The Truth About Atheists: Correcting Misconceptions


Back in 2006, Lya (Escapee From the Meme Machine) visited a number of Christian message boards in an attempt to determine whether increased dialogue between atheists and Christians might have some value. Her post inspired me to take a look at 10 of the most common misconceptions Christians have about atheists through a 5-part series I wrote in 2006. While I edited the first of these posts in 2018 to fix typos, update links, and improve clarity, I was never crazy about the multi-part approach and decided to consolidate them into this post. Remember, this is not my list of misconceptions I think Christians might have but those Lya found among Christians.

Atheists hate god/are jealous of theists.

The first part of this claim is easy to address because it is not possible to hate something in which one does not believe. To say I hate dragons assumes that I believe dragons exist. If I don't believe dragons exist, saying that I love or hate them is nonsensical. As an atheist, I do not believe in gods. When a Christian singles out his or her preferred god and accuses me of hating it, I find the claim to be nonsensical. I'm not sure how to have positive or negative feelings toward something in which I do not believe.

If we recast this claim as "Atheists hate the Christian concept of god," we move in the right direction. I would not use the word "hate" in this context, but I do disagree with the Christian concept of god. Moreover, I find it maladaptive and believe that it has been a destructive force, resulting in great conflict and suffering. The Christian bible describes their god as jealous, hateful, intolerant, insecure, and dangerous. This is not a concept to be valued. Still, I wouldn't say I hated it.

Are atheists jealous of theists? They are the majority in many nations, and that certainly brings some perks. At the same time, most atheists believe that theists are a misguided majority. Are we jealous of their ignorance? How about their need to seek consolation in an imaginary friend? Are we jealous of their ability to suspend rational thought in favor of blind devotion? If we were truly jealous, wouldn't we try to join their ranks? To oppose such a vast majority requires considerable courage. It is hard to imagine that jealousy could explain such opposition, especially when we risk so much by not going along with the popular belief.

Atheists are arrogant and don't want anything "superior" to them.

Some atheists certainly are arrogant just like some Christians are arrogant. As for arrogance being a reason for disbelief, I would argue that the kind of arrogance this statement probably references follows disbelief and therefore cannot be a cause of it. That is, an atheist who believes that he/she is more rational than most theists generally does so because of his/her disbelief and not the other way around. Atheists should take some degree of pride in throwing off the mantle of blind conformity and embracing the world as it is and not as we might want it to be. Is this arrogance or taking pride in a specific accomplishment? Even if we decide to call it arrogance, I think we'd have to be clear that it follows disbelief.

There is at least one other way this claim could be interpreted. Maybe the Christians making this statement meant that only self-centered, elitist types become atheists. If we infer this intent in the above statement, we have to go no further than to show examples of the diversity among atheists. On average, we are better educated than the average Christian (level of education is inversely correlated with religiosity), but both groups are quite diverse. Many atheists have little formal education and would be described as far less elitist than many Christians. Besides, many atheists became atheists only after being theists for a number of years.

Atheists have never experienced religion.

This is a rather strange misconception for two reasons. First, the overwhelming majority of atheists I've encountered in the United States were theists (usually Christians) at some point in their lives. Many were raised in Christian households, attended church, etc. Virtually all Christian denominations are represented in their backgrounds, ranging from liberal forms to fundamentalist versions. In most cases, their previous experience with religion was anything but fleeting, as they often identified as theists for several years or more. In fact, many were the strong, unquestioning sort of believers today's fundamentalists seek. Second, Christianity is such a central component of U.S. culture that everyone residing in this country has experienced its influence throughout their lives. This influence is inescapable, as believers make up the vast majority of the population. Thus, even the rare individual who was never a theist was still exposed to religion throughout his/her development.

Atheists have never read/don't understand the bible.

Where do I start with this one? It is well known that many Christians have never read their bible and that many more have little to no understanding of it. It appears that many base their understanding of the bible on what their clergy tell them. Moreover, even for those who regularly read and study their bibles, most live in ignorance of how and when their bible was written. In fact, I suspect that very few are aware of the historical evidence which contradicts the claims which are at the core of their religion (see The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus).

Without exception, every atheist I have known says that direct encounters with religion (i.e., exposure to believers, church, and religious doctrine) was instrumental in the path to atheism. Most have read the Christian bible many times and tend to be much better informed about the historical evidence which contradicts much of it. As one example of a commonly used resource for atheists studying the bible, check out the Skeptic's Annotated Bible.

It must be acknowledged that Christians and atheists read the bible in different ways. Most Christians approach the bible with the assumption that it was divinely inspired. Atheists tend to approach the bible with a genuine intellectual curiosity. We want to know what it says in order to understand the power so many ascribe to it. We often approach it with the awe and respect it deserves as one of the most important mythic texts of all time. We seek to learn from it, and by reading it, we hope to learn more about our fellow citizens. But many of us soon become disgusted with what we find. The god depicted in the Christian bible is not worthy of worship or admiration. This is a petty, vindictive, and cruel entity, perhaps the greatest literary villain ever created.

Atheists just don't want to receive the truth.

Of all the misconceptions Lya uncovered, I find this to be the most interesting. It appears that both Christians and atheists are concerned with "the truth." The problem is that atheists tend to define truth as involving a high degree of correspondence with external reality, whereas Christians tend to define it as what they've been told or what they wish was the case. If we view truth as reflecting reality, the atheist has a huge advantage because theistic claims about the natural world are often demonstrably false.

A rational person discards religious doctrine which conflicts with external reality, but a believer must attempt to reconcile belief and reality even when the two are at odds. Attempts to reconcile what cannot be reconciled lead to a complete breakdown in logic and make for some bizarre claims (e.g., god creates pain and suffering so that we will have free will, to test our faith, etc.). It is because atheists are concerned with truth that we reject religious doctrine. Belief is based on faith and not on reality. Atheists recognize that faith, by definition, is not about truth.

To understand the meaning of this misconception, we should focus on the word "receive," for this an important clue as to the meaning of the statement. The Christian version of truth has to derive from the supernatural realm. It is not something we are supposed to seek. Rather, we are encouraged to open ourselves to it with the expectation that it will somehow just appear to us.

To the atheist, truth is not something which can be received. It is something that must be uncovered through the application of reason, logic, and the scientific method. Remember, science is not truth; it is a method for discovering the truth. Fortunately for atheists, the scientific method has proven itself to be the most powerful means of ascertaining the truth that humans have discovered. Thus, I'd like to turn this misconception on its head as follows: Many Christians refuse to accept the verifiable truth provided by application of the scientific method, instead preferring to cling to ancient superstition.

Atheists are bitter/angry.

Ah, the old angry atheist stereotype. Since I've already addressed the misconception that atheists hate theists/Christians/Christianity, I'll try not to repeat myself here. Are atheists bitter and angry people? This is an empirical question which can be confirmed or disconfirmed through...(gasp)...science. Without these data in front of me, I am going to speculate that there might be some truth to this statement.

An American atheist lives in a country where over 95% of the population believes in some form of god and something like 70% believe that angels and demons regularly visit the earth. What does this feel like? I compare it to the experience of a physician who visits a primitive village where the residents do not believe in germs, antiseptic, etc. and instead believe that all illnesses are caused by evil spirits. How frustrating that must be for the physician! That is how an atheist feels every day. Don't you think it is understandable for us to become a bit frustrated? Yes, I think that many (though certainly not all) atheists feel bitter or angry when they think about the destructive impact of the superstition with which we are surrounded.

If I've acknowledged some truth to this statement, how can I still call it a misconception? The statement implies that all atheists are bitter/angry people, and this is not the case. Many atheists find great meaning in our naturalistic worldview, believe that humans are capable of great things (even overcoming silly superstition), and strive to make the world a better place. Just because some of us are a tad misanthropic does not mean that this describes the majority. Many atheists are the most caring, compassionate, friendly, and open people you could hope to find. In fact, one could argue that this compassion for our fellow human is why it pains us to see them fall to superstitious nonsense!

Atheists just don't want to admit they sin.

Like many of the misconceptions I've reviewed so far, this one reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of atheism. Since sin is a theistic concept, it has very different meanings for atheists and theists. Our notion of sin is that sinful behavior involves doing something that violates our moral code (e.g., secular humanism). Harming someone without provocation would be an example. However, calling such an act "sinful" does not carry any different meaning to us than referring to it as "bad behavior." You see, atheists base our sense of right and wrong on reality-based notions and have no need to posit supernatural rewards and punishments. I refrain from harming others because I have a deep respect for my fellow humans and seek to treat them in ways I wish they would treat me. No invisible judge is necessary.

If we assume for a second that the word "sin" in this misconception simply refers to "bad behavior" and does not carry the extra theistic baggage, the original statement would sound something like this, "Atheists just don't want to admit they do bad/immoral/unethical things." This revised statement needs only two responses to put it to rest. First, anyone with a decent grasp of history and capable of rational thought will readily agree that far more bad behavior has been committed (and continues to be committed) in the name of religion than in the name of atheism. Second, when it comes to the question of not wanting to admit such behavior, theists have the market cornered. Ever hear the expression "holier than thou?" Theists in general, and Christians in particular are masters of concealing their bad deeds, excusing them through false rationalizations, or absolving themselves of blame through meaningless "confession" rituals.

Regardless of which definition of sin we use, this misconception is easily revealed as just that. In fact, I suspect that atheists are generally more likely than Christians to acknowledge bad behavior. Why? Because we don't get to pretend it didn't happen. We have to live with it and address the consequences in the real world.

All atheists support abortion, evolution, liberal politics, communism, fascism, etc.

Use of the word "all" quickly reveals this statement as little more than an absurd overgeneralization; however, in fairness to the folks who came up with this one, I'd like to replace "all" with "most" or "many" so that I have something more to discuss here. To begin, one must acknowledge the presence of conservative atheists who tend to vote Republican, favor free-market capitalism, and oppose abortion and social welfare programs. Their politics are far from liberal, and it is common to find that their only difference from conservative Republicans is their atheism.

Turning to the charge of communism and/or fascism, there is much we could say. Some argue that communism itself became a sort of religion, but even if you don't buy that, it is hard to argue that freethought was encouraged under Soviet communism. Others point out that atheism had virtually nothing to do with the acts committed under communism. It is likely that this misconception is rooted in the fear that atheism will somehow lead to communism.

The question of fascism always reverts to Hitler. Christians seem to be convinced that if one fascist (Hitler) was an atheist, then all of atheism is somehow discredited. Was Hitler an atheist or a Christian? I'm not sure the answer is even relevant to this misconception. What is relevant is whether the majority of atheists today are fascists. I am not aware of any evidence that would support such a claim. Again, freethought is clearly not going to be encouraged under fascism. Again, the list of religiously-motivated atrocities is long enough that even Hitler's despicable acts are eclipsed by them.

The overwhelming majority of atheists living in America today are neither communists nor fascists. Since one cannot prove the negative, the burden is on Christians to either demonstrate that most American atheists are communists or fascists or to concede that this is simply another misconception. Hint: it is another misconception.

Atheists are gay.

No, I'm not making this one up. Remember, each of these misconceptions was observed by Lya across several Christian forums. When I first saw this one, I thought that I'd just skip it since it really doesn't deserve a response. But since that seemed dishonest, here we go.

If we assume the most charitable interpretation, it is easy to dismiss this based on the evidence. The majority of atheists (like the majority of Christians) are heterosexual. There are GLBT atheists just as there are GLBT Christians. I guess it might seem silly to assume that Christians are going to argue from evidence, seeing as how there is none for the bulk of their belief system. Suffice it to say that anyone who takes the time to look at the numbers will see that any variation on the claim that most atheists are homosexual is untrue.

I continue to give Christians the benefit of the doubt by addressing what I think they might have meant in addition to what they actually said. In this case, I suspect their statement was intended not as a claim about the incidence of homosexuality among atheists but as a bigoted insult. For some of these Christians, "gay" is the worst insult they can imagine. This is the same brand of intolerance that led their parents and grandparents to hold sexist and racist views. There is nothing more I can say in response to this generic sort of insult that I have not already addressed.

Atheists want to destroy/limit religion.

If we add the word "some" in front of this statement, it is no longer a misconception. Some atheists do want to destroy and/or limit religion. Based on my experience interacting with many different kinds of atheists and at the risk of oversimplification, I think most atheists can be categorized into 3 groups for the purpose of this issue. Group A is composed of atheists who would like to see greater separation between politics/government and religion. They have no desire to abolish or even limit religion; they want the government to remain secular. That is, they are not interested in any new limitations on religion and simply want those with existing precedent to be enforced. This group is generally friendly to religion, and many celebrate religious holidays and even attend church periodically; it is the blending of religion and government/politics of which they disapprove and not religion per se. Although they are atheists, they generally do not see anything wrong with moderate religion.

Group B agrees with Group A but would prefer to see a reduction of religious presence in the public sphere. Members of this group are annoyed by public displays of religion and would prefer that they remain in church or in the home. While they do not generally favor increased government intervention to limit religion, some may question the tax exemption provided to churches. They typically believe that religion should be kept out of politics altogether and are easily soured by candidates who flaunt their religiosity. They are hostile to religious extremism and typically at least somewhat suspicious of religious moderates. They seek a reduction of the religious influence that may go beyond simply enforcing existing precedent, however, they are likely to be ambivalent toward the value of moderate religion.

Group C contains at least some members for whom the original statement is not a misconception. This group of atheists sees religion as a cancer on the human mind and believes that religion should be abolished. The important catch, however, is that they do not support government intervention to dismantle religion. They have no interest in banning the bible or interfering with religious freedom. Rather, their hope is that humanity will outgrow religion, eventually seeing it for the destructive charade that it is. They are willing to speak out in opposition to religion and are quick to highlight the downside of faith. They believe that moderate religion is problematic because it embraces falsehood and opens the door to religious extremism.

As you can see, these groups differ in their desire to "destroy/limit religion." Group A wants nothing more than to see existing limits enforced. Group B may favor some additional limits but is not interested in destroying religion. Group C doesn't exactly favor the destruction of religion but certainly hopes that religion will fade into the background, having less and less influence until it disappears. It is in this last group which I place myself. I believe religion is harmful and that we would be better off without it.