Atheism & Irreligion

I have encountered a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding atheism. Questions abound like: How can they believe nothing? What happens to the basis for morality? Why do they want to impose their beliefs on religious people? Isn’t atheism just a leap of faith? Aren’t atheists responsible for the greatest atrocities of the 20th century? These questions and other contentions incorrectly paint atheism as some sort of malicious movement to destroy society. I hope to briefly address this view and set the record straight.

What is an Atheist?

A ‘theist’ is one with a belief in a god or gods. The prefix ‘a’ means no or without so an a-theist is simply one without a belief in a god or gods. Atheism does not necessarily deny the possibility of a god. Also, any other belief, opinion or world view that an atheist has is strictly related to that individual and not atheism. It is simply not a belief system.

“Calling Atheism a religion is like calling bald a hair color.” – Don Hirschberg

What do they believe?

This is difficult to answer because there is no established belief set, just like it is difficult to group non-astrologers or people unconvinced by Poseidon. Most non-theists have strong values and systems of ethics that guide their lives. This is driven by their conscience not dogma, scripture, or promises of the afterlife. The discussion of morality is a complex one and I touch on it later, but atheists think people can be good without God.

Why do they oppose religion?

Most atheists don’t care much either way as long as they are free to believe what they want. It is true, however, that their personal values and sense of morality often conflict heavily with practices in organized religion (i.e. stem-cell research) and lead them to be somewhat anti-theist. The most vocal are those that contend the benefits of religions are not worth the costs.

Isn’t Atheism just a religion?

A common assault levied by religious people is that not believing in God is a leap of faith itself and that atheists instead worship reason. First, there is little difference between atheists and most theists. Stephen F. Roberts wrote, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Second, the use of reason has nothing to do with religion. Every human uses reason every day to navigate the world and make decisions. Reason needs no justification because it is justification.

Weren’t Hitler and Stalin atheists?

First, Atheism is not responsible for the greatest evils of the 20th century because it isn’t a belief system. Only dogma, either political or religious, can lead to these sorts of horrors. Second, an analysis of these acts is quite complex so I can only briefly touch on them.

Hitler was not an atheist, he was Christian. In reality it was his religious beliefs that played a major role in making him a face of evil across the world. He said in Mein Kampf, “Therefore, I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. In fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” He later claimed justification through God in a 1939 Wilhelmshaven speech that “The judgment whether a people is virtuous or not virtuous can hardly be passed by a human being. That should be left to God.” My point here only to indicate how ridiculous the accusation is that Hitler’s work was due to atheism.

Stalin was in fact an atheist. He was a communist first, a devotee of Marxim, who was raised as a Christian initially, and even studied for a time in the seminary to be a priest. His outlawing of religion had to do with controlling the state and totalitarian rule. Most importantly though, his mass murder and genocide had as much to do with atheism as Hitler being a vegetarian led him to murder Jews.

Horrific world history like the Killing Fields, the Gulag and the Holocaust were not the result of societies that became too attached to critical thinking, or too demanding of evidence. Sam Harris summed it up saying, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

Can society exist without God?

This question is best addressed by author Phil Zuckerman in Society Without God where he spent 14 months studying and interviewing people in Scandinavia. He found that “society without God is not only possible, but it can be quite civil and pleasant.” Further, via several international rankings prove countries like Denmark and Sweden are among the most well-developed, wealthiest, most democratic, most free, most entrepreneurial, least corrupt, least violent, most peaceful, healthiest, happiest, most egalitarian, best educated, most charitable, and most environmentally compassionate societies. Now, this doesn’t mean that no religion causes strong societies. It just undermines the baseless accusation that people can’t live well without religion.

What if I am an atheist?

Freedom from religion can offer a freeing and positive world view where you can govern your own destiny. The meaning of life becomes a more personal question. Without a belief in a personal god the universe is still a beautiful and amazing place. Scientific discovery emerges as the best way to continue uncovering the wonders of life and improving our prosperity. Natural disasters and misery become things we can address without accepting “God’s will.” No personal god means we must take responsibility to protect the world and each other. With no eternal salvation we must treasure the life we have and make it the best life we possibly can.

The role of non-theists will become increasingly important in the 21st century as more and more people depart from organized religion searching for answers. ReligionLink.com offers a source guide to atheists, humanists, and non-theists stating that “As America grapples with competing notions about its identity — Christian nation, pluralistic melting pot, secular society — an understanding of the country’s nontheists is vital. The concerns and influence of this segment of society seem destined to touch all Americans’ lives.”

Here are some resources if you are interested in learning more:

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