What If I’m an Atheist?
1 Who Are Atheists (and Agnostics and Other Unbelievers)?
The term that best describes me now is secular humanist.
CHARLES SCHULZ, CREATOR OF PEANUTS1
Atheists may not be who you think they are.
To begin with, atheist is a pretty narrow term. It doesn’t include the whole spread of people who don’t worship a god. Agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, rationalists, objectivists—there are lots of names.
What’s an Atheist?
The most common name for an unbeliever—and a controversial name it is—is atheist. An atheist doesn’t believe that God exists. Thus, God didn’t create the universe, write the Bible, or care what you did on your date last Saturday.
Some people who believe in God can find atheism and atheists a threat.
In a 2007 poll of more than a thousand Americans, more than half of them wouldn’t elect an atheist president even if he or she were qualified for the job.2
A 2010 poll added that more than half of all Americans would be uncomfortable with an atheist on the Supreme Court.3
In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI associated godlessness with the Nazis. “Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society,” he announced on a visit to England. “As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion, and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man.”4
The Boy Scouts don’t let atheists become scouts or scoutmasters.5
In a number of Islamic countries, atheists face discrimination up to and including execution.6
A poll by the University of Minnesota found atheists to be “America’s most distrusted minority,” less trustworthy than Muslims, immigrants, or gay people. “Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”7
So yes, atheism can be dangerous—to atheists as well as to theists. (Theist, by the way, means “believer in God.”)
Atheists come in a lot of varieties, but they often break down into two categories: negative atheists (also known as weak atheists or soft atheists) and positive atheists (also called strong atheists or hard atheists). These are pretty new terms, and exactly what they mean is still being nailed down, but here are a couple of examples.
• Negative/weak/soft atheists say that there is no proof that any god exists. Positive/strong/hard atheists say that there is proof that no god exists.
• Negative/weak/soft atheists tolerate religion and believers. Positive/strong/hard atheists, according to journalist Gary Wolf,
“condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God.” In their view, Wolf has said, “Religion is not only wrong, it’s evil.”8
There are millions of atheists, as you’ll learn later in this chapter. They’re all over the world. And a lot of them are teenagers.
The Ones Who Don’t Know
The second-most-famous segment of unbelievers is agnostics. “An agnostic is a doubter,” said Clarence Darrow, possibly the most famous trial lawyer of the past hundred years—and an agnostic. “The word is generally applied to those who doubt the verity of accepted religious creeds.”9
Agnostic literally means “without knowing,” and it’s the viewpoint for people who aren’t certain what’s out there. Agnostics range from people who have no opinion at all to people who are pretty sure of their views but don’t want to shut other possibilities out. “I like being agnostic,” said an ex-Baptist on the site Teenage Writers who called herself CassieCasey. “I think it gives me the freedom to be a little bit more open-minded about other religions.”10
“As an agnostic, I may not be religious, but I am still spiritual,” said Gaarden (a screen name), a seventeen-year-old agnostic from Arizona. He started out Christian (“baptized when I was ten, without really knowing anything about Christianity”) but switched to atheism until “I really began to fear the possibility of empty nothingness and oblivion after death.” To find answers, he read up on different religions. He ended up respecting them but questioning their views on salvation and morality; he realized, “I am an agnostic at heart.”11
So Many Different Flavors
If you’ve got a version of unbelief, you can probably find a name for it.
Freethinker sounds quaint, and it should. It’s one of the oldest names for an unbeliever, dating to 1692.12
“ ‘Free thought’ means coming to your
own conclusion about religion and without the influences of religious dogma or doctrine,” according to Blair Scott, who was a director of the unbelievers group American Atheists at the time of this comment.13
Rationalists trust logic and reason. Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov said that he’d rather call himself a rationalist than an atheist because “ ‘Atheist,’ meaning ‘no God,’ is negative and defeatist. It says what you don’t believe and puts you in an eternal position of defense. ‘Rationalism,’ on the other hand, states what you DO believe: That is, that which can be understood in the light of reason.”14
Humanists focus on people rather than on God. Instead of taking guidance from a spirit in the sky, they emphasize humanity’s “ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.”15
So says the American Humanist Association—but theirs isn’t the only definition. Some people apply humanism to any attitude that cares about people, which means that it’s possible to be a religious humanist. In fact, a tradition of Christian humanism dates back to the Renaissance.
Some nonreligious humanists call themselves secular humanists, a term that’s suffered attacks from some Christian conservatives. “Most of today’s evils can be traced to secular humanism,” say evangelical ministers Tim LaHaye and David Noebel in their book Mind Siege. “Secular humanism . . . is driven by a flaming hatred for Jesus Christ that seeks to eradicate the Christian worldview.”16
Objectivists follow the philosophy of Russian American novelist Ayn Rand, who promoted selfishness and wrote, “I raise this god over the earth . . . . This god, this one word: ‘I.’ ”17
Materialists believe that the only reality is the world of physical matter and that supernatural forces play no part. Naturalists are a lot like materialists but focus on any laws, processes, and phenomena that science can explain.
A new label—one that’s sparked some arguments—is brights. Mynga Futrell and Paul Geisert, a husband-and-wife team of atheist activists, came up with the word as a cheerful-sounding alternative to godless and
other names. But calling unbelievers brights hints that believers are dim and dull, an attitude that’s insulting and possibly self-destructive. “The ‘bright’ kids aren’t always the ones with the most friends,” said atheist author Chris Mooney.18
My Unbelief Is Better than Your Unbelief
Isn’t [an agnostic] just an atheist without balls?
Stephen Colbert, comedian 19
Despite their different labels, most unbelievers get along with each other. But arguments do happen. Take these comments from atheists about agnostics:
“[Agnosticism is] just watered down, hiding in the closet, rather cut off your own tongue than admit it atheism.”20
“Agnostics are wimps! . . . It requires guts to let go of the nice comforting idea [of] a god who has a grand scheme for us and a plan for the universe. Agnostics are people who know they ought to take the step but don’t want to commit themselves. Sounds like cowardice to me.”21
“Agnostics are saying that they don’t know and not only that, nobody knows or can know. So they are being just as arrogant as they say that fundamentalists and atheists are.”22
And take these words from agnostics about atheists:
“The atheists of the world want to take control of all the philosophical stances outside theism . . . as though they have the divine right to do so.”23
“The triumphalism that too often seems to be part and parcel of atheism entails a poverty of spirit that is detrimental to our humanity.”24
“Agnostics are ethically superior to atheists.”25
Others try to split the difference between atheist and agnostic by calling themselves atheistic agnostics or agnostic atheists.
Meanwhile, some positive/strong/hard atheists consider negative/weak/soft atheists to be nothing more than agnostics, while some negative/weak/soft atheists see the positive/strong/hard ones as inflexible and arrogant.
Who Needs Labels?
“Do I call myself an atheist or [an] agnostic?” asked an unbeliever on the internet forum Newgrounds who called himself ouchichi. He chose neither word, “because they have become religious labels themselves, almost as if atheism is a religion, or agnosticism. Anyone [who] wants to label me because of the way I think can go fuck themselves.”26
Unbelievers like ouchichi don’t want any labels. Quite a few atheists pride themselves on having independent minds. Tagging their viewpoints with a specific name feels almost like signing them up for a church denomination. As a seventeen-year-old unbeliever named Matt said, “I don’t really wanna call myself anything or give myself a label. I just wanna live my life.”27
SEVEN CELEBRITY UNBELIEVERS
The world knows about the clothes celebrities wear, the people they date, and the reasons why they get arrested. But celebrity disbelief in God? That’s not something that you hear about much. Fortunately, some stars have come forward about being atheists or agnostics.
1. Angelina Jolie
When the Onion A.V. Club online magazine asked Jolie if there’s a god, she answered, “For the people who believe in it, I hope so. There doesn’t need to be a God for me.”28
The man in her life, Brad Pitt, is an unbeliever as well. In 2009 he told the German magazine Bild, “I’m probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic.”29
2. CM Punk
This World Wrestling Entertainment star is not just atheistic but combative about it. When a journalist told him, “Stop being a dogmatic atheist. It’s overdone and annoying,” the wrestler answered, “Stop believing in a man in the sky. It’s illogical.”30
3. Daniel Radcliffe
The guy you love as Harry Potter is an unbeliever. “I’m an atheist, but I’m very relaxed about it,” he’s said. “I don’t preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like [atheist author] Richard Dawkins who do.”31
What’s more, he’s called himself “a militant atheist when religion starts impacting on legislation.”32
4. George Clooney
“I don’t believe in heaven and hell,” Clooney said. “I don’t know if I believe in God.”33
He doesn’t object to religion, though. In an interview on CNN, he said, “Whatever anybody believes, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s fair enough and works. And I think it’s real and matters. I don’t happen to have those beliefs as much. I don’t believe in those things.”34
5. Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook’s founder was born Jewish, but the young billionaire has listed himself as an atheist on his Facebook page.35
He doesn’t talk much about his beliefs (or lack thereof), though.
6. Tyler, the Creator (posting as wolfhaley)
“I hate religion; to me, it keeps people in a box and won’t allow them to do what the f*** they want,” the Odd Future rapper has written. When a fan challenged him about loving Jesus, he answered, “[Jesus] is not real. Why the f*** would I love someone that I haven’t met?”36
7. Zac Efron
The High School Musical star has said, “I was raised agnostic, so we never practiced religion.”37
Although his ancestry is Jewish, he told the Jewish newspaper Forward that he remains agnostic.38
Who Are They and How Many?
Whether they’re atheists, agnostics, or anything else, unbelievers are a minority group—but a big one. Fifteen to twenty percent of all adult Americans have no religion.39
That’s more than thirty-six million people.40
In the United States, nonreligious Americans outnumber Methodists; they outnumber Lutherans; they outnumber Presbyterians. Among American religious groups, only Baptists and Roman Catholics have more adherents.41
But not everyone who has no religion calls himself or herself an atheist. Self-declared atheists account for less than 3 percent of the American population. Agnostics are under four percent.42
Do those numbers sound tiny? Consider:
• The United States has more agnostics than Episcopalians, Anglicans, Mormons, or Jews.43
• There are more US atheists than people in Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit,44
• Combined, atheists and agnostics account for at least 3.5 million Americans48
—and that’s the lowest reputable
estimate. The actual figure may be millions higher.
What’s more, the number of unreligious Americans has nearly doubled since the end of the 1980s. At the same time, most religions have held steady or lost members.49
And the unbelievers are young. The adults likeliest to have no religion are the youngest adults. While nontheists account for 10 to 15 percent of all American adults, they’re 22 to 25 percent of American adults under age thirty.50
At least 5 percent of Americans age thirteen through seventeen are atheists. As many as 18 percent are agnostics. And the numbers seem to be rising.51
The Ten Most Atheistic States
Here are the states with the highest percentage of nonreligious people in their populations.
1. Vermont: More than one in four Vermonters (and possibly more than one in three) has no religion.
2. New Hampshire: Almost as high a proportion of the faithless as Vermont.
3. Maine: Nearly as big a percentage as New Hampshire.
4–8. Then comes a five-way tie: Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wyoming. More than a fifth of the population in each state doesn’t belong to any faith.
9–10. And finally, a two-way tie: Colorado and Nevada. A slightly lower percentage of unbelievers than the previous five states.
Bubbling up under the top ten: California, Connecticut, Montana, and Washington, DC.
Frank Newport, “Mississippi Maintains Hold as Most Religious U.S. State,” Gallup Poll, February 13, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/160415/mississippi-maintains-hold-religious-state.aspx
; Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population (Hartford, CT: Trinity College, 2009), 9–10, http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf
; The Pew, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (Washington, DC: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2008), 90, http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf
You can find the faithless even in regions saturated with religion. North Carolina, for instance, is one of the most religious states. But in the city of Durham, the faithless account for almost as high a percentage of the populace as they do in California or Montana. Other relative oases of the faithless amid the faithful include Austin, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana.52
Still, the United States of America is only one country. What about the rest of the world?
The Ten Most Atheistic Countries
Here are the nations that have particularly high numbers of unbelievers in their population.
1. Vietnam: As many as four out of five Vietnamese may be unbelievers.
2. Sweden: At least half of the population doesn’t believe in God.
3. The Czech Republic: At least two out of five Czechs are godless.
4. Denmark: Nearly as high a percentage as the Czechs.
5. France: More than a third of the population has no faith.
6. Japan: Almost the same percentage as France.
7. Norway: Almost the same percentage as Japan.
8. The Netherlands: More than three out of ten people have no religion.
9. Germany: Nearly the same percentage as the Netherlands.
10. South Korea: Nearly the same percentage as Germany.
Not quite in the top 10 are Great Britain, Finland, and Hungary. At least a quarter of the populace in these nations practice no faith.
Nancy Wong and Vivienne Timmins, “Religious Views and Beliefs Vary Greatly by Country, According to the Latest Financial Times/Harris Poll,” Harris Interactive website, December 20, 2006, accessed 2011, http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NEWS/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=1130
(page discontinued); Phil Zuckerman, “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns,” in Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 15–17, http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Ath-Chap-under-7000.pdf
; Richard Lynn,
John Harvey, and Helmuth Nyborg, “Average Intelligence Predicts Atheism Rates Across 137 Nations,” Intelligence, 37, no. 1 (2009): 11–15, http://davesource.com/Fringe/Fringe/Religion/Average-intelligence-predicts-atheism-rates-across-137-nations-Lynn-et-al.pdf
; Rushna Shahid and Sinead Mooney, Global Index of Religion and Atheism (Zurich, Switzerland: Gallup International, 2012), 10, http://redcresearch.ie/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/RED-C-press-release-Religion-and-Atheism-25-7-12.pdf
; Tom W. Smith, Beliefs about God across Time and Countries (Chicago: NORC at the University of Chicago, 2012), 7, http://www.norc.org/PDFs/Beliefs_about_God_Report.pdf
; The World Factbook, s.v. “religions,” accessed 2013, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2122.html
; “Most Agnostic Nations,” Association of Religion Data Archives, 2010, http://www.thearda.com/QL2010/QuickList_213.asp
; “Most Atheist Nations,” Association of Religion Data Archives, 2010, http://www.thearda.com/QL2010/QuickList_39.asp
; “Population by Religion, Sex, and Urban/Rural Residence,” UNdata website, accessed November 2013, http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=POP&f=tableCode%3a28
; ICM Research Limited, “What the World Thinks of God,” in “UK among Most Secular Nations,” BBC News website, February 26, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/wtwtgod/3518375.stm
ATHEIST OR NOT?
Atheists and theists claim that some famous historical figures were atheists. But were they? Here are five people who often get described as atheist.
1. Adolf Hitler
Everyone knows that Hitler’s forces imprisoned and killed Jews. They also jailed Catholic priests and Protestant ministers, shut down religious newspapers and magazines, and pushed religious youth groups and other faith-based organizations out of business.
But Hitler also outlawed societies of atheists. He declared, “The people need and require . . . faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”53
Hitler also had a spiritual side. “Providence,” he said, “called upon me and vouchsafed it to me, once an unknown soldier of the Great War [World War I], to rise to be the leader of my people, so dear to me. Providence showed me the way to free our people from the
depths of its misery without bloodshed and to lead it upward once again.”54
Whether or not Hitler believed in God, he thought that God believed in him.
2. Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was raised in a hard-line Baptist faith, but he rejected it; and he never formally joined a church. “Mr. Lincoln had no hope and no faith, in the usual acceptance of those words,” his wife said.55
But presiding over the Civil War seemed to bend Lincoln toward God. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln quoted the biblical books of Matthew and Psalms, and included lines like, “Fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue . . . so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”56
3. Albert Einstein
Einstein was Jewish, but his view of God came from the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza (1632–1677) was a Dutch Jew excommunicated from Judaism, presumably for his view that God had no mind or personality. To Spinoza (and Einstein), God was the substance of the universe.57
“Science,” Einstein said, “can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational—that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”58
4. Mark Twain
Twain disliked religion and the God that the preachers of his time praised, particularly toward the end of his life. As he said:
“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”59
“To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce, and ever fickle and changeful master.”60
“I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious—unless he purposely shut the eyes of his mind and keep them shut by force.”61
5. Thomas Edison
Edison denied being an atheist: “I am not, never have been, never said I was,” he told the New York Times in November 1910. He believed in what he called a Supreme Intelligence.62
But at the same time, he said, “I have grave doubts whether the good folk of this earth are going to be aroused from their graves to go to some beautiful, shining place up aloft. Don’t see it, can’t understand it, and neither can these ministers of fashionable churches.”63
Two months earlier, he had told the Times, “Nature made us—nature did it all—not the gods of the religions.”64
What’s It All Mean?
So now you know what an atheist is and who atheists are. But the unbelieving life is more complicated than a flat list of facts and explanations. (Keep going; you’ll see.)