Some things that is quite frustrating for myself, and I’m sure other atheists, are the misconceptions about what atheism is and how one reaches the conclusion of there not being a theist god. I am going to address some of the main ones that pop up from day to day and hopefully clear some of the air regarding atheism, morality, and even cosmology.
Why are atheists so smug? They go around acting like they have all the answers yet don’t know anything more than I do!
This is one of the most common questions I have been asked and seen asked of atheists or agnostics. Theists tend to see atheism as an attack not only on their religion but on their intellect as well since atheists do not subscribe to the same belief about morality, the universe, or some kind of afterlife. Since theism supposedly has all the answers to these questions it seems logical to the theist that atheism must supply some kind of parallel answer and explanation as to how everything works. This is simply not true since atheism is itself not a kind of religion our belief structure. Atheism is the disavowal of belief in a theist god, a theist god being a personal god that cares about humanity, listens to prayer, and interacts with the physical world. None of this entails all the answers about the universe or an explanation of the origin of life. For this we may turn to science and history and reason from there how the world came about, and since an atheist has no need for god to explain certain aspects of our universe, atheists may reach different conclusions than the theist. However, none of this is an aspect of atheism as a belief structure, but simply reaching a different conclusion by not accepting certain things out of hand like the existence of god.
How can you have morality if you have no god?
This one is also quite common as many theists believe that morality is handed down by divine edict and that without morality we humans would have nothing to let us know what is right from wrong. Apart from the fact that several societies developed morality that mirrors our own modern morality without knowledge of a theistic deity, it is plain to see that this is simply not true by reading the works of philosophers. Ideas like utilitarianism, humanism, and the social contract are all examples of moral codes that do not require the existence of an external deity. Examples of secular morality can be found throughout our own culture that are extremely important to Western individuals, like the right to a fair trial or social welfare programs. This particular question can be particularly tough for an atheist to answer rationally since many theists benefit from secular moral ideals yet still attribute them to a deity. A good example of this is the founding of the United States and several amendments to the Constitution. A cursory look at history shows that many of the moral and legal ideas that exist in the United States are not handed down by divine edict, but rather from men of reason and the study of people.
Why do atheists have to talk about religion? Why can’t they let me be and I let them be?
For this question every atheist could give you a different answer as not all atheists are vocal about their ideas on religion, but here I can supply a reason as to why I am. In our modern world we live in a democratic republic and in such a government system the will of the majority affects the entire population. If the entire majority believed in tooth fairies and wanted to pass a law that gave special consideration to people that claimed to be a tooth fairy then even those that found tooth fairies silly would still have to abide by the laws regarding them. This analogy can be carried over to religion as well. In a society that has a vast number of people that believe in a deity, it is inevitable that the ideas regarding theist religion are going to spill over into our public sector and effect everyone in our population. Great examples of this are the battles against same-sex marriage here in Iowa by politicians using religious reasons for its repeal, harsh laws on abortion for women in Oklahoma, again for religious reasons, or the Christianizing of text books that has happened in Texas. These are all examples of religion spilling into the public sector and effecting theists and atheists alike! Policies such as these, not to mention social norms, are all enabled by the fact that theism is the “norm”, that it is just fine and dandy to be a theist as a neutral state of mind and that atheism is not. To put it another way, it’s accepted for most to believe in some sort of personal god, yet unaccepted to deny this, and it is just as important to voice a dissenting opinion in our society as it was for advocates of women’s’ rights and minority rights 70 years ago.
These are just some of the questions that I have seen posed to many an atheist and I wanted to address some of them as well as spur further discussion about what it means to be an atheist in today’s culture. Many theists will find the answers to these questions by simple introspection, however, that is extremely hard to do when confronted with an ideology that is so counter to the one they’ve grown up with. I would encourage every atheist and theist to hold discussions whenever it is possible about where their beliefs come from and how they arrived to their notions of how the world works. The sooner we remove the stigma from religious debate the sooner we can find a more peaceful and constructive way to move forward in terms of reason, logic, and critical thinking. I highly doubt anyone theist or atheist finds these a negative aspect of daily life.