Q&A About Atheists and Atheism

By David Gleeson

Do atheists hate God?

No. Consider: Do you hate Santa Claus? Or Zeus and Poseidon? The fact is, atheists just don´t believe in "God" or gods. You can´t hate something you don't believe in.

Why don´t atheists believe in God?

The reasons why an atheist doesn´t believe in God can be as varied as the beliefs of believers, but it usually boils down to a simple fact: the atheist just doesn´t see any evidence for the supernatural in general, and God in particular. If you are a Christian, think about why you don´t believe in Zeus or Shiva. That will tell you a lot about why atheists don´t believe in your god, or any god.

So atheists think there´s no greater power than themselves?

Whoa! Who said anything like that? Atheists believe we are just one ordinary life form that managed to evolve on a rock that circles one ordinary sun in one unremarkable galaxy, in a universe of 100 billion such galaxies and ten thousand billion billion such suns. Compare that world-view to the typical Christian mindset: the God of the Universe cares so much about us (me) that he sent his only begotten son to Earth to die for our (my) sins, so that we (I) may have everlasting life. Now ask yourself who is more guilty of arrogance, the Christian or the atheist. An atheist who thinks nothing is greater than him? You´ve got it backwards: an atheist wonders what could possibly be less than him.

Sometimes I hear atheism defined as "the belief that God doesn´t exist". Other times I hear it as "the lack of believe in God". Is there a difference? Which is right?

There is a huge difference. If I were to say to you, "Santa Claus doesn´t exist", I am making an assertion, and a bold one at that: I am absolutely affirming that the being known as Santa Claus does not exist. That is a claim, and, incidentally, an indefensible one. It is absolutely impossible to prove the non-existence of Santa Claus, and it is therefore wrong to positively claim that he doesn´t exist. The same is true of "God" (in the general sense). God cannot be disproved, just as Santa Claus cannot be disproved. But that doesn´t mean we should believe in these beings. If we were to believe in everything that could not be disproved, we´d have to believe in virtually everything - a preposterous way to go through life. Atheism is literally a-theism, meaning "lack of theism" or "lack of belief in God or gods". Atheism is not a claim; it is merely a statement of withheld belief. When someone calls himself an atheist, he is merely saying that he doesn´t subscribe to the god-belief. That is a far cry from positively asserting that God doesn´t exist.

Even atheists as prominent as Christopher Hitchens sometimes fall into the atheism-as-belief trap. In a recent interview for CBS, when asked to define atheism, Mr. Hitchens said, at first, "Well, it is the belief that God does not exist", before realizing his mistake and then adding, "or, it is the lack of belief in God." It is not an either/or proposition. Atheism is not a belief - it is the lack of belief. Atheists make no claims about God; they simply do not believe in Him/Her/It.

Are atheists immoral?

Some are. Some theists are immoral, too. I suspect what you really want to know is: are atheists more immoral than they would be if they didn´t reject the existence of the "source of all morals" (as some Christians would argue)? Personally, I think it´s the other way around. I think religious beliefs are the source of most of the misery in this world. But this is a personal opinion, and there´s not a lot of conclusive evidence to back it up. But consider this (and this is something that Christopher Hitchens has asked numerous times without an adequate answer): Can you think of a moral action performed by a believer that couldn´t have also been performed - unselfishly - by an unbeliever? And then ask yourself when was the last time you read about an atheist blowing himself up in a cafe, or flying an airplane into a building at 500 mph, or killing an abortion doctor, or beheading an infidel, or crucifying a gay man upon a fence, or dragging a black man like an animal behind a car to his death.

Why are atheists always attacking Christians? Why not Muslims or Jews?

Atheists fight irrationality, in whatever form it may take. In the United States, where over 70% of the population claims to be Christian, that irrationality usually takes a Christian form. Atheists in Pakistan, I´m sure, speak out against Islam, while Israeli atheists take on Judaism. American atheists don´t have a bias against Christianity; it´s just what we see most often.

You can´t prove that God doesn´t exist, so isn´t what you´re doing a waste of time?

Possibly. Believers hold their beliefs very deeply, and convincing them to abandon beliefs that they´ve held since childhood is usually a futile effort. It isn´t always about converting people, though. Personally speaking, most of the time I'm simply trying to get people to look at things from a different point of view. When someone wishes me a Merry Christmas at Christmastime, it has probably never occurred to them that there´s a 30% chance I´m not a Christian. Saying things like, "And a Happy Hanukkah to you!" is a great way to raise consciousness. And I´m not trying to prove God doesn´t exist. As I said above, that´s impossible. But that shouldn´t be necessary. We don´t need to prove the non-existence of Santa Claus to be skeptical of his existence. That´s all I´m advocating: skepticism of things that have virtually no supporting evidence.

What do atheists think happens after we die?

In a word: nothing. We live, we die. Just like every creature on the planet.

What´s the point of life, then?

I guess it´s whatever you make of it. Why do you need the promise of an afterlife to find a purpose to this life?

So we´re just an accident?

Well, if you consider four billion years of evolution by the non-random process of natural selection an accident, then yes. Any number of tweaks in the evolutionary process would have guaranteed our non-existence, or at least the existence of a species far different from us. The evolution of life on this planet was not an accident once it got started (natural selection is the complete opposite of a random process), but in a way, every species that exists today is an accidental species, simply because there are so many more ways of being dead than alive. But so what? Even if our existence is completely accidental, and even if everlasting life is an illusion, why does that mean life itself is pointless?

Why are atheists always trying to impose their beliefs on the rest of us?

I don´t see that happening. Give me an example.

How about with the abolishment of school prayer? Or by trying to take "one nation, under God" out of the pledge?

First off, prayer hasn´t been abolished in schools. Students can pray, in private, any time they want. It is only school-sanctioned prayer that the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional. Second, trying to remove the "under God" wording in the pledge is not an effort to impose a belief system. It is simply an effort - a moral effort, by the way - to get the government to remain neutral with respect to religion. A pledge with the phrase "one nation, under no gods" would be an imposition of atheism. A pledge that says, simply, "one nation, indivisible", is a pledge that remains neutral with respect to religion and respectful of this nation´s diverse religious culture. That´s all atheists want - a government that remains neutral with respect to religion, or, failing that, at least one that isn´t so blatantly pro-Christianity. No "In God We Trust" on currency, no state-sanctioned (and taxpayer funded) Christmas celebrations, no tax breaks for churches, etc.

Do all atheists believe in evolution?

Let´s get some terminology clear first. There are beliefs, and then there are beliefs. I believe it might rain tomorrow. I also believe the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. Failing a cataclysmic disaster, my second belief will turn out to be true. There´s a good chance my first belief, though, will turn out to be false. Clearly, the word "believe" is something we need to pay attention to.

I don´t believe in evolution. As much as I know anything, I know evolution is true, just as I know that there is a force called gravity that obeys an inverse square law. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. We don´t need to believe in things for which there is overwhelming evidence. We simply know them to be true - as much as we can know anything to be true.

I would venture to guess that, yes, virtually all atheists accept the truth of evolution, simply because without the lazy "God did it" argument, there is quite a lot to explain about how we came to be. And evolution is an amazing explanation that´s backed by mountains of evidence.

Are atheists´ lives empty and meaningless?

I guess that would depend on the individual. An empty and meaningless life isn´t an immediate consequence of rejecting the possibility of an afterlife. There would need to be other, more serious, psychological reasons for this. This goes for believers, too. If the only reason your life has meaning is because you´re relying on a better world in the hereafter, then you need therapy, fast. Our lives are as full and meaningful as we make them. If purpose and meaning and fulfillment come to you only as the result of a wish for something better beyond death, that´s when your existence is truly hollow and meaningless.

Aren´t atheists afraid of going to Hell?

Not even remotely. If you are a Christian, are you afraid of Muslim hell? If not, why not? If the Muslims are correct, all infidels (that is, all who reject the teachings of Islam) are bound for everlasting torment in the pits of hell. Does this keep you awake at night? I doubt it - and it shouldn't, either, simply because Muslim hell, like Christian hell, is a human invention, a sick, twisted, immoral doctrine invented by the Church to scare the poor and uneducated into fearful submission. If you are a person of decent moral character, you should be sickened by this evil doctrine.

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