not to believe in?
Atheists are active and vocal because we have to be. A majority of the people in America, and especially in Oklahoma, are religious. They advocate for their beliefs in a variety of ways, and we support everyone’s right to believe what they want. However, no one has the right to force other people to abide by their beliefs without sufficient support of those beliefs. Atheists advocate for reasoned and evidenced progress to our laws, morals, and society. We are vocal against policy, morality, or social behavior that has no support other than religious belief. Therefore, speaking out against unfounded religious doctrines that are harming people is a paramount obligation for atheist advocates.
What if you're wrong? Aren’t you afraid of hell?
If there exists a god that wishes to punish people for not believing it actually exists, then atheists would definitely be subject to its punishment. Any theist that was convinced of the incorrect god concept would also be subject to that punishment. Atheists are not convinced that any gods exist, and generally, do not fear punishments from any gods. One could ask a theist if they fear the punishment from any of the gods that they reject.
It is important to add that for those of us who were indoctrinated into a religion that teaches the concept of eternal conscious torment (hell), it is common to continue to carry a fear of that punishment. It is truly a frightening thought that a person could be eternally tormented for any action committed in a finite way on earth. Generally, atheists believe that teaching a child such a concept with virtually no evidence in support of it, is child abuse. For some, it can take years and targeted therapy to overcome that abuse.
Where does your morality come from without god?
Morality is defined as the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Right and wrong or good and bad are labels that we put on actions that move us toward or away from a desired goal. For almost all people, the goal of life can be reduced to seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering. For most theists, this means that what is right, good, or moral is doing what pleases their god because of a belief that they will be granted pleasure and avoid suffering by doing what their god tells them.
Since atheists don’t believe any gods exist, we don’t factor god into the equation. Many atheists believe there is good evidence that maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering can be accomplished by prioritizing human well-being. This goal is a bit vague, but it can be very useful. It allows us to promote actions that move us toward making existence better for all life. We can learn from our past mistakes; we can change what actions we advocate for based on new information; we can support our beliefs with evidence and reason; and we can definitively state that certain actions are wrong with respect to the goal. Morality is a complicated subject, but there is no religious morality that can provide answers to problems that a secular morality can’t – except appeasing a non-existent god.
What do you believe in?
Atheists believe in a wide-ranging set of values, and they don’t always agree. It is very possible for two given people to both be unconvinced that any gods exist and disagree on everything else. However, a lot of atheists align their values with Skepticism and Humanism. Generally, atheists believe in truth, honesty, love, kindness, understanding, freedom, justice, and many other common human values.
What is Skepticism?
Skepticism is an epistemological position in which one questions, doubts, suspends judgment, and criticizes the veracity of claims lacking empirical evidence. Skeptics will sometimes use the Carl Sagan phrase “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” as a shorthand for their epistemology. However, religious apologists have so often intentionally misunderstood this slogan that it becomes worthwhile to expound on it. Skeptics require sufficient evidence to believe a claim. If the evidence for a claim is insufficient, judgement must remain suspended.
What is Humanism?
From the American Humanist Association website; Humanism is a worldview which says that reason and science are the best ways to understand the world around us, and that dignity and compassion should be the basis for how you act toward someone else. Please visit the AHA to learn more about Humanism.
How can you go through life with no meaning and purpose?
Do not assume that since atheists don’t believe in any gods, we don’t have meaning and purpose in our lives. Without a conscious creator (god), life cannot have any intrinsic meaning or purpose. However, meaning and purpose can be found in what we value. Atheists believe in common human values and often align their beliefs with Skepticism and Humanism. Fighting for what is right, moral, and humane is a plentiful source of meaning and purpose, but atheists can find meaning and purpose in many different things.
How do you explain how we got here without god?
The simple answer is we don’t know. There are a lot of hypotheses about the origin of life and the origin of the Universe, but ultimately the answer is unknown. However, the natural processes that humans have observed and documented have accurate explanations without the need of any supernatural influences. Is this proof that no gods exist? No. But it is undeniable that the space occupied by the god explanation diminishes with every new discovery and observation from science.
What do you think is going to happen when you die?
This question also has widely varied answers among atheists. Generally, we do not believe in an afterlife. We think this is the only life we will get and that is a good thing, as it focuses our attention on living life the best way we can. A lot of atheists believe that the thought of an eternal life anywhere sounds terrible. The fact that we do not exist eternally is what makes our existence meaningful. What happens after we die can only ever be speculation, but some atheists think that death is the end of experience. Consciousness is what the brain does, and when the brain stops, our conscious experience just ends. Our bodies will release any stored energy back into the ecosystem, and provide material to support other life forms.
Have you tried just having faith?
The short answer is yes, probably. Atheists’ backgrounds vary widely, and while it is common that atheists have been religious in the past, it is not universal. So, it is common that atheists know very well what it is like to believe in a god, and they have still become unconvinced.
The long answer involves deciding if faith is a good thing. Faith is another term where definitions vary and can cause confusion. So, as we would want people to try to understand our beliefs without assuming they know us based on labels, we would also want to understand what faith means to the questioner. Sometimes faith is used as synonymous with trust (e.g., you have faith in your spouse, you have faith that a chair will hold you). Sometimes faith is used as synonymous with hope (e.g., you have faith you’ll get the job, you have faith that someone’s health will improve). Sometimes faith is used as synonymous with knowledge. This last usage usually occurs in the face of counter evidence (e.g., I have faith that god will do what he promises no matter what, you just have to have faith the Bible is true).
Atheists absolutely have trust and hope, but we don’t call those things faith. Atheists absolutely have knowledge about some topics, but we vehemently disagree that when faith is used in place of knowledge, it is valid. Faith is never a legitimate path to knowledge nor is it a legitimate substitute for knowledge. Faith, when used this way, can be used to justify any belief – true or false. So generally, we will never accept this usage of faith as a good thing.