June 27, 2012

How to Understand Atheists: A Guide for Christians

atheism

What is atheism? Are there really people out there who don't believe in your god? Are there people who don't believe in any gods? How can that be? What do they want? 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. With that brief introduction out of the way, I'd like to provide you with a simple guide for understanding atheists.

What is Atheism?

You'd be surprised to learn how often something as simple as atheism 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 religious teachings 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 (note: some atheists do claim to know 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).

If any of this sounds confusing, there is an even simpler way you can understand atheism. After all, 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 does not believe in any of these gods either. The only difference is that the atheist adds your god to the long list of gods in which he or she does not believe.

For more, see What is Atheism?

Why Don't Atheists Believe in God?

There are a number of reasons atheists may provide for why they do not believe in gods, and you are likely to hear different answers depending on who you ask. I think it is reasonably safe to say that there are two main reasons with which most atheists would probably 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. Some atheists will explain that it is not clear to them what the theist is asking them 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 politically conservative, opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and many of the same things evangelical fundamentalist Christians would oppose. There are also politically liberal atheists who are pursuing very different goals. Some atheists are very skeptical, but I have met others who believe in ghosts, ancient aliens, and a variety of other paranormal phenomena. Aside from the question of god(s), atheists do not necessarily have anything in common.

Once we understand what atheism means and appreciate how narrow it is, 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 and how best to oppose it.

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

It may be helpful to realize that many atheists who have grown up in the United States have had a number of negative experiences with Christians. Some have been disowned by Christian parents, and many have lost friendships because their Christian friends were unwilling to remain friends with an atheist. Some have lost their jobs or faced other forms of discrimination. Some have been bullied, had their property vandalized, or even been assaulted by Christians who were threatened by their atheism. And almost all have experienced various forms of anti-atheist bigotry.

What If I Want to Learn More About Atheism?

Even though the meaning of atheism is simple, there is much more to learn about it that it worthwhile. What I 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 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.