5 Things You Should Know About Atheists
I've long been fascinated by religion, spirituality and, equally, the lack thereof. Having been raised by a Christian mother and a spiritual-agnostic father, I was exposed to many forms of faith and skepticism from an early age. This, combined with my love for debate and discourse, has led me to have many discussions both in person and online about spirituality. What I've found over the years is that there is a massive amount of misconception regarding atheism and agnosticism, and that they are at the root of much hostility. This Hub aims to set the record straight.
*Note: while there is a considerable difference between atheism and agnosticism, I will be referring to both as "atheists" in this particular article, because it seems these misconceptions are aimed equally at both.
1. We are not a religious organization
This really should go without saying, shouldn't it? But...it doesn't. Inevitably, in every debate, someone will say:
"It takes just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a theist"
"You all believe ______"
No. No, no, no. First and foremost, it has to be realized that the only trait atheists share is a lack of belief in deities. That's it, that's all. We do not "all believe" anything. We do not share any particular philosophy or set of ethics. We are not organized, we do not congregate. We just happen to all lack belief in a deity. Second, "faith" is loosely defined as having great confidence in something, and more narrowly defined as belief in a supernatural element. You can see, then, why this word does not much apply to atheists - most will not claim to have "great confidence" that there is no god, rather, they will tell you they see no empirical evidence to support the existence of a god. You don't have faith that there are no fairies or mermaids, you simply haven't ever seen any proof of their existence. We feel the same way. It's not a faith, it's a lack thereof.
2. We are not a political organization, either
It's amazing how often I get asked "what are atheists doing about ____?" Atheists as a group? Nothing, because we're not a group. Atheists do not share a political leaning -- we are not all liberals, we are not all conservatives, we are not all libertarians or activists. Some of us get involved in politics, some don't. Some of us protest, some of us don't. Never expect "the atheists" to do anything about anything, because we are not an organization of any kind.
3. We have morals
This is arguably the most common misconception, and one that frightens me to my core, to be honest. The idea that without a belief in God, one cannot have morals says a lot more about the one with that idea than it does about atheism. I shudder at the thought that anyone believes they would have no morals if not for a god. That they would happily lie, cheat, steal and kill if a holy text hadn't ever told them not to. That's a truly horrifying concept.
Atheists have morals, but for different reasons. There is an actual science behind ethics, in fact -- as social animals we need them to thrive as a species. We rely on one another for our survival, so to betray or kill one another is counterproductive to our own well-being. More than that, though, humans have developed a great sense of compassion. Most of us do not want to harm others simply because we know the pain we would be inflicting, and we don't like how that makes us feel. Not believing in a deity in no way negates our ability to know, and care, when something is unnecessarily harmful.
4. We don't hate god(s)
Often in these debates, a theist will accuse the atheist of fearing their god's law or of hating god. Not true. One cannot hate what they don't think exists. Just as I don't hate leprechauns or fear unicorns, I have no ill feelings towards any proposed deities. Now, some atheists do hate religion, but that is a different thing, and they generally hate it because of the harm it has caused throughout history.
5. Atheists can still be spiritual
There is an impression out there of the cold, calculating, emotionless atheist that I will never understand. There are a couple of things that need explaining, here:
- All "atheist" means, literally, is "no god". It doesn't mean "no philosophy" or "no beliefs whatsoever". There are atheistic religions, even.
- The feeling that religious people get when they pray or read their scriptures or sing at church can be found elsewhere. I get that same feeling when I watch the ocean slap against the shore, when I look out at the stars and contemplate the vastness of the universe, when I see the first spring flowers bloom. I am perpetually awestruck by the beauty and immenseness of our world.
Atheists can have spiritual thoughts and feelings. They simply don't believe in a deity.
Coexistence requires cooperation
The only way that humans, regardless of our divisions into race, sexuality, religion and politics, can ever hope to live in general peace is to make some effort to understand one another. We have been given a massive intellect and awareness -- we should not squander it. An open dialogue between theists and atheists is vital if we are to continue to thrive as a species. We must clear up these misconceptions and work to understand and respect one another.