So, what does it mean to be an Atheist? This question is asked by some folk who are not very familiar with the idea of a group of people that do not believe in God. Sure, there are always preconceptions out there and plenty of misinformation but a genuine question on what it means to not believe in a deity is a fair one. Too often this question is not asked by those that need to ask it the most; those that wish to criticize anything not specifically religious or spiritual. If only this question were given as much credence as all of the other hot button questions we’d have a more robust understanding of what it means to be a non-theist. Here I’m going to go over a few things that, regardless of your stance on religion or politics or whatever, these things are going to apply to most people that consider themselves an atheist.
First of all, and most importantly, I believe to be an atheist you are going to be somewhat of a skeptic. An atheist is skeptical of claims without evidence. It is little wonder that organized religions such as Christianity or Islam are definitely outside the realm of evidence based reasoning for the atheist, but so are things like astrology or jingoism. Most atheists require at least some kind of basis for the reason they believe in things whether it be gravity, a political ideology, or any new claims that may pop up in the news headlines. “A lady in Smalltown, Ohio developed a cure for blindness! CLICK HERE NOW?!” Not likely for the atheist because the atheist is skeptical. This is what I would consider to be the most important quality for an atheist because the more skeptical you are of unfounded claims, the less likely you are to be taken in by a bad argument. For example, the stars don’t dictate what kind of person you are, and no, prayer has no basis in healing people so I shall believe in nor put stock in either. This is not a malicious attack on astrology or prayer but rather a description of the way the world is where evidence is more important than wishful thinking. It’s easy to see why such things as religious supernatural tales or even something as common as American Exceptionalism aren’t especially big things in atheist circles. Not because of some “attack” on them but because there is evidence actually against many claims.
Now, being a skeptic isn’t just about immediately denouncing any new claim as ridiculous or impossible, far from it. We don’t live in a vacuum and certain things are accepted by fiat like there being a tomorrow or that water will come out of the faucet when we turn it on. However, even these things aren’t taken without evidence, the earth has been around since as long as we can remember, the sun has always risen and based on our understanding of astronomy and physicist will continue to. Same goes for water coming out of the faucet or our car starting, they fit into our understanding of how the world empirically works. However, it’s important to be critical of any claim not necessarily opposed to it. A great example is the latest one involving stem cell research and the recuperation of burn victims in the use of new skin grafting techniques. This is pretty big stuff, and stuff that I’m sure most people reading this don’t have an intimate understanding of how it works. So, we’ll be skeptical for now and rely on other tried and true methods of measuring how accurate this new method is. If it is backed up by evidence and data then we can place more stock in it and continue to move it closer and closer to acceptance as an idea. The key isn’t to just accept it because we want it to be true, but to be critical of it and require that such a bold claim go through rigorous testing before it can be accepted.
A second and huge part of this is the idea of what constitutes evidence. Evidence has to be able to be weighed and measured for those that are supposed empirical claims, and have to be logically consistent for those that are not. We know if I drop a pencil and it falls to the ground that is evidence of trial one. We can do it over and over again to confirm our trial and now we have evidence for what we call gravity. Things are observable and repeatable and this is how we attain evidence. We do not wish or hope for evidence to be there. We can make conjecture on what an outcome may be using past experience (other evidence), but we cannot simply create it or will it into being. This is an important distinction for many atheists; if something is true no matter how much we dislike it, it’s still true based on the evidence, for example the fact that say people will get sick with the Flu. We don’t like it, we don’t want it, we actually hate it, but it’s true. However, the idea that the flu is created by some devil or some such is simply not observable or repeatable. This cannot be entered as evidence but as merely an idea for which there is no evidence. As skeptics and critical thinkers we must dismiss this idea until some evidence to that effect enters the situation.
The last point I want to hit on is the overarching theme that we have seen in this so far and that is the theme of science. SCIENCE YOU SAY!? Yes, science. Evidence? Data? In line with other claims that have been supported by repeated similar attempts? Yes, science. Being skeptical is a key component of being scientific. An interesting thing often happens when the idea of science comes up is that many theists often tout this as a smoke screen that an atheist puts up to avoid actually explaining anything, but that simply isn’t the case. Any theist can read over the past few pages and see that nothing posted there is anything that is specific to atheists alone. Everyone is skeptical about something; it’s just where that skepticism comes from and what it is applied to. That is called being scientific and religious people are often scientific in everyday life, just not in certain things. For an atheist, using science isn’t a smoke screen it’s just the admittance that we need to apply critical thinking and skepticism to everything in life, not just the things we don’t like. Ask any Christian whether Jesus wasn’t divine. They cannot give you a scientific reason for why he is, but they can give you a scientific reason for why their computer turns on. Being an atheist means trying to be a scientist all of the time, not just some of the time, and applying that scientific outlook to everything in life.
So to wrap it up, to be an atheist is to be a scientist all of the time. It means to look at events and then measure their consequence instead of assuming a truth beforehand without evidence. To be skeptical of claims without evidence and in particular claims for which there can be no evidence. Any person, regardless of their religious leanings, will demand evidence for nearly everything they do. To be an atheist is to demand it for believing in things as well.