Atheism and Atheists: Popular Misconceptions, Introduction

Written by: Matt Seyer

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.” Former President George Bush, Sr.

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”  Psalms 14.1

In its centuries-long past, the American people have misunderstood, misrepresented, and certainly mistreated a great number of minorities.  Women, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Native Americans, Gays and Lesbians, Muslims; the list is rather long.  However, over time the misunderstandings and mistreatments have at least been partially remedied, the collective public attitude towards these people has shifted, and although still imperfect, the relationships between the different peoples and genders have improved.

Today, we have a different sort of minority whose mistreatment and misrepresentation is of a similar caliber.  They are unique in one respect, in that people of nearly every religious faith and creed feel completely justified maligning them, publicly and loudly; they are ordinary in another, in that they are feared and mistrusted for questionable reasons.  Touch on them in a casual conversation and your reference is generally met with foreboding denunciations as well as quizzical looks.  Attempt to run for political office as one, and prepare to be shouted out of the room for not having an admirable vision for America.  Who are they?

Atheists.

Atheists are the single least trusted minority in America today.  This mistrust and wariness is evident in nearly every conservative media outlet, has been documented by a University of Minnesota study, and can easily be observed in everyday discourse.  My belief is that this mistrust is derived mainly from a fear of the unknown; that it is a simple extension of the human habit of distrusting the unfamiliar, the obscure, and the mysterious.  The consequences of such a condition are manifested in several popular myths about atheists.  These myths are merely filling the void of the public’s lack of knowledge.  It would be easy to launch a diatribe against the Christian Right for its propagation of these myths, but this would do nothing to dissipate the widespread apprehension directed towards atheists.  My aim, over a series of pieces, is rather to shed some light on a handful of these very common misconceptions about atheists, in hopes that eradicating the myths will alleviate the fear.  I seek to open discussions between believers (theists) and nonbelievers (atheists) and to generally call for some common sense.

First and foremost, we must settle on an appropriate and accurate description of atheism.  Atheism is far too often portrayed as a set of beliefs, as a worldview, or as a perspective on various issues, such as whether or not humans have a soul.  It is seen as a damnable, depressing, degrading frame of mind.  Again, one need only encounter atheism in relaxed conversation to experience these judgments.  But these judgments are as imprecise as they are unfair (as judgments tend to be), and they bring me to my broadest item of discussion: the definition of atheism.

Briefly, it would help to define theism as well.  Theism is defined as the belief in a god or gods.  The term is sometimes used to designate the belief in a particular kind of god-the personal god of monotheism-but here it signifies the belief in any god or number of gods.

Atheism has a few different though not mutually exclusive definitions.  The most common and in my opinion the most useful one is simply this: atheism is the absence of a belief in a god or gods.  This definition of atheism is drawn from the etymology of the term: the Greek atheos (literally, “without god”).  Atheism is sometimes defined as the belief that there is no God of any kind or the claim that god cannot exist.  These are categories of atheism, but they do not exhaust the meaning of the term, and they are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism.  Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief.  An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god.

This should end the exposition of atheism on-the-spot, but regrettably there is quite a bit of confusion surrounding the meaning of atheism along with questions about its scope.  Here I wish to head off such confusion by pointing out that atheism-as I have defined it and in its most general sense-is a negative position that does not describe anything in particular about a person.  Put another way, atheism is no more an ideology, religion, or set of beliefs than nonConservatism, nonLiberalism, nonBuddhism, nonRacism, nonMarxism, or any number of similarly negative positions are ideologies, religions, or sets of beliefs.

Atheism, properly understood, is very narrow in scope.  The full range of beliefs, inclinations, and dispositions that one can hold as an atheist is infinite.  It is possible to be a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic atheist (the specifics of this will have to be fleshed out by the reader).  It is possible to be an atheist and still believe in an afterlife.  It is possible to be an atheistic Republican, an atheistic Democrat, or an atheistic racist.  An atheist can affirm science or eschew it; be for or against homosexual relationships; be optimistic or pessimistic about life; believe in souls and spirits; be aggressive or passive; believe in UFOs, ghosts, or werewolves; pray or meditate; be selfish or highly charitable; prefer Tolkien to Lewis.  The point is undoubtedly clear.  To describe oneself as an atheist is to say exceedingly little about what one positively thinks, believes, or practices, because the term describes only one’s individual stance on a single issue.

A remarkable amount of the misunderstanding and fear of atheists can be reduced to this lack of a proper, specific definition of atheism.  Given these introductory and, with any luck, obvious remarks about atheism and atheists, the remainder of this series should be fairly straightforward.  For example, it should be apparent that being an atheist does not inextricably saddle one with a doomed, bleak existence completely devoid of any purpose or meaning.  Atheism does not come with a built-in prejudice towards religious people or religion in general, and it does not afford carte blanche to nonbelievers to instigate the unraveling of the moral fabric of society (in other words, one still has an idea of right and wrong as an atheist).  It does not inherently elevate science above everything (see: scientism).  It does not imply a disavowal of the practical and moral lessons of religion, and being an atheist is certainly not grounds for the denial of citizenship, as one of our former Presidents would have us believe.

Even though these are all natural inferences to make based on the definition of atheism I have provided, their antithesis is what the general public believes to be true (i.e., atheists cannot lead meaningful lives, atheists hate religion and religious people, etc.).  To be an atheist is to necessarily hold each of these views, as if these views are a consequence of being an atheist.  Several of these misconceptions are bundled and ascribed to all atheists, painting a collectively morbid and even sinister portrait of atheists of all stripes.  In response, I will go through each of the aforementioned misconceptions and, to the best of my abilities, deconstruct each of them in kind.