June 27, 2012

How to Understand Atheists: A Guide for Christians

atheismWhat is atheism? Are there really people out there who don't believe in any gods at all? What do they want, and what do they think of Christians?

Hi there. I'm an atheist, and I write the blog Atheist Revolution. I write under a pseudonym because I live in an area dominated by evangelical fundamentalist Christians where my words could cost me my job, my friends, or even my personal safety. I'd like to provide you with a brief guide for understanding atheists.

What is Atheism?

You'd be surprised to learn how often this is misunderstood. Unfortunately, even some dictionaries have it wrong. As you probably know, theism refers to the belief in god(s). Monotheism involves belief in a one god, while polytheism means belief in many gods. As a Christian, you are a theist (i.e., you believe in at least one god) who belongs to a monotheistic religion.

So what about atheism? Atheism refers to the lack of theistic belief. While the theist believes in at least one god, the atheist does not believe in any gods.

How can this be? Imagine that someone has grown up in extreme isolation and never been exposed to any religions or heard of any sort of gods. That person would be an atheist because he or she would lack theistic belief. You see, atheism does not require the atheist to have considered and then actively rejected theism. Moreover, atheism does not require absolute certainty that no gods exist. The typical atheistic position can be summed up as follows: the theist has not met his or her burden of proof in asserting the claim that god(s) exists. For many atheists, there simply isn't sufficient evidence to accept theism.

As you can see, atheism is not a religion, a philosophy, or a worldview. It is not the conviction that there are no gods. It is nothing more than the lack of theistic belief. Of course, most atheists believe all sorts of things. What they have in common is that they do not accept the theistic claim (i.e., that some sort of god or gods exist).

You already know what it is like not to believe in some gods. There are plenty of gods that have been worshiped by humans over the centuries, and you do not believe in most of them. The atheist is just like you in this regard; he or she simply goes one more step and does not believe in your particular god either.

For more, see What is Atheism? 

Why Don't Atheists Believe in God?

There are a number of reasons, and you are likely to hear different answers depending on who you ask. However, I think it is reasonably safe to say that there are two main reasons with which most atheists would agree:
  1. Insufficient evidence. As noted above, most atheists will tell you that the religious believer has failed to meet his or her burden of proof on the question of god(s). That is, the person arguing for the existence of god(s) has not provided sufficient evidence to support the claim that such entities exist.
  2. Incoherence of the god concept. Many atheists will explain that it is not clear to them what exactly they are being asked to believe. In other words, they find the very concept of a god or gods to be logically incoherent or nonsensical.
What Do Atheists Want?

Like any other large and diverse group, atheists want different things and it is difficult to pin down a shared platform. Asking what atheists want is not that different from asking what Christians want. We want all sorts of things, and we don't always agree on what they are.

I have encountered atheists who are extremely conservative, opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and many of the same things evangelical fundamentalist Christians would oppose. I have ran across atheists who believe in ghosts and a variety of other paranormal phenomena.

Once we understand what atheism means, it should be clear how diverse atheists can be. Having said that, I think that most atheists have at least a few things in common on which many (though certainly not all) atheists would agree.

What Do Atheists Think About Christians?

Again, we atheists are a fairly diverse bunch, so opinions will vary. Some atheists are extremely anti-Christian; others value the teachings attributed to Jesus as much as many Christians do and just dispense with the supernatural components. Most atheists condemn Christian extremism, even though there is considerable disagreement about how much of a threat it poses to democracy.

I have written what I think about Christians, so that will give you one perspective. I have also attempted to explain why I find it perfectly reasonable to believe that most Christians are good people.

What If I Want to Learn More About Atheism?

What I personally found most helpful when I was learning about atheism was reading up on the topic. I pulled together an Atheism 101 reading list here that might be a good place to start. Beyond books, there are a number of excellent atheist blogs out there and quite a few great videos on YouTube. Do some exploring, and you'll be up to speed in no time.