This guide (and this site) was created to answer some of the most common questions that religious people ask of atheists, and some of the most common misperceptions that people hold about atheists.
The purpose of the guide is not to convert you. It is simply to promote understanding and goodwill towards others by clearing up commonly-held misconceptions. All people quite naturally tend to fear and/or distrust things that they don't understand. This fear and distrust leads to discord and unhappiness among different groups of people.
I don't want to change your beliefs. I just want you to better understand mine. You may think that because I'm an atheist, that means I'm crazy, or evil, or stupid, or misinformed, or any number of other negative things.
With understanding comes peace and acceptance. Understanding one another helps us to all get along with one another, and to find common ground.
There are many misconceptions regarding what an atheist is, what exactly constitutes an atheist, what we believe (and don't believe), etc.
In simplest terms, atheism is just what the word says. The prefix "a" meaning without, and the word "theism" meaning "belief in gods or the supernatural." Put them together and what do you get? "A person without any belief in gods or the supernatural."
That's it. Nothing more, nothing less.
Atheism is not a religion. There is no common set of atheist beliefs. There are no common or sacred rituals. We no more believe in the devil than we believe in a god. We are many different political affiliations, racial backgrounds, male and female, straight and gay.
We believe in a great many things… just none that are supernatural!
An important point for a religious person to try to understand is that being an atheist does not define a person in the same way that being a member of a religion does. Most atheists don't spend much time pondering their atheism. It's just another thing they don't believe. Think of it as the same way you don't define yourself as a non-believer in the gods of other religions, or even imaginary concepts like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. These lack of beliefs don't really define you as a person in any meaningful way. Atheism is just like that.
Many atheists don't even call themselves atheists, because too many people in our society think it carries negative connotations.
An agnostic is someone who says "we can't know whether god or gods exist." (The word "gnostic" means "knowledge", so literally the word agnostic means "without knowledge", and in this case, without knowledge of god or gods.)
Many agnostics are also atheists, and vice versa. Many people call themselves agnostic simply because of the negative associations around the word atheist, or even because they themselves misunderstand what the words mean.
When pressed, you'll find that although they don't rule out the possibility of the existence of gods, most agnostics also don't believe in a god themselves… thus, they are also atheists.
The word "agnostic" deals with knowledge, while the word "atheist" deals with belief. They are not mutually exclusive.
Q1: Can you be moral without God?
Q2: Where do you think morals came from if you don't believe in God?
These are some of the most common questions that religious people ask of atheists. Christians in particular have been taught since the day they were born that all morals – and a sense of "right" and "wrong" – are supernatural concepts that must have been instilled in us by God. They point to the fact that every human seems to innately understand these concepts, which seems to them to be proof positive of a creator.
The atheist disagrees. So you ask, without someone to tell us or show us what is right and what is wrong, how could we possibly know? It turns out that "right and wrong", "good and bad", are concepts that are very simple to explain. In fact, they are nothing more than applied common sense. Let's look at why this is the case.
Out of necessity, humans have developed as social beings. In order for us to survive and prosper, humans are forced to work together as a group, a community, a society. This has always been the case. (It makes no difference whether you believe in the 6-day creation story in Genesis, or if you are an ardent supporter of evolution. These statements are true in either case.)
Imagine back to early humans living in caves or tents. Even in the simplest, most primitive culture, no human could ever survive on his or her own. Someone has to take care of the young, someone has to provide shelter, make clothes, get the food, provide protection from predators, etc. This is next to impossible for an individual to do. It becomes significantly easier if humans come together and share these tasks. When humans come together in a spirit of cooperation, we call that a community, or in a larger group, a society.
When people do things that further the advancement of the society, or things that add to the general well-being of the group, those things are considered "good".
But if someone goes rogue and starts to do things that harm other members of the group, this is considered "bad". Such a person will quickly find himself banished from the group (or worse). No one wants a person around who is adversely affecting other members of the group, either by harming them physically, or by stealing from them, or through other negative actions, because this impacts the ability of the entire group to survive.
So to recap… "Good" things are those which help (or at least don't hurt) others in the society, and "Bad" things are those which hinder or hurt others in the society. Simple common sense. No god required.
All cultures since the dawn of recorded history have had some form of "The Golden Rule". It generally goes something like this: "Treat others the way you would like to be treated." There is no magic involved here, and it heavily pre-dates Judeo-Christian traditions. That is because the moment that you realize that you need to cooperate with other members of society to survive, this "rule" becomes intuitively obvious.
If someone is mean or hurtful to you, you are not going to be inclined to be helpful to that person in any way. It makes sense then to assume that if you are mean or hurtful to them, they are not going to help you either. Again, no magic, no great mystery… just common sense. If I do something that benefits you (regardless of whether or not it also benefits me), there is a good chance that you will someday return the favor by doing something that benefits me.
Many Christians are scared by the idea that morality is a simple social construct — as opposed to being some sort of divine commandment — because it leads to the additional concept of "moral relativism". They want to believe that some (or all) morals are absolutes. In other words, "God said don't do it, so just don't do it. EVER."
The truth is, all morals are relative. This should neither scare nor surprise anybody. The world is constantly changing, society is constantly changing, life is constantly changing. Advances are made in the sciences, in technology, in medicine. New knowledge is gained which did not exist before, potentially changing moral judgments. Things which were once impossible become possible. Every situation you face in life is slightly different from any other that you've faced before. This is what makes life interesting!
This scares some people, but it doesn't need to be frightening at all. Except for the few sociopaths among us, everyone on the planet is quite capable of making the simple logical judgments that are required to make the moral decisions that life demands of us. As demonstrated previously, "good" and "bad" are not difficult concepts to figure out.
It is true that we may disagree in certain areas what constitutes good or bad. Abortion is a perfect example of such an issue. There is almost no agreement, even among atheists, on whether abortion is a moral or immoral act. Most people believe it depends on the circumstances, and what those circumstances are will differ from person to person.
That's when, as a free and democratic society, we get together and enact laws. We sit down and argue about it, and eventually reach some sort of agreement on when exactly something is good or bad (or at least, when it is permissible and not permissible; leaving the moral value judgment out of it completely). This rarely makes everyone happy; some percentage of people will feel that their particular morals are not being upheld. But it is an unspoken understanding that we have about living together in a democratic society. It's the best we can do… since there is no god coming down from on high and dictating it to us.
Now of course, there are certain things which religions teach are immoral that atheists have no problem with whatsoever. That is usually because these are seemingly arbitrary rules handed down in an ancient text written by men thousands of years earlier, who were simply reflecting the cultural values of their times. Most people (theist and atheist alike) now recognize that many of those earlier social systems were sorely lacking in individual rights and freedoms.
For example, Islam teaches that women cannot hold a position of authority over men, and that women must remain veiled to prevent lustful thoughts in those around them. Atheists see this as arbitrary and unfounded. (Ironically, most modern Christians agree with the atheists' assessment, despite the fact that the New Testament has similar prohibitions. See 1 Timothy 2:9-15, 1 Corinthians 11:5-6, Ephesians 5:22-23, et. al.)
Another example: some Christians are still taught that masturbation is sinful. Atheists see this as arbitrary. Why? Because we don't believe that you hurt anybody (even yourself) by masturbating. It's just a normal part of being human.
Q1: What do atheists have to live for?
Q2: Why do atheists think we are here (or how did we get here)?
These are some of the most common questions that religious people ask of atheists. And it's very difficult to answer them in a way that will make sense to a religious person. This is not meant to sound condescending! It has nothing to do with intellect or education or anything like that. It's simply that our world-views – our frames of reference for life – are so different that it becomes difficult to explain this in a way that sounds meaningful to a religious person.
But I'll try anyway!
Many Christians seem to think that atheists must be completely hopeless and negative people. Specifically, they can't understand how we can find any reason to live without the promise of an afterlife.
It is true that there are a small portion of atheists who are hopeless and negative people. But this is true of the population in general, regardless of religious beliefs. So we will discount those among us who are just inherently unhappy with their lives, and concentrate on the more general population.
What is the meaning of life? Why go through life? If you ask this question of 100 different atheists, I expect you will get 100 different answers. That is because, to an atheist, the meaning of your life is whatever you want it to be! Life is whatever you make of it; nothing more, nothing less.
Some aspire to be world leaders, some to be musicians, some to be plumbers and carpenters. Some hope to have a huge impact on the planet and the future of the human race, others couldn't care less if everyone forgets them as soon as they are gone. It is up to the individual to decide what their life will be, and what contributions they will make while they are here.
Contrary to what many Christians think, atheists don't look at life as meaningless or without purpose; far from it. We believe that this is the only life we will ever have, so we'd better make the most of it. Each life is very precious to an atheist; it is something that is absolutely irreplaceable, it comes with an expiration, and there are no second chances. Sure, we could just kill ourselves and be done with it, but why? We're here, so we might as well see what we can make of the experience while we have it!
Conversely, many of us DO find the Christian concept of life as somewhat hollow and empty. We view Christians as going through their whole lives simply waiting for death, so that they can get to a promised afterlife – an afterlife which we don't believe exists. So to us, living a life in hopes of getting to a mythical world seems like a life wasted. (We understand that YOU don't see it this way; I'm just trying to explain how it looks from our perspective.)
We don't know! Atheists believe it is ok to be honest and simply say "we don't know" when asked questions like these. Science may someday come up with answers to the questions, or it may not. In the meantime, we are content and have made peace with our lack of knowledge in these areas. To an atheist, these questions are part of what makes the whole human experience so interesting! The universe is a great wonder with many unknowns, and we are all given a teeny-tiny portion of time to spend in the universe trying to make a small part in it for ourselves, and maybe make some small discoveries along the way.
And this peace we have with the unknown is the part that many Christians simply cannot grasp. According to Christians, the universe, the earth, and all the stars were made just for them. There is a personal creator who is interested in every little thing they do. In other words, they are the center of the universe, and they are the whole reason the universe was created.
Thus, to most Christians, the atheist concept that we are, in the end, utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe, seems very unfulfilling, empty, and scary. I can't explain to you why we don't feel that way, but we don't.
This is a common accusation leveled at atheists by religious people, and it is simply untrue. The claim itself is somewhat loaded, the underlying implication being that atheists are pompous and self-important, and that they claim to be the end-all, be-all of knowledge and the universe.
However, this completely misstates the atheist world view (as described above). But look at it from another perspective. Consider the following two statements:
Christian: "I know exactly who created the universe, and how. The universe was created just for me and other humans. The creator of the universe has a personal interest in me, and wants to have a personal relationship with me. He watches everything I do. When I die, he will reward me with unimaginable gifts and eternal life."
Atheist: "I don't know why the universe exists or what created it (if it was "created"). I think that I am utterly insignificant in the grand scale of both time and space as we know it. I don't expect that the universe knows or cares about me in any way. I believe I am a highly evolved form of pond-scum. After I die, I will be dead, my consciousness will go away, and my remains will be recycled by the planet."
Honestly, which of these statements seems more pompous and self-absorbed? Can you spot the one that suggests a higher degree of self-importance?
Atheists DO believe in many things greater than themselves. The universe is obviously greater than all of us. The human race is greater than an individual. The U.S. military would kick my ass in a fight. I could not survive on the surface of the sun; it is much greater than I am. (And about 10 billion years older, incidentally.) Many things are "greater" or more important than we are; but those are both relative concepts and will vary by individual.
It could be because most of us have found giving up religious beliefs to be a very liberating experience. Yes, we lost the promise of eternal life. But look what we gained.
It frees you up to see the world as it really is, and it allows you to say "I don't know" instead of having to give answers to questions that would sound silly to the average 9 year-old.
It lets you do and experience things you otherwise might not be able to. Don't take that to mean that atheists think they can "just do whatever we want". We still live in a society with rules and laws and behavioral norms, and we all understand this and the reasons why. (See the section on "Do atheists have morals" if you don't understand it.) But we are free of arbitrary guilt; we do not fear a possible eternity in hell for finite transgressions. We see endless opportunities for new knowledge to be gained, for advances to made.
"Atheists just don't want to be held accountable for their actions."
This is another common accusation leveled at atheists by believers. But this is just more bigoted nonsense from those who don't really understand atheists.
Failure to believe in your god does not mean that a person is not accountable for their actions. This is no more true for an atheist than it would be for a Hindu, a Buddhist, or Taoist, or any number of other religions that fail to acknowledge the Judeo-Christian god.
As described above in the section on morals, we all want to be good to one another because we all want to be treated good. It's no great mystery.
The other "hidden" implication in this accusation is generally this: "Deep in their hearts, atheists really do believe. They are just denying the existence of God for their own selfish reasons."
Most atheists shrug this off when they hear it because it sounds like so much nonsense to them. There are hundreds of reasons that I don't believe in your god, and none of them have anything to do with me wanting to live a life of wild debauchery.
Those reasons will be covered in great detail elsewhere on this web site.