Why the fuss about atheism?

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Why have a word for not believing in something? Are there a-leprechaun-ists?

When having discussions about people, it's sometimes useful to break them down into categories: Male or female, young or old, optimist or pessimist. There are about 6 billion people who believe or claim to believe in one or more gods. There's about a billion who don't. These last two groups are called theists and atheists, respectively.

Virtually nobody believes in leprechauns, yet we don't call those who don't believe in them "aleprechaunists". Why the difference? Since belief in leprechauns is so uncommon, there's no need to use a special term to label the majority. However, when it comes to religions and deities, the vast majority of people do believe. Because of that, it makes sense to label people as "atheists" even though this only characterizes them by what they don't believe.

Belief in leprechauns doesn't matter, belief in gods does. So as long as there are two factions, there will be theists and atheists.

Are atheists just another organized religion?

In a word, no. Here's why:

  1. Atheism really doesn't fit most definitions of religion: There is
    • no "strong belief in a supernatural power,"
    • no "institution to express belief,"
    • no "devotional and ritual observances,"
    • no "moral code,"
    • no "collection of practices,"
    • no "teachings that are highly valued or sacred,"
    • no attempt "to shape their character or improve traits of their personality,"
    • no "relation to a clergy," certainly not "bound by monastic vows."
  2. Atheists often have little in common other than their lack of belief in gods, so they tend not to be very organized. There's no worldwide association of atheists, nor an atheist church.

So atheists say there's no God?

Not all of them.

Some just don't believe in gods themselves, but either don't care or don't know if gods really exist. Those are called agnostic atheists, but sometimes they call themselves agnostics.

Others are more or less sure that no gods exist whatsoever, and these are called gnostic atheists; they like to call themselves strong atheists too.

There's no airtight logical proof of the nonexistence of gods, so it's rare for an atheist to claim absolute certainty.

But why make a big deal about what people believe in? Isn't religion private?

Of the people who believe in gods, many don't let this belief affect their lives much, or anybody else's. Others think this belief is so terribly important it's worthwhile to kill or die for it. Others are somewhere in between: Even though they're not extremists, they let their belief govern their actions concerning themselves and others. By definition, the moment a person's belief affects other people, perhaps endangering their very lives, it's no longer private.

How do atheists feel about religious beliefs of others?

As in many things, atheists are divided here:

  • Some don't care what other people believe;
  • some are concerned about religious people, especially the more extreme ones, but try to get by. They mind their own business and lead the best life they can; and
  • some feel that religions cause big problems that need to be addressed, in speech and maybe action. These folks are sometimes called outspoken atheists or even militant atheists. For those people worried about the word "militant," please note that I've never heard of any atheist who advocates violence because of their atheism.

You talk about "big problems." Not all religious people are terrorists!

Fortunately, most people are sensible, even those who believe in supernatural beings nobody's ever seen. Still, if you aren't aware of problems caused by religions, you must have been living under a rock. Peoples' view of reality informs their actions; people who believe in things that aren't real often perform actions that aren't rational, and often very harmful. Most Redditors call the USA their home, and most Americans are Christians. Here are some examples of actions informed by religion. Specifically, Christianity, and in the USA:

These are big societal problems, and they are all a direct consequence of religion.

Those are problems with people, not with religion!

No, I've taken care to choose actions specifically motivated by religion. To quote Steven Weinberg,

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

You can't blame all Christians for the actions of a few!

I can and do. Let's compare today's America with a mostly secular country, like where I live. Here in much of Europe, specifically,

  • there are no religious exemptions for medical care;
  • corporal punishment is outlawed;
  • psychological abuse is prosecuted as such;
  • organizations that support and encourage murderers are investigated and prosecuted;
  • women get the medical care they need, by modern secular medical standards;
  • there is no legal discrimination based on sexual preference;
  • schools teach science in science class;
  • the legal system makes no undue consideration of religion;
  • sex education conforms to modern secular standards and contraception is available.

How does this difference come about? Here's a hint: It took more than a few crazy people to turn the US into the most socially backward country among developed Western democracies. It took political power, and in a democracy that means it took majorities. For better or worse, the US legislature is doing, more or less, the will of the people. Christian people. Over the years, at the behest of their religious leaders, the good people of the USA have asked the legislature to implement a legal system partly based on that of Judea in 500 BC.

In US society, religions demand respect, and they get it. For what? For being religions. Religion is shielded from criticism. Every God-fearing American Christian defends the notion that religions are special, the will of God and untouchable. He defends churches and clerics, often even when they prove to be criminals. He admonishes others for sacrilege and blasphemy. He respects a priest more than a doctor. No other human institution enjoys the same privileges as religion, and this shuts down all discussion that could bring a change for the better.

Ironically, in a country where a whole new party has formed of people who don't want to pay taxes, significant populations meekly sacrifice 10% of their income to a church, often more. How much of that money is going into real charity? The typical church's priorities are:

  • Building more and bigger churches;
  • salaries for clerics and staff;
  • advertisement and political activism; and finally
  • charity.

As an atheist, I don't have a big problem with people being fleeced in exchange for a promise no church or cleric ever needs to cash in. I do have a problem with many millions of people defending and supporting organizations that work hard to keep a whole country boat-anchored in the Middle Ages.

Nice rant! So what are you actually doing?

Taking a page from the book of Richard Dawkins (that's the gentleman without the gun, above), I fight via the written word. I write this blog (more to come soon), my collection of atheist resources from and for Reddit and thousands of posts in what may be America's biggest atheist online forum. All are attempts to inform people that secular humanism, a modern philosophy with man at its center, is a better way forward than the morbid cult of fear and death that sits atop the ruins of the Roman Empire.

In order for US society to improve, more people need to ditch their faith. This is not nearly as daunting as it sounds, for two reasons:

  1. Atheism (or secularism, or agnosticism, or secular humanism) is catching on like wildfire with young people all over America. 46% of all Redditors are atheists!
  2. For the faithful, maintaining the delusion in the face of an ongoing onslaught of evidence to the contrary is a perpetual struggle. The Internet provides a wealth of information and more and more people find themselves suddenly "waking up" to reality.

Here's the information I offer as an incentive and aid to deconversion:

I also reach out to religious folk who consider themselves "moderate," are aware of the problems caused by religion and would like to stop being part of the problem.

Is talking on the Internet all you do?

Don't underestimate the power of information in the Information Age! But you're right, there's more. I'm not rich, but what I save on church tithes I contribute to atheist causes and secular charities, including the following:

I encourage everyone to do the same.

If you're finally done, I want to say something too!

Sure. Reddit is my comment section. Here's the companion post to this piece

Or if you want, you can send me a private message.

I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

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changed March 9, 2011