There are five fairly simple ideas concerning atheists and atheism that I think everyone should understand. These ideas cover what an atheist is by definition, some generalizations that theists often indulge about atheists and atheism, and finally the most important thing one can know about an atheist. Understanding these ideas will give a clearer picture of what atheism really is and also what it really isn't. While there are many other things one could know about atheists and atheism, I feel these five things are the most important.
"Atheism is simply a lack of belief in god."
One of the most frustratingly common things I deal with nearly every day is people who don't understand what an atheist is. I can't even count the number of times I've seen theists say, or post memes on social media, that atheists are devil worshipping baby eaters who spend all day having orgies. The reason this is so frustrating is not so much that these claims are false, but that the definition of an atheist is one of the most simply defined terms in the English language. An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in the existence of god. That's it. That is literally all there is to it. There isn't any devil worshipping or baby eating, and there aren't crazy heathen orgies.
An atheist doesn't hate god either. In order to hate god you first have to believe a god exists and if you believe a god exists then you aren't an atheist. We aren't mad at god or fighting against god in some way. We simply don't believe god exists at all. For an atheist, we could no more hate god in any valid way than we could hate Megatron in any substantial way. But just like with Megatron, the atheist can most certainly critique the character of god that is offered by religion. If an atheist says that the god of the bible is a narcissistic tyrant, that atheist is making a commentary about the character of god as he is portrayed in the bible and in no way does this mean that said atheist actually believes in the god of the bible or that a tyrannical narcissistic extra-dimensional wizard exists. One does not need to believe that the character Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes novels is real in order to think him quite a nasty villain.
"People generally don't choose to be atheists."
This may seem like an odd statement to make, but I assure you it's true. The reason it is true is because our beliefs, or lack thereof, are almost always influenced by outside forces. Most people who believe in god had that idea instilled in them by others, usually parents or other close family. Most of them made no real conscious decision at all to believe in god. They were simply told by people that they trust that god exists and they accepted it. For the vast majority of theists at least 90% of their faith is simply invested in the notion that no one has lied to them or unknowingly led them to believe something false.
This all leads back to why I claim that most atheists don't choose to become atheist, because most of us grew up in a religious home and had the same influences thrust upon us, and yet the vast majority will tell you that we have always had a rather large dose of doubt. Many of us heard the stories of Jesus' supposed miracles and simply felt them too farfetched to believe. Our doubt has been there right from the start and once we finally recognize that we can't reconcile that doubt, we come not to a choice, but to an acceptance of what we truly feel. We lack belief in that which has no verifiable substance.
Of course there will always be those who want to argue that atheists choose not to believe, and for those people I would pose an analogy of sorts.
Now, I know this seems cut and dry, in the sense that people believe whatever they want to believe, but it really isn't. You see, the problem is that you can't simply force yourself to believe things. I can no more force myself by choice to believe in god than I could force myself to believe in leprechauns. Be it leprechauns or god, my belief or disbelief in these things is solely based on the information and evidence I have at hand which gives me reason to either believe or disbelieve. The same is true for theists, however the big distinction is not belief or disbelief but rather, what types of evidence or proof that we are willing to accept.
For billions of people on this planet the bible and Qur'an and Torah etc, are accepted as perfectly good evidence and proof of the existence of the gods they offer. These doctrines and religious teachings are the main reason that anyone believes in god, because the honest truth is that deists are a rare breed and most people that believe in a god also follow a religion. Because of this the only choice we really make is the evidence that we're willing to accept and much of that choice has to do with the information we have at hand and our own preconceived notions. Quite often when we run into information that disputes our preconceived notions, cognitive dissonance rears its head and causes us to discount that which is in disagreement with what we already believe. Even those preconceived notions however, are built on ideas that have been impressed upon us by outside sources.
So the idea that someone can just choose to believe in something is really just not true, because there's almost always some driving force behind what we believe or disbelieve. There is almost always some reason, however flimsy or invalid that reason may be, there is still some reason that we believe or disbelieve in anything. No matter how much we may want to believe something, we can't just choose to believe it either. I'm sure there are many atheists who want to believe in an afterlife, however since they have no evidence to support that notion they don't actually believe in it.
We have to also keep in mind that our beliefs, or lack thereof, can in fact change over time, but this also is very rarely a matter of choice. The fact is, sometimes we acquire new information, or are finally able to overcome cognitive dissonance, and this changes what we believe. No matter how adamant we are in our convictions, there can always be something that may change our minds. Sometimes it's simply the weight of all these conflicting ideas that force us into examining things more closely and other times it may be the words of someone that open your mind to a different perspective. Whatever the case, our beliefs are not set in stone and we generally don't simply choose to believe in things. Nine times out of ten there are reasons for what we believe and it isn't just a flippant choice.
"Not all atheists are anti-theists."
Before we even begin talking about this topic, I need to address a misnomer. You see, the term anti-theist has a specific meaning as defined by its root words. The prefix anti means against or in opposition to, and the word theist means any person who follows a religion. So an anti-theist, by definition, is someone who is against or opposed to any person who follows a religion. The problem here is that the vast majority of people who are called anti-theists aren't actually opposed to or against religious people, but rather are opposed to religion itself. If we are going to be honest, we must admit that there is a difference between being opposed to people and being opposed to an idea.
So for the purposes of our discussion here, I want to use the term anti-religious rather than anti-theist. The reason for this is that I want us to think about what is really at play here rather than just try to justify the term anti-theist, as if there is some justification for opposing entire groups of individuals based on one single label. I also want to impress the idea that most atheists, even us anti-religious atheists, aren't actually opposed to theists as individuals but rather that we oppose the ideologies they claim to follow.
Now, the honest truth is that there are literally tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of atheists that honestly don't care at all about religion. They aren't debating or arguing over religion nor offering proof of the falsehood of religion. They hold firm to a live and let live attitude and want no part in these theological disputes. Those people in fact actually make up the majority of atheists.
So why is it that so many theists hold to the notion that all atheists are anti-religious and their "enemy"? The culprit here is, unfortunately, the internet, because thanks to the internet we now have many vocal atheists that are anti-religious and because we are so vocal we tend to be the most noticed. So, in the same way that so many believe that all Muslims are terrorists simply because when we are shown acts of terrorism it is very often Muslims who have committed these acts, many believe all atheists are anti-religious simply because that is what they see most often. Of course, neither of those things are actually true. Not all Muslims are terrorists and not all atheists are anti-religious. If we keep coming to the table with these false notions and presumptions, we simply aren't going to get anywhere.
"Atheism does not necessarily lead to nihilism."
Many theists make the assumption that atheism, by its very nature, is a nihilistic position. The general assumption being that if you don't believe in god then you don't believe in anything and so nothing has any meaning. It's also assumed that a lack of belief in god means that atheists have no sense of purpose in their lives. None of this is even close to being true however. In reality many atheists believe in a lot of things and most often at the top of that list of things we do believe in is the essential goodness of humanity. Despite all the horrible acts we see others commit, many of us still believe that such acts are not representative of the whole of humanity. That is why so very many atheists are also humanists.
That humanist position is also a big factor for many atheists in how they assign purpose to their lives. While the theist believes his purpose is to obey and worship a god, most atheists believe that life only has what purpose we choose to assign to it and quite often we choose to assign purpose to the act of trying to better humanity as a whole. Many of us are activists who help fight for equality and justice for all humanity. So very many of us have chosen to serve a purpose rather than purposelessly serve an absentee god.
Serving the purpose of the betterment of humanity has great value to many atheists because it's something tangible that can offer real results. Serving a god that we don't even know exists can serve no purpose but a presumed reward in a presumed afterlife. What is worse is that, quite often serving a god and serving humanity are in opposition because any truly devout believer is bound to put following the tenets of their religion above equality and what is best for humanity as a whole. We see this problem in plain view when we see Christians here in the US claim that they don't hate homosexuals, yet they don't support homosexuals having equal rights under the law. These people knowingly put their religion before humanity even while fully understanding that this is completely unethical. Of course, this isn't true of all theists and there are in fact many theists who do understand that no matter what their religious doctrines say all humans deserve to be treated fairly and equally, and should some god exist it is that god's responsibility to make a judgment of each individual. If only all theists could understand this we likely wouldn't have any real issues between atheists and theists.
"All atheists are individuals."
Of all the points I've tried to make here, this last one is ultimately the most important. You see, other than a lack of belief in the existence of god, atheists only have as much in common with each other as any two humans on this planet have in common with each other. Some atheists may share a lot in common and others almost nothing at all. We come from every culture, ethnicity, and economic background you could imagine. We're as diverse as any group can be really.
The thing is though, that this is mostly true for theists as well. The only reason I say mostly is that, the inherent connection of a shared religion offers a greater level of commonality by proxy. The very fact that two people who share the same religion also share the same doctrine and in general the same core beliefs, means that they have a greater amount in common than two random atheists. Still though, most theists are indeed individuals. Regardless of shared religion or a lack of religion at all, each of us has our own ideas, ideals, and opinions, and each of us is responsible for our own actions.
The reason this point is so important is that everyone needs to understand that there is no one voice for atheism. There aren't any leaders, priests, or prophets. There isn't any atheist bible or guidebook. Because of this, hasty generalizations about atheists simply make people look like fools, and quite honestly the same goes for generalizations about theists. We can't sum each other up simply by the labels we wear. Those labels don't actually define us, but are merely one facet of who we are and who we choose to be.
As I continue on through this book, chapter by chapter, I want to try to tear down some of the barriers between us as atheists and theists, and try to bring us back to a point where we can simply start thinking about each other as people again. I'm tired of the fighting and the hatred and the bloodshed. I'm tired of being misunderstood and misrepresented. I'm tired of seeing families torn apart by beliefs and friendships turned to enmity over the same. So I just want to talk and share my story and my experiences and I hope that by reading through these things you'll find some common ground and that we aren't so different really. Maybe by the end of the book you'll understand me better and understand that I want to know you better as well and that we really don't have to do all this fighting.
If you'd like to read more about this topic, please check out the book Atheisting 101: 10 Steps to Proper Atheisting