I am an atheist.
Normally, this doesn’t really affect me day to day. I don’t really care what other people believe and I’m perfectly content to leave well enough alone. If you want to wake up early and go to Church on Sundays on purpose, that’s your problem, not mine.
But I am continuously surprised by how many misconceptions people continue to have about atheism. Even with the definition itself — I cannot count how many times someone has incorrectly attempted to define my beliefs for me.
So I thought I’d take some time and clear up some common misconceptions about atheism so we can have a civil conversation about beliefs based on facts, and not assumptions.
“Atheists claim they KNOW there’s no God, but they can’t, so they’re wrong.”
First of all, this is a silly premise based on an incorrect assumption: negative proof.
It’s not possible to prove things don’t exist. I can no more prove there’s no God than you can prove there’s no Odin. That’s not how it works. Think about that for a moment: how would you go about proving a specific deity didn’t exist? What evidence would you use?
But that’s okay. I don’t need to disprove God. I don’t need to know. I just need to make a decision based upon the facts before me. The question isn’t whether we can know something with 100% certainty — but whether something is likely. Given what I know about the Universe and evolutionary biology, I personally find it pretty unlikely that it all started with God.
Believers often tell me I have “faith” that there’s no God, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. My belief (not faith) is based on the evidence I have seen before me (evolutionary biology, logic, the nature of the universe).
That’s it. I just don’t think there’s a God. I can’t prove it. I don’t even need to prove it. I just believe in things based on how likely I think they are. I do not need to know that there’s no God. I can merely assume based on evidence. Richard Dawkins has something called the “Spectrum of Theistic Probability.” It looks like this:
In reality, you will find many more 1’s than 7’s. Most of us atheists are, in fact, strong 6’s. We claim no certainty, but we find it highly improbable that God exists based upon the empirical evidence before us.
If more evidence were to be made available, then we’d gladly change our minds. Heck, I’d love to have eternal life with everybody I’ve known and loved. That sounds lovely. As long as there’s roller coasters and vodka.
In fact, most atheists would be considered agnostic atheists because we don’t know that God doesn’t exist. We just believe it for now based upon the evidence we have. Gnosticism and theism, in fact, are on totally separate planes of belief:
You will find much more certainty on the theism side than the atheism side of things. Most atheists have a built-in level of skepticism even of their own beliefs.
“Atheists pretty much think life is meaningless.”
I love my family and my friends. I love my first coffee of the day. I love solving a really hard computer problem. I love the sense of accomplishment I get from the gym. I love long runs and hot showers afterwards.
Just because there’s no fate doesn’t mean there’s no meaning. We find meaning everywhere.
Some people feel atheism is bleak. I disagree.
Is it sad that I won’t be reunited with my loved ones when I perish? That in the end, much of my life’s work will be reduced to irrelevancy in history? Of course.
But I’m also part of a greater tapestry. The very same stardust which began the Universe is the stuff I’m made of. I think that’s pretty cool.
Maybe it’s not enough for everybody, but it’s enough for me. As Dr. James Watson stated: “I don’t think we’re here for anything, we’re just products of evolution. You can say ‘Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose’ but I’m anticipating a good lunch.”
“If there’s no God, what’s to stop you from just killing everyone?”
First of all, is that the only reason you’re not murdering everybody? Fear of retribution? Cause if so, holy shit, that is messed up.
The truth is, altruism and kindness have an evolutionary basis. Someone with a gene which made them slightly more kind would be more valuable to a tribe of early humans than someone with a gene which made them slightly more selfish.
Over time, the genes which promoted the overall welfare of the group replicated more quickly than the ones which did not. Fast forward many thousands of years and goodness makes perfect sense.
I am kind to you because it’s right, not because there’s some reward for it at the end.
William Buffett and Bill Gates have donated tens of billions of dollars to charity. There will be no ticker tape parade for them in the afterlife. They do it because goodness is in their hearts. Because that’s what humanity is, God or no God.
“Atheists are just as preachy and intolerant as the extremists they mock.”
I’m constantly amused when someone calls me a “militant atheist” because I offered a contrary opinion to a religious idea. This is militant? Talking? Out loud?
As opposed to people who blow themselves up for their religious beliefs? Or people who protest funerals? Or persecute homosexuals?
Heck, even the Salvation Army attempted to use the homeless as a pawn to stop gay benefits. Pure class. (That’s why I don’t give them money, by the way. I know they help a lot of people, but I just can’t tolerate their discrimination and would prefer to give to Goodwill or some other non-discriminatory charity.)
The truth is, I would prefer to live in a world with less religion. I think it’s a better world. Obviously, most people disagree. But it’s not militant of me to want it or to try to fight for it. I’m just talking.
If your beliefs can’t withstand some challenge, then I would question just how strong those beliefs are. One should not take offense simply through disagreement. Your beliefs are not entitled to acceptance simply because you believe them.
“So, uh, why don’t you believe in God, anyway?”
Well, hey, that’s a good question, but it’s complicated. We all have to find our own paths. And there are quite a few different reasons why I don’t believe. But I’ll break down the best ones I have:
1. Evolutionary biology remains the only scientific method in which complex life can be created. Through natural selection, simple beings can become more complex. Small alterations lead to change which lead to long-term evolution. Humanity is the result of this several billion-year-old practice.
God is the theory that we started with the most amazing, complex creature ever and then he made everything. But where did God come from? If He’s so powerful and complex, and powerful and complex beings (like humans) need to be designed, then does that not hold for God?
2. Omnipotence and omniscience are contradictory. One cannot retain both powers (in fact, I’d say neither is possible, but bear with me). If you know how everything is going to turn out (omniscience), then you can’t actually change it because you already know how it will end. And if you can change anything at will (omnipotence), then you don’t really know how everything is going to turn out. You can’t have both. They are contradictory concepts. God can’t change his mind because he already knows All. So he’s not omnipotent.
3. Faith is a central tenet of religion. One must believe in order to get into Heaven. It is the most basic belief of God. Yet I find it quite immoral to imagine a world in which the central moral tenet is to reward those who believe as I do and punish those who do not. I find it to be quite distasteful, in fact. Why would I worship such a creature? To have such hate as to require worship of Himself and only Himself?
Honestly, He sounds like kind of a jerk. But hey, whatever you’re into.
At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their beliefs. Yet there is a growing group of non-religious people out there who are not represented by any major belief system, and for too long we have been mistrusted and treated like fringe weirdos who lack any moral fiber or sense.
We’re just people who believe in things we can understand and prove. Nothing more, nothing less.
We don’t pretend to know how the Universe began or what happens when we die. We don’t have all of the answers. We just know that religion and God aren’t the answers for us.