Frequently Asked Questions
This page covers
Frequently Asked Questions that we receive on our show, through email and in
our day-to-day contact with theists.
to the questions on this page do not reflect the views of every atheist in the
world, or even every member of the ACA. Atheists are a diverse group of people,
and we do not necessarily agree on most points. There is no central set of things
that all atheists are supposed to believe, and we sometimes argue just as passionately
with each other as we do with theists. Bear that in mind if the answers are
sometimes not what you'd expect.
Atheism and Politics
Arguments for belief in God
Connecting with other atheists
Q: Don't atheists have basically empty, meaningless lives, when they don't believe that
there is any higher power out there?
A: Nope. We don't think
that the world is an empty, meaningless place, even though we don't think
a god designed it. We think the world is a fascinating, wonderful, interesting
place, and we enjoy living in it. Now, you may think that it's impossible
to "really" enjoy this world without believing of God as the designer.
We don't feel that way.
Suppose you are walking
in a beautiful garden with a friend, and your friend says, "I heard there
are fairies living in this garden!" You tell your friend that you don't see
any fairies, and you don't see any particular reason to believe that these
fairies are there. You are just enjoying the garden. But your friend insists:
"How can you enjoy this place if you don't believe in fairies?"
Unless you're a little
kid, you would probably feel that your friend missed the point. Here you are,
enjoying a nice day and great scenery, and your friend is trying to convince
you to stop enjoying the garden the way it really is. He is telling you that
you have to make something up, which isn't real as far as you can see, or
else you don't have as much of an appreciation of the garden as he does.
In fact it is probably
the other way around. It's a fine thing to have an imagination, but it seems
like your friend is cheapening the experience, because he can't just enjoy
something beautiful for its own sake.
The world has a lot of
things to enjoy in it. Food, music, a well-told story, romance, sex, physical
activity, the outdoors, the feeling of solving a difficult puzzle... just
to name a few. These are things that most people enjoy on a day-to-day basis.
And we don't appreciate the world around us any less for not thinking that
those things come from God.
Also, it's not like there
are no mysterious unknowns or "greater forces" right here in the
physical universe. Most likely we will never know everything there is to know
about this vast universe or our past. Who really understands quantum mechanics?
Are there parallel universes out there? Are they accessible to us? Is time
travel possible? Can we find a better way to generate our own energy before
our sun burns out billions of years from now? These are all very big mysteries.
One of life's great pleasures is applying your mind to solving hard questions
like these. Learning is fun. Knowledge is fun. So it seems likely that we
will never run out of things to enjoy in that sense.
You may have plenty of
good reasons for believing in God, but if you think it's bad to be an atheist
because atheists lead a cold, barren, loveless, uninteresting life, you are
really kidding yourself.
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kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?
A: Mostly, we didn't.
This is a common misconception among Christians... they assume that everyone
believes in God, and that people who pretend not to believe must have had a traumatic
experience that made them hate God (see below). Commonly
it is assumed that an atheist must have, say, prayed to God and not been answered,
or had a loved one die, and then renounced
God in anger.
In reality, few people
come to their atheism that way; and those who do usually don't stay atheist
for very long. In the majority of cases, you'll find that atheists have
thought very hard about their belief in God, and found that it just doesn't
hang together logically. A great many atheists were raised in a religious
household and decided, after much inner struggle, that they just couldn't
continue to take their faith seriously. A few were brought up in atheist households
and taught to think about the world and question conventional wisdom.
Ironically, many evangelists
use their own stories of traumatic events as a way of convincing people to
find religion. Often you will hear stories of how a person had "hit rock
bottom", was perpetually drunk and unemployed and had no hope for the
future, and that's when they found the Lord. While they dismiss us by saying
that we must have become atheists for dramatic emotional reasons, they use
the same techniques to recruit new parishioners.
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do you think happens to you when you die?
A: Just in case there
are any misconceptions about this, most serious atheists don't believe in
reincarnation or spirits any more than we believe in hell. What defines "you"
is what you think and feel, and how you interact with the universe. When this
stops happening, you're not you anymore. So you simply stop existing.
If this idea scares you,
think about all the millions of years that passed before you were born. Do
you remember it? Was that scary? Interestingly enough, the fate that Christians
find so inconceivable -- complete nonexistence -- is regarded by Buddhists
as the best possible outcome for your life ("Nirvana").
Some people take this
a step further and argue this way: "The first law of thermodynamics says
that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Since life is a form
of energy, it must go somewhere." We don't see life as a self-contained
form of energy. It's more of a process that matter and energy goes through.
Some people find this
idea disturbing. They really want to be around forever. We all would. But
realizing that you won't be around forever makes this life seem more valuable
in a way. Since you only get one shot, it's important to do the best you can
to be happy and make others happy before you're done.
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you afraid that you'll go to hell?
A: Not really. Since we
don't believe that hell exists, we're not expecting to go there. What if we're
wrong, is this a big gamble? That's essentially a simple formulation of Pascal's
Wager. See that question below.
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How can anyone possibly be moral without believing in God?
much the same way that anyone else can be moral: by considering their actions,
weighing the consequences, and deciding whether they are doing more harm than
good to themselves and other people.
evangelists tell you, the threat of hell is not what stops most people from,
say, going on a mass-murdering spree. Even if there was no hell, there are
still bad consequences for bad behavior. Our society has laws that threaten
criminals with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. And even if those
laws didn't exist, there would still be the threat of punishment from other
sources. For instance, if you commit a murder, the victim's family and friends
might come looking for revenge. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. The
justice system just makes the whole process a little more orderly, which is
a good thing.
it seems like the threat of punishment and the promise of rewards is not really
the only thing that keeps people from being bad. With or without religion,
people don't like to be hurt, and they usually recognize that other people
getting hurt is a similarly undesirable thing. Jesus didn't invent the principle
of treating others the way you would like to be treated; it was around for
centuries before. When people are in danger of being mistreated, they seek
out protection through cooperation and relationships. Society is simply a
much larger extension of those relationships.
exceptions, people (atheists included) don't really have the urge or desire
to run out and kill or steal or otherwise harm other people. And honestly,
when people say "If it weren't for God holding me back, there would be
nothing to stop me from being a criminal", we worry about them.
If your grasp of right and wrong is so shaky that you can't stop yourself
from doing bad things, and you need someone threatening you with eternal punishment
to keep you in line, then we wonder how safe you really are to be near.
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Do you hate God?
We don't hate Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Darth Vader
either. Remember, atheists do not believe God exists. Hating a nonexistent
being is rather a waste of time.
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You guys believe there is no God, but you can't prove that there isn't. So being
an atheist obviously requires at least as much faith as being a Christian.
A: This assumption
is rooted in the elementary logical fallacy that two opposite things--belief
and disbelief--are actually the same thing. A basic tenet of logic is that
anyone making a positive claim bears the burden of proof for that claim. For
example, in a court of law the lawyers for the prosecution bear the burden of proof,
because they are making the positive claim that the defendant has committed a crime.
To take a skeptical position
regarding an extraordinary claim for which one has not been provided with
compelling evidence is not an act of faith; it is simple common sense. Here
is an analogous situation: supposedly, as a Christian, you do not believe
in the Roman or Aztec gods. Is it just as much an "act of faith" on your part
not to believe in those gods as it was for the Romans and Aztecs to believe
in them? If a man walks up to you and says he has an invisible magic elf sitting
on his head, do you automatically believe his claim? If not, is it an "act
of faith" on your part not to? Or are you simply responding to the claim with
common sense and skepticism because the man has failed to provide you with
adequate evidence for his elf? Choosing not to believe in something when you
have no reason to believe in that thing is not an act of faith, it is just
the smart thing to do.
Finally, one can turn
to the Bible's definition of faith--the "substance of things hoped for, the
evidence of things not seen"--to see that this is a definition that excludes
disbelief. So if you still don't agree with us that atheism is not a faith,
then check your Bibles.
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What's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?
A: It has
to do with the difference between what you believe and what you
think you know. For any particular god that you can imagine, a
"theist" is one who has a belief in that god. In contrast, an "atheist"
is one who does not have a belief in the god. A "gnostic" is one who
knows about the existence of god and an "agnostic" is one
who thinks that god is unknowable.
the terms "atheist" and "agnostic", by these definitions,
are not mutually exclusive. You could be an agnostic atheist, meaning you
don't think that the existence of gods is knowable, but you don't
choose to believe in one without further proof. Many people assume that
atheists believe that gods can be proved not to exist, but this
isn't strictly true and there is no proper word to describe this.
You could call such a person an "untheist", perhaps. Or, you could just
call such a person a "gnostic atheist", one who doesn't believe in a god
and thinks that his non-belief can be proved.
are four possible ways one could be.
believes god exists, but the existence of a god is unknowable
Case 3 is
sometimes referred to as "weak atheism" and case 4 is sometimes
referred to as "strong atheism". Only strong atheism positively
asserts that there are no gods.
2. Gnostic-Theist: believes in a god for which he claims knowledge
3. Agnostic-Atheist: does not believe god exists, but it can't be proved
4. Gnostic-Atheist: believes it can be proved that god does not exist
Finally, it should be pointed out that when a person is asked about their
beliefs and replies that they are agnostic, they are avoiding the question
and answering a different one. Someone who can't positively say he/she
believes in a god is an atheist.
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Admit it, isn't atheism just another religion?
A: The website
Dictionary.com gives the following definition of "religion."
Clearly, definitions 1-3
do not apply to atheists since we reject the notions of supernatural powers
and spiritual leaders. Definition 4 could possibly apply to atheists, but
then, it could also apply to a bowling league or a Britney Spears fan club.
The claim that atheism is a religion is generally made by Christians who have
been religious all their lives and thus cannot conceive of anyone not having
some kind of religion as an integral part of their lives.
It's instructive to point
out that theism is not a religion either. Theism simply has to do
with believing in a god, which one can very easily do without engaging in
any sort of religious activity—to wit, the practice of worshipping
that god. A person who believes a deity or higher power exists, but never
in his life sees fit to go to a church or pray or partake in any kind of practice
designed to worship or revere that deity, would be theistic, but not religious.
Atheism, which is about
not believing in god(s), and theism, which is about believing in god(s), are
philosophical or theological points of view, but they are not religions.
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America is a Christian nation.
A: The myth of a "Christian" United States goes something like this:
seeking religious freedom founded our nation as a place where they could properly
obey god's law. The Puritans and others founded biblical law settlements
that established a Christian colonial culture. Christian leaders and
ideals thus generated the American Revolution, our Constitutional democracy
of personal freedom, and everything else that made our nation great. Bad
things now happen because we have fallen away from our founders' Christian
values. America now needs religion in government and laws promoting
religion so we can restore our lost Golden Age of Christian Faith.
Like most religious traditions, the evidence fails to support this Golden Age myth.
heritage is nothing anyone should be proud of or wish to restore. The Puritans
came to the colonies to establish a religious tyranny. As a state
church, Puritans oppressed other religions like they had been oppressed in
England. They wanted religious freedom only in the sense that they wanted
the freedom to practice their Puritanism and to punish or banish all other
religious beliefs. Only Puritan Congregationalist churches were allowed.
Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Catholics and others were banished,
often with a death sentence if they returned. Puritans punished even minor
"impious" behavior, and they killed 25+ people as witches. America's
colonial Christians were an undemocratic minority that opposed freedom of
conscience and denied political rights based on religious beliefs.
of the Constitution's authors at the 1787 Convention best reveal their thoughts
and intent regarding religion. They avoided attempts to insert worship
into their deliberations, keeping religious activities separate from the process
of creating our government. If no religion at the Constitutional Convention
was good enough for our founders, it should be good enough for all public
officials in the execution of their duties.
created a secular government based on freethinking political philosophies.
Our founders' Constitution is a stunning rejection of government under
god. Only the Constitution establishes our government, not any other document
with pious words, such as the Declaration of Independence, Mayflower Act
etc. The Constitution ignores god, except for the date, "in the year
of our Lord." "We the People," not god, is the authority for
our government. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for national
office. The Constitution's first amendment prohibits Congress from passing
any laws even "respecting an establishment of religion." During
many Constitution ratification sessions in the states, Christians tried to
add references to God and Jesus into the Preamble and to remove the "no
religious test for office" provision. Their failure demonstrates
that even though the Constitution was a heated public issue, it was ratified
as written. Our founders and the public knowingly chose a godless Constitution.
Christians argue that the First Amendment language, "Congress shall make
no law respecting an establishment of religion," means our founders only
meant to prohibit one denomination from becoming the official national religion.
The evidence refutes this narrowest of interpretations, aside from the
fact that the Constitution must give government such a power, and there is
no power to do anything religious in the Constitution. In his letter to the
Danbury Baptist Association (1/01/1802), Thomas Jefferson cited "a wall
of separation between Church and State" as his reason for denying their
request for a national day of fasting. Jefferson's metaphor came from
London schoolmaster James Burgh, one of England's leading enlightenment political
writers. Burgh's Crito (1767) had the phrase, "build an impenetrable
wall of separation between things sacred and civil." Along with numerous
other documents, Jefferson's message clarifies the intention of the amendment.
and amendments only mention religion three times, and only as prohibitions
against government doing things religious. One cannot pervert express
prohibitions against government doing religious things into powers for government
to do religious things. Many public officials have a long history of
violating their oath of office by mixing religion into government or by supporting
religious groups. A tradition of violating the Constitution does not, however,
change the Constitution. This traditional disrespect for the Constitution
by religious believers should end.
an invaluable ally in our uphill struggle to preserve the truth. We have the
words and actions of our founders, which directly contradict the myth of a
"Christian" United States.
(This answer (c) Howard Thompson, from DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF A "CHRISTIAN" UNITED STATES)
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Aren't all atheists Communists (or vice versa)?
A: All Communists
may well be atheists, simply because their political system rarely exposes
them to anything else. It does not follow that all atheists are Communists.
Atheism is a view on the existence of the supernatural, not a political system.
Some atheists favor some form of socialism. Many agree with the writings of
Ayn Rand, who was a very strong supporter of both unbounded Capitalism and
atheism. Many atheists are Libertarians and Democrats; fewer tend to be Republicans,
but that is mostly because of their stance on church and state, not always
because of their financial plans.
come in all political flavors. We don't feel that the Communist system does
anything to promote well-reasoned atheism, so we don't support it.
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What is your deal with evolution? Why do you support it so strongly? Why shouldn't
we teach creationism in school as an "alternative" to evolution?
A: We support
evolution because it is a generally accepted scientific theory that explains
the diversity of life on this planet. The reason it is so well accepted in
the scientific community is because it is supported by a wide variety of evidence,
including fossils, taxonomy, genetics and experimental biology results.
we talk about it so much on our show is because there is a small but vocal
community of Christians who object to the theory on religious
grounds. They think that the evidence supporting evolution should be removed
from science classes, or else their own myths about genesis should be taught
side by side with them. We do not object to Judeo-Christian stories about
origins being taught in the classroom. What we do object to is the stories
being taught as if they were science. They aren't. Science is a process of
making observations, testing evidence, and above all, finding and correcting
mistakes. This is almost the exact opposite of what religions do. Religions
rely on unalterable texts handed down from ancient teachers, which are not
to be questioned regardless of what evidence comes up.
isn't "atheist science", however. Most scientists who accept evolution
are not atheists. As biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "Evolution doesn't
make you an atheist, but it does make it possible to be an intellectually
fulfilled atheist." This is because it takes most of the force out of
the Argument from Design for God (see below).
is a large, complicated academic subject. We highly recommend reading
talk.origins archive to learn more about this fascinating subject. It
contains an overview of evolution, and extensive articles discussing most
common creationist objections. Whenever somebody calls about evolution, if
we do not know the answer right away, we will almost always look up the information
at the talk origins site and have the answer the following week. Creationists
would be wise to keep this in mind, and look up their own arguments on the
site to be aware of the responses ahead of time.
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You know what they say—there are no atheists in foxholes!
A: This assertion effectively says that, when things get tough,
atheists will be turned into blubbering beggars, praying to some god to rescue
our pitiful lives. This is nothing but an insult to the many non-believers who
act courageously and give their lives for their country when in life threatening situations.
One organization that shows the hollowness of this myth is the
Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers,
and here (http://www.maaf.info/expaif.html)
are a handful of personal profiles. Christians, despite what some
of them think, do not have a monopoly on patriotism, nor does the experience
of bullets and missiles whizzing directly over one's head inspire in everyone
the conviction that they're being protected by a benevolent magic invisible
being. Without such baggage, atheists are unencumbered and often do a better job
of rising to the occasion.
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What is Pascal's Wager?
A: It's a well-known logical
argument why you should believe in God, even if there's a strong chance that
it might not be true. Simply put, the argument is that you should believe
in God just because there's a chance that you might go to heaven and avoid
Blaise Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician in the 17th century,
first formally put the argument forth. He is considered the founder of
probability and he made other significant contributions. There's also a
programming language named after him.
Pascal's wager, in a nutshell,
is this. No one knows for certain whether God exists. Maybe he does, maybe
he doesn't. It's a gamble whether you believe in him or not. So let's treat
it like a gamble, says Pascal, and look at the odds.
He described the payoff
of this gamble like so. If you choose to believe in God, and you happen to
be right, then the reward is infinity: eternal bliss in heaven. However, if
you are wrong, then you lose nothing at all. On the other hand, if you choose
not to believe in God, and you're right, you GAIN nothing (in either of the
previous two cases, you just die and that's the end). But if you are wrong,
your payoff is negative infinity: eternal suffering in hell.
Now here's the main thrust
of the wager. Since the chance of God existing is unknown, but the payoff/punishment
scheme is infinitely in favor of believing in God, just on the small chance
that he might exist, you'd better believe. It's the only wager that makes
Okay, that's Pascal's
wager, now here are our reasons for not agreeing with it.
Reason 1: In the case
where God does not exist, there really is a clear advantage to not believing.
In other words, the payoff is not zero. For one thing, if you go through life
believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more
to being a believer than just saying "Okay, I believe now" and getting
on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church,
and contribute a lot of money as well. There's a reason why some towns have
very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate
cathedrals are possible: they're funded by folks who donate 1/10th of their
income throughout their lives to tithing. This is surely quite a waste if
the object of worship isn't real. That's to say nothing of the persecution
of other groups that's been instigated in the name of God throughout the ages.
Reason 2: Even if you
buy into Pascal's wager and decide you should believe, that doesn't give any
basis for choosing which religion to believe in. Fundamentalists often
use the wager to prove that you should be a Fundamentalist, but of course,
Pascal was Catholic and was using it to prove you should be a Catholic! This
just highlights the whole problem of which religion is the right one. Since
many Fundamentalists believe that Catholics are going to go to hell, Pascal's
not much better off than an unbeliever. We don't know if the Jews are correct,
or perhaps the Muslims, or if reincarnation is right... or worse, if there's
a perverse God who only lets atheists into heaven! It's not impossible. For
all we know, maybe God exists but he doesn't care at all whether people believe
Reason 3: If you can accept
Pascal's wager as a realistic reason to believe, that leads you to a point
where you have no choice but to believe just about everything on the same
grounds. Maybe if you don't own a complete library of Seinfeld episodes,
you'll go to hell! Why not? You don't know. Maybe you have to send $10 a week
to the Atheist Community of Austin for life. Hey, what's a measly ten bucks
if it will save you from eternal hellfire? Or maybe God really likes nude
mud wrestling and he will punish those who do not partake of His gift.
Does all this sound utterly
silly to you? Good! That's probably because you know that you should only
believe things that have some sort of clear evidence favoring them. You don't
believe just any old preposterous claim about UFO's, pyramid shaped get-rich-quick
schemes, or magic pixies just because somebody tells you they're true and
because there's a chance you might be wrong. You have a brain—use it!
Further reading: "Pascal's
Sucker Bet" by "Reverend" Jim Huger
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What is the Argument from Design / the Watchmaker Argument?
A: There are many arguments
advanced by Christians that attempt to infer a God's existence by the alleged
evidences of intelligent design in nature. All are deeply flawed in that they
commit the fallacy of first presupposing design in order to prove a designer,
putting the cart before the horse.
One of the most popular
of these is the watchmaker argument, first advanced by theologian William
Paley in 1802. Basically it goes like this. If you're walking through the
forest/along a beach/wherever, and you see a watch lying on the ground, you
could pick it up and tell just by looking at it that the watch could not have
just materialized there out of nothingness for no reason at all. Clearly this
is a highly intricate piece of machinery, deliberately created and manufactured
for a purpose. From here, the argument points out that since organisms in
nature exhibit just as much complexity in their makeup as this watch, it is
reasonable to assume that nature is the work of deliberate design too.
And this is the first
and most obvious problem with the watchmaker argument: it is nothing more
than an assumption, based upon an appearance of order. The appearance of order
in nature is not alone sufficient justification for assuming that this order
is the result of purposeful, intelligent design by a supernatural - trees providing
oxygen etc.- but most of the sciences have shown us that there are practical,
mechanistic explanations for how and why things work in nature the way they
do. In order to mount a convincing argument that things in nature require
a Divine Creator to explain them, Christians must first demonstrate that it
is impossible to explain them in any other way, and such design arguments
as the watchmaker argument fail to do this.
Viewed another way, the
structure of the watchmaker argument is self-refuting. The hypothetical person
noticing the hypothetical watch on the hypothetical beach thinks it looks
designed...but compared to what? In order for one to recognize design, one
must have a concept of non-design as a frame of reference to work from. So
if the watch looks designed compared to its natural surroundings, then that
clearly implies those natural surroundings were not, in fact, designed, though
they may exhibit the appearance of order.
Even if one were, for
the sake of discussion, to take the watchmaker argument seriously, it would
still not be a strong argument that the designer inferred by the comparison
of watch-to-nature bears any resemblance to the Christian God. For one thing,
no watch is made by a single person these days; they are usually made by factories
employing thousands of workers. And the factories that make watches are not
the same factories that make chairs, Styrofoam cups, computers, or Winnebagos.
So why assume that nature, with all its dazzling variety, must be the work
of only one designer? At best, the watchmaker argument can be said
to be an argument for polytheism, or a highly clever and advanced race of
aliens who have figured out how to make solar systems and planets.
Still another refutation
along these lines is that watches do evolve. The modern digital watch was
not dreamed up in every detail by anyone in the modern day. It evolved from
older watches, which evolved from analog watches, which evolved from hourglasses,
sundials and other time-keeping methods. Each step in the "evolution"
of the watch was achieved by people thinking about older designs and coming
up with new ways to improve them. So if the analogy is going to work, it's
going to have to allow at minimum for God experimenting and modifying his
design through an evolutionary process and selection. This is important when
you consider that many creationists try to use this argument to refute evolution.
Finally, it can be pointed
out that Christians who argue from design take a highly selective view of
nature. One woman who called The Atheist Experience some months ago couldn't
understand why we weren't convinced of God's existence because of "all the
beauty" in nature. We pointed out that while things like butterflies, waterfalls,
and sunsets were indeed beautiful; other things like earthquakes, cancer
and the Ebola virus were not. "Beauty" is a human concept that individuals
apply subjectively to things we observe. One must wonder why the loving God
of Christianity would consider it "beautiful" to set nature up so that animals
in the wild had to massacre one another to survive. Surely God would not take
pleasure in the death agonies of a gazelle having its throat torn away by
a ravenous cheetah...would He? If God is such an "intelligent designer," why
couldn't He have created "meat trees," so that the carnivores could pluck
their meals every night and leave the gentle herbivores alone?
Do we know with absolute
certainty that the universe is not the result of deliberate design? Well,
no. But any sort of objective view of nature must lead one to conclude that
the specific design arguments of Christianity are invalid, as it makes no
sense their supposedly omni-benevolent God would design a nature so harsh and
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How do I find other atheists in my area?
A: The Internet is a great source of information if you're
looking for other atheists. Try out the following web sites for starters:
All of the above groups (except for FFRF, which is based in Madison Wisconsin) have list of affiliated
organizations by country and state. Some affiliates are "grass roots" and
some are full-blown branches of the national organization. Some fledgling
groups list themselves at
Atheist Meetup. Usually, these listings will be simple mingling events,
which are great places to meet other atheists.
- Belief in and reverence
for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor
of the universe.
- A personal or institutionalized
system grounded in such belief and worship.
- The life or condition
of a person in a religious order.
- A set of beliefs,
values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
- A cause, a principle,
or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
If there isn't something nearby, you have several options. First,
you might try broadening your search a bit. There are many organizations,
both local and national dedicated to the support of science, church-state
separation, and skepticism. Many Unitarian/Universalists churches are full
of non-believers. You'll have to decide where your interests lie and how
to best expand your search.
try participating in some online atheist communities on the web such as:
Many of the national groups have their own forums where you can participate,
as well. Also, consider joining a national group to start getting regular reading
material and effectively participating in their large-scale efforts.
Other options for connecting include going to a national conference.
Above groups all host conferences all over the US and there are many other
conferences of note, such as
The James Randi Educational
Foundation's The Amazing Meeting (TAM). They're
a lot of fun and a great way to meet a lot of enthusiastic
people and new friends.
Finally, you can start your own group, which is the next FAQ topic.
How do I go about starting an atheist group?
A: The very first thing that should be said is that it's not
that difficult to start your own group. The ACA got its start because
a local person put an ad in the paper for atheists to meet
at a bagel shop. With the Internet, starting a group is even easier
than it was when the ACA was started in 1996.
Here are some suggestions for what you might do:
The ACA is fortunate to have been the inspiration for several other groups.
See the July 2008 issue of
The Austin Atheist, which has an article
about The Society
of Edmonton Atheists.
- First, see if there are other groups in
your area. Don't duplicate the effort of starting a group if there's
one nearby. If there's not, you can use your search to see what other groups
are doing and whether your new group might have common interests with
them, such as tackling church-state issues in your state.
- Start small. Put an ad in the local paper or use
Atheist Meetup to have mixers. Use these events to find some
other people who also feel serious about building an organization.
- Don't underestimate the importance of community. Most atheists will
be grateful for having an opportunity to make like-minded friends. It's
an important service just by itself. Having a community of friends will
allow some of those people to become vocal and more likely to embrace
activism. Community allows people to learn from each other and grow.
Building community takes time, but it might be the most important benefit
of your group.
- Start and maintain a web site. They're not terribly expensive and
there are lots of people with web skills these days. The web site can
be the place where you connect to your people and start to build an
- You can do a lot without incorporating. There's no need to rush in
defining an identity, charter, or getting a tax exemption. Many of
these things are not important until there starts to be money involved
or your group has established its identity and purpose.
A great deal can be done with an organization with a limited budget and
a little ingenuity. The ACA has been meeting at restaurants for years,
for example. Our lecture series is done
without money exchange. Our
TV show is done with a minimal budget.
- Pace yourself. Most volunteer organizations suffer the fate that the
most enthusiastic people try to do too much and burn themselves out.
Think about maintaining your pace for at least 5 years. That will give
you time to find others who can take on responsibility and eventually
the reins of your creation. Sharing responsibility is part of building
community. It's the only way to do something big.
- Pace your group. It's much better to do a small number of projects
consistently and well than have a large number of half-baked efforts
that stress everyone out and don't add up.
- Think about your group's public image. Once you have a social structure in
place, you should think about doing one or more projects that are
visible to the surrounding community. This can be a public lecture
series, a debate, a school library book drive, or street pick-up.
Projects like this will help your group in a number of ways. They
can help build community within your organization and they help make
your larger community more aware that atheists are good people, too.
- Network. As your group gets stronger, network with other groups on
common causes--even if you disagree on many issues. Church-state
separation is a great example. Many minority religious groups "get"
the importance of church-state separation. There's no reason why
atheists can't work with them to achieve this worthwhile goal.
- Tout your successes. If you have a success (even a partial one), be
sure and let everyone know about it. Write it up on your web site.
Similarly, keep a history of what you're doing so that someday, people
can look back in awe at how much you accomplished and how you've made
a difference in the world. When you need a little boost, go back and
take a look at it.
We hope that the ACA inspires still more groups. Write us and let us know
if we've inspired you!
For further reading, check out the
Atheism at about.com.
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