Sunday, 31 March 2013

Misconceptions about atheism

There is a common trend on twitter for theists to tweet something like 'Atheists believe...' and to then write something about atheists which is just simply not true. This picture gets tweeted quite often: 

Of course it's wrong after the second word. Atheism isn't the belief of anything let alone what's described above. I won't go into detail on what's wrong with the above (magically? That's very much the theist position isn't it?) but I will just point out that atheism has NO position on how the universe started, except to say we don't believe a god was responsible. And as I've described here not believing in something doesn't mean you believe the opposite is true. So I'm not going the list each thing about one by one and say atheists don't believe it. The entire thing is incorrect. 

Atheism is quite often associated with science and in particular the science of evolutionary biology. Atheism has no position on evolution. It does very much seem to be the case that atheism and evolution go hand in hand. The feeling I have from chatting with fellow atheists on twitter particularly is that the vast majority of atheists accept the fact of evolution. But it's not a 1 for 1 relationship. There are many theists that accept the fact of evolution, including over 10,000 clergy from The Clergy Letter Project. And there are also atheists that do NOT accept evolution. One notable group are the RaĆ«lians. So although there does seem to be a strong correlation between atheists and the acceptance of evolution it is certainly not a case of atheism = evolution = atheism. 

The same can be said of Big Bang cosmology. Again experience suggests that atheists accept the Big Bang theory as the best current explanation for the beginning of the universe as we know it. And again it's a position that theists can accept just as easily as atheists. That the universe was started by the Big Bang is not an 'atheist' position it's a scientific position. It's something someone like Professor Lawrence Krauss can explain a lot better than I can (given that I can pretty much not explain it at all that's probably not a big stretch). 

Big Bang cosmology and the scientific theory of evolution are not a positions of 'faith' they're not something atheists or anyone else 'believes'. They are the conclusions reached by thorough scientific analyses of available data. People study these fields after years of schooling they then spend years doing research, including, for evolution at least, field work. Their work is reviewed by peers before being published in scientific journals and then being read and, importantly, scrutinized by other experts in that particular branch of science. It's NOT a case of Big Bang or God. It's NOT a case of Evolution or God. 

I've mentioned just two areas of science above but you can feel free to insert any other scientific field and the answer is the same - it is not an atheistic position. Atheists are not required to have a position, one way or another, on any of the sciences. 

Another common claim about atheists is that we have nothing to live for. As I've said before I'm an atheist - It doesn't mean I have nothing to live for, it means I have nothing to die for. I don't mean that I wouldn't die for my children, for example, I mean there's nothing for me AFTER death, there's no 'great power/lord/being' that I'm going to meet. I don't have any reason to think I'm heading to any kind of paradise or heaven. I don't think there's any virgins waiting for me and I don't think I'll be given my own planet to be god over. So this is what I mean when I say I have nothing to die for. For a longer post on atheists having nothing to live for, you can see my earlier post here

Atheists hate god - apparently. Hopefully you are already aware of the absolute absurdity here. To highlight it in a question - how can someone hate something in which they don't believe? It's not possible right? As soon as someone thinks there is a god to hate, that someone ceases to be an atheist. We may hate the 'concept' of god. We may hate what the idea of god does to people.We may hate the character 'god' like we do the bad guy in a movie. But hating a god or goddess itself as though there was something to actually hate? No atheist does this. 

We atheists also get accused of being Satanists. Now although the Church of Satan is actually atheistic organisation (IE it doesn't have a supernatural deity that it worships) there is, as with the above, no one-to-one relationship between Satanism and atheism. Yes, all the members are atheists but not all atheists are members. The members of the Church of Satan specify that they are not Devil worshipers, a group of people that pray to and revere the Devil - the nemesis of god from biblical and other theistic stories. Estimates put the number of Satanists in the UK at around 3,000. Given that there's nearly 10 million people in the UK with no religion, if you meet an atheist there, the chances of them being a Satanist is pretty slim.

There's no atheists in fox holes, did you know? One of the most common anti-atheism tweet that goes around. When I see someone tweet this I usually reply with a link to  the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.  Once I do that I get little push back. I had just one person argue that the military atheists were lying and they really did believe. Telling other people what they believe seems to be a common habit among some theists. The point is that not only are there atheists in fox holes (and in turbulent planes and on death beds) the tweet and the sentiment is completely disrespectful. It's again a theist putting their own thinking onto others. They see the world in a particular way and they expect others to agree with them. They also forget that even if their statement is true it doesn't prove a god or goddess exists. And they fail to consider that a decision made under extreme duress (let's face it, if you're taking refuge in a fox hole, it's not because a group of toddlers is watching the Care Bears nearby) is not necessarily going to be the most thought out, most analysed and reasonable decision someone could make. A person who thought their life was in grave danger was desperate enough to consider praying? So what? 

On a more philosophical level atheism gets called a world view. We get asked, as atheists, what our goal is, where we think society should head, and if we're so determined to get rid of god and faith, what are we going to replace it with. These are all fine questions to have but they are misplaced when being asked to an atheist because of atheism. Atheism is not a world view. Atheism doesn't guide how we think, it's a result of how we think. Although we do look at the world through an atheist's eyes there needs to be something on top of it to qualify as a world view as repeatedly stated, atheism is a single response to a single question. Similarly it's not an ideology, we're not here saying 'be atheists and live like this...'. Our ideologies differ. Personally I'm a big fan of what Martin Pribble wrote about Methodological Humanism. I can't help but think if the world embraced this idea everyone would be a lot better off, but that is of course one opinion among many. 

It may be a fault of a failing of atheism or atheists that we aren't organised, that we don't have common views outside of not believing in a god. It's a blog for another time but I do wonder sometimes about atheism becoming more of a societal movement and whether that would help or hinder. My first question to myself is always - Would it be exclusionary? But as above, that's a blog for another time.

We atheists get told we're hated, that we're going to burn in hell and yesterday I saw a tweet that read 'No offence, but if you're an atheist, you're disgusting'. You guessed it, from a Christian. I couldn't tell you why they think of us like this. When I was a Christian I never hated anyone - why so much hatred for us? If there was a one-to-one relationship between atheists and people that kick puppies, then maybe you could understand a certain level of dislike. But we're atheists, we're not animal kickers. I think it stems from misinformation and lack of understanding. People fear what they don't understand and fear leads to hate. 

One of the things I like to do on twitter is help educate people on what atheism really is and what atheists are really like. Hopefully the above can put some of the more common misconceptions to bed. 


  1. Hate is the glue that keeps Christians rooted in their religion. It keeps them from thinking clearly. When you were a Christian, you didn't hate anyone. So you weren't stuck in the religion like so many others, and now you're not a Christian any more. Not all Christians hate, of course. But those who hate remain Christians their whole lives.

  2. Why must we hate at all? Hate does keep people from thinking clearly. Being a Christian is a choice of association with those that believe that Jesus Christ holds the answer that directs the actions of their lives. And that live is directed by exercising faith that a higher power or God is ultimately controlling things. Sometimes those things don't always reflect what we always want for our lives unless we blindly follow the principal of faith.

  3. You've made some good points here. I've always associated agnosticism with the lack of belief in a higher power, and atheism with the active belief that there is no higher power. Atheists are a diverse bunch and many proclaim their active beliefs almost like missionaries, while others are like yourself, simply unbelieving.
    We need to stop hating. Christians need to follow Christ and love all equally, and atheists... just do what's right.

  4. Hahaha, being given your own planet to watch over? Almost tempts me towards theism xD (Yes, I did read and enjoy the rest of your post, but I think being a god could be hilarious 'DIE PUNY MORTALS! PEW PEW PEW PEW').

    Edit: When I was doing the reCAPTCHA one of the words was 'sinner' I'm laughing so hard!

  5. I enjoyed this post. I agree that many of the claims you noted reflect misconceptions about atheism. I do have a few questions though, as well as a couple points on what I think are your misconceptions of it.

    "Atheism isn't the belief of anything ... atheism has NO position on how the universe started, except to say we don't believe a god was responsible."

    Why single out the possibility of a creator God in favor of an infinite number ("no position" allows for an infinite number) of other possibilities, none of which we have empirically observed or tested? Surely the prejudice isn't arbitrary. Is it because there is less evidence for God than an infinite number of other scenarios?

    If what you say is true about the atheist's simple absence of belief in God (here and in your post about willful ignorance about the result of a coin flip) you are more accurately identifying with agnosticism. You are choosing not to think (to be "without knowledge") about whether God exists, stopping short of a conclusion, yet somehow committing yourself to the belief that at least one option (God's non-existence) is absolutely true.

    You've described this as "agnostic atheism", but I don't think this is coherent. Agnosticism (at least in its strictest sense) doesn't hold up because claiming God is unknowable is claiming knowledge about God. But at any rate, any kind of atheism absolutely claims to know something about the idea of God. Atheism doesn't focus on what atheism is about, but what it decidedly isn't. The prefix "a" in atheism points to the lack of or existence without what "theism" means, which is belief in God (or gods), so to single out one concept to exclude as your core identity is to fundamentally center on it. And once you've thought about it, some type of conclusion is inevitable.

    "Atheism is not a world view. Atheism doesn't guide how we think, it's a result of how we think."

    I would argue that atheism is the result of atheistic thinking, because you have to decide to not believe in God to adopt atheism as your worldview. From there, it will guide how you think, how you interpret evidence, how you view the world. Atheism is never anyone's default position/starting point, affirmed by Romans 1, which shows that general knowledge of God is intuitive but can be suppressed. Romans 2 identifies God's law "written on our hearts" to which our consciences bear witness. This makes sense of universal laws we all assume on faith (logic, morality, uniformity, reliability of sense experience). These are faith commitments you would have had before identifying as an atheist that really don't make sense on atheism.

    "Although we do look at the world through an atheist's eyes..."

    This is how worldviews work; they affect all of our thinking.

    "...there needs to be something on top of it to qualify as a world view..."

    Not sure what you mean here. How did you come to atheism from Catholicism, having believed in God then changing your mind about Him? Is that really non-belief, or a rejection of a belief for another? How does a prevailing theistic view suddenly (or slowly) become the only IMpossibility out an infinite number of possibilities you probably never considered?

    "atheism is...not an ideology, we're not here saying 'be atheists and live like this...'. Our ideologies differ. Personally I'm a big fan of what Martin Pribble wrote about Methodological Humanism."

    In Pribble's own words, "Methodological humanism is an attempt to promote true humanist cause..." That's obviously an ideology from the get-go, too.

    1. I know it's been a while since you posted, but I thought I would reply anyway as you seem to be asking genuine questions.

      1: The reason the God scenario is singled out by atheists is because that's what atheism is. I don't speak for other atheists, but I also don't believe the world is really just a computer simulation. But there's no term for that, because it's not an idea that's promoted on the scale that the God hypothesis is. There are many 'possible' ways the universe could have come to the state we see it in today, and any individual atheist may or may not believe them. Atheists may have countless propositions they don't believe in, but when you see them identifying as atheists and talking about atheism, the god one is the only relevant one because *that* is what atheism is.

      2: Agnosticism/gnosticism is about what someone knows. Theism/Atheism is about what someone believes. So if one believes god is real and claims to know god is real, they are a gnostic theist. If one does not believe god is real but doesn't claim to know, they are an agnostic atheist. In reality, everyone is agnostic because no one actually knows whether or not god is real. An agnostic atheist is definitely a coherent position. Most atheists I talk to identify as such.

      3: Atheism isn't the result of atheistic thinking. How could it be? How could you think atheistically if you're not already an atheist? Someone who has never given thought to the god hypothesis and has therefore never believed in any gods or goddesses is an atheist. Something who has thought about it and has decided there's not enough reason to believe is also an atheist. In this case atheism is a result of scepticism and critical thinking, Applying these traits to the god hypothesis results in atheism. Romans 1 is not relevant unless you can show that it's accurate (which you can't) Atheism *is* the default position. Non belief in a proposition is *always* the default position.

      4: Saying atheism is a world view is like saying not believing in the lochness monster is a world view. Obviously isn't not. So what I mean here is that atheism is one response to one question. This does not translate into a world view. I don't have multiple world views - one for each character I don't believe in. Atheism is the end of the though process.

      5: I came to atheism from Catholicism because I thought about it. I was indoctrinated. I was never given the choice to believe or not so when I was young I didn't give it a second thought. It was only after a grew up and started to question what I believed and why that I realised there was no good reason to believe, that any reasons presented were fallacious. So I stopped believing. The story just didn't ring true to me any more.

      6: Yes, atheism is not an ideology, but methodological humanism would be. So methodological humanism would be my world view or ideology, not atheism.

      Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog. Apologies for taking over a year to get back to you.