FAQ articles on this site are collections of questions or arguments that I have seen various people use in regard to the article topic. Many of the questions and accusations shown in these FAQ articles are close paraphrases of the argument I have seen used, not always the exact wording they used, since the question/claim needs to stand alone outside of the flow of the original conversation in which it was originally said, as well as to correct spelling. However I try to keep the wording close to the original. Also, since my purpose is to address people’s actual concerns and arguments, I have no intention to misrepresent any arguments. If you think I have misrepresented or misunderstood a particular arguments, or perhaps think it requires a note about context, then please make a note in the comments, contact us on our Facebook page, or email us using the contact form on this website. Also, note that of course people who do not share my views on this topic do not necessarily all share the same views as each other either. My responses here are simply in regard to these arguments themselves. This FAQ looks at questions and arguments regarding atheism in general. I will be adding to it periodically.
What is atheism?
Atheism itself is pretty simple. The short answer is that it’s just a word referring to the opinion that there is no actual being exists in reality that matches the concept of a god or gods. It’s only one opinion on one thing.
The longer answer is that, in addition to the above fact, someone being an “atheist” only tells you one type of thing someone does not believe in. It does not tell you what their morals or ideologies are.
That’s all it is. An atheist can have any other opinions, even including belief in an afterlife or reincarnation, be liberal or conservative, adhere to a belief system like Buddhism, be fine with religion or be against religion, and so on.
The word “Atheist” is just as if we had a word for people who don’t use street drugs – like anarcoticist. But the reason that the word for a non-religious person is framed in the negative (a-theist, meaning without a god) is because for the entirety of human existence the vast overwhelming majority of people have believed in monsters, superhumans, gods, fairies, spirits, and magic talking animals.
So to be religious was the “default”. People just assumed it was who you were. So when people began investigating these ides and some rejected them, the word”atheist” (and equivalent terms for other languages) was created to describe the new viewpoint of someone who didn’t believe in the expected magical ideas.
Also, to clear up some common points of confusion:
1. Someone who thinks they know for certain that there aren’t any gods and someone who just thinks gods are very unlikely to exist, are both atheists by definition. An atheist is simply someone who doesn’t believe in a god in the same way most people don’t believe in other types of things, like unicorns. I like the way John McCarthy explained this issue:
“An atheist doesn’t have to be someone who thinks he has a proof that there can’t be a god. He only has to be someone who believes that the evidence on the God question is at a similar level to the evidence on the werewolf question.”
2. We deny the concept of gods that fall under the common idea of what gods are in traditional religions like Judaism, NOT just something, anything that anyone might CALL a ‘god’. The term has a lot of gray area. Under what conditions would you actually call something a god? I think people would actually be expecting something pretty specific, with great powers to manipulate the world, and would be mentally human-like – which I think is not likely at all.
3. Not all atheists are opposed to religion. Atheists can think religion is fine, or they can be neutral to it, or they can be opposed to it and think it is harmful. Someone who is opposed to religious belief is called an anti-theist in addition to just being an atheist.
Is atheism a belief system?
No, atheism is simply a lack of affirmative belief in one type of mythological creature (gods). It is one opinion about one thing. There are no contingent beliefs or practices needed to meet the definition of being an atheist. It is identical to disbelief in minotaurs, to use one example.
The claim that atheism is a belief system seems to be mostly a product of people who incorrectly generalize concepts they don’t understand; fundamentalists who try to discredit atheism by asserting it is simply another belief system (rather than a logical conclusion of the evidence); or people being unsure what to think of atheism, because they are so wrapped up in the view that everyone has a religion. I’ve witnessed that myself personally in high school when some people first heard about atheism.
But the mis-characterization of atheism as a religion may also stem from the fact that most atheists tend to share some beliefs like gay rights and evolution, so I’ll address that:
The only reason so many atheists believe evolution, is because they don’t have any competing belief system like creationists do. The result is that they look at the evidence, learn the science, and believe it as a result, in the same way that a religious person learns about anything that does not conflict with their religion.
For example: There is widespread belief that unicorns aren’t real among Christians just as much as among Atheists, because that particular view/opinion/belief does not conflict with a preconceived idea. The facts simply indicate that unicorns are not real, and so in the absence of conflicting belief EVERYONE disbelieves in unicorns.
Now since atheists have no religious belief, they are able to accept the evidence and science for what it is, and even change their views about it if evidence is found that indicates something else.
Is atheism the same as materialism?
No, atheism is not synonymous with materialism. Atheists can be materialists or not. Many atheists even believe in souls and other things that people consider “immaterial” or “supernatural”.
In fact, religious believers can also be materialists or not. For example, Thomas Jefferson identified as both a believer in God and as a materialist.
However there is a problem with the term “materialism” in general. It doesn’t have a clear meaning in the context of religion because there is never a clear explanation of what counts as “material” and what does not. The same is true with terms like natural and supernatural. People mean by material vs immaterial except that they use one word to refer to people and rocks and the other to refer to the concept of gods and souls. But the definitions of the terms themselves are missing so it’s unclear what use these categories have – or why they should be considered distinct categories at all.
So terms like materialism and supernatural etc are logically meaningless and really only serve to confuse discussions. We are better off not using them at all.
Thus when it comes to arguing for our philosophical positions, evidence is evidence. I don’t care if you call it material or not. The issue is simply whether any given argument logically supports the conclusion, and whether or not it follows demonstrably reliable reasoning or uses demonstrably unreliable reasoning. So far, religious arguments all use very poor evidence and reasoning.
Why are atheists so negative and angry?
It seems that way is because of the nature of the issue. The issue isn’t atheism itself. The issue is that we’re opposed to the problems of religion.
When you’re only looking at atheists’ comments about atheism and religion then of course you will mostly see negativity. You’re not seeing the other aspects of their lives. It’s the same when you focus on politics. It’s almost constant negativity because of the nature of the issue. It’s a struggle against something in order to achieve something better.
So it isn’t actually “atheism” that is negative. What you’re seeing is the struggle against ignorance and superstition. And that is carried out primarily by atheists, so we get a reputation for negativity.
Is your atheism an ideology?
I don’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, this is how most self-identified atheists, including myself, view it:
We don’t advocate atheism for its own sake. At the end of the day we couldn’t care less about atheism. What we care about is an honest search for truth. We value accurate understanding of the world because we think the evidence of history and experience tell us that it leads to a happier world. And this requires critical consideration of evidence, not assumptions, faith, and unfounded beliefs.
If we thought there was actual logical evidence that indicated that the existence of a god or gods were more probable than not, then we would support belief in god – and specifically, whatever type of a god the evidence demonstrated (worship is a separate matter, however).
We can't know anything for certain so how can you be an atheist?
We can demonstrate what sort of reasoning and evidence provides more reliable answers (ones more likely to be true).
As atheists, we have just applied this reliable reasoning to the god question. It is as simple as that. We don’t claim to know 100% of anything, but we can say that the most likely answer is the one most indicated by this reliable sort of thinking applied in a consistent manner.
Just saying “you can’t know anything for certain” is pointless because it has nothing to do with being able to determine what is most likely true, given a collection of observations and evidence.
Don't you think there's something more behind all this?
Of course, at least depending on what you mean by “this” and “something more”. If you don’t know about everything, then how can you make a statement about what lies behind “this”. What is the “this” you are even referring to?
The cosmos is incredibly deep and complex, beyond our comprehension, and we will probably never know about most of it. We already know that we experience only a fraction of what constitutes reality, so of course there is “more”. But that is very different from making the specific assumption that the “more” is a hypothetical creature with the qualities that people attribute to gods.
Was Einstein an atheist?
We can’t be certain of exactly what his views were, but based on his comments that we have record of, I think we can say yes, Einstein was an atheist.
He lived during a time when to identify as “atheist” carried a connotation of being anti-theist and nihilistic and it was very taboo. So he identified as “pantheist” (and “agnostic”) which for some people amounts to only a redefinition of “God” to mean “natural universe”. This enables people to avoid the stigma and misunderstanding of being labeled an atheist (such as being accused of being vitriolic or an activist). I think we can discern that his views were atheistic because of quotes like these:
“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
-Albert Einstein, Letter to an atheist (1954), quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas & Banesh Hoffman
“The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”
– Albert Einstein, Letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, January 3, 1954
“It seems to me that the idea of a personal God is an anthropological concept which I cannot take seriously.”
– Albert Einstein, “Religion and Science,” New York Times Magazine, November 9, 1930
“I received your letter of June 10th. I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist.”
– Albert Einstein, letter to Guy H. Raner Jr, July 2, 1945, responding to a rumor that a Jesuit priest had caused Einstein to convert from atheism; quoted by Michael R. Gilmore in Skeptic, Vol. 5, No. 2
So you're proud that you don't believe in anything? That's like being proud of being born.
First, being atheist does not mean believing in nothing. Atheism is simply a label referring to the opinion that there is no actual being exists in reality that matches the concept of a god or gods.
Second, not all atheists would say they are “proud” of being atheist. To many atheists, not believing in a god is the same as how they simply don’t believe in Santa Claus. In other words, it’s not a big deal to them.
However, some atheists do feel some degree of pride in being atheist and I think in many cases that feeling is definitely warranted. I say that because we live in societies that are predominantly religious, many of us are raised to believe in a god and mythical stories, and some are brought up in families and communities that heavily indoctrinate their children.
So one can be proud of being atheist because unlike most other people, they have overcome the indoctrination, the incredible cultural bias, the emotional bias or fear, and achieved a more rational perspective of the world. It is a genuine accomplishment.
Atheists can't prove there ISN'T a god, so you're just as irrational as Theists!
That is false, because rational belief is based on evidence and probability, not only absolute proof. We argue that the evidence indicates that a god is much more unlikely than likely.
Religious people of course believe the opposite, that our atheistic position is the one contrary to the evidence. And that is why we debate.
It is also worth noting that there are many religious people who not only think that the existence of a god is most likely, but they claim to have absolute knowledge that their belief is true without any doubt. And that is a point on which I think most atheists have a strong contrast with religious believers. We do not claim absolute knowledge or absolute certainty. We attempt to follow the evidence where it leads, use consistent reasoning, and apply that reasoning equally to all viewpoints.
Do you think anything supernatural might exist?
You’re inventing a meaningless boundary within reality and declaring one side “nature” and the other “supernatural” but without explaining what distinguishes them from each other. If something exists, then how is it not part of nature? If something is real, then it’s real. The way it works does not classify it as between “nature” or “not nature”.
Once we ever discover how a phenomena works or what something is, however strange it may be, we never call it “supernatural”. We refer to it as part of “nature”. People seem to use the term “supernatural” to refer to anything simply “unknown” or “not understood by large-brained apes yet”. It’s just a useless and misleading term.
With that in mind, I can only give this as an answer: I think there are currently objects and phenomena we do not yet understand or know about, just as there always has been. But I also think we should avoid assuming that specific phenomena or beings are real if we do not have sufficient evidence for them, because then our beliefs become arbitrary and we are more likely to hold mistaken beliefs.
Atheists gather together and talk about their views. That means they just have their own religion!
The definition of “religion” is not simply “gathering together with people who have similar views.” That is only one of the things religions do, but everyone else does it too for all kinds of various causes, including political and ideological ones. But that does not make them “religions”.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the definitions of “religion” as:
1) the belief in a god or in a group of gods
2) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
3) an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group
Now when atheists discuss “religion”, we are generally discussing beliefs and issues that fall under the first or second definitions. But atheists obviously do not have a “religion” by those definitions.
And the third definition is so general that it applies to almost anything, including political doctrines such as libertarianism which have nothing to do with gods or worship. So that definition is obviously not the type of “religion” that outspoken atheists reject. Using that definition of the word to apply to atheists who gather or discuss religion in order to cast them as hypocrites is an equivocation fallacy, since such an accuser is using that general definition to pretend that atheists think and act no differently than religious groups.
So a person is either ignorant or being deceptive if they accuse atheists of having their own religion, because they are applying the word selectively only to atheists despite that particular definition equally applying to myriad other things, as well as misunderstanding that atheists discuss “religion” that falls under the common definitions which are those involved with supernatural belief, gods, rituals, faith, and so on.
Isn't raising a child to be an atheist also indoctrination?
An atheist raising their children wouldn’t be indoctrination unless they specifically tried to force atheist belief onto their childrens’ young minds using techniques like emotional coercion that is so characteristic of Christian fundamentalists, inconsistent reasoning, and denying them full consideration and understanding of other ideas, rather than teach them objective critical thinking and present them with the diversity of ideas out there.
If Jesus didn't exist, then why do we call years B.C. and A.D.?
The reason people call the years by “B.C.” and “A.D.” is because the people in control of society back then based our years on the time they thought Jesus was born. It didn’t mean that they actually knew when he was born.
In fact, scholars, including religious believers, have determined that if the Bible stories have some historical truth, then Jesus was probably born a few years before people have always thought. People have figured this out because the Bible says that Jesus was born during the final years of King Herod’s reign, but we have separate historical records that show Herod died in the year that we now call 1 B.C. So Jesus must have been born before that (if that part of the Bible is even true. It’s possible that Jesus never existed and he was just invented by a cult).
To make a comparison, the ancient Hindu calendars began from the year they thought their god Krishna returned to his eternal home. But Christians of course don’t think Krishna really existed or that the Vedic holy books are true.
Determinism is self-refuting.
Determinism is self-refuting for two reasons:
1. To count as rational, a belief must be freely chosen, which is impossible according to determinism. So if determinism were true, then arguments for determinism would be irrational.
2. Any debate is based on the idea that the parties involved are trying to change each other’s minds.”
In response to Point 1:
1) The definition of “rational” is “based on or in accordance with reason or logic.” The argument asserts that reasoning or belief must be “freely chosen” and not caused deterministically in order to be rational but offers no reason for why that is the case, so we have no reason to accept the conclusion. The alternatives to determinism would not render human reasoning any more rational or reliable. If our reasoning is not deterministic, then the only other option seems to be that it is random. But I at least fail to see why reasoning and beliefs attained through randomness would be any more likely to be in accordance with logic, i.e. be rational. So claiming that determinism would render our arguments for it irrational or futile is a point that would apply equally well to all other arguments for other beliefs.
2) The concept of free will is incoherent, as explained in my article on Free Will. This means that to say “freely chosen” is meaningless and has no logical significance or argumentative power. The incoherence of the concept of free will points to determinism being correct.
3) Perhaps the following is the most important point regarding this argument against determinism: If determinism is true then it doesn’t even matter if arguments for determinism are rational (i.e. logically sound) or not, because then, regardless of whether we view their reasoning as invalid, all arguments for determinism would necessarily have correct conclusions. So ironically, this argument that claims determinism is self-refuting is itself self-refuting.
In response to Point 2:
1) The point fails to undermine determinism because I (nor anyone else who argues in favor of determinism) didn’t choose the feeling to want to change your mind nor ultimately the act of attempting to do it, so this is perfectly compatible with determinism.
2) If determinism wasn’t true then it would be pointless to attempt to change someone’s mind since hearing arguments would not have a causal impact on adopting my view, so this too is compatible with determinism.
Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.
(This is often accompanied by an example such as “If it was, then [dinosaurs, black holes, etc] wouldn’t exist just because there was a time when we didn’t have evidence for it.”)
The principle of “absence of evidence IS evidence of absence” does not pertain to lacking evidence in general. It is merely a brief phrase that is meant to express a more complex point (although admittedly by doing so it can be easily misunderstood and misleading).
The principle applies specifically to situations when and where evidence for a hypothesis would be expected if the hypothesis in question were true.
So for example, in regard to knowledge of dinosaurs, if people never searched for dinosaur fossils or other evidence of them that would exist if dinosaurs had indeed once lived, then the principle “absence of evidence IS evidence of absence” has simply not been applied because the relevant evidence had not actually been sought. And in regard to phenomena or objects that required certain technologies to discover, the same situation was true due to being unable to access the evidence whether it exists or not, due to technological limitations. In these sort of cases, we could not declare whether we had reason to believe that the evidence was there or not.
But if you do search for the relevant evidence and have the means to do so, then being unable to produce such evidence would itself be evidence that the hypothesis is incorrect because it contradicts the hypothesis.
So the principle “absence of evidence IS evidence of absence” is valid. You just need to understand what situation it specifically describes.
Now what about when we are debating the existence of a god? Whether there is evidence or not of that god depends on how that god is defined. To use a common example, we can consider a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, totally benevolent (which according to believers means this god wants no harm to come to us), and which created everything in existence besides himself.
The result of this god being real would have some particular, clear effects on our existence and well-being that would be observable and understandable to us without any special technology. A person can always argue that there is always potentially some information you do not have that would point to a different conclusion, but since we only have the available evidence upon which to base our opinions, we must prefer the conclusion that is most likely given that evidence.
Atheists can be fundamentalists.
Yes and no.
Yes, people who are atheists can also adhere strictly to the fundamentals of certain doctrines like anyone else. But no, a term like “fundamentalist atheist” would make no sense.
People who are atheists can stick to hardline doctrines and be fundamentalists in that sense. But it makes no sense to call them “fundamentalist atheists” because atheism itself is only one opinion on one thing, and as such, it has no collection of fundamental principles. So atheism is not the thing with the fundamentals that anyone you might call a “fundamentalist” is adhering to.
You would need to identify the set of principles that a certain group strongly adheres to then label that groups as fundamentalists of that particular doctrine, not of atheism itself.
It is also important to understand that adherence to fundamentals is not necessarily bad. For example, the only reason that Christian and Islamic fundamentalism is bad is because the fundamentals of Christianity and Islam are bad. But if a person adheres to a doctrine of fundamentals like Jainism, then we have very little worry about because, with only a few exceptions, the fundamentals of their ideology do not pose problems for others or themselves.
And if a person adheres to a doctrine based on fundamentals such as the equality and protection of life and speech regardless of one’s views and adopting beliefs on the basis of evidence, then fundamentalism in regard to those ideas is actually beneficial in my opinion.
I always wonder why atheists don't spend as much questioning satan's existence. - Trevor Noah
1) We equally DISBELIEVE in Satan. Or even more-so depending on what notion of “God” we are comparing it to.
2) We don’t TALK about Satan as much because the religious people of the world are overwhelmingly more focused on God and following what God allegedly says (and many people who believe in a god do not also believe in a Satanic figure). So the concept of God is the one that tends to be more of a problem in the world and is the subject of most debate.