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Atheism, in its broadest sense, is an absence of belief in the existence of gods. This definition includes both those who assert that there are no gods and those who make no claim about whether gods exist or not. Simply stated, anyone who does not say "I believe (a) god/gods exist," is, by definition, an atheist. Narrower and more common definitions, however, often only qualify those who assert there are no gods as atheists, labeling the others as agnostics or simply non-theists.
There is no single ideology that all atheists share, nor are there any institutionalized rituals or behaviors. There are certain individuals whose religious or spiritual beliefs some might describe as atheistic, though those holding such beliefs do not normally describe themselves as atheists.
Due to some contrary belief, primarily in heavily religious countries, being an atheist does not imply deliberately "disobeying God". Atheism is not a belief but is only the absence thereof. Atheists are also sometimes accused of "hating God", which is impossible since you can not hate something you do not believe exists. Atheism is not directly linked to evolution, nor the big bang theory. However, many atheists, primarily those who wish to study atheism and religion further, turn to science, hence gaining an interest in such theories.
In countries such as the United States of America and continents such as Asia, religion is thriving. Although it may seem black and white, countries with the highest poverty and murder rates, lowest education rates and human development rates (HDI), tend to be the most religious, in contrast with the most atheistic countries, such as Norway and Sweden. This can also be observed in the US by state.
Examine your current beliefs. No matter what you previously believed, if now deep down you find no belief in god, your transformation is already complete. There is no process or initiation for becoming an atheist (except possibly a "coming out" to others). If you can honestly think, "I don't believe there is a god/gods," you are already an atheist.
2Understand the difference between belief and truth.
Consider the following examples:
- A stranger comes to your door and tells you that your child has been killed in a car accident outside their school.
- You would feel a pang of emotion, but this is a stranger. Do you believe them? Do they know who your child is? Is this some sort of cruel joke? Do you really believe that your child has been killed? You will be inclined to harbor some strong doubts.
- Two police officers come to your door, squad car in the driveway. They tell you your child has been killed. They need you to come with them to identify the body.
- You will in all likelihood believe them, they are police officers. You will feel the emotion as though you know for a fact that your child is dead. It will be real to you.
- You should notice that the difference between these two examples is the authority of the messenger, not the message itself. These examples are also chosen for their emotional content because the emotional content is a large part of what makes a situation real to us.
- The point is, whether we believe something based on authority, or emotion, or both, we cannot know it is true until we see with our own eyes. The highest authority you can imagine could tell you the simplest thing, and you may believe them, and they may believe themselves, but that does not in any way make it true.
- A stranger comes to your door and tells you that your child has been killed in a car accident outside their school.
Understand the difference between scientific belief and religious belief.
The difference between belief in a scientific theory as opposed to belief in a religious dogma boils down to the difference between the institution of science and the institutions of various religions.
The underlying concept in religious institutions is that the nature of reality is known. The nature of reality is written in a book or scroll. This writing was originally done, or dictated, or inspired, by a god. Religious institutions are primarily concerned with spreading information about the "known" nature of reality because, in their understanding of reality, that is what they are required to do. Religious "facts" are not subject to testing, and in most cases cannot be tested. Religious "facts" are supported by evidence that is open to interpretation, or no evidence at all. Religious "facts" are not reviewed by all religions to reach a consensus.
The underlying concept in the institution of science is that the nature of reality is unknown. The institution of science is primarily concerned with discovering the nature of reality without making assumptions. Scientific theories must, by definition, be testable (falsifiable). Theories must be published for review by other scientists with the intention of reaching a consensus. Accepted theories are supported by evidence that is not open to interpretation, or is consistently interpreted by qualified scientists. If evidence is found that contradicts a theory, the theory will be abandoned.
One believes in a scientific authority, because they derive their authority from the review process, and because they have an interest in discovering the truth. One believes in a religious authority because they have been given authority by their superiors, who in turn get their authority from their subordinates. Religion has no interest in discovering the truth because the "facts" are already known.
Remember that you aren't the only person who has found fault with their religion. People throughout history have looked critically at their religious beliefs and found fault. If you have issues and problems, then look at them honestly, with the notion that you will not be punished for trying to find what you truly believe. If your beliefs are valid, then they will stand up to scrutiny. Most of the religions that have ever been, have gone extinct. You would be hard pressed to find people worshiping Thor or Quetzalcoatl. Take a hard look at why you don't believe in Thor, or Rah, or Zeus. Would you be Islamic, Christian, or Jewish if you were raised in Iran, Mississippi, or Israel?
Consider your ethics and try to understand where they come from. You don't need a god/gods to be moral. Atheists are not unethical. Like many theists, many atheists donate to charity and live lives that are morally similar to those of theists. Atheists just might have different motivations for doing so.
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion. - Steven Weinberg.
6Understand the difference between atheism and agnosticism.
- An atheist does not believe that a god/gods do exist. Most atheists observe that there is no proof that a god/gods exist. Because there is no verifiable evidence that a god/gods exist, they do not incorporate a god/gods into their decision making. Agnostics do not believe it is possible to know of the existence of a god or gods.
- You do not have to be anti-religion. Most atheists, however, do disapprove of organized religion as well as the doctrine of faith as a virtue. There are others who still attend religious services for their own reasons, such as an agreement with some of the moral tenets, membership in a community, or even just a fondness for the music.
- You do not have to write off the possibility of unverified or unverifiable phenomena. You can acknowledge that they are possible without insisting or acting as if they are true, or trying to convince others that they are true.
- You do not have to subscribe to any set of beliefs. Atheism is not a religion. Atheists hold a wide variety of beliefs and outlooks, the only similarity being a lack of belief in a god or gods.
Understand that you do not have to give up your culture. Culture, tradition, and tribal loyalty are important to many people, including atheists. By denying belief in a god/gods, one need not totally dissociate oneself with the culture associated with his or her former religion. Virtually every northern hemispheric culture celebrates a winter solstice holiday. A possible explanation for this is the lack of agrarian work to be performed and the abundance of food stores for the dearth winter months ahead. Such a celebration can be, and is in many cases, still important to an atheist for its intrinsic values -- those of sharing and community, among others. Formerly Christian atheists still exchange gifts with their theist friends, put up Christmas trees, and gather with family and friends during Christmastime, without any religious connotation necessary. The same can be said of those formerly of other faiths or never of any faith.
Learn to see and come to conclusions about the world through a logical lens, rather than through faith. The Scientific Method is universally accepted as the best way to understand the world.
Discuss the world in this context with other atheists and with religious people. This will help you understand why people believe what they do and help you understand your atheism in that context.
Study various forms of theism. While most atheists argue that theists are making a positive assertion (and thus bear the burden of proof), it is important to thoroughly understand your former faith and its tenets as well as those of other faiths. The more versed you are in other religions and the more you understand why people believe what they do, the better basis you'll have for your worldview. Also, it will help you fend off those that will try to convert you to their religion, once they learn of your atheism.
Communicate your perspective to those who are curious. Do not be shy, but don't be condescending. Try to help them understand your point of view in a non-confrontational manner. However, you may choose to hide your perspective if it is clear you are going to run into trouble. In some countries or regions, the price of atheism can be very high.
Is it etical to sing Christmas songs at school? What about doing the Christmas tree?
Many atheists partake in traditional Christian winter festivities. Some sing Christmas songs for cultural reasons, some social, and some just enjoy the music. Christmas trees are less of a testament to a deity than to the secular world, every atheist I know proudly displays a Christmas tree. At the end of the day, if you enjoy singing Christmas songs and decorating trees, don't stop! Life is short, enjoy it.
What if my family is religious, but I want to be an atheist? What do I do?
If they are very religious and you depend on them for your basic needs, it's inadvisable to share your atheism with them. It's hard to gauge the open mindedness of one's family when rock solid beliefs are at stake. If you are not dependent on them and feel that your relationship with them is strong enough to survive such a disagreement, or if being out as an atheist is worth the alienation they may subject you to, then go for it. At the end of the day, you must be true to yourself and if you believe this life is the only one you'll get, don't spend it fawning to those whose beliefs cause you grief.
How do I stop feeling bad for being an atheist?
There is nothing to feel bad about. Think of it this way - atheism is not a loss of faith but a graduation from faith. Those who declare themselves atheist have learned, through logic and reason, that a deity cannot exist in our world. Atheism is simply the assertion of logic and understanding over speculation and myth. Don't feel bad about it - embrace it! It's who you are.
Is it okay to be an atheist?
Sure. Some religious people would say it isn't, but they're obviously biased by their own religious beliefs to think that. It's up to each person to figure out their own beliefs and morals. As long as you're not hurting anybody, no one can definitively tell you that what you do, think, or believe is wrong.
How can I convince my Christian mom that atheists can celebrate Christian holidays?
Tell her that Christian holidays are just modified and repackaged Pagan holidays, and that you are only making your own modifications by excluding the religious components, much as the Christians excluded the Pagan components when they modified the holidays in the first place.
What type of funeral service should I expect if I'm an atheist or agnostic?
You can plan it yourself ahead of time and have whatever sort of funeral you'd like, but generally you'd get pretty much your standard funeral, though perhaps without the religious readings and/or imagery.
What's the best way to raise an atheist child?
The same way you would raise any other child. Just don't push on them any religion - nor, ideally, atheism either. If they ask you about your beliefs, you can discuss them honestly, but tell them it's up to them to decide what to believe. And teach them to respect other people's different beliefs and perspectives. See How to Raise a Child for a general overview.
So does this mean I'm not Catholic anymore when I choose to be atheist?
Atheism is the absence of a religion and, by definition, cannot coincide with a religion.
Can I celebrate Christmas?
Yes. Many Atheists celebrate Christmas. Remember, you do not have to give up your culture to become a different religion.
Am I an atheist if I am not sure of God's existence?
What you are describing is an agnostic- someone who claims neither belief or disbelief, as they are unsure. An atheist, by definition, means that you do not believe in the possibility of God's existence.
Ask a Question
Atheism has always been about asking questions. The question of whether a supreme being existed or not is one of the most important questions in human history, and not to mention your own life. Take some time and ask yourself the following questions. It may reinforce your belief in a deity, and it may lead you to atheism.
Here are a few questions to get you started:
- Why do I believe in a god? This is the most important question of all. Do you have any reason to believe? If so, what is your reason?
- How did I come to believe in a god in the first place? If you are atheist, you are most likely to have been raised in a religious home. As children, we are extremely susceptible and prone to learning, which means that what we learn may be hard to shake. Another important thing to note is the fact that if you were born in the United States of America (or any other majority Christian nation), you are most likely to become a Christian. If you were born in Saudi Arabia, you are most likely to become a Muslim. If you had been born in Norway in the Viking ages, you would have believed in Thor and Odin. If you were not raised in a religious home, however, take some time to analyze what happened in your personal process of conversion.
- Is there any evidence for a god? So far, there is no evidence at all for any supreme being. If you think you have evidence for a god, do some research. You may be surprised.
- Why do I believe in my specific god?/What if I'm wrong? There are thousands of different gods to choose from. If you are a Christian, then what if the Roman gods are the true gods? And of course, the other way around. Since there is no evidence for any god, you are taking a risk based on blind faith, that your god is the right one. Most monotheistic religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, support the concept of a hell, where nonbelievers will be damned for all eternity. What if the other religions are right and yours is wrong?
- Focusing on Christianity, what does "Jesus is the son of God" actually mean (or imply)? Where did Jesus get the 23 chromosomes needed to become a human? Is God the biological father of Jesus? Is God the spiritual father of Jesus? Is God some other kind of father?
- Is God really "omniscient"? What is "knowable"? (e.g., "The number hairs on the heads of all living people" is "knowable".) Does God really see or know ALL things? We take in "knowledge" through our "senses" – sight, hearing, etc, and save the "knowledge" in our brains. What sort of "senses" does God have? How does God obtain information? Does "knowing" require a physical basis in a living thing?
- Is God really "omnipotent" and/or "omnibenevolent"? A lot of really "bad" things (earthquakes, murders, rapes, car accidents, etc.) happen in the world all of the time. Did God cause any of them? Has God ever done anything to stop anything "bad" from happening? Is there any evidence that God has ever used his power? Is there any expectation he will ever use his power?
- Is God really "omnipresent"? One definition/explanation is: "[t]he attribute of God by which he fills the universe in all its parts and is present everywhere at once. Not apart, but the whole of God is present in every place." We know that God is not "physical" (He is not composed of atoms). How do we know if God is always present if he can’t be seen or measured?
- What does it mean "to exist?" We know that God is not "physical" (He is not composed of atoms). No one has measured God as a “force” (like gravity). So what does it mean for God "to exist"? One cannot prove a negative (it can’t be proven that God does not exist). But if no one has really been able to prove (by scientific methods) that God exists, does anyone expect that real proof will be forthcoming in the next 100 years?
- Can there really be "life after death"? We know that our souls are not "physical". So after death, how do we think, see, hear, talk, communicate, etc.?
- Do miracles really happen? Does God answer prayers? Is God an “active” God? Let’s define a miracle as “an event that cannot possibly be explained by any of the natural forces or natural laws – something that must have been a supernatural act of a divine agent.” For example, finding a rock that is suspended in mid-air, or witnessing one element/compound being converted into another – copper into gold, water into wine, etc. (Note that evidence of a miracle would not prove that God exists, it would simply prove that there is a force in the universe which we cannot comprehend. It could be God or some other deity, or aliens, anything.) Since there have been no documented miracles in the recent past, does anyone seriously believe that there will be a miracle in his/her lifetime? But if there are no miracles, then God is not an “active” God; i.e., God does not intervene in any way on our planet – everything that happens occurs within the boundaries of the “natural forces and natural laws”. Therefore God has not answered prayers and is unlikely to ever answer prayers. Is it self-centered to ask God to suspend the natural order for us? Many objectively bad things happen (earthquakes, plane crashes, murders, rapes, etc.) to people, with seemingly no regard for religious beliefs. Should exceptions be made just in our case? If you do not believe that God intervenes, is it logical to pray to him? To worship him?
- How well do you understand your “human nature”? Let’s define three “levels of faith”, each requiring a “larger leap” than the preceding one: (1) a belief that God exists; (2) a belief that Jesus is the Son of God; and (3) a belief that the Bible is “inerrant” (totally true). Note that each level requires a belief in something that cannot be proved – beliefs that must be taken “on faith”. A reasonable person, examining the physical evidence found in our universe, would come to the conclusion that the Earth is significantly older than 10,000 years. But those who believe that the Bible is inerrant believe God created the earth (and universe) some 10,000 years ago. Because of the nature of the human mind, this belief is treated not only as a fact but is treated as a fact that has precedence over anything else that the mind can observe and think about. In their view, any observation that contradicts this fact must have been observed (or reported) incorrectly: e.g., “Since there are fossil dinosaur bones, then dinosaurs were alive 10,000 years ago and some unknown process fossilized and buried their bones. Even if we can’t figure out the process and even it is beyond human understanding, God knows”. So people who are not at “level 3 faith”, when thinking about people at “level 3 faith”, must conclude that there is something about human nature that allows beliefs to “blind” people to the reality around them. (This may be why “faith” is often called “blind faith”.) People at “faith levels 1 and 2” should then look at themselves and question whether their faith also blinds them to the reality around them (heaven and hell do not exist, there can’t possibly be life after death, miracles do not happen, etc.). Too often, when people question their faith, they look within themselves for reasons why they question their faith and do not question why their articles of faith do not stack up against reality.
- Remember, it's okay to be an atheist!
- Treat all people, including religious people, with respect, because it's the sensible thing to do. Being unpleasant to people of faith will probably only validate their negative assumptions that they may have about other value and belief systems.
- Don't worry about appearing religious/sharing religious values, or about always "opposing" religion. As long as you feel you are atheist, you are.
- You may want to read books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Carl Sagan, or listen to routines by comedians George Carlin and Tim Minchin. They are all associated with atheism.
- Watch Youtube videos made by users like Thunderf00t, FFreeThinker (yes, with two 'F's), TheThinkingAtheist, and Onision. There are also many other videos on Youtube promoting, explaining and defending atheism. These can be of good help.
- If you are still in school, and religion is a subject, ask your principal or teacher to let you take off religion. You could have extra classes, or read, draw etc, while religion class is on. Sometimes, other students in your class may want to do the same thing.
- You may find that some friends will no longer want to associate with you. These were not real friends in the first place. If they were, then they would still be friends with you.
- Believers may try, sometimes relentlessly, to convert you. They may completely fail to understand your new position. Be understanding.
- Do not go public if you're in a country where atheism is illegal. As atheism means no god, there is no god that will magically protect you for being an atheist. Consider leaving to a country where atheism is legal.
- If you get off religion in class, the other students in your class may start to hate/envy you.
- Some parents believe in a culture where they can control every part of a child's life. They may be able to punish you or possibly harm you. Sometimes it would be better to fake these beliefs rather than just spilling out that you are an atheist.
- Study your beliefs. Don't just become an atheist because you want to. Study and think about whether or not a god existing is really reasonable. Ultimately, you don't decide to become an atheist because you don't really choose to be unconvinced. Eventually, you just realize that you are unconvinced.
- Be prepared to be ill-received by some religious people. Many theists find your lack of beliefs both offensive and horrifying. Many atheists find themselves socially scorned or even threatened with violence. It is important to talk about your ideas, but be sure to do this in an appropriate context.
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