Montreal, November 18, 2007 • No 242




Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Chicago.




by Gennady Stolyarov II


          I do not seek here to convince anyone to become an atheist. Instead, I wish only to discuss what atheism actually is and to dispel the all too frequent misconceptions regarding it. Many persons of religious persuasions assail atheism without truly understanding it. What they attack is not atheism as such, but rather a straw man constructed by themselves and consisting of every possible idea that they do not advocate. Much pointless negativity and intolerance might be avoided if only individuals of all intellectual persuasions became aware of the actual ideas of which atheism consists, the reasons for which many adhere to it, and common misconceptions held regarding it.


What Atheism Is

 defines “atheism” as:
                    1. The doctrine or belief that there is no God.
                    2. Disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

          Further related definitions are provided by the American Heritage Dictionary:
                    1. Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
                    2. The doctrine that there is no God or gods.

          Thus, there exists a simple test to distinguish an atheist from a theist. One needs only ask an individual, “Do you believe in the existence of any kind of god or gods?” If the person thus questioned answers in the affirmative, then he is a theist. If he answers in the negative, then he is an atheist.

          An atheist does not believe in any kind of god or gods. But what exactly are these “gods” that atheists do not believe in? Princeton University’s WordNet defines “god” as:

1. The supernatural being conceived as the perfect and omnipotent and omniscient originator and ruler of the universe; the object of worship in monotheistic religions. 
2. Any supernatural being worshipped as controlling some part of the world or some aspect of life or who is the personification of a force.

          So an atheist is an individual who does not believe that there exist any kinds of supernatural beings controlling any aspects of the world, of human lives, or of the entirety of existence. It is crucial to note that an atheist disbelieves specifically in the notion that a person controls these aspects of existence, or that the forces controlling them can be personified. An atheist does not necessarily reject the existence of impersonal forces controlling or guiding inanimate or animate aspects of the world. For instance, atheists can and often do believe that there exist natural laws of physics, of morality, of economics, and of biological evolution. Atheists can and often do believe in the existence of large macroscopic orders that characterize aspects of existence. What atheists reject is the idea that some non-human, superhuman, and supernatural person inaugurated those orders into being and/or actively controls them.

Myths about Atheism

Myth 1: Atheists hate God

          The word “atheism” originates from the Greek “atheos,” meaning “godless.” There is no hatred or even dislike of any god or gods implied in either the word or its origins. Atheism is not the same as antitheism, or opposition to gods and to those who believe in gods.

          Atheists do not actively despise any god, in part because it is difficult to despise what one does not believe to exist. Many monotheists make the mistake of alleging that atheists hate their God in particular. But if someone were to suggest that atheists hate Vishnu or Zeus or Thor or Amon-Ra, such allegations would clearly be recognized as empirically false. Many atheists not only do not hate those deities; they enjoy reading myths and stories where such deities play an active role. In many such stories, the gods even behave in an admirable manner – and most atheists are ready to acknowledge this. What, then, would make the Christian or Jewish or Muslim God so different in their eyes?

          Indeed, absolutely nothing in an atheist’s worldview needs necessarily prevent him from reading the texts of the monotheist faiths and deriving from them similar utility, enjoyment, and moral instruction to what he might derive from Hindu, Greek, Norse, or Egyptian mythology.

          When atheists read about gods, they evaluate the gods as literary characters. Those literary characters may behave admirably or not – and it is up to the individual atheist to judge the individual literary god in each particular case. What atheists are not ready to do, however, is to evaluate the morality or immorality of particular actions in a text based solely on whether any god performed or abstained from them, praised or condemned them. Atheists are ready to condemn the Old Testament God’s command that Saul exterminate the infants of Amalek just as they are prepared to criticize Athena’s decision to turn Arachne into a spider for being a better weaver than the goddess.

Myth 2: Atheists hate those who believe in a god

          Atheists do not believe in any gods, but virtually all atheists believe in the existence of some kind of moral standards for human behavior. Since they do not believe in any gods, they do not believe that moral standards originate from gods. Thus, in an atheist’s view, whether somebody else believes in a god is as irrelevant to that person’s morality as his color of hair or his preferred flavor of ice cream. What is relevant, however, is whether an individual’s actions show him to be a fundamentally good and moral person. Many atheists will disagree regarding what this means, but they will concur that an individual’s religious convictions are not a determinant of his moral character. Again, those who condemn theists simply because the latter believe in a god are not atheists, but rather antitheists.

          If a person’s religious convictions have nothing in common with his adherence to the atheist’s moral standard of choice, then the consistent atheist will disregard religious convictions altogether when forming his judgments of others. An atheist is often as likely to find good people among the religious as among fellow atheists – and he might often prefer the company of some of the former to that of some of the latter.

          Atheists do not necessarily dislike any particular religion or its adherents. What atheists detest, however, is religious bigotry, hypocrisy, and intolerance. Whenever any group of individuals seeks to impose its views on others by force or uses the rhetoric of religion as justification for coercing, expropriating, and tyrannizing over others, the conscientious atheist will be outraged – as he should be.

Myth 3: Atheists advocate socialism, totalitarianism, or the welfare state

          While it is true that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did not believe in any god, atheism as such has no necessary implications in the political realm – other than perhaps an opposition to any integration between church and state, which is a stance shared by many religious individuals as well. There do exist socialist atheists and welfare-statist atheists, but there also exist conservative atheists, libertarian atheists, and atheists adhering to virtually every other political creed.

          Indeed, atheism is much older than virtually any prevalent political philosophy of our time. The first known famous atheist was the ancient Greek thinker Diagoras in the late 5th century B.C. In more recent times, atheism was espoused by such thinkers as the Enlightenment thinker Paul-Henri Thiry, the Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), the analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), and Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the founder of Objectivism. Truly, atheists are historically represented within a tremendous range of political and philosophical movements – and it is impossible to classify all atheists under a single political or ethical umbrella. Indeed, the disagreements among atheists as to what constitutes moral behavior or a proper social order can often exceed in their extent the disagreements between some atheists and some religious individuals on these issues.

          Nothing prevents an atheist from adhering to a philosophy of individual rights, limited government, and free markets. Murray Rothbard, one of the 20th century’s most prolific free-market economists and libertarian political theorists, was an atheist – as is the psychiatrist Dr. Thomas Szasz, who opposes state control over individuals’ “mental health.”

          Indeed, according to columnist Alan Caruba, “American atheists are more likely to object to abuses of power by government than most people… Conservative and Libertarian political values, smaller and less intrusive government, fiscal prudence, laissez-faire capitalism, and individualism would seem to suit most, but not all, atheists better than some form of socialism or one-world government philosophy.”

Myth 4: Atheists do not believe in objective moral standards

          There exist numerous ways to arrive at an understanding of morality without any reference to a deity. One can employ natural law theory – as exemplified in the works of Aristotle, John Locke, and Murray Rothbard. Alternatively, one can espouse utilitarianism – as did Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill – argue for the evolutionary origins of morality in the manner of Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Hayek. Like the Enlightenment philosophers and Ayn Rand, one can see morality as originating from rational self-interest. One can follow the empiricist consequentialism of Milton Friedman and try to arrive at morality by observing the outcomes of particular actions and human institutions. Or one can deduce it from first principles like Rene Descartes. Alternatively, like William James, one can conceive of morality as a set of rules that happen to “work” in a pragmatic sense.

          “Morality Does Not Require Religion” provides further discussion of why a belief in any god or gods is not required for an individual to behave morally. “Incentives for Moral Behavior” examines the real-world motivations of individuals of a broad variety of persuasions – religious or otherwise – to act morally.

"Not only is atheism not a religion; it is not even a philosophy or worldview. Atheism is simply a negative – a disbelief in a deity. It does not imply a positive creed of any sort."

Myth 5: Atheism is a religion

          Not only is atheism not a religion; it is not even a philosophy or worldview. Atheism is simply a negative – a disbelief in a deity. It does not imply a positive creed of any sort. Atheists disagree extensively amongst themselves regarding metaphysical questions such as whether the universe had a beginning in time or whether it always existed. They disagree regarding epistemological issues such as the proper sources of and criteria for human knowledge. Atheists range from strict deductive rationalists to complete empiricists to those who reject the empiricist/rationalist dichotomy altogether. The only epistemological idea atheists agree on is that truth cannot be obtained through divine revelations or commandments. However, some atheists will acknowledge the tremendous value and truth contained in the moral systems accompanying many religions. Nothing necessarily bars an atheist from adhering to some or most of Christian or Jewish moral teachings. If he agrees with them, however, it will not be because God told him to, but because he perceives other extra-religious justifications for these ideas and standards of conduct.

Myth 6: Atheists seek to politically suppress religion

          Statistics compiled in 2005 show that the combined number of “atheists, agnostics, and non-believers in God” in the United States ranges from 3 to 9 percent of the population. When explicit atheists are considered alone, the percentage is likely to be at the lower end of this range. Alan Caruba writes, “As best as can be determined, only 3% of Americans are atheists. What matters most to them is their personal integrity. They are, almost by definition, the least authoritarian of groups you can find and the least likely to attempt to convert someone to their views.” Atheists are a demographically insignificant minority and do not have the political power to suppress anybody’s religious beliefs even if they wanted to. Furthermore, not a single prominent politician in the United States is known to be an atheist – indicating how little political influence atheists actually have.

          Any attempts to infringe upon the religious views and practices of some Americans are currently made by other individuals who claim to be religious – and often of the same religion as those whose rights they seek to infringe. Indeed, much of the opposition to religious expression on government or private property stems from those who endeavor to suppress speech, ceremonies, and displays by some religious groups for fear of “offending” other religious groups.

Reasons for Atheism

          Why do atheists reject the existence of any kind of deity?

Reason 1: Lack of Evidence for God’s Existence

          Simply put, atheists do not see any evidence that suggests that a deity might actually exist. Atheists do not observe any phenomena that can only be explained by invoking a deity. If every aspect of existence – from atoms to morality – can be accounted for without any mention of a god, then belief in a god is simply superfluous and adds nothing substantive to one’s understanding. Occam’s Razor states that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity and that, all other things equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the correct one. So far, atheists have been unable to find any phenomenon for whose explanation the concept of a god is indispensable.

Reason 2: Lack of “Faith”

          The term “faith” has multiple meanings, many of which atheists do not reject. Atheists can and often do exhibit “faith” in the sense of trust in other people, institutions, or natural phenomena. They also exhibit “faith” in the sense of a belief in some kind of idea. They do not, however, exhibit “faith” in the sense of a “belief that is not based on proof” ( Many religious individuals will readily admit that there exists no evidence for the existence of a god; they will then claim that they believe in a god nonetheless, because they possess this faculty of “faith.” An atheist possesses no such faculty.

Reason 3: Lack of Convincing Arguments for God’s Existence

          Atheists are not necessarily closed to the possibility of ever believing in a god, but they require that they be presented with a convincing reason for why they should. While many religious individuals have sought to present arguments for belief, atheists have largely not found them compelling. This does not mean that theists ought to stop trying. Rather, they should recognize which arguments have failed to convince atheists, despite having been tried time and again. August Berkshire offers a useful list of some of these in his “21 Unconvincing Arguments for God.” When theists begin to present new arguments that encourage atheists to approach the question of the existence of a god in a hitherto unexplored manner, they can be sure that many atheists will give such ideas serious consideration.

Reason 4: Desire to Avoid Rituals and Institutional Entanglements

          Most religious systems are not merely abstract networks of interrelated beliefs. They also entail adherence to a specific social hierarchy and a highly particular set of customs, rituals, and ceremonies. Many atheists simply do not wish to recognize the authority of any particular group of men who call themselves priests or pastors. They do not wish to undertake a certain set of dietary prohibitions or regulations regarding how they must or must not spend certain days of the week. Atheists tend to dislike entangling abstract belief systems with concrete institutions, as the institutions will often do great discredit to even the very principles they claim to uphold.

          It is true that a person who wishes to avoid such institutional entanglements is still in theory free to believe in the existence of some kind of deity. Most gods, however, are so constructed (and atheists believe that gods are human constructs) as to require highly concrete and particular forms of obedience, such as attendance at a church or temple, the offering of certain material sacrifices, the singing of specific songs, the uttering of specific sequences of words, and adherence to extremely thorough prescriptions governing everything from birth to marriage to the conduct of meals. An individual is free to invent a god that does not require such forms of worship, but at that point he would quite explicitly be creating a deity, not finding an already existing deity outside of himself. It is as difficult to believe in the existence of a god of one’s own imagining as it is to think that a fictional character that one has just put into a story actually lives and breathes.

Reason 5: Upbringing and Fundamental Intellectual Framework

          Just as many individuals become certain of their religious convictions from being raised in a particular faith, so do many atheists lack a belief in a deity in part because they were not raised with such a belief. None of their parents and few other adult authority figures in their lives actively encouraged or cultivated a belief in a god, so no such belief emerged. In the meantime, the young implicit atheists developed an entire worldview which did not require the presence of a god to explain any aspect of existence. Many of the conclusions which an atheist with this background has arrived at and implemented in his everyday life are so deeply rooted in his basic worldview that to introduce an entirely foreign element – like a god – into such a worldview would overturn everything and leave the atheist confused and skeptical of the morality of even elementarily good actions. Many of the same ethical and practical conclusions are, of course, consistent with both belief and disbelief in a god, but there is no guarantee that abandoning an intellectual framework that took a lifetime to develop will lead the atheist to develop another equally formidable framework in a much shorter time period. The same argument, of course, applies to a religious individual with respect to his faith – especially if such a faith underlies the majority of his ethical and practical conduct. It is not advisable for him to abandon his religious framework unless he is certain to replace it with a more extensively developed non-religious one. Otherwise he might lose the motive to pursue actions that are moral irrespective of their justification.

Reason 6: Conviction that Certain Ideas about Gods are Self-Contradictory

          Many atheists take issue with the specific attributes that believers ascribe to particular gods. This particularly applies to the monotheist faiths, where God is most often characterized as simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – an inherent contradiction according to many atheists. Furthermore, many atheists are skeptical of the idea that a God created the universe, particularly if they do not believe that the universe ever was or needed to be “created.” When examining the gods of other faiths – deities somewhat more limited in their powers – atheists often perceive contradictions in the formulations of those gods as well, or at least a lack of empirical evidence that the gods have the powers that they are thought to have or dwell in locations described as their homes. For instance, despite numerous individuals having climbed Mount Olympus, Zeus has been nowhere to be found.

          As atheists vary dramatically in the specific content of their positive convictions, they will diverge substantially as to the more specific arguments they will present for their disbelief in a god. My own “Five Arguments for the Non-Existence of God” are offered as some of my personal reasons for atheism – though they are not necessarily shared by atheists at large.


          Atheism has too often been unjustly smeared as an opposition to morality or a totalitarian dogma advocating mass extermination of religious persons. It is nothing of the sort. It is neither a religion nor a philosophy, but rather the absence of one particular kind of belief. In the positive contents of their worldviews, atheists diverge from one another as dramatically as they might from certain religious worldviews. Many atheists might find closer intellectual kinship with some religious persons than with some other atheists.

          Nothing in atheism dictates opposition to religion or intolerance of religious individuals. On the contrary, there exists a tremendous potential for positive exchanges – both material and intellectual – between those who believe in a god and those who do not. While some atheists are indeed of dubious moral standing, so is a roughly proportionate number among the adherents of any religion. It is not atheism or religiosity that leads some to desire to oppress, coerce, intimidate, slander, and demean others. Rather, it is sheer savagery and inhumanity. Against this inhumanity the good persons of every creed can unite.