Do I Know Any Atheists or Freethinkers?
Most people never realize that they have met and know atheists and freethinkers. Because of the prejudice and hostility often directed at those who don’t find a need for any religious belief, atheists and freethinkers tend to stay quiet about their ideas and opinions We don’t necesssarily think of ourselves as having beliefs since it is the absence of belief that really defines us, but ordinary language often leads to using the word “believe” anyway. Further, we tend not to “evangelize” or “proselytize” in the manner some believers do. You aren’t likely to be asked by an atheist whether you’ve heard the “bad news about Jesus”. We write blogs, discuss our ideas when asked and some give speeches and write books, but we don’t just go around forcing our views on others.
What is an atheist?
Simply put, people who do not hold a belief in any god are atheists while those who believe in at least one god are theists. It might be accurate to say that most people are atheists about all the gods except their own. Atheists go just one step further and add your god to the list of ones they don’t believe in.
What is an agnostic?
Agnosticism has to do with knowledge rather than belief. An agnostic is a person who has no knowledge of any gods. It is common for most believers to claim they believe because of faith since they don’t have any real evidence that any god actually exists…they take it on faith. So just about anyone could be an agnostic. Most atheists will say that they have no knowledge of god (they are agnostic), but then will go on to say that without any evidence for a god they choose not to believe in any of them. It is possible for someone to be agnostic without being an atheist, but most atheists will also be agnostic since they reject belief in a god by virtue of having no evidence (knowledge) that any of them exists.
What is a freethinker?
A freethinker is someone who forms opinions on the basis of reason and evidence independently of any authority especially one who doubts or denies any religious dogma.
Are all atheists the same?
When someone who is a believer is asked about atheists or freethinkers, it is common to hear them suggest that if these people don’t believe in God, they must not believe in anything. This often goes further to the idea that atheists have no morals, no hope for the future and are lost in a meaningless life full of despair. Strangely, this will often be stated in a situation where the believer is willing to confess that they don’t actually know any atheists or freethinkers. So much for being informed. For a detailed discussion of the problem of believers making assertions “in the dark”, you might find a blog post by Greta Christina worth reading.
Atheists share the common lack of belief in a god or deity of the type usually professed by Christians, Jews and Muslims. But there are several different types of atheists and they can often disagree about a lot of things including the reasons they are atheists. PZ Myers, one of the prominent “new atheists” of today has suggested that there are 4 basic atheistic types although there is a lot of overlap. Let’s borrow PZ’s categories:
- “Scientific atheists have strong expectations that claims about the nature of the universe will be backed up with empirical evidence and reason; that our goal should be acquiring deeper truths about reality; and that knowledge and epistemology are paramount.”
Since there is not one shred of credible evidence for god, the conclusion is that there is no god…case closed. Atheists don’t have to prove that there is no god, those who make the claim have the burden of proof. No viable proofs have been offered.
- “Philosophical atheists are the original atheists, and while they are a bit swamped by the rising numbers of scientific atheists, they’re still a major intellectual contributor to how we think. Philosophical atheists aren’t as focused on empiricism; instead they address the logic and assumptions of claims about gods. They may also have a deeper appreciation of history, and consider the causes leading to atheist conclusions.”
The philosophers find that the description of the 3-O god (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent), is incoherent and illogical in the extreme. They find it impossible to believe in the presence of all the claims and arguments that simply don’t stand up. Our own Lucretius is well versed in philosophical atheism although he certainly has scientific leanings as well. You can find the philosophical apologetic arguments for God and the refutations of these arguments at the Iron Chariots Wikipedia web site.
- “Political atheists – While the scientific atheists have knowledge and forcefulness, and the philosophical atheists have reason and logic, the political atheists are the ones who get the hard work done. These are the organizers and diplomats and lobbyists, the people at the cutting edge who make it their business to work every day with (and against) the opponents of atheism. They’re willing to work for incremental gains, so they’ll often be more narrowly focused on what we can get done today, next week, next year. If you find an atheist who will cite case law at you and wants to organize a campaign to resolve a church-state separation conflict, you’ve found a political atheist.”
The political atheists will have scientific and philosophical reasons for their atheism as well, but they are focused on giving a political voice to the atheistic movement. A good example of political atheism is the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
- “Humanists are people driven by real-world concerns; they support atheism because they see religion as a source of oppression or injustice, they see secularism as a better path to fairness and equality, they want to put a human face on the abstractions of atheism. These are people motivated by ethical and social concerns. It’s fine to say we’re atheists because we believe in the truth, but it’s the humanists who give us a reason to think the truth matters.”
This branch of atheism is the least likely to wish to argue about it. Their focus is on making the world a better place for all of us and if they find that the other types of atheists are not helping with that, they will find others who will. They may not acquire “faith”, but they will search out a community that shares their goals and moral vision, even if that is a progressive and inclusive church.
So, depending on who you meet, you may find one or another of these basic viewpoints or a blend of all of them. In many situations, the humanistic element is going to predominate. When asked to defend their atheism, many will switch to either the scientific or philosophical modes.
What about morality and ethics?
The idea that atheists and freethinkers are without morals or ethical guidelines is one of the most puzzling. Is it really the case that most people are constrained from committing crimes and doing other evil things only by their belief in a god? Would you really lose all control and go on a murderous rampage if you lost your faith? If so, what’s wrong with you? Here is a situation in which doing a little research would be worth your time. With a little bit of effort you can discover the following:
- The percentage of persons in U.S. prisons who are professed atheists is almost zero.
- The regions of the country with the lowest rates of rape, murder, unwed pregnancies, poor education, poverty, lack of social support systems, infant mortality, etc. are also the regions with the highest percentage of non-believers. The more religious the region, the worse it is in things related to morality, ethics and concern for the welfare of others.
- Around the world low rates of religiosity are associated with more successful and healthy societies. Check out the standard of living in Sweden for a start. It has one of the lowest levels of religious belief in the world. If you think the U.S. is the model for the world you haven’t been paying attention. We are the most religious of the developed countries and now rank well down the list compared with other developed countries on most of the measures you would consider a reflection of morality.
Religious belief appears to have a negative relationship to all the things you would think are a reflection of morality, ethics and “doing good” in the world. Claims about atheists being immoral are flatly contradicted by the evidence and religion has a lot to answer for on these grounds. We could turn the question around: Why are you religious folks having such a hard time behaving yourselves?
So, if atheists and freethinkers can be moral and ethical without relying on a religious framework, on what do they rely instead? For atheists and freethinkers, the source of morality and ethics is found in the rules and expectations of the moral community, the expectations that all of us have for each other and that are communicated and taught to us by our parents, family, friends, etc.We have a general consensus about right and wrong that has evolved with us over time and constitutes a “social contract”. The religious texts may codify some of those ideas, but they aren’t the original source – we are the source of the moral rules, not the scriptures. This necessarily means that some portion of our ethics cannot be permanently settled; it is not absolute in all cases. We all live with this ambiguity even if we rely upon scriptures. The scriptures don’t always speak to our moral questions and problems.
Is lying wrong? The moral community says yes, but also recognizes certain limits. For example, if you were hiding a Jewish family in your house during World War II, and a Nazi patrol came to your house and asked if you were hiding anyone, would a lie still be wrong? Probably not in that case. Virtually every situation demanding a moral judgment or action is going to present us with a gradation of rightness and wrongness for those judgments and actions depending on a host of factors. There really isn’t space here to discuss all the aspects of this view of morality, but you can feel free to ask questions or pose problems. We will respond. We all struggle to become experts in determining what these factors are and when they apply. It is a challenge, but we succeed more often than not.
What about a meaningful life?
When believers say that their belief in a deity gives their life purpose, they typically ignore the reality that it is their own actions in the light of this belief that really defines the meaning of their life. They may contribute to charities, work to aid the poor, participate in food drives and volunteer work that benefits the community. They say all of this comes from their belief in God, but ignore the fact that all of these activities are available to non-believers as well and seem unaware that there are likely non-believers standing next to them when working at the food shelf, participating in a volunteer program or giving money to a charity. It is the doing of those good things that helps to give meaning to the life of both believers and non-believers.
For atheists and freethinkers, the meaning of your life is what you do with it in the here and now, not how much it will contribute to your efforts to get into a comfy afterlife or as obedience to some deity who will smite you with his wrath if you don’t do good things. For the atheist/freethinker, hands that do are better than lips that pray. See the description of the humanist-atheist above.
How can you atheists and freethinkers deny God when you can’t prove he doesn’t exist?
This is actually putting the question incorrectly. Since we are not making a positive claim i.e. God exists, we aren’t under any obligation to prove the negative. The need for proof is always with the party making a positive claim. If you claim that you know God exists, show us the proof, the evidence. It is an extraordinary claim, it should be supported by extraordinary evidence. Unfortunately, over the past several thousands of years, no one has come up with any evidence that didn’t have serious problems of credibility.
Consider your own faith if you have one. Are you sure it is true? The answer is probably yes. Now consider a different faith. If you are a Christian, try Islam. Is it true? If you say no, how do you know? If you say that your holy book is real while theirs is false, how can you back that up? The Muslim could and easily does say the same about your book and the truth of the Qur’an. Worse, there are dozens of alternatives to Christianity that make the same claim as well. No one has ever found a decisive way to settle the argument because none of the religions have any credible evidence. If they did, everyone would likely convert to that one. That doesn’t appear to have happened.
All religions fall back on some version of faith as the basis of their beliefs. As Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) said, “Faith is ‘believin’ what you know ain’t so.” You may value faith as a standard for belief. Atheists and freethinkers want something more reliable and trustworthy. It is possible that in every other part of your life you don’t rely upon faith – not when you take your car to the repair shop, not when you buy a new house, not when you go to the doctor or dentist, not anywhere else.
You know that faith isn’t what’s needed when important decisions are made or when expensive commitments are required. You check things out, you seek evidence, you test assumptions and you defend your decisions without relying on faith. You would likely feel foolish if you told your friends you bought a car on the faith that it was in good running condition wouldn’t you? Freethinkers hold religion to that same standard…we just don’t take it on faith. When it comes to the most important questions you can ask about the nature of the universe and everything in it, why would you abandon the very skills and criteria you need in every other important decision?
What if I think I might be an atheist?
Doubt is likely the beginning for most atheists. We begin with some questions, some puzzles, a desire to understand. While religions often admonish their members to avoid all doubt and don’t ask questions, atheists see that as a fundamental weakness. If you have harbored doubts and have questions, you might be an atheist — or at least not fully in the grip of any religion. While that might scare you, it doesn’t scare us at all. We enjoy the freedom of thinking for ourselves, evaluating everything for its truth and coming to our own conclusions about the nature of reality. You might enjoy it too. You can contact us and we won’t try to talk you out of your religion or into atheism, we will just provide our answers to those questions you have if we can. By the way, we don’t mind saying we don’t know for sure. Doubt is okay.