In America, we tend to take God as a given.
Christmas and Easter are holidays that most people celebrate. We bless people when they sneeze. And an unfortunate event in a community always elicits the “thoughts and prayers” of its members.
A 2007 Pew Research Center poll found that 92% of Americans claimed to believe in God. Another 78.4% declared themselves to be some denomination of Christian.
A second poll was conducted in 2014, and while the majority of Americans seem to hold the same core beliefs they did in 2007, the new data revealed an interesting trend.
The 2014 poll found that only 89% of Americans claimed to believe in God, while 70.6% declared themselves to be Christian.
Those are still staggering numbers. But when compared to the data from 2007, the rate at which the numbers have declined is quite astonishing.
The number of Christians in America dropped by 7.8% and belief in God dropped by 3% in just 7 years.
Of course, the decline in Christianity in America could partially be chalked up to people leaving Christianity for other religions. It could also be attributed to the immigration of people of different faiths to America.
But the data seems to instead suggest that the rising number of nonreligious folk is evidence that people are actually losing their faith in record amounts.
People with no faith in particular made up 16.1% of the population in 2007 and 22.8% in 2014, which is a 6.7% increase. Comparatively, 5% of America’s population claimed to not believe in God in 2007, versus 9% in 2014. (The disparity in these two categories is caused by people who do not belong to a specific religion but still hold some belief in God.)
So what’s the point you ask?
The point is that people who have once held deep religious convictions are either dying and being replaced with younger, more open-minded individuals, or religious folk are jumping ship.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Oh no! People are losing their faith! Science or Satan or liberal progressivism is tainting our youth!”
Maybe. But probably not.
What is much more likely is that rationalism, logic, and the ability to explain things scientifically are finally being embraced by society at large. People seem to have developed a deeper respect for questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.
But because so many people still hold beliefs relating to the existence of God, faith-based belief gets the most attention when people discuss movements relating to religion or the philosophy of it.
So in light of the growing number of people with no faith in particular, I’d like to shed some light on this new nonreligious minority.
Those who lack any religious beliefs come in many shapes in sizes, but many of them are typically characterized as atheists.
But what are atheists exactly? Fox News or your grandma might have you believe they are basement dwelling Satan worshipers hellbent on creating the New World Order.
I can start by telling you that isn’t true. In fact, many beliefs people have about atheism aren’t true. So today I’m going to debunk some common misconceptions our society’s religiocentrism perpetuates.
Before we dive into atheism, let’s first take a look at theism.
The word ‘theism’ comes from the Greek word ‘theos,’ which means “god.” Theism is not a religion or something you can outwardly practice. It is simply the belief in the existence of at least one deity or god.
Basically, if you believe in any supernatural being or beings that have any sort of control over the natural world, you are a theist.
Do you believe in the Abrahamic God? Then you are a theist.
Do you believe in the Greek gods? Then you are a theist.
Do you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Um, you should probably do some research regarding the creation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but yeah, you are still a theist.
Sometimes, theism is confused with the belief in spiritual or supernatural aspects of the natural world. But unless your belief in ghosts or souls is influenced by your belief in some type of deity, the belief in any supernatural phenomenon does not make you a theist.
So your grandma can spend the whole afternoon telling you about the orbs of her dead cat she saw in an old photograph. Unless she believes in a god, she is not a theist.
The words ‘deity’ and ‘god’ are also interchangeable when both are used as common nouns. However, the capitalization of the ‘G’ in ‘God’ creates an entirely different word.
‘God’ is a specific deity at the pinnacle of several different monotheistic world religions (Christianity, Judaism) who is believed to somehow be omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, and omnitemporal. (I hear he also has a killer buff chick dip recipe).
God is generally represented as a male with a long white beard, and humans are supposed to have been created in his image, so God is often given human attributes.
For the sake of familiarity and simplicity, I will refer to the “supernatural being that has domain over natural phenomena” as God throughout this post. But please note that atheism rejects all pantheons of gods that may be believed to exist, not just El Duderino himself.
What is Atheism?
Atheism is defined as the disbelief in any sort of supernatural being or beings responsible for the creation of the universe.
When you add the prefix ‘a’ to a word, it changes the definition of that word to generally mean its negation. So ‘a-theist’ simply means ‘not a theist.’ The same can be said of any other descriptive noun. ‘A-literate’ simply means ‘not literate,’ and ‘a-political’ simply means ‘not political.’
Therefore, atheism is the rejection of theism. Instead of belief, atheists have disbelief.
Theists believe in God. Atheists don’t.
And that’s pretty much it. There are far more things that atheism is not than it actually is, so I will outline some misconceptions surrounding it now.
1. Atheists Do Not (Completely) Reject the Possibility of God’s Existence
All atheists want is a little evidence. Just a little bit of something something that proves God exists.
This is where theists chime in and say, ‘“Just look around you! There’s evidence of God everywhere!”
But there isn’t. Atheists rely on rationality and logic and the scientific method. We do not purposefully disagree with theists to push some left-wing agenda. We (try to) base our beliefs on empirical data and evidence.
We believe in gravity because of the overwhelming evidence of it. We believe in evolution because of the overwhelming evidence of it. We believe in global warming because of the overwhelming evidence of it.
In a world of chaos and confusion, the scientific method provides us with a framework for making sense of the natural world. To demarcate theism as a philosophy or set of ideas that is not subject to the rules and requirements of logic and reason is immensely foolish and hypocritical.
People often ask me what it would take for me to abandon my disbelief. For me to believe in some aspect of the idea of God’s existence.
My answer: “Evidence.”
Which is the same answer I would give to someone who would ask what it would take for me to believe that black holes allow us to travel instantaneously through space and time, or to believe that invisible fairies fly up our noses and tickle our brains right before we sneeze.
I do not hold fast to any of my beliefs. Nor should you. Certainty is an adoption of stubbornness in reference to the idea that one cannot be wrong, whereas reasoned doubt is a virtue. My beliefs, while personal because I form them, are mainly impersonal because they are wholly dependent upon the empirical data I can absorb and extract from the natural world.
If beliefs were to feel emotions, they should never feel comfort when they reside within your mind. They should instead live in a perpetual state of fear knowing that there are no guarantees that today just might be the day you discover some new pieces of evidence or discard some old ones, and thus get rid of the beliefs that were tethered to them.
Additionally, atheists do not disbelieve in God the same way people disbelieve that the Earth is round or that humans landed on the moon. We are not being presented with evidence and then turning a blind eye. We are not choosing to purposefully reject valid evidence.
A book written over the course of thousands of years comprised of fables from several different Mesopotamian cultures is not a viable source of evidence that lends truth to the existence of God, let alone any validity to the religions that have adopted the book as truth.
People attempt to use logical arguments (and fallacies), ancient texts of dubious origins, and a reverence for the unknowable as proof of God’s existence.
But at the end of the day, the sentence “God exists” is only a scientific claim to the same extent that “fairies exist” or “unicorns exist” are. That is not to say that God or fairies or unicorns definitively do not exist, because it is impossible to prove a negative, but there is ultimately no test one can perform to prove their existence.
The point is that the only logical position one can have regarding a matter of belief that does not contain sufficient evidence for it is disbelief.
2. Atheism is not a Belief System
When someone tells you he or she is an atheist, they are not saying that they necessarily “believe there is no god.” Again, our beliefs are based upon evidence.
Atheism is generally a disbelief in something, not a belief in nothing. So it is not that atheists believe that there is no god, we simply do not believe that there is a god.
There are atheists who will actively tell you “God does not exist,” but they represent a minority of the atheistic community, and their adoption of certainty is almost equal in foolishness to their theistic counterparts.
Atheists do not actively disbelieve in God in the same way theists actively believe in God. I don’t wake up every day and think, “Oh, what a great God-less day this is!” just like you don’t wake up and think, “Oh, what a great fairy-less, goblin-less, unicorn-less day it is!”
We do not rejoice in our disbelief, because our disbelief also carries with it a certain type of apathy regarding the issue. Atheists, like most people, like to live in the real world, and dwelling on ideas that exist only within the mind, like God or fairies or unicorns, is pointless and unfruitful.
The idea that atheists even need to brand themselves or distinguish their disbelief is only relevant because of the clout theism has garnered in modern society.
There are no terms for people who do not believe in fairies or trolls or gremlins or ghosts. We simply call these individuals ‘normal people.’ Instead, we separate the people who believe in these oddities and designate names for them like ‘weirdos’ or ‘basket cases.’ Why else would they believe in creatures when there is no evidence of their existence?
Atheists are only forced to distinguish themselves from the pack because the idea of God has stolen the hearts and minds of so many individuals that it has become easier to simply assume that everyone you know believes in God. (And with 89% of the population holding that belief, odds are that theists will unfortunately be correct in their assumptions).
The consensus fallacy provides people with a false sense of confidence in their religious beliefs. Theists erroneously assume that because they are in the majority that their beliefs must be right.
But there are plenty of times that people who made up the majority were wrong. Like when people assumed that smoking was healthy because everyone did it. Or when the Catholic Church and its followers condemned free-thinking scientists for supposing a heliocentric solar system.
3. Atheism is not a Religion
This is a common misconception. The idea of worship among theists is often so powerful that it becomes hard for one to imagine what it must be like for someone to not hold religious beliefs.
On the whole, atheism contains no doctrines or governing laws.1But perhaps it should. The philosophic community is ripe with debate about how to properly define atheism. This is a huge problem for atheists ...continueIt is simply a term used to designate individuals who do not subscribe to theism from those who do.
Atheists do not often organize and collaborate at a specified place to fulfill our non-religious obligations. We do not go on mission trips to spread the reason of man, or perform rock songs about how little faith we have. There is no book that we read as atheistic law, and we do not expect the universe to do anything for us simply because we ask nicely.¹
But most certainly, we do not dress up in large hooded robes in candle-lit basements and hold sacrificial blood rituals while chanting in tongues just before we have our group orgy in the name of Satan.
I have no idea who does that. Satanists?
But Satanists are not atheists, because atheists hold no belief in God or his mythical adversary. So please do not associate us with them.
Atheists are normal people who have normal jobs and wear normal clothes. We eat normal food and speak normal languages. We are just like theists in almost every way, except for the fact that we do not believe in God.
(I guess I shouldn’t speak for everyone, though. I can’t even imagine the kind of hate mail I’d get from a Satanist. Probably like a bloody goat horn or something.)
4. Atheism is Not About Making Theists Feel Stupid
We are not internet trolls that exist simply to make everyone’s lives miserable by drawing attention to the fact that we are atheistic or that we think theists are unjustified in their beliefs.
If we see something morally wrong or indecent occurring in the name of religion, we very well may step in and voice our concern, but the goal of atheism is not to be some random voice of opposition towards theistic movements.
In fact, I would argue that atheism itself does not have a goal at all, as it is a non-position. However, atheists are generally people who hold a deep respect for logic, reason, and the truth. Because of this, atheists may see it as their duty to ensure that the truth is being sought in whatever circumstances possible.
I accept that some of my friends hold their Christian beliefs and go to church on Sunday and pray as they feel it is necessary. But when they say something like, “Well, when Jesus created Christianity…” I am going to step in and correct them, much in the same way I would correct them if they said “People only use 10% of their brains,” or “Vitamin C prevents the common cold.”
I may wholeheartedly disagree with people’s theistic beliefs, but my utmost concern is the truth. Religion or no religion, if you say something untrue and present it as a fact, it is my duty as an intelligent being to correct you. And I expect the same standard to be applied to me in the event that I put forth incorrect information.
The idea that religion is “off-limits” or unable to be critiqued is absolutely ludicrous.
Another problem is that atheists are often attacked for having a superiority complex over theists. This is not a completely empty claim. There are definitely awful people who are atheists (just as there are awful people who are theists). You probably know the type of people I am talking about.
They get off on being atheists and fighting with religious people every waking second of their lives as if the fact that they have escaped the clutches of religion entitles them to be an asshole all of the time. They are the Youtube comment section incarnate and they do no service to the theistic or atheistic communities.
Believe me, the idea that so many people are still consumed by religion in this modern age irritates me. But along with many of my fellow atheists, I still understand how to be a helpful, constructive member of society.
The bushel of atheism may contain a few bad apples, but that is not representative of the larger community. There are assholes in every subset of people across America, and we often just have to put up with them.
Just like Christians have the Westboro Baptist church to contend with, we have militant atheists. Let’s just agree that there is a middle ground somewhere and stop fucking fighting all the time.
One of the largest problems with religion is that American culture and the idea of ‘freedom of religion’ have both created a type of safe space for religious opinions to dwell without being scrutinized in the same way that every other possible topic under the sun is argued about. In just the past year, the internet lost its mind over which bathroom people are allowed to take a shit in and whether or not a 450 pound gorilla should have been shot after dragging a four-year-old around for 10 minutes.²
There is no shortage of topics for us to fight over today, but we have somehow come to to the tacit agreement that religion is sacred and must not be subjected to our Kindergarten playground-esque method of problem solving.
We can certainly do better at creating solutions to problems we face as a nation, but at the other end of the spectrum, atheists in their limited numbers are the only people providing any opposition to the behemoth that is organized religion in America. What we lack in numerical volume sometimes needs to be made up in aural volume, whether it offends listeners or not.
5. Atheism is Not Out to Destroy (Only) Christianity
You will often hear about the “War on Christianity” or the “War on Christmas” in America. As if both of these things are intertwined with the core of what it means to be American.
Atheism, while first and foremost an amalgamation of all the things I have described above, is also a template for secularism in America. Too long has the definition of an American quietly included at least some mention of Christian values or some worship of God.
This awful marriage of unrelated value systems has caused patriotic Christian Americans to feel attacked on a national level when atheists decry religion.
As a Christian in America, please do not think so highly of yourself and your faith that atheists are out to get you specifically. Atheism is not the disbelief in your God, but the disbelief in all gods.
When I condemn religion, I only use Christianity as an example because:
1. I was raised as a Christian, so it is the religion that I am most familiar with, and
2. As an American atheist who hopes to spread his message to as many people as possible, it makes more sense for me to speak about a religion that a majority of people I can potentially reach will be familiar with.
I’m not secretly a Muslim or a pagan god worshipper or a Satanist who is seeking to destroy only Christianity in America. I am certainly an advocate for the dismantlization of Christianity in America, but that is only the first religion on a long list of many others. I am just as concerned about converting people away from Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, and every other religion that involves the worship of any mythical deities.
If you really think about it, atheists and Christians agree on the existence of 99.9% of all the gods that were ever supposed to have existed. As evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins puts it in The God Delusion, “Some of us just go one god further.”
If I’ve done anything here today, I hope I have at least begun to bridge the gap between atheism and theism. I think it is very important for there to be an ongoing dialogue between people who hold diametrically opposed opinions about the world.
Without engaging with people who hold opinions other than your own, you seclude yourself to an echo chamber of repeated ideas that only seek to uphold your own confirmation biases.
To this point, I have encountered theists who treat atheists like rattlesnakes: they knew they existed but they never thought they would encounter one. And when they did encounter one, they weren’t quite sure of exactly what to do.
So to all of you theists out there, please note that atheists exist, and in greater numbers than you think. We are a steadily growing population of nice, rational people. Most of us would love to have a calm, rational debate about your beliefs.
And to all of you atheists out there, please know that you are not alone. There are plenty of other people in the world who share your disbelief. Keep fighting the good fight. Maintain your rationality, be kind to people who may disagree with you, and remember to question everything.
The “safety in numbers” pitfall that theists have relied on for so long is quickly becoming obsolete in the face of the societal trends away from faith. We are entering a period of increased discourse between theists and atheists.
It is very important for people on both sides to remember to practice humility during these discussions. People debate people, not ideas. The difference is important.
You don’t have respect someone’s beliefs, but you do have to respect them as a person. Do your homework. Understand your opponent before you seek to discredit him. Debate actual issues instead of your conception of the issues.
As much as I would like to draw people away from theism, my greatest want is really for us all to get along. Fight nice, people.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||But perhaps it should. The philosophic community is ripe with debate about how to properly define atheism. This is a huge problem for atheists arguing their position. It’s kind of hard to sway people over to your side when the people on your team are all punching and kicking each other.|