What Is Atheism
What is atheism? What does it mean to be atheist? Is atheism a religion? What do atheists believe? What is the difference between an agnostic and an atheist? What is a gnostic atheist? How should I discuss atheism?
Let’s start with the most basic question regarding atheism: What is it?
I have no trouble admitting that I didn’t know what atheism was until I was over 30 years old. Without being too specific, that was a little while ago. It wasn’t that I had never heard the word. I just thought it meant something else. I wasn’t completely ignorant about it, but I wasn’t correct either. I thought atheism was the firmly held belief that there is and was no god. At the time I considered myself agnostic, because I couldn’t completely rule out the possiblity. No one could really KNOW that there is or isn’t. I figured there COULD have been some sort of interdimensional being larger than our universe that could observe or influence us, though I found it highly doubtful.
When it came to stories about resurrections, unicorns, virgin mothers, megalithic turtles, etc., my doubts were a bit more firm in their conviction. By this time I had read and learned enough to know that the religions of the world had a lot of things in common:
1. There were one or more omnipotent gods.
2. Living people could not see them (unless they took human form).
3. There were instructions for humans left behind by these divine unseen things.
4. Obedience to the instructions would result in a great reward that would be paid upon death.
Of course one could look at this as evidence of the validity of the claims! After all, 84% of the world must be on to something, right? Almost 17/20 people on earth identify as religious.
Here are some other things these religions have in common:
1. Each religion claims to be the one true authority. Well SOMEONE has to be wrong if they’re not all the same.
2. The instructions left behind don’t match each other, nor do they match the originals. The instructions are vague, conflict with themselves, and open to A LOT of interpretation. Does this sound “perfect”?
3. The followers are predictably geographically concentrated and the religious view is most often inherited from the parents. We get a lot of things from our parents, but a special knowledge of the workings of the universe seems far-fetched.
I believe when an inquisitive brain looks critically on these commonalities as I did, a person would notice the similarities in the claimed stories and wonder how it could be that no matter who is right, if anyone, the majority are wrong, but equally resolute. For me, the natural answer (guess at this point) was that they were all wrong. This is the point (in my early twenties) where I no longer identified as Christian, but as an agnostic.
An agnostic is simply put: one who does not know. Two part etymology: a- meaning without and -gnostic meaning knowledge of. I had basically dismissed the stories and gods of religion, but for a while held on to the idea that there was something “spiritual” beyond the observable universe. At this time I could have been described as a sort of agnostic theist.
Around this time in my life I became friends with a self-described atheist and began to discuss these views on gods, religions, and humanity with him. We were already nearly in the same place. I had already rejected the gods as they were described and the religious texts and dogma, but I could not at that time answer the most basic question about the belief I held on to. “Why?”
Then the questions came in a flood. Why would a person believe there was any sort of life beyond death if they didn’t believe any of the religious stories? What have I personally observed that made me think that there was some part of me, detached from my mortal body that would continue on after I died? Was that rational? Is that consistent with what I’ve observed and learned?
I knew all the answers to all of these questions already, but I was not quite ready to face them. For reasons I now better understand, I threw up my last defense, which I thought was ironclad. “No one can prove there’s not.”
My clever friend was fully prepared for this through and crumbled the last remaining wall with the simplest of analogies. “And you can’t prove there’s not a teapot floating through space between the Earth and Mars, but there isn’t.” This is a paraphrased argument famous amongst skeptics known as “Russell’s teapot” or the “cosmic teapot.”
It wasn’t the argument itself that was profound. It’s elegant in its simplicity and clarity. What it did for me was remove that last barrier to the truth I already knew. Gods were created by man.
Once I had arrived at the conclusion that I didn’t have a belief in any gods, I was officially an atheist. It wasn’t because I then decided to join a club, it was by definition. A- (the prefix meaning without), and -theist (belief in a god or gods). It is VERY IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THIS:
The only thing all atheists have in common is their lack of belief in god or gods.
You may have noticed that I went beyond this with my claim of knowledge. I said I knew “Gods were created by man.” I feel comfortable and confident in that assertion. That makes me a gnostic atheist. I am claiming to have knowledge beyond my atheism.
If you have read and understand the above, congratulations! You are now an expert on atheism.
You may be wondering how that could be or doubting it, but again, there is nothing to atheism beyond the meaning of it.
There are no atheist texts. If there was one, it would be limited to “I don’t believe in god(s)”. A “bible” that does not make. Since this is strictly a rejection of a claim, there are no claims associated with it. This means there is also no membership, no dogma, no leadership, no religion.
It is very common for religious people to claim that atheism is a religion. This is quite simply not true. While many atheists feel similarly about religion and their reasons for disbelief in deities, no two atheists hold the same beliefs and values. Again, being an atheist does not involve the acceptance of any premise, but the rejection of only one.
One doesn’t have to accept the validity of evolution, climate change, the spherical nature of the earth, or even gravity to be an atheist. It does seem to be common for atheists to be questioned about these things as they are sometimes cited for reasons to disbelieve religious stories by other atheists. Atheists are not required to defend their disbelief any more than I would be required to explain my dislike for the taste of turnips.
“Look, I just don’t buy it” is a perfectly acceptable explanation of an atheist position. Nonbelievers are often asked to prove their side, but it doesn’t make any sense to attempt to prove that you don’t believe something. If you’re not making a claim, you have nothing to defend.
When discussing atheism:
If you find yourself discussing atheism with someone else, please remember that blanket statements should not be used when discussing atheists (or really any other group of people for that matter) as atheists only have their lack of belief in common. If you wish to insert your personal beliefs into the discussion, please represent them as such and politely correct others that fail to do the same. Please be civil in your discussions. If you are arguing in defense of atheism (if you’re atheist, you will be) please be civil and respectful of others. Of course you don’t have to respect their position, but it is helpful to come across as rational and “normal”. A lot of people have preconceived notions regarding atheists, and you’ll be doing other atheists a real disservice if you’re feeding into them. You do not in any way represent all atheists, but to whomever you’re having your discussion, you just might.
If it seems like I’m repeating myself a lot, I am. Certain points are important to understand regarding atheism. I already told you that you’re now an expert on atheism, so why are you still reading this? If you’ve enjoyed this, please have a look at my other articles for more in-depth related content.