Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is atheism?
A: Atheists do not believe in any God or gods. For many non-believers, atheism expresses the insistence upon understanding the world through reason rather than faith.
Q: Do all non-believers call themselves atheists?
A: The late Kurt Vonnegut described himself as both an atheist and a humanist. Some people call themselves atheists, freethinkers, rationalists, realists, agnostics, while still others apply no name to their non-belief, or simply call themselves non-believers.
Q: How can an atheist know there is no God? If this is so, isn't atheism itself therefore a religion, in that it requires a faith-like belief in the non-existence of God (which cannot be proved)?
A: Atheists arrive at their non-belief by means of inductive reasoning. An example of this type of reasoning is as follows: I have seen many crows, and all of them were black — I believe that all crows are black. While inductive reasoning is not as conclusive as deductive reasoning, it is used everyday by all of us — it is based on our experiences. In fact, we couldn't navigate our way through daily life without it. Through this type of reasoning we believe, to a reasonable degree of certainty, that the barking sound from the neighbor's yard is made by a dog, that turning the steering wheel of the car to the left will move the car to the left, that a hammer will work in the way that we expect, etc. In some of these instances, like driving a car, we trust our lives and the lives of loved ones to this sort of reasoning. We also use inductive reasoning to know (yes, know) that a leprechaun is not squatting behind the bushes, that sorcerers cannot turn us into frogs, and that the Easter Bunny is not real.
In deciding about the existence of God, we have none of the common type of experiences with which to inform ourselves. All of our knowledge of God comes from either anecdotal evidence (either in spoken form or from written accounts) or from the interpretation of evidence in the natural world (see below). A great deal is at stake with the question of God's existence and atheists simply do not trust anecdotal evidence enough to be swayed by it. As Albert Einstein said: "I cannot prove to you that there is no personal God, but if I were to speak of him I would be a liar."
Atheism is not, therefore, a religion. The atheist knowing there is no God is on the same footing as other kinds of knowledge that we take for granted — and is not based on faith.
Q: Isn't religion on a different footing than Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy? Isn't it true, for instance, that there is remarkable evidence for God in the nature?
A: No. Nature provides evidence for the natural, almost by definition. It does not show any evidence for the supernatural.
Q: If atheism is the correct view of the world, why are so many people religious? Why is atheism so disliked?
A: Many religions describe the journey to faith, the need to study and build faith, which suggests that faith is not acquired through a natural process, but must be learned. This certainly makes sense, given that God is not like rocks, trees or water — you cannot hear or see God, and must learn about his existence through acquaintance with centuries of religious tradition, ritual, and teachings. In other words, we all start out as non-believers (atheists!) and move toward theism through training.
Many millions of people have been coerced into their belief by threats of everlasting punishment, highly effective guilt-tripping, and the incessant peer pressure from close family members that causes even the religiously indifferent to default to a belief in God/religion, even if such a belief is neither heartfelt nor well defined.
Just as many people are coerced through a rigorous system of propaganda to acquire belief, these same folks are subjected to a barrage of hateful thinking about atheism and non-believers. Also, once people have accepted (even passively) belief, it is difficult for them to put up with the attack on their faith that is implied by atheism. In short, people feel they are being challenged or ridiculed and they become defensive. This is an emotional response to the challenge of atheism, not a logical one.
Q: Isn't atheism simply a negation of religion (a-theism), and therefore like a parasite of religion, without which it would not exist?
A: Many of the Scots in the Loch Ness area believe in the mythical beast, Nessie. Let's call the people who don't A-Nessies. The A-Nessies do not depend upon Nessie or the Nessie believers for their existence. They exist as a group of people who value reason above superstition.
Q: Are atheists antagonistic to religion?
A: Some atheists dislike religion, which has caused vast suffering in the world, and continues to do so. Others remain entirely indifferent to religious matters. There is nothing in the nature of atheism that requires antagonism toward religion. It must be said, though, that the resurgent power of religious bigotry, as well as the growing tendency in the U.S. for politicians to need to confirm their religiousness is an alarming and dangerous trend. Atheists have responded to this trend by speaking against it in many ways.
Q: Why bother being an atheist? What purpose does it serve? What does atheism offer?
A: For some from religious backgrounds, atheism offers a life without the oppression of guilt, shame and worry about torture in hell, Gods disapproval, and the weight of sin that accompanies religion. There are social reasons. Like all other people, atheists enjoy spending time in the company of like-minded people.
Because atheists belong to a very large American minority, and because political issues (like the separation of church and state) frequently arise, it is effective for atheists to come together
Also, atheism offers intellectual honesty and moral clarity. In order to believe in god one has to suppress one's reason, which is intellectually dishonest.
Q: Do atheists believe in evolution?
A: Everyone believes in evolution unless they're being aggressively ignorant, which Atheists have no motivation to be.
Q: What do atheists think about Jesus?
A: Some atheists doubt that Jesus ever existed, or believe that he is largely or wholly a fabrication of later followers. It is safe to say that no atheist accepts that Jesus was a supernatural being.
Some atheists dislike the things that his followers have done over the centuries, people called Christians after him. This dislike has made them wish Jesus had never started any religion at all.
Some atheists actually have expressed respect and affection for him. Consider the following two examples:
Richard Dawkins — "... he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so╔What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness." (from Atheists For Jesus)
Kurt Vonnegut — "But if Christ hadn't delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I'd just as soon be a rattlesnake." (from A Man Without a Country)
As you can see, atheists feel all different ways about Jesus.
Q: Can an atheist be a spiritual person? Are all atheists mere materialists? Are atheists cold and emotionless people?
A: Spiritual is so vague a word to be almost meaningless. If materialist means someone who thinks there is an objective reality, then most if not all Atheists are materialists. Atheists are not, in general, any colder or more emotionless than believers.
Q: Doesn't atheism create a moral vacuum? Why would atheists be moral people?
A: For the same reason Theists would, because they're mature enough to realize that they do not hold privileged positions in the world, and are intelligent enough to realize that a system of behavior which privileges themselves at the expense of others is not justifiable. The difference between Atheists and many Theists is that Atheists recognize that there are some absolute moral values, based on the Golden Rule, and not just arbitrary rules invented at the whim of a fictional character.
"The fact that faith has motivated many people to do good things does not suggest that faith is a necessary (or even a good) motivation for goodness. It can be quite possible, even reasonable, to risk one's life to save others without believing any incredible ideas about the nature of the universe." Sam Harris, The End of Faith
Q: Isn't it so that without God there is no purpose in life?
A: No. Your purpose in life is up to you.
Q: What comfort is there in the atheist outlook on life?
A: Many religious doctrines allow for, sustain, and encourage all sorts of abuses and atrocities. There are the Untouchables of India (more recently called the Scheduled Caste), about 140 million victims of Hindu dogma. Christian religion vigorously supported slavery, quoting ancient Biblical curses, like the curses on Ham and Canaan, and giving the slave trade needed moral assurance. The list of abuses can go on and on: warfare, kidnapping, terrorism, rape, child labor, modern slavery, degradation of women, racism — all fostered by religion. How much would these horrors be reduced if people began to value rationality over superstition? There is comfort in this hope.
The atheist does not believe in an afterlife or immortal soul. That means that the world we live in, this earth that we share with over six billion other humans and many other living things, is all we have. The atheist has great reason, then, to live a good, satisfying life right now.
Penn Jillette — "Believing there's no God means I can't really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That's good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around╔Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O, and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have."
Q: Isn't it true that many scientists and thinkers over the centuries and up until the present time have been believers?
A: It depends what you mean by “many”. A majority of scientists are Atheists. (In a 1998 issue of Nature magazine, the following results were obtained from scientists who responded with "agnosticism" or "disbelief" in a personal god, during surveys taken in three widely separated years in the 20th Century:
1914 — 73%; 1933 — 85%; 1998 — 93%.
Q: How many Americans are atheists?
A: According to one survey, one person in ten in the U.S. describes himself as a non-believer (atheist, agnostic, or "no religion"), which amounts to about 30 million atheists in this country. In some other surveys the number is as high as 14-18%. Also, keep in mind that some respondents, especially those with religious training, might be hesitant to admit skepticism, even on an anonymous survey.
These figures are low when compared to many western or industrial countries, where atheism runs as high as 85%.
In addition, see http://www.cookhimes.us/dennis/aaa.htm. This includes discussions of Pascal's Wager, St. Anselm, and cosmological argument.