Explaining Atheism

1.0  Introduction
2.0  What Is Atheism?  What Is an Atheist?
2.1  According to Me
2.2  According to the Dictionary
3.0  Common Misconceptions about Atheism / FAQ

1.0 Introduction

I first made a page on my site about atheism in 2000 after spending some time in the alt.atheism UseNet newsgroup and discovering that there are quite a few people who do not understand what atheism is and think quite negatively of it, that atheists are bad people, can't be trusted, live sad pathetic lonely lives, etc, etc.

This isn't a page saying "you should be/become an atheist;" it's a page explaining and clarifying what atheism is and dispelling some misconceptions about it.

I sometimes feel weird having this page up, since religion/spirituality/lack-thereof isn't really something I talk about much and it's something that touches buttons with people (and in fact the page has been missing from my site for about a year), but I've also had some people tell me that they've used my page to help explain their atheism to people, family even, who didn't understand them – so it's actually benefitted some people, so I think it's important to keep this page up.

I do realise that there are many sensible theists out there who will find that a lot of the stuff in the 'misconceptions' section is almost insultingly inapplicable to them. It's for those other people.

Also, it's possible that in places I'm accidentally putting my interpretation of atheism in place of a more general definition.

Aug 2005

2.0  What Is Atheism?  What Is an Atheist?

2.1  According to Me

"Atheism" I find is a bit hard to explain, since it's an "-ism", so I will explain what an "atheist" is, first.


It's easier to define what an atheist is not than what an atheist is.  The word "atheist" is just the "not" of the word "theist."  A theist is someone who believes that one or more gods exist.  "Not-theist."  "Non-theist."  "A-theist."  An atheist is simply not a theist.

An atheist is someone who does not have the belief that gods exist.  Note that this encompasses, but is not the same as, believing that gods do not exist and simply not having any sort of belief on the subject .  An atheist is someone who does not have the belief that that gods exist.  This is all an atheist is.  This is the only thing you can know for certain that two atheists have in common.

The label "atheist" only exists because there are people who believe in a god/gods.  If no one believed in gods, then everyone would be an atheist, and this word would not exist.  We do not have a word that means "a person who does not believe Harry Potter exists" because no one (worth mentioning) believes Harry Potter exists – it's pretty obvious that he was made up by J.K. Rowling.

Atheists can be any of the following, and maybe a few more that I haven't thought of:
  • People who think that it is perhaps possible that there is a god or are gods, but that don't believe they exist.
    • Just because it's possible that something exists, doesn't mean it exists or that you should believe it exists.
      • So far, I haven't seen or heard of evidence that proves to me that there is life on Mars.  I also have not seen evidence that makes me think that if we keep looking then we will find life on Mars.  I don't believe that there is life on Mars, but I'm pretty open to the idea and think it's worth looking for, unless we keep looking but it gets to the point where it looks like looking more is a waste of time and effort.
      • I think it's possible that there is an undiscovered species of shark that has bright purple skin/scales and that we simply haven't discovered it yet.  I just made that species up right now, but it's still possible that it could exist.  So far, it has not been discovered, and I'm not going to bother believing that it exists or looking for it, and I don't think other people should bother believing in it or looking for it.
      • I think it should be impossible for the Universe to even exist.  There should be nothing in existence, absolutely nothing.  But as we can see, the Universe does exist, so I guess it's possible that a god exists, but I don't believe one does.  I don't think it can be assumed that the Universe needs a god in order to exist.  If you do, I don't think that there's anything particularoy wrong with that; I just happen to disagree.  I looked and found nothing and did not expect that I would find anything if I kept looking.
  • A person who believes gods do not exist.
    • This person has heard of gods and has the belief that they do not exist.  This person thinks/says, "gods do not exist."  Period.
      • If they saw proof that a god existed, then they would believe that that god existed.  This is proof to them that the god exists.  It would probably require seeing an obvious miracle.  Grilled-cheese sandwiches need not apply.
      • I haven't seen convincing evidence that Bigfoot exists, and I just think we would have proof by now if Bigfoot really did exist.  We have evidence (like that video you see on tv a lot), but I've seen the video and I don't think it's genuine, though some people do.  If someone conclusively proved to me the existance of Bigfoot tomorrow, then I would believe in Bigfoot, but I think that will not happen.  Same deal with gods.
    • For lack of a better word, a person who believes gods do not exist is called a "strong atheist."  The others are called "weak atheists."
  • A person who has never heard of the concept of a "god" and also has not thought up the concept themselves.
    • If you grew up separated from all the people who do believe in gods and so had never heard of this concept, then you would be an atheist.
    • Essentially, we're born as atheists and later on come to believe in gods and become theists.  Babies don't have beliefs.
  • People who think it is impossible to know whether a god or gods exist or not (since they are outside the material world).
    • These people also have the label "agnostic."


"Theism" is the belief that a god or gods exist(s).  Atheism is simply the "not" of "theism."  It is basically nothing.  The only reason we have atheism is because we have theism.

Aug 2005

2.2  According to the Dictionary

I figured that the dictionary would be a good place to start for a definition of what atheism is. To my surprise, it turned out to be a good place to start for a definition of what atheism is NOT.

1.  a. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
     b. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.
2.  Godlessness; immorality.

The above tripe care of The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (unchanged from the third edition – apparently they're changing it for the 5th edition) -- update: The dictionary.com definition of atheism was updated in 2006, but it still says it's from the fourth edition of the American Heritage® Dictionary..

I would define atheism as:

1.a.  No belief that gods exist.
   b.  Belief that gods do not exist

Let's go through the parts of the dictionary's definition:

Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.

The first problem is that the exact meanings of the words "disbelief" and "denial" aren't very clear. 

Is "disbelief" "not believing" or "believing not?"

For some, yes, it is a denial ("I believe there are no gods"), while for others it is a simple lack of belief ("I don't believe there are any gods," "I have seen no acceptable evidence supporting the existence of gods, and as such, I have no reason to believe in them," or even "What's a 'god?'").

"Denial" hints at lying – someone who rejects the authority of their god(s) but still believes in it/them is not an atheist, though they may say they are. For instance, in the computer game Black & White, one badly-behaved character says directly to the god in the game, "I won't believe in you," but his very statement shows that he does believe in the god, as he speaks it directly to the god. He just rejects the god's authority, but that does not make him an atheist.  There was a person on alt.atheism who said that she used to be an atheist, but it turned out that she was just upset with her god for a while and ignored it and her religion, like a teen disobeying her parents when they wouldn't let her stay out late at night; that's not atheism.

And, to be a bit pedantic, "God or gods" is a redundancy: "God" is a god, and is included in "gods."  It's like saying "Wayne Gretzky or hockey players" (though any hockey player could be used in place of Gretzky ;) ).

Given the above, I think a much more accurate and concise definition of atheism is

1.a.  No belief that gods exist.
   b.  Belief that gods do not exist

The doctrine that there is no God or gods.

That atheism can be called "doctrine," I think is debatable:

  1. A principle or body of principles presented for acceptance or belief, as by a religious, political, scientific, or philosophic group; dogma.
  2. A rule or principle of law, especially when established by precedent.
  3. A statement of official government policy, especially in foreign affairs and military strategy.
  4. (Archaic) Something taught; a teaching.
  1. You could say it's a principle, but there is nothing to accept or believe. Quite the opposite, in fact.
  2. N/A
  3. N/A
  4. It's not something taught. It's the "default" position you're born with.  One could say that it's the unlearning of theism.
I guess a doctrine could include atheism, but the idea of an "atheist doctrine" is pretty silly.

Godlessness; immorality.

Godlessness. Ok, I'll accept that, at it's face morphographic meaning of "being without a god."
Immorality. Not at all. The word "athesim" is made of "a-" – "not" – and "theism" – "belief in the existence of a god or gods." That has absolutely nothing to do with morality. You don't need the dagger of eternal damnation or the carrot of eternal life waved in front of your nose to be a good, moral person (you also don't need the promise of reincarnation, or getting that sweet car, or....)

"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."
- Albert Einstein

Aug 2000, May 2001, Aug 2005

3.0  Common Misconceptions about Atheism / FAQ

This section is mostly unchanged from 2000.  All the trailing quotes were added in 2005 and a few sections were updated.

3.1  Aren't you supposed to capitalize "atheism" and "atheist?"
3.2  Atheists are pro-abortion, pro-[whatever], or anti-[whatever]
3.3  Atheists have no reason to be moral/ethical
3.4  Atheism is a religion
3.5  Atheists worship science and/or evolution
3.6  Evolution is just a theory, not a fact
3.7  Atheists have no meaning in life
3.8  Atheism is Satanism / Atheists worship Satan
3.9  Atheists hate God
3.10  Einstein's beliefs
3.11  Atheists don't believe in Jesus (or Mohammed, or Moses.. etc)
3.12  What about "Pascal's Wager?"
3.13  What would it take to make you believe in God?

3.1  Aren't you supposed to capitalize "atheism" and "atheist?"


They're just ordinary nouns.  Think of them as non-theism and non-theist.  You might say someone is "non-Christian" or "non-Jewish," but you wouldn't say they are "Non-Christian," etc..

Coincidentally, looking up info for this misconception, I came across a webpage that happens to belong to the girlfriend of a friend of mine, who also likes the term non-theist.  She has a section of her website chronicling her gradual loss of faith while going to Bible school and, later, university.

3.2  Atheists are pro-abortion, pro-[whatever], or anti-[whatever]

Atheists have only one thing in common: they do not believe gods exist. Some are pro-abortion, some are anti-abortion, and I'm sure quite a few are pro-choice AND pro-life (if you look at the actual words). Some are Liberals; some are Conservatives; in fact, some are even NDP!  I could go on, but I won't.

The thing about atheists is you don't know what
we do believe
without asking, only what we don't.
- Enkidu (on alt.atheism)

3.3  Atheists have no reason to be moral/ethical

As a theist, one might consider one's self accountable to one's god(s) and try to obey the teachings of their religion. The average atheist considers themself accountable to themself, people, society, nature, etc..

When asked if the world would be better with or without religion, some theists will say that, without religion, there would be nothing stopping people from doing bad things.  If someone is good only because their religion tells them to be good, or they fear punishment (no afterlife, Hell, etc.), or want to be rewarded for their good behaviour (Heaven, reincarnation, etc.), are they genuinely good people?

An atheist must live with the knowledge (and possibly the guilt) associated with all of the things they have ever done.  I've certainly accumulated a few guilt-inducing memories over the years, and it's sometimes hard to deal with.  I wish I had a time machine.

It's hard to define what "bad" is, but, generally, it's doing something that does harm unnecessarily.  Most atheists, like eveyone else on the planet, attempt to follow the saying "treat others as you would have them treat you." This saying does not come from any religion. My bet is that it came from some mother near the dawn of civilization, though I think it is sometimes attributed to a greek philosopher.  (As an aside, I propose an addition to "the golden rule:" "Treat others as you would have them treat you if your positions were reversed" – because no matter how much I wish cute girls would spontaneously make out with me everywhere I go, I get the feeling that this behaviour from me to them wouldn't be appreciated quite as much!  [Or would it?])

– I ramble a bit below: –

Being moral is advantageous, socially, to the self.  "Crime doesn't pay," as they say.  Friends are helpful and enjoyable.  Enemies, at the very least, don't help you.  Like how smiling will make you feel happy, being good will help you feel good and happy.

When asked if the world would be better with or without religion, some theists will say that without religion, there would be nothing stopping people from doing bad things.  Did the Greek and Roman religions ("mythologies") even cover morality?  Their gods were often worse than people!  As far as I can tell, most religions only deal/dealt with explaining how the world works and say very little about morality, yet their adherents tend to get along pretty well without religious moral guidance.

"You believe in God, even with no 'proof' correct?
So why can't
atheists believe in morality?"
- RainLover (on alt.atheism)

"Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily.  All other "sins" are
invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful – just stupid.)"
- Robert Heinlein, from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long.

"for moral reasons I am an atheist – for moral reasons. I am of the opinion that you would recognize a creator by his creation, and the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created by anyone than to think that somebody created this intentionally"
- Stanislaw Lem, Author of "Solaris"

"I don't believe in God now.  I can still work up an envy for someone who has a faith. I can see how that could be a deeply soothing experience."
Jack Nicholson, actor

"I believed I had a responsiblity to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking, and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn't a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I'd been baptized."
- Lance Armstrong, cyclist (also, "If there was a god, I'd still have both nuts.")

As you can see, morality is something many atheists are very interested in.

"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."
- Albert Einstein (not exactly an atheist, but a great quote)

3.4  Atheism is a religion

Atheism is the lack in belief of gods, nothing more.

There are thousands of gods in existence (the idea of the god, I mean. God, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, Jupiter, etc), yet people of certain religions believe in just one or a handful of these gods, while not believing in all the others. Atheists just believe in one or a handful less. There are people from certain religions who are atheists – this is because their religion does not include gods (such as some (all?) forms of Buddhism). The person's religion is (say) Buddhism, not atheism.

Going back to the dictionary:
1.   a.   Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
      b.   A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
2.   The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
3.   A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
4.   A cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

3 could apply to atheists in a religion that has a spiritual leader, but it has nothing to do with atheism itself.
4 could be used to describe some atheists, but the majority of atheists don't think twice about it. I wasn't even aware that I was "atheist" and that that was out of the ordinary until about grade 10. Some people are religious about their atheism, but it's not a religion. This 4th definition would make someone who works for Pepsi marketing a religious person : P. Or someone who fights for an end to child labour.

"...if atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby."
- snex (on alt.atheism)

"Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color."
- Mark Schnitzius or Don Hirschberg (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Atheism)

3.5  Atheists worship science and/or evolution

On UseNet, I once saw an atheist write "worship science!" He recieved many messages by other atheists that they did not. I have also seen theists come into alt.atheism and argue that evolution is worshipped by atheists. No, it's just that most of us believe is it true, and until someone comes up with something that explains what goes on in nature better, it will continue to be believed. We don't bow down before it, though ; ).  "Worship" is so ingrained in some people's lives that they can not understand that there are people who don't "worship," so they think that atheists must "worship" the things they believe in that the theist does not because the theist worships the things the atheist does not believe in.

3.6  Evolution is just a theory, not a fact

Some people will say "evolution is only a theory, it's not true!" Evolution is a fact. Evolution has been observed to actually happen. The accepted mechanisms by which evolution happens is the theory of evolution.

People do not create facts, they create theories to explain the facts.  Like Einstein's theories of Relativity, they attempt to explain what is observed to the best of human ability.

BTW, evolution does not deal with how life started. That is called abiogenesis ("birth/origin from the unliving").
Learn about evolution and abiogenesis at www.talkorigins.org, the website for the talk.origins newsgroup.

It seems that every week I see a new article on New Scientist about a new discovery improving our understanding of evolution.  Improving the theory we use to explain how evolution works, just like Einstein improved on theories explaining movement (old:  d = vt.  Einstein:  d = vt/sqrt(1 - v2/c2) ).

Darwin himself seems to be the main target of some people.  When it comes to evolutionary theory, Darwin is like a cave man making the first fire, while the modern biologist is using flourescent lights to see by, a gas oven to cook with, and an overclocked Pentium 4 Prescott CPU to heat their house.

3.7  Atheists have no meaning in life

Most atheists just want to live life to its fullest. Have fun, drink Pepsi : P. Once I die, I'm gone, and though I don't like the idea, it's the way it is.

What I do does have meaning, though. Think of "meaning" as a sphere (well, a four-dimensional object [can't forget time : P] that can have any shape and variable "meaning-density," would be better, but why complicate things?) that encompasses anything it is related directly to: Joe Blow across town whom I've never met, his sphere does not overlap me, he has no meaning to me. But if I meet him, his sphere of meaning overlaps me a bit, and if we become friends, he has more meaning to me, and his sphere overlaps me more. Or it could be that he's an electrician and fixed the town's power supply last week. He has meaning to lots of people now, though indirectly. Anyway, eventually, all the spheres will go away with time once the universe dies or we blow ourselves up or whatever, but though meaning is not permanent, I don't see how that affects things too much. If I have lots of (good) meaning to lots of people in my life, I'll be happy.

"While men are gazing up to Heaven, imagining after a happiness, or fearing a Hell
after they are dead, their eyes are put out, that they see not what is their birthright."

- Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom, 1652

3.8  Atheism is Satanism / Atheists worship Satan


That's absurd on the face of it: if one doesn't believe in gods, why and how would one believe in Satan?

3.9  Atheists hate God

Atheists don't believe said god exists.

This is actually one of the more common misconceptions I've encountered. Many theists seem to believe that atheists believe in their god, but just don't accept it as their master.

3.10  Einstein's beliefs

People occasionally will say something like "Einstein believed in God, do you doubt the opinion of arguably the smartest man to ever live?" There is a quote by him, "God does not play dice" (I think it was in reference to the randomness of quantum mechanics), and some people use this to say he believed in the God of the religion of that person. Anyway, here's a quote that is more accurate about what he believed:

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings."

And another:

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it."

Kinda Deistic, I guess (Deism is believing that a god created the Universe, then just stood back and watched it, and does not interfere with it, but I think Einstein essentially just gives the Universe the name "God").

Also, no one's beliefs should be above another's questioning. Einstein did not believe in black holes (like the one at the very centre of our own galaxy). He also believed in a static Universe, one that did not expand or contract.  Einstein's own Theory of General Relativity predicted that the Universe would have to be expanding or contracting due to the existence of gravity (gravity would cause it to contract, but if it had enough expanding energy, it would not contract, it would expand. It is accepted that the Universe is expanding, as the vast majority of objects in space have been observed to be moving away from us (one notable exception is the Andromeda galaxy that will collide with our galaxy in a few billion years or so : ) ). However, when he noticed this about his theory, he attempted to modify it so that beyond a certain distance, gravity would repel. As far as I can tell, this still wouldn't create a static unverse: it couldn't possibly balance everywhere.

A good book to read about Einstein's beliefs on many subjects is "Out of My Later Years."

3.11  Atheists don't believe in Jesus (or Mohammed, or Moses.. etc)

This isn't entirely a misconception, but I think it could do with some clarification.

An atheist isn't going to believe in the grand tales of these people/characters without grand evidence.

Some atheists may believe that Jesus existed, but what they don't believe is that he was anything more than an ordinary, but influential, man, whose fame got amplified and exagerated out of hand over the years.

As for other religious figures, I don't know enough about them to say much.

Had Ghandi lived 1000 years ago, he might have a religion built around him.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"
- Carl Sagan

3.12  What about "Pascal's Wager?"

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.
- Blaise Pascal

Pascal's wager is essentially this:

You can either believe in God or not. Either God exists or does not. So there are 4 possibilities: God exists and you believe in him, so you go to heaven; God doesn't exist and you don't believe in him, so when you die, you get nothing but haven't lost anything either. God exists and you don't believe in him, and you go to Hell or your soul ceases to exist or something. God doesn't exist and you believe in him, and you wasted a bunch of Sunday mornings in church. The only possibility that you can gain from is the first, so you might as well believe in God.

It's decent reasoning, until you really think about it. First, it's pretty hard to make yourself believe something you don't believe. Could you believe in goblins and elves and such just because I was going to give you 20$ if you did? You could say you believed in them in order to collect the prize, but that's not believing in them, and I'm sure a god could tell if you were just saying you believed in it in order to collect the prize. Next, there are SOO many different, wildly different, gods to believe in.. So many religions claiming to be the True Religion. How do I choose?? And, if by some off-chance there IS a god, I'd think it pretty petty to destroy me for not believing in it and worshipping it, especially when the mind it created for me led me to the conclusion that it's just the product of another human mind. I'm confident that I'm basically a good person, and if I were a god, I wouldn't hold not believing in me against a person who did what they thought good.

I have always considered "Pascal's Wager" a questionable bet to place. Any God worth
"believing in" would surely prefer an honest agnostic to a calculating hypocrite.
- Alan Dershowitz

(An agnostic is someone who believes/thinks that it is impossible to know whether or not gods exist.  I guess I believe that, in the same way that I believe it's impossible to know whether or not invisible pink unicorns exist.)

"Belief" is not something you can turn on and off like a spigot. No person can truly "believe in God" unless the evidence convinces his or her mind. If you don't believe me, try believing that the stars are holes punched into a heavenly dome, with the light of heaven shining through.
- Dave Matson

"Well, I tell you, if I have been wrong in my agnosticism, when I die I'll
walk up to God in a manly way and say, Sir, I made an honest mistake."

- H. L. Mencken

3.13  What would it take to make you believe in God?

I really don't know. It would have to be something so grand and OBVIOUS that I couldn't think of any other way for it to have happened. But even what could convince me, might not convince others. This is probably what has happened to many people who adopted theism later in life. Some people start believing in a god after surviving car crashes or other disasters, but I don't think something like that would make me believe. Maybe if I drove my car off a cliff, then it stopped in mid-air and floated back onto the road, and God appeared through the clouds and gave me a "thumbs up" and winked at me. That could maybe do it.  A potato chip shaped like the "Virgin Mary" probably would not.

"I find it absolutely incredible that a creator god and his savior son would,
instead of coming down to earth and handing us their message
choose to communicate with mankind through cheese sandwiches."

-Vic Sagerquist (on alt.atheism)

"If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss Bank."
- Woody Allen, "Selections from the Allen Notebooks," in New Yorker (5 Nov. 1973)

Aug 2000, May 2001, Aug 2005

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