By David Gleeson
After watching Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days" episode on FX last night, about an atheist mother who agrees to live with a wealthy Christian family for a month, it became painfully obvious to me that most people have glaring misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist, and about atheism in general. In this article, I'd like to highlight some of the most common errors and offer a level-headed response to these misunderstandings.
1. Atheism is the belief that no gods exist.
This statement's ubiquity is exceeded only by its utter falseness; not only is it misleading, but it is the complete opposite of the truth.
The word 'atheism' comes from the Greek prefix 'a', meaning without, and 'theist', meaning having a belief in a supernatural deity. Atheism, therefore, literally means "without theistic belief". Atheism does not positively assert anything; rather, it is a statement of withheld belief.
Atheists, therefore, do not positively assert that gods do not exist. Atheists simply withhold belief in said gods because the evidence is not sufficient to warrant the belief. This is not to say that there isn't sufficient reason to believe that certain gods do not exist. There is. But to categorically deny the existence of all gods would require a leap of faith that is anathema to a true atheist. Atheism requires no such leap.
2. Atheism requires just as much faith as theism.
This misconception arises because of the misunderstanding of the term 'atheism', as described above.
If atheism were indeed a positive assertion that no gods exist, then this criticism would be valid. After all, it would take just as much faith to claim that no gods exist as it would to claim that one god or many gods exist. But atheism makes no such claim.
Atheism, as noted above, is nothing but withheld belief. It does not take faith to have a non-belief. If I don't believe that Elvis is still alive, I am not practicing an anti-Elvis faith. If I withhold belief in Santa Claus, I am not a member of a Santa-less church. When an atheist says, "I don't believe in the Christian God", she is merely saying that the evidence for belief is insufficient. It is the same type of withheld belief that a Christian practices with regard to the beliefs of Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.
3. Atheists' lives are meaningless and devoid of hope and purpose.
This is nothing but the believer projecting his own feelings onto the atheist about how his life might be different in the absence of God. It says nothing about the true feelings of atheists.
Atheists' lives are not tied up in the remote possibility of an afterlife. My life is meaningful, simply, because it is meaningful to me and to those who love me. My life has purpose every time I strive toward a worthy goal. I do not need the promise of an afterlife to find meaning and purpose in this life.
Indeed, my life is more precious and more meaningful simply because I know it is short and fleeting. Because I expect no eternal reward or damnation after death, I treat each day as a gift. Compare this to the thought processes of an Islamic fundamentalist, who is willing to give up his earthly life for the promise of eternal bliss in the arms of 72 sex-starved virgins. Whose life has more hope and meaning and purpose, I wonder?
4. Atheists have no morals because they reject belief in an eternal moral-giver (i.e. God).
When you think about it, this is a preposterous statement. Ethics and morals, after all, preceded Jesus by thousands of years. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, while inspiring, was basically just a rehash of the same Golden Rule that had been around for three milliennia. But let's look at the issue a little more critically.
If God is the source of all morals, then God, presumably, could change the rules at any time. Since no one is writing new Bibles or talking to God behind burning bushes, how are we to know what's right now, today? What's to stop God from deciding that moral behavior now includes the option of intentionally starving millions of innocent children, and then demonstrating this new morality by inflicting famine on the world's poorest nations? How would we ever know right from wrong under such circumstances? Doesn't this lead to the same sort of moral relativism that theists accuse atheists of practicing?
If, on the other hand, moral laws are independent of God, then humans are free to discover those laws on their own. Either way, it seems God is unnecessary with regard to moral behavior. Atheists simply follow the moral agenda that has been refined by the evolution of advanced civilizations over the past few centuries. We've learned how to be nice to each other. It's not that hard, really.
5. Atheists must have had a bad childhood experience to cause them to give up on religion and hate God.
Some atheists may have had such experiences, but I can assure you this is not the case in most situations. For me and for most atheists, the journey from belief to non-belief is simply a gradual process of discovery that eventually leads to God/gods becoming unnecessary.
I don't need God to explain the origin or evolution of life on Earth; evolution provides a naturalistic and awe-inspiring explanation that's backed by mountains of evidence. I don't need God to comfort me against the fear of death and the unknown; I do not fear death. I don't need God to account for human selfishness or altruism; my understanding of human nature accomplishes that.
In short, as my knowledge has increased, the gaps that God may have filled have become progressively smaller, to the point that God is no longer necessary. I am no more angry at "God" than Christians are angry at the gods of Mount Olympus. Christians simply have no investment in the belief in said gods; they lose nothing by rejecting them. The same is true for me and "God".
In summary, then, an atheist rejects belief in God or gods because the evidence does not compel such belief. This does not lead to a lonely and terrifying universe; in fact, it gives life more meaning and more purpose. Atheists aren't angry and resentful; they are thoughtful and caring and respectful of the inherent dignity in all of us. They deserve none of the vitriol that is constantly leveled at them.