Myths About Atheists -
polls indicate that the term “atheism” has
acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States
that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to
a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim
or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek
poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise
qualified atheist for president.
Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral,
depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically
closed to evidence of the supernatural.
Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment,
believed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because,
he said, “promises, covenants and oaths, which
are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon
That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States
today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87%
of the population claims “never to doubt” the
existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves
as atheists — and their reputation appears to be
Given that we know that atheists are often among the
most intelligent and scientifically literate people in
any society, it seems important to deflate the myths
that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national
1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.
On the contrary, religious people often worry that life
is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed
by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave.
Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious.
Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully
lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful
now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists
tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.
2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in
People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler,
Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of
unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however,
is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem
is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes
are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality
cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious
hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields
were not examples of what happens when human beings reject
religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial
and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society
in human history that ever suffered because its people
became too reasonable.
3) Atheism is dogmatic.
Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures
are so prescient of humanity’s needs that they
could only have been written under the direction of an
omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has
considered this claim, read the books and found the claim
to be ridiculous. One doesn’t have to take anything
on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified
religious beliefs. As the programmer Stephen F. Roberts*
once said: “I contend that we are both atheists.
I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you
understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods,
you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by
No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact,
it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak
about the “beginning” or “creation” of
the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept
of time, and here we are talking about the origin of
The notion that atheists believe that everything was
created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism
of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in
his marvelous book, “The God Delusion,” this
represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary
theory. Although we don’t know precisely how the
Earth’s early chemistry begat biology, we know
that the diversity and complexity we see in the living
world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a
combination of chance mutation and natural selection.
Darwin arrived at the phrase “natural selection” by
analogy to the “artificial selection” performed
by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts
a highly non-random effect on the development of any
5) Atheism has no connection to science.
Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe
in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there
is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking
tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith.
Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls
show that about 90% of the general public believes in
a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National
Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there
are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious
faith than science is.
6) Atheists are arrogant.
When scientists don’t know something — like
why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating
molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to
know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability
in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based
religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious
discourse can be found in the frequency with which people
of faith praise themselves for their humility, while
claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and
biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions
about the nature of the cosmos
7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.
There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing
love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these
experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don’t
tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims
about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences.
There is no question that some Christians have transformed
their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying
to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain
disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have
a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive
experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole
savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because
Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly
have similar experiences.
There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who
can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less
that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These
are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience
8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human
life and human understanding.
Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding
in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious
that we do not fully understand the universe; but it
is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran
reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know
whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos,
but there might be. If there is, such beings could have
developed an understanding of nature’s laws that
vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain
such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant
extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and
the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they
are to human atheists.
From the atheist point of view, the world’s religions
utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the
universe. One doesn’t have to accept anything on
insufficient evidence to make such an observation.
9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely
beneficial to society.
Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never
seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate
the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have
terms such as “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” There
is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion
and the truth.
In any case, the good effects of religion can surely
be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives
people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons
are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral,
helping the poor out of concern for their suffering,
or doing so because you think the creator of the universe
wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will
punish you for not doing it?
10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.
If a person doesn’t already understand that cruelty
is wrong, he won’t discover this by reading the
Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting
with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine.
We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what
is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions
that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have
been refined by thousands of years of thinking about
the causes and possibilities of human happiness.
We have made considerable moral progress over the years,
and we didn’t make this progress by reading the
Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the
practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human
being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination.
Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden
rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without
our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator
of the universe.