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Atheism FAQ

General Atheism

Ethics

Politics and Society

Science and Skepticism

Arguments for god

What is atheism?

Atheism is merely a lack of belief in god or gods.

Isn’t Atheism just another religion?

No. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that the root issue of defining religion is related to religious belief. They therefore define a religion as a belief “appropriately connected with characteristically religious attitudes on the part of the believer, such attitudes as worship, love, commitment, awe, and the like.” While atheists certainly do love, are committed to others and may have feelings of awe, they do not worship or express these feelings in the context of their atheism as is required of a religion.

Isn’t it arrogant to say you know there isn’t a God?

Atheists do not say that there is no god. Instead, atheists simply lack belief in god. Atheism is not a belief, it is a lack of belief and reflects a lack of knowledge and intellectual humility.

What about agnosticism?

Agnosticism is a very poorly understood position. Many individuals believe agnosticism is the position which holds that one does not know if there is a god or gods. This is not correct. Rather, agnosticism is the position that one can not know if there is a god or gods. Agnosticism is a position on the nature of knowledge and its limits, not on the existence or non-existence of gods. Consequently, most agnostics are actually atheists. If you believe that one can not know if god or gods exist, then you most likely lack belief in any specific god. The reverse is true as well, most atheists are agnostics.

Agnosticism is contrasted with gnosticism, the position that you can know if there is a god or gods. Many religious believers are gnostics, but many are also agnostics. There are gnostic theists, agnostic theists, gnostic atheists and agnostic atheists. Although related, agnosticism or gnosticism do not denote any position on the existence of god.

But those definitions are wrong!

These definitions represent what members of our group mean by these words. It is likely that we wouldn’t use other definitions to describe ourselves.

What do you think happens when you die?

Although atheism does not imply any position on the existence of life after death, the majority of atheists do not believe in any type of afterlife.

Are atheists only atheists because of some traumatic experience with religion?

While some atheists may have had bad experiences with religion, most atheists have reached their conclusion by pursuing a path of rational inquiry. We encourage all people to critically examine their beliefs and reach their conclusions through rational examination of available evidence, not an emotional reaction to traumatic experiences.

Ethics

How can you be good without god?

Atheists are good for goodness sake. Atheists don’t rely on threats of eternal punishment to be good people. It’s likely that most religious believers have the same motivation as atheists for being good to their fellow individuals. If this is difficult to understand, consider how you might act without a belief in god or gods. Would you act immorally? More than likely not. Lacking belief in a god doesn’t make someone stop being good to their fellow man.

How can you have ethics without God?

Ethics, in its broadest sense, addresses questions of right and wrong. Although many of the key questions in ethical philosophy remain unresolved, it has provided insights into the way people do and should behave that affect everyday life. Many ideas have been proposed in the fields of normative and meta-ethics, and while some of these have included religious components, many have also been secular. At the very least, this suggests that ethics does not require a deity or deities to generate meaningful answers. Atheists hold different ideas about topics in ethical philosophy, and many may provide different answers to ethical questions. Although the field of ethics is to broad to address in a substantial manner here, we encourage you to do your own research into secular ethical philosophies.

Aren’t atheists immoral?

Like within all groups, there are some atheists who may act immorally, but most live honest, loving, fulfilling moral lives. Whether its sending money to spur innovation in developing countries, founding the largest philanthropic organization in the world , or merely helping out in the local community, atheists act morally everyday. What this shows, more than anything, is that whether a person or persons is moral or immoral has nothing to do with their atheism(or lack thereof).

What about the great atheist dictatorships of the 20th century? Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot?

Some have argued that the atrocities of the 20th century committed by Nazi Germany and Communist dictatorships in the Soviet Union, Cambodia and China were the result of atheism. While a critical look at each of these dictatorships may cast doubt on claims that they were based in some way on atheism, it is more important to recognize a greater commonality running through each of them. Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia all made free inquiry and questioning of authority a primary enemy of the state. They were each characterized by unquestioning dogmatic loyalty to the ideology of the state and the persona of the leader. What led to the massacres of the 20th century was dogmatism and the suppression of freedom of conscience, not atheism.

Politics and Society

Why do atheists care what religious people believe?

Atheists don’t strictly care what religious people believe. Rather, atheists care how the beliefs of religious people affect the society in which we live. Religious belief can cause individuals to not have freedom of conscience or expression in fear of retribution from their community, keeps people from having access to knowledge or resources necessary to prevent pregnancy or protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases, and keeps loving committed couples from being able to marry.

But isn’t America a Christian nation?

Despite attempts by historical revisionists to recast the United States as a Christian nation, history does not support this claim. While many of the founding fathers were religious men, the majority of the men we think of as key in establishing this nation, including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were deists, or people who believed in a deity that has no interest in human affairs. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, even edited the new testament to remove references to the supernatural.

While interesting, the personal beliefs of the founding fathers are largely unimportant in trying to determine whether the United States is a Christian nation. Of far more importance is the content of the constitution. The United States Constitution makes no mention of Christianity or Jesus. This was not unintentional. Not only do contemporary accounts of the Constitutional Convention mention that references to god were specifically and overwhelmingly voted out of the Constitution, but the objections of delegates like Luther Martin, who argued “that in a Christian country it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism”, provide further evidence that the framers of the Constitution specifically objected to the notion that the United States would be a Christian nation. If we hold to Luther Martin’s premises, the United States can not be a Christian country as the government holds no distinction between Christians and non-Christians.

Perhaps, however, the most important document to this conversation comes not from the libraries of the Founding Fathers or from the Constitutional Convention, but instead from the little known Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, commonly referred to as the Treaty of Tripoli. The Treaty was ratified unanimously by the Senate and signed by President John Adams in 1797. Article 11 of the Treaty begins “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…”. Clearly, neither the early Senators nor President Adams believed the United States to be a Christian nation.

So maybe America isn’t a Christian nation, but shouldn’t the majority still get to decide what role religion will have in society?

Although the United States is a democracy, it is also a Republic with protections for minority groups from oppression by the majority. These protections began, in part, with the Bill of Rights and have since by expanded by constitutional amendments and acts of congress. What this means is that while the majority of Americans may be of one religious denomination, protections exist to keep that religion from impacting the rights of individuals who have alternative beliefs or no beliefs at all. Chief among these protections is the separation of church and state, provided by the first amendment.

But the phrase “Separation of Church and State” doesn’t appear in the Constitution, doesn’t that mean religion can play a part in government?

The phrase “separation of church and state” originates from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury baptists. In the letter, Jefferson writes that “the whole American people [...] declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” Separation of church and state is thus a phrase coined by Jefferson referring to the protections of the first amendment.

What about our Judeo-Christian heritage?

Some have argued that despite the government not being Christian in character, the government was inspired by Judeo-Christian principles. Although this claim is arguably much stronger than claims that the government is officially Christian, this also seems unlikely. The character of the Constitution is primarily the result of the ideas of various political philosophers of the European enlightenment whose work was largely secular in character.

A further claim is maintained by some that the ethical character of the United States is based on Judeo-Christian ethics. While it would be a mistake to claim to know the basis for every individuals ethics, there are many secular ethical philosophies that individuals subscribe to and that form the basis of laws in any country. Perhaps more important is the question of whether tradition or heritage can provide a basis upon which to write laws. Regardless of what you believe on those issues, constitutional and other legal protections prohibit certain laws that may arise from tradition or heritage based decision making.

Science and Skepticism

Do atheists believe in ghosts? UFOs? Angels? Psychics? etc?

Atheism only describes one’s lack of belief in god, and consequently there are atheists with beliefs in the supernatural apart from deities. Most atheists, however, do not believe in any supernatural forces.

What is the relationship between atheism and skepticism? Are all atheists skeptics? Are all skeptics atheists?

Atheism and skepticism are often mistaken for one another. Skepticism is a philosophical position that, in a broad sense, holds that all claims need to be well supported by evidence in order to be believed. Many individuals consider themselves atheists because of their skepticism, but not all atheists arrived at their atheism through philosophical skepticism. Similarly, not all skeptics arrive at atheism through their philosophical skepticism. Atheism is only a description of people who lack belief in god, and does not denote an agreement with skeptical philosophies. Because of the overlap between skeptics, skeptical philosophies, lack of belief in god and people who lack belief in god, skeptical organizations often associate themselves with atheism, and atheist organizations often actively promote skeptical values.

What is the relationship between atheism and the Theory of Evolution? Between atheism and the Big Bang Theory?

The Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory are both extremely well tested models that describe the diversification of life on Earth and the history of the universe, respectively. Consequently, many atheists have an interest in one or both theories as describing the natural world. There is no other relationship between atheism and either scientific theory.

Does believing in Evolution or the Big Bang make you an atheist? Can you accept scientific findings while believing in God?

Accepting the scientific facts of Evolution and the Big Bang does not make someone an atheist, it makes them well informed about reality. That said, the relationship between science and religion is often tumultuous, especially when scientific findings contradict religious dogma. In a seminal essay on the relationship between science and religion, biologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the phrase “non-overlapping magisteria” to describe the idea that religion and science answer different types of questions. Although itself a controversial idea that many scientists and theologians may disagree with, the idea of non-overlapping magisteria suggests that science and religion can coexist.

Arguments for god

Without God, what is the meaning of life?

Some have argued that without god or eternal consequences, life is devoid of meaning. It has also been argued that if one has eternal reward or punishment, life is essentially meaningless because is occupies an infinitely short amount of time with little consequences for actions. For many atheists, life gains far more meaning by virtue of it being finite. We only have one chance to love our family and friends while making a positive impact on the world. We only have one chance to make our lives matter.

What if you’re wrong?

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

What about this argument: ______________ for god?

Take a look at our articles section and the rest of this FAQ to see if it hasn’t already been addressed. If not, feel free to e-mail ahaslo@ahaslo.org or visit one of our meetings, ask an atheist booths, or transfaith events.