The Myth of the Carefree Atheist Who Knows That Nothing Matters


Twitter is good for many things (you can find me there @vjack), and one of the best usage scenarios would have to be satisfying one's curiosity about what people are saying on a topic of interest. If I want to know what people are saying about atheism, for example, a few minutes on Twitter will show me.

Of course, a few minutes on Twitter will also reveal that many people still cling to plenty of misconceptions about atheism. Unlike those gathered from Christian forums in 2006 about which I recently posted, the ones on Twitter are unfolding in real-time. That is, they are misconceptions being expressed in the here-and-now. As such, they may be even more helpful in showing us where we should be focusing our efforts.

The last one I saw will sound familiar because most of you have probably encountered it many times. It isn't a new one, but it sure seems to be one that is currently very popular. At first glance, it appears to be little more than a variation on the old myth that atheists do not believe in anything.

I should note that I can't be sure this was the source. All I can say is that this was the tweet I saw being retweeted by several other accounts.

As you can see, the claim that atheists don't believe anything is there, but it is dressed up enough that it does not appear to be the primary message of the tweet. Rather, the author apparently thinks that there are few true atheists or true believers out there. I suppose this could just be one more example of confusion about the meaning of atheism, but I prefer to address the part about an atheist being someone who believes that "nothing ultimately matters" and living "a relatively carefree life," both of which are false.

If a "true atheist" is someone who "knows that nothing ultimately matters," then no atheist activist would be a true atheist. Activism involves demonstrating one's commitment to the idea that something matters through one's behavior. Activism would be among the last things we'd see from someone who did not think that anything mattered. Fortunately, atheism does not mean anything of the sort. An atheist is someone who does not believe in gods, not someone who "knows that nothing ultimately matters." Most atheists recognize that all sorts of things matter and will gladly tell you about them if given the opportunity to do so.

As for the "relatively carefree life" part, this does not seem to be true for most atheists or most religious believers. Who the hell has the luxury of living a carefree life? I suppose some of the obscenely wealthy sorts who can afford to wall themselves off from the rest of us might get there, but it does not seem at all realistic for most people. Most of us have plenty of worries.

As we unravel this misconception, we see the familiar assumption that atheism requires certainty (it does not) and the even more familiar attempt to cast atheism as the polar opposite not just of religious belief but of religious fundamentalism or extremism. You see how the "true atheist" is presented as the other side of the "true believer" coin? This is a common and unfortunate tactic designed to portray those of us who do not believe in gods as equally irrational, radical, and/or extreme as religious extremists. That's not to say that atheist extremism couldn't exist or that atheist extremists don't exist; however, such a label could only be meaningfully applied to a tiny fraction of atheists. The vast majority of atheists have little resemblance to religious fundamentalists.

As for the attempt to contrast atheists and agnostics, these are responses to different questions and not alternative positions to the same question. While gnostic atheists can be found, many of us are agnostic atheists. This does not make us any less "true atheists" than anyone else.