Atheism is the state either of being without theistic beliefs, or of actively disbelieving in the existence of deities.
Atheism is a subject that has long drawn the ire of those who don’t understand it. Many words have been spent and many lives lost due to intolerance and ignorance that should be considered barbaric by contemporary standards. Still though, ignorance about different beliefs (or lack thereof) among the majority groups in our society often provokes blind hatred and unmatched vitriol. How can we emerge from this quagmire of ignorance, hatred, and fear with a better appreciation for diversity and a better understanding of the facts?
We can start by talking about what atheism isn’t. First, atheism is not the amalgam of all beliefs that you don’t agree with—it is a particular thing. Atheism is not satanism; it expresses a lack of belief in the very foundations that define religious and supernatural figures, even the evil ones. Atheism is also not science, though many students of science are likely to describe themselves as atheists due to their skepticism, strictly rational perspective on evidence, and understanding of a naturalistic worldview.
Given that atheists are “godless” in the most real sense, they must all be terrible people who commit atrocious acts and don’t care for others, right? Well, no.
Atheists are mothers, sisters, firemen, pilots, businessmen, students, and even politicians. Many atheists are self-described secular humanists, meaning that they care first and foremost about humans rather than any particular kind or group of humans. Regardless, it is a mistake to ascribe any particular moral views to atheists in general, other than to say that their views include a lack of belief in supernatural deities. Unlike the case with many theists, there is no single set of typical beliefs or morals among atheists.
Anti-theists, though more publicized and lowly regarded by most, are generally those people who actively oppose and discourage both organized religion and any belief in deities or supernatural figures. As such, all anti-theists are certainly atheists, but not all atheists actively fight against religion as anti-theists do. Many atheists attempt to work together with religious people to accomplish changes that they see as beneficial. That said, anti-theists usually have well-defined reasons for their position and also can’t be responsibly grouped into any particular moral category. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an example of an atheist who doesn’t actively encourage the eradication of religions, whereas Richard Dawkins is an example of a prominent anti-theist who vociferously campaigns for the dismemberment and dissolution of all religions.
Why then would someone be compelled to describe oneself as an atheist? Well, the short answer is that atheists simply don’t wish to live their lives through the window of organized religion. The justifications for atheism are sure to be as varied and interesting as the people people who hold them, but I’d like to look at a couple of the more common ones.
First, some atheists refrain from belief and involvement in organized religion because they are convinced that religion is a mental construction of humans, left over from the infancy of our species. As such, they may claim that religion is an artificial and irrational set of beliefs about the world and life which advocates for inconsistent, arbitrary, and sometimes dangerous thoughts and behavior. These atheists may appeal to our shared observational and rational capabilities for the discovery of truth, and duly regard ancient prescriptive texts as extraneous and irrelevant.
Second, there are those atheists who may not care at all about the historical truth or fiction of the Bible or similar religious texts. Instead, they may look at life as a series of people, things, and events that contain their own meaning without need for any supernatural or spiritual component. One might call these people “realists” insofar as their view of life hinges upon only what they can perceive directly, whether it’s a cool breeze, a broken heart, or the creeping onset of old age. These atheists tend to care less about what others believe and more about what others do, which may lead to confusion or indifference on their part when preached to by those who are religious.
There are, as I mentioned, many more justifications for atheism to be found, including from those who regard religion as actively pernicious and destructive, and from those who simply have a distaste for the structure of churches and religious groups. Regardless of the details in any specific justification, we can appreciate that there are many people who describe themselves as atheists after serious consideration and careful reasoning. They are not temporarily lost or being misled by others; they are self-aware and accept the responsibility for their decision. One’s worldview is a decision that each individual mind must make, whether consciously or subconsciously, in order to perceive and make sense of the surrounding world.
The message I mean to convey is one of appreciation for continued and expanded diversity of our society and culture, specifically concerning the inclusion of atheism. At no point in recorded history has there been one all-encompassing correct way to live life, nor will there be in the future. There have, at various times, been those who have regarded themselves as better than those who choose to live differently, and many atrocities have been committed under that pretense. But that outlook on life and the behavior it engenders are neither desirable nor necessary.
Regardless of how you choose to live your life and how correct you think your worldview is, it behooves us all to remember that we are individual people, distinct from one another, and that the greatest chances for widespread happiness and achievement come from tolerance, mutual respect, and education. Further, I claim that a personal morality which harbors exclusion and persecution is one that is objectively worse than those which foster acceptance and learning. Theists and atheists may understand and accept this alike, as a step toward not just tolerance, but mutual betterment.