Religion, Uncategorized

Answers from an Atheist

Sometimes I’m asked to write something, and it’s just too much work not to publish somewhere. A theology professor submitted a few questions for me for his class through my role as a Sunday Assembly organizer. Here are my responses:

“1) Among atheists (as a broad and diverse group of people, of course), what is usually of most frequently deemed or held to be most sacred?”

It would depend on what you mean by “sacred”. As a religious concept, defined as godly or religious, the term is useless to an atheist. I you simply mean what is “important” to an atheist, see question #2.

I don’t find the word very useful except for referring to what other people consider sacred, but that is not to say that I don’t value things highly. In fact, I find it remarkable how trifling religious people appear to value things that they would consider “sacred”. If I believed that my actions determined the destiny of my immortal soul, or that the creator of the universe was watching and commanding me to act, either as a tyrant or benevolent father, I would think of little else. My momentary life would be consumed by religion, and I am very glad that there is no good reason to believe that any of it is true.

“2) What is the essence of what someone would need to do, or generally does do, in order to live their life in accord with the most common beliefs held by atheists?”

The only way to be a bad atheist is to believe in a god. If you ask someone if they believe in a god, and they say “yes”, they are a theist. If they say anything else, including “no”, “I don’t know”, or “maybe”, they are an atheist. Your question implies that you already know that, but it’s worth repeating. There are principles and philosophies that most atheists would agree with, but they have nothing to do with the fact that they are atheists, only that they are human. The ideas of “living in accord with ____”, holding our neighbors to certain standards, or being held to certain standards by our neighbor also have nothing to do with being an atheist. Such standards would include individual rights, property rights, freedom of expression, freedom from oppression, personal security, and privacy, all of which I would expect of my neighbors equally, regardless of their religious beliefs. I value free exchanges of ideas and the scientific investigation of objective reality. I believe that it’s important to openly criticize all ideas to find the best ones. I even wish to protect the rights of people to hold and express bad ideas as long as they do not infringe upon the fundamental rights of others.

“3) What argument, reasons, or evidence is usually offered to support that your answers to numbers 1 and 2 above are actually true? (By which I don’t mean what evidence is there that your answers are statistically accurate. I mean what justification is there that the beliefs about what is sacred and moral are true. For example, when I sent a similar question to Christian organizations, I was asking what arguments, etc. they had that think God/Jesus, as most sacred, actually exists.)”

I think the parallel to your Christian question would seek atheist arguments that religious claims are insufficient to warrant belief. is a good resource, an attempt to catalog the long list. Since they are merely rebuttals to religious arguments, there are far too many to count. Theistic arguments come in infinite flavors and can be rebutted in so many different ways, it’s impractical to give a comprehensive list. In my experience in both academia and popular discussions, there is no one argument that can be counted upon to come up. However, I would throw out Pascal’s wager, the need for a source of human morality, and arguments from ignorance concerning cosmic and biological origins as the most common theist arguments in popular circles. Further fallacies include shifting of the burden of proof and the construction of atheist straw men.

Since I rejected the premise of questions 1 and 2, the best I can answer you concerns the source of human morality. Again, you can be an atheist and a humanist, an atheist and a nihilist, or an atheist and a sociopath. Atheism has little to do with it. From my fairly mainstream point of view, the answer is first that human morality is innate. We are a social species, and love of family, altruism,  and cooperation are natural instincts. Aversion to actions contrary to those principles is also a natural reaction. We want to do well, we want others to do well, and we benefit from both desires. Figuring out how to best maximize human wellbeing is the purview of science. I refer you to Sam Harris’s “The Moral Landscape”.

“4) What do atheists around the world generally believe about how to deal with someone who holds different religious views, such as Muslims, Hindus, or Scientologists?”

I believe that no idea is above scrutiny. Some ideas are worthy of hostility. In a practical sense, these confrontations are rare, since social convention and the commonly defensive or tribal nature of the pious prevents a lot of good conversation in everyday life. On the other hand, many atheists consider any such confrontation to be rude by definition. For these atheists, even the word “atheist” is often avoided like the plague. I believe that this point of view is fueled by moral relativism and/or the normalized religious domination of society. In my experience, the most routine and pervasive forms of anti-atheist bigotry come from this crowd of fellow atheists who wish we would all just shut up. From confrontationists to diplomats, there is a spectrum of styles and extent of engagements with religious beliefs. I would further posit a third category that would contain closeted atheists who pretend to be religious out of fears such as ostracism.


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