AFT Blog # 19: ABCs of Atheism

The ABCs of Atheism

David Rand

Many misconceptions, myths and even lies about atheism are in wide circulation, even among atheists themselves. It is appropriate, therefore, to clear the air by summarizing a few essential points.

Atheism is not a belief, and even less so a religion. By definition, atheism is quite simply the absence of theism, that is, a refusal to swallow an arbitrary and baseless belief. Having abandoned the belief in god(s), it is only natural that the coherent atheist will equally reject all supernatural beliefs, of which the various theisms are the most extravagant. We thus arrive at monism and philosophical materialism, which I also call materialistic atheism.

Atheism cannot be associated with immorality or amorality. In fact, it is rather theism which must be associated with a distorted morality, corrupted by supernatural beliefs, by the denigration of the material world, by false hope in eternal life, and by obedience to an often totalitarian god.

Atheism cannot be associated with intolerance. In fact, most atheists are so extremely tolerant of religions that they remain completely silent. Those rare atheists who do dare to speak up are generally staunch supporters of secularism, a programme which formally protects freedom of religion and freedom from religion of all members of society. It is religions which have a strong tendency towards intolerance, especially those which are powerful or have a large number of adherents. Such religious institutions often oppose freedom of conscience and secularism, and thus constitute a threat for freedom of religion.

Atheism is not a metaphysical option. On the contrary, it is a scientific certainty. It is not an absolute certainty – the sort of certainty which religions claim for their tenets. On the contrary, atheism is a certainty beyond all reasonable doubt, because we know that theism is incompatible with reason and with our well established scientific knowledge. And, as is standard practice in science, the conclusion may be subject to revision in the future if new data justify such a revision.

The negative aspect of atheism is not a weakness. On the contrary, it is a strength, because it implies freedom from any obligation to adopt an alternative. Atheism in the strict sense involves only the rejection of a baseless and dangerous ideology: theism. It does not involve the adoption of an ideology or practice to replace it.

Indeed, it would be a mistake to replace religion with some alternative, because religion fills no real need which cannot be filled without it. It is enough to abandon religion, especially theism, and to take our bearings from the real, material world in which we live, the only world we know or can know. In particular, humanism is not a replacement for religion; it is merely atheism viewed from the point of view of morality. Humanism is the moral system of the atheist materialist, devoid of any supernatural reference.

Thus, starting with a syntactically negative concept, the implications of atheism – on both cognitive and moral levels – are decidedly positive, because they involve disengagement from a whole gamut of dangerous ideologies.

The various myths and lies about atheism are intentionally spread by religious leaders for reasons which are simple and obvious: to maintain or increase their sociopolitical influence and their revenue. In this regard, the myth which associates morality with religious belief is the most profitable (and the most dishonest). We human beings are social animals, and thus the relationships between and among humans are of primary importance to us. Every person seeks to maintain a positive self-image; every individual likes to think that he or she is a good person. The various theisms, especially the monotheisms, are scams which exploit this tendency by claiming expertise and even monopoly in the field of morals and ethics, and by asserting that without religious beliefs people cannot be moral.

The anti-atheist rhetoric of religions is hate propaganda. This is called atheophobia. To recognize this prejudice does not imply that we should support legal measures which would repress expressions of atheophobia. On the contrary, like many atheists, I promote a very wide interpretation of freedom of expression, so that the vacuity of religious propaganda can be exposed through open debate.

A consideration of the diverse variants of theism leads us to the likely conclusion that polytheisms are less dangerous (but no less false) than monotheisms. The belief in a single “God” amounts to totalitarian theism, as all authority is concentrated in a unique, monolithic male god. Polytheism, on the other hand, shows itself to be often more tolerant, more flexible, as it admits a wide variety of gods and goddesses. A cursory comparison of the Greco-Roman polytheism of antiquity with the so-called religions of “the Book” – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is sufficient to illustrate this point. Nevertheless, this generalization should be tempered with some qualification, as religions can and often do evolve over time. Apparently Hinduism, a polytheistic religion, has no traditional concept of blasphemy. However, who can say whether, under the influence of neighbouring Islam, which is obsessed with blasphemy, Hinduism may not some day adopt such a sensitivity.

Anti-atheist prejudices, atheophobia, reluctance to face the issue of atheism, these are all preconceived notions inherited from our religious past, but they do not manifest themselves only among believers. Indeed, nonbelievers often betray similar attitudes. The world is full of atheists in the closet. Almost everyone seems to be afraid of atheism and will go to any length to avoid facing the issue or facing their own atheism. This leads to a plethora of euphemisms and weasel-words whose purpose is to hide the identity which dare not speak its name: atheist!

Given that religious propaganda is directed particularly against atheists, it is obvious that it is by using this precise term that we can best counter such propaganda. By openly declaring ourselves in large numbers to be atheists, we can maximize our impact in the fight against atheophobia, a prejudice which is the delight of religious leaders and other enemies of secularism. Fortunately, the exodus of atheists from the closet is a modern phenomenon which is growing in importance. We must do all that we reasonably can to encourage this positive trend.


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