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What is an atheist?

An atheist is typically identified is a person who does not believe in the existence of any gods. But there are at least two different versions of atheism as follows:

Strong atheist - Someone who asserts that there is no god. This is the version that most people think of when they are asked to describe an atheist. While this is an accurate description for some atheists, it isn't the only or most common version.

Weak atheist - This person asserts that they do not know whether a god exists, but they lack a belief in god. This is the most common form and is sometimes referred to as agnostic atheism.

Beyond this there isn't any comprehensive atheist doctrine or set of additional beliefs. While some attempt to argue that atheism is just another religion, there is no reasonable basis for making this claim. An old joke asserts that if atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color. Once you get past the simple assertion that they lack a belief in any god, each atheist is likely to be quite different from the next on many other issues.

Often those who are unfamiliar with atheists will hold stereotypical beliefs about them and about what atheism means. Cheif among these is the belief that atheists have no moral values. They believe that morals can only come from god and lacking a belief in god means you have no basis for being moral. If this were true, we would expect to find our jails and prisons full of atheists. Anyone becoming an atheist would immediately begin a rampage of crime and destruction, etc. In truth, atheists make up an extremely small proportion of those in jail and there is no evidence whatsoever that they behave any more badly than most believers...they might actually be the most well-behaved and moral group. They must hold themselves responsible for the things they do and cannot use religion as a way to escape responsibility by praying, confessing or seeking forgiveness from god.

Atheists usually rely upon secular standards of morality which may have been coopted by religion, but did not come from religion in the first place. It is almost certain that basic rules regarding murder, stealing, telling the truth, etc. predate any formal religion and certainly predate major religions such as christianity, islam and judaism. Those rules are part of our genetic and social heritage. We can teach them to our children without any reference to god as the means to achieve a peaceful and cooperative social community. The same is true for a simple and universal standard like the golden rule. This idea has been around for thousands of years and is found in virtually all cultures around the world. It was never the property or invention of any particular religion.

Beyond misunderstandings regarding the source of morality for atheists, it is common for those with religious beliefs to assert that life has no meaning without god and that atheists must therefore have lives filled with hopelessness and despair. This misses the point that atheists realize that this is the only life they will have and they must give it meaning in what they choose to do and how they choose to live. It is what they bring to their life that gives it meaning, not some allegiance to an unseen creator who decides whether their life is meaningful or not. Their purpose in life is to live it well and happily as best they can. There is no heaven and no hell to fret over. Life is what you make of it and that is the point.

There are more misunderstandings regarding atheism than can be addressed in a brief space on this website. If you want to know more about us and discover what atheists are really like, try attending one of our meetings. So long as you don't come to preach, proselitize or badger us, you are welcome. We aren't looking to be saved. We are looking for conversation, fun, education and thoughtful discussion.

Table of Contents

Page title Most recent update Last edited by
What is an atheist? May 12, 2012 2:42 PM Ken E.
What is a freethinker? May 12, 2012 2:12 PM Ken E.
About Grand Rapids Atheists and Freethinkers (GRAF) May 12, 2012 1:27 PM Ken E.

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