What is atheism? What do atheists believe? Is atheism a religion?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “You can’t prove a negative”? Because nonbelief can’t be described in the same way that belief can, summing up atheism can be a difficult project—akin to herding cats.
Atheism has no central rule structure. Since no one can be excommunicated from atheism, nonbelievers are free to hold a huge variety of opinions, convictions, and personal philosophies. Still, there are a few central threads that tie together most atheists and define them as followers of a non-religion.
Who Are Atheists?
Within the United States, atheists are most likely to be young, male, white, and college-educated. A Pew research poll found that 67 percent of self-described atheists are male and 38 percent are between the ages of 18 and 29. As of 2012, nonbelievers in general made up 19.6 percent of the American population, but of that number, only a fraction actually call themselves atheists. More common labels are “unaffiliated,” “no religious preference,” or “agnostic.”1
Many atheists frequently cite advanced education as a trigger for their lack of belief. Those with advanced degrees in science, medicine, and philosophy are more likely than the general public to describe themselves as atheists.2
Throughout our lives, we all run the risk of encountering things that will challenge our worldviews and conflict with the beliefs we hold closely. The years when we pursue advanced education are those during which we most frequently strengthen, adapt, or change our belief systems.
The Atheist Worldview
The central idea in atheism is found in the name: a-theism, using the prefix “a-,” meaning “without,” and “theism,” belief in a God or gods. So, simply put, atheism means without belief in a deity. This is at first obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that the word is distinct from more hostile terms like antitheism, meaning against a deity.
Though this is a common misconception about atheists, atheists are not angry with or rebelling against a god. Atheists simply don’t think that a god exists. Atheists are not angry at God for not existing in the same way that believers aren’t angry at their toothbrush for failing to tap dance. It just isn’t the way the world works from the atheistic perspective.
For better or worse, religion has played a huge part in shaping the world as it is today. It is for this reason that many atheists define their behavior and beliefs as a reaction against something: against a god, against a church, against religious families or societies. It is primarily for this reason that atheists have a reputation for being argumentative or militant.
Whether this kind of behavior is worthwhile or not is up to the individual to decide. But the fact remains that, at least in the United States, atheists are frequently better-informed about religion than many casual and even some devoted believers.3 Atheists choose to live their lives without a god for many reasons, but those reasons are almost never borne out of ignorance or a failure to hear the gospel.
Atheists and Society
Throughout history, nonbelievers of all kinds have been persecuted by the majority belief system.4 Though most religions have been oppressed in certain places and times, in the Western world the last 1,500 years have seen atheists banished, silenced, tortured, and killed.
Modern societies don’t tolerate religious violence—thank goodness—but persistent distrust of atheists remains. More than half of Americans consider atheists “threatening.”5
Atheists face the highest prejudice for political office—the average American voter is more likely to vote for a homosexual person or a Muslim than to put a nonbeliever in office.6 There are seven US states where atheists are barred from holding public office altogether.7 Atheists are the fastest growing religious minority in America but are still underrepresented in government.8
Giving Life Meaning Without God
But the hardest part of being an atheist, in my experience, is arriving at a meaning for life. You read that right: I'm an atheist. And in honest conversations with Christians and others who ask me about this, I say that, for me, the most difficult aspect of life without belief in a deity is understanding why we are all here.
Though we all sometimes need a little help getting out of bed in the morning, believers have a reason for being built right into the religion of their choice. Christians go out into the world each day to work toward glorifying God. Hindus try to improve themselves so that their next reincarnation will be a happier one closer to being free from a cycle of rebirth in an illusory world.
For atheists, the question of the meaning of life is much harder, more open-ended, and more deeply personal. The reasons we find for getting out of bed in the morning are the same as most believers: our families need us to provide; our jobs need us to work; our communities need us to serve.
Beyond those immediate needs, though, the question becomes more difficult. Without our help our communities will fail, but . . . so what? This is a question that most introspective atheists will struggle with once or several times during their lives.
Noted atheist and author Christopher Hitchens wrote on this topic in his memoir. Hitchens took great offense at being asked about his thoughts on the meaning of his life—something that I don’t completely agree with. The meaning found in believers’ lives, after all, can be investigated in their holy books. With atheists, the only way to find out is to ask.
Regardless, Hitchens thought of life in this way: “A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless.’”9
For me, the answer has always come down to helping others. Through charity, friendship, and love, I try to make a positive impact on the lives around me, so that they will be in a better place to impact lives around them. In this way, maybe we can all contribute to making a species that is happier, healthier, and better than we are today.
Why should that matter? Because I want it to.