The first question to be resolved when discussing atheism is the basic one: what is an atheist?
This is actually a little complicated. You see, atheism is not an organized belief system the way Christianity or Islam is. In truth, to say someone is an "atheist" is rather like saying they are a monotheist, even by the narrowest interpretation of the term. The beliefs of an atheist can range from the standard "there are no gods" to "there probably aren't any gods" to "god is dead" to "humanity is god" and anything in between. Further, not all atheists call themselves atheists, any more than Jews might call themselves monotheists. Given these facts, it's very difficult to talk about atheists as a group. Take the following definitions and generalizations as probably correct.
But back to the question: what is an atheist?
The laziest possible definition would be to say that "atheists are people who declare themselves to be atheists", and there is a lot to recommend that definition — but that definition is inadequate in a number of major ways. The most important of these is reflected in the Pew survey which found 21% of atheists believe in God. Thus, to say that "atheist" refers to all those and only those who identify as atheists, while valid from a social perspective, is unsatisfying from even an etymological viewpointnote a = "not", theist = "god-affiliated"., never mind a philosophical one.
The second-laziest option is to check a dictionary. The 1913 edition of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary offers this: "One who disbelieves or denies the existence of a God, or supreme intelligent Being." Again, this is a definition with much to recommend it — but it excludes quite a lot of professed atheists, and not just from the 10% of "atheist" Pew respondents that pray at least once a week, but people like Richard Dawkins.
The third-laziest option is to ask members of the atheist community. This has problems of its own, but it shares the advantages of both the previous methods: we are still allowing atheists to define themselves, but with the caveat that the definition must be in some sense rational. The only major disadvantage to keep in mind is that the definition they have come up with is fairly broad, and a goodly number of those included in its span would object to being called "atheists".
The definition most commonly used in the community of atheists is this: an atheist is someone who does not believe in any gods.
The major — and essential — difference between this and the dictionary definition is the do not believe. This "do not" part is very important, for there are generally two groups of atheists: atheists who positively believe no gods exist — these are referred to as "positive" or "strong" atheists — and atheists who do not commit either way — "negative" or "weak" atheists. Just as one might be unsure about whether extraterrestrial intelligent species exist or not, one may be unsure about whether a god exists. A very easy way to annoy atheists — anyone, really — is to ascribe to them beliefs they do not hold. More on that anon.
Another difference is the inclusion of many who do not call themselves "atheists". First, there are several religions whose tenets include no gods (for example, Buddhism and Jainism) as well as religions that openly allow for atheistic practitioners (for example, Hinduism). Second, newborn children, having never heard of God before, are de facto atheists in this sense — this is referred to as "implicit atheism".note Naturally, "explicit atheism" is the opposite — note in particular that explicit weak atheism is perfectly possible, and in fact common. Third, there are other, perhaps more nuanced, labels some prefer to "atheist", such as "apatheist" (indicating sheer indifference as to the existence of deities) and "theological noncognitivist" (indicating belief that words like "God" don't mean anything). Two of these are particularly noteworthy: "agnostic" and "non-religious".
Agnosticism, like "atheism", is a term whose popular use is at variance with its philosophical content: in common discourse, it is used to denote a third position, between strict "Atheism" and "Theism" and in disagreement with both, but the technical meaning is different: "agnosticism" etymologically refers to a lack of knowledge, rather than belief.note The word literally translates from gnosis, knowledge, and a-, a prefix meaning "not". It, too, has a "strong" variant — the belief that it's not possible to know. There are two ways in which this separates the idea of agnosticism from the idea of atheism: first, the term "agnostic" can be applied to any concept — there are agnostics about God, agnostics about evolution, and agnostics about knowing anything at all (i.e. radical skeptics); and second, agnosticism can exist with belief — agnostic theists are people who believe that a god is real, but also that they cannot know this god is real. (The term "fideism" is relevant, here.) In most cases, those who refer to themselves as "agnostics" fall within the definition of "weak atheism" given on this page: they do not positively believe that any god exists, but they believe the possibility cannot and should not be ruled out.
(Reiterating the earlier warning: many agnostics object to being called "atheists". As a rule of thumb, those who call themselves agnostics will argue for a much higher likelihood of the existence of a god than even those who call themselves "weak atheists" — the distinction between these groups should not be understated.)
In contrast, the term "non-religious" is perfectly clear: a non-religious person does not adhere to any (formal) religious beliefs. We mention this here because many non-religious people are atheists — and many are theists, such as Epicurus, who believed that the gods do not concern themselves at all with human affairs. A common form of theistic non-religiousness is Deism: the belief that God (or the gods) created the universe, but do not interfere. This was popular in the 18th century, including many Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine certainly, probably Benjamin Franklin, maybe James Madison, and there is speculation about George Washington and Alexander Hamilton). Though many modern persons are deists, it no longer holds a prominent position in the public eye.
Third, wrapping up the definitions: a contrasting view often mentioned in the context of atheism is pantheism. Pantheists believe that the entirety of universe is God, and the entirety of God is the universe. (As you can imagine, this definition bears little resemblance to most descriptions of gods.) Atheism and pantheism are often conflated — particularly when atheists describe the awe that they feel at the majesty of the natural world in religious terms — but in principle (and frequently in practice) there's a distinction.
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What Atheists Believe
Beginning with the obvious: atheists don't believe that gods exist. As previously mentioned, this is not as rigid a position as you might expect — some self-identified agnostics will give as high as even odds that a god exists, and all but the most confident atheists grant scarcely less credence to the existence of a god than they do to the existence of a jackalope. And, as also previously mentioned, people can also be atheists simply by never having considered whether or not gods exist — implicit atheism. Such a position by necessity is not rigid at all: technically, every human being is born an implicit atheist.
The above includes self-proclaimed strong atheists as well — many will say their beliefs are based on the current evidence at their disposal, emphasizing that they would change their mind if sufficient evidence came forth.
What leads many people to become atheists is skepticism, which is derived from the same basic principles as the scientific method. The argument is: as there is no good evidence for the existence of a god or gods, there is no reason to believe that they exist, and anyone who thinks otherwise is invited to prove it. Skepticism does not necessarily mean the atheist is a cynic; atheists' opinions range like everyone else's.
That said, not every skeptic is an atheist, and not every atheist got there through skeptical thinking. They are two overlapping circles of a Venn Diagram, not a solid equivalency.
What do atheists think of organized religions?
It is worth repeating at this juncture that atheism is frequently called a religion, and atheists (among others) tend to dispute this. As you may have inferred from some of the other remarks on this page, there are two objections to be made to this categorization.
First, as the popular quip goes, atheism is a religion as much as baldness is a hair colour, or not collecting stamps is a hobby. The term "atheism" refers to nothing more than the absence of a single doctrine — not to a complete moral system.
Second, "atheism" is a different kind of descriptor than "Christian" or "Sikh" — atheism refers to a characteristic of a belief system, not a belief system as a whole. The equivalent term at the level of religion would be "areligious" or "non-religious".
Many atheists believe that religious organizations generally do more harm than good to society, and some may even quote scientific studies on the subject; and for atheists who are not certain God doesn't exist, they generally think that if one exists he's not doing much good compared to the harm caused by religious organizations overall.
Many consider the widespread cultivation of unskeptical credulity from childhood (which a religious upbringing will necessarily do) to be inherently damaging. As this is a core feature of nearly all supernatural belief systems, they blame religion for enabling real life Agent Mulder advocates of issues outside their own religion. (Notably to the extent of denying evidence-based reasoning altogether -as anti-science polls repeatedly indicate- in favor of perceived sincerity and emotional fervor)
That said, some atheists take the opposite route and believe that religion is positive and enriching, but they are less likely to advertise their atheism — indeed, some atheists go so far as to pretend to be theists and become priests and suchlike because they still think that their chosen religion is a positive force, even if they don't believe that its central claims are true. Or they just think that while religion doesn't make sense/seem true to them, well, who knows about other people. Not having rules (such as believing in "one way" or "one God") can make that kind of thing easier.
There are others who don't really care about religion at all and don't think much about it. But even in their indifference such atheists still do not take kindly to people trying to convert them and/or make them feel bad or inadequate about their atheism or assuming they are automatically evil just because they're atheists. In general, it's when belief in an organized religion starts getting extremist, out of hand, or to the point where members try to force conversions on others that most atheists have a problem with it.
Many atheists also recognize that churches and religions are just as varied as anything else, and that many religious people are motivated to do good things because of their beliefs. A church that provides food and shelter to the homeless, or that advocates for social justice, is apt to get a much more favorable opinion than, say, the Westboro Baptist Church.
Most atheists believe that the scientific method is a valid and valuable means of learning about nature, and many are in line with the Science Is Good view. Many also feel that religious claims are contradicted by science in one sense or another, either because they lack proof, or they have been disproven, or they should be ruled out a priori for reasons of scientific philosophy. However, the question of whether science and religion are "incompatible" (and what that question means, exactly) is contentious, and is one of the things that separates "new atheists" and "accomodationists". Many theists and some atheists agree that religion deals with separate issues or questions than science (so that, eg, it doesn't make sense to ask for scientific proof of a miracle) while some atheists argue that they do in fact deal with the same issues, and religions simply have it all wrong.
Most atheists (and some theists, too) believe that old holy books (of any religion) are plagued with centuries of Anvilicious politics, Too Many Cooks Spoil The Soup, Executive Meddling, Retcon, and Epileptic Trees being used and retained to justify new beliefs which were grafted into a religion by virtue of historical accidents or intimidation/bribes by large empires, and other notable flaws, all while believing God himself has never done much wrong by virtue of non-intervention or non-existence. Also, decades of oral tradition and the evolution/death of the language it was originally written in leaves room for Fridge Logic interpretations which was certainly not 100% reflecting the original nor the best a God should come up with — all which results in more Adaptation Decay in the versions religious leaders use, as opposed to selectively ignoring the written version. Not to mention the literal Word of Dante effect.
Atheists nearly universally loathe the practice of attempting to "save a soul" by knowingly lying to him or using material, political, or psychological manipulation.
What about other supernatural or paranormal beliefs?
If Jesus Then Aliens does not necessarily apply. Atheism and skepticism complement each other but are not synonymous. While most atheists are skeptics, not all are, and atheists are often quite willing to believe in things that they consider more likely than the existence of God (and on the other side of the coin, many theists are skeptical about psychic powers, aliens, Bigfoot, and so on). However, many vocal atheists tend to be skeptics who actively refute the existence of what could be considered "supernatural" phenomenon, as well as pseudoscientific claims.
Lack of belief in an afterlife is not a requirement of atheism, but since 1) atheism is strongly correlated with skepticism and free-thought in general and 2) people who, for whatever reason, don't believe in the supernatural at all are atheists by definition, the two tend to coincide. This does not mean that atheists believe in The Nothing After Death; rather, those who don't believe in an afterlife or reincarnation view life as an event, like a fire, that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Whatever is left of a person after they die does not really resemble a living person, any more than a pile of ashes resembles a fire.
Atheism being strongly correlated with skepticism might be true for the US or other countries with a large religious majority, but it certainly doesn't apply to countries with an atheistic majority or large minority. In European areas like Scandinavia, (former) East Germany, the Czech Republic, etc., lots of people just grew up as atheists and believe in all kinds of superstition, astrology, pseudo-scientific stuff and New Age mysticism.
Actual bona-fide miracles occurring (e.g. raising the dead, "impossible" healing of sickness or injury, etc.) would not be automatic proof that the Christian god is "real" in the Biblical sense. Assuming for the moment that such miracles occur, it's also possible that they are unusual, yet natural happenings in our universe propelled by a mechanism we do not yet understand, or that the beings that style themselves as gods are another kind of lifeform that chooses to interact with us by posing as gods for some reason. There are also all those thousands of other gods people worship or have worshiped to consider.
Morality and Meaning
Atheism does not prescribe a system of morality or code of behavior. There is no built-in sense of reward for good acts and punishment for evil ones. While many would expect this to lead the average atheist to become a nihilistic Nietzsche Wannabe, atheists generally supply moral codes of their own, formed with the support of family, friends, and their culture. They have to, since if you don't have any moral code, you don't get the benefits of Good Feels Good. (And also that sanity is its own advantage.)
Many atheists see this as a curious form of proof that they are actually more moral than religious folk. After all, who is the better person: The nonbeliever who does good for goodness' sake, or the religious man who admits that only his fear of hell prevents him from sinking into excess? It is certainly obvious that the former is at least more principled. (It must be noted, of course, that the idea that the religious act out of a fear of hell is largely a strawman — in most cases, like atheists, religious people will do moral acts simply because it's the "right" thing to do.)
Atheists will often point out that we each build our own morality regardless of our religious standings. This can be argued on two points:
First, which religion has the correct morality and meaning? However dogmatically any individual believer may assert their righteousness, it's impossible to deny that there are reasonable people who disagree.
Second, the adherents of any individual religion must do much of the formation of their own morality as well. Christianity will serve as a good example of this: essentially all modern Christians fail to adhere to all the laws and codes in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, but instead choose the codes most suitable for modern times. Further, although any specific Christian can cite chapter and verse to justify ignoring some precepts and obeying others, it is almost inevitable that some other Christian can cite chapter and verse to justify obeying the former or ignoring the latter.
When religion tries to claim exclusive rights to morality, atheists often points to the Euthyphro Dilemma. Is an action moral because it is commanded by a deity (in which case morality is a simple appeal to authority) or does a deity command an action because it is moral (in which case morality is independent from the deity).
The moral philosophy most closely associated with atheism is secular humanism, which is derived from the same basic principles. It is a popular philosophy with atheists, but by no means the only one. The main tenets of secular humanism are:
Need to test beliefs — A deeply held conviction that all beliefs, be they political, religious, or otherwise, should be challenged and tested on a regular basis, rather than simply being accepted on faith. By challenging and discarding flawed beliefs, people can replace them with newer, less flawed ones, and so grow as persons.
Reason, evidence, scientific method — The belief that the answers to questions and solutions to problems should be sought through reason, critical thinking, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith or mysticism.
Fulfillment, growth, creativity — A concern for fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humanity in general.
Search for truth — A constant search for a universal, objective truth, through the use of reason, evidence, and the scientific method, with the awareness that new discoveries can alter our perception and knowledge of truth.
This life — A concern for our life on Earth above a hypothetical afterlife, making the most of the time we have and making our lives meaningful through our understanding of each other.
Ethics — A search for a clear code of ethics, judged on their ability to improve life for humanity through individual responsibility.
Building a better world — A conviction that reason, understanding, and good will can lead to improvements in the world.
Morality determined by human need — The scientific concept of morality as an evolved strategy of human beings who needed to band together in groups in order to survive.
Atheists who follow a religion that is compatible with atheism such as Buddhism or Jainism will build their moral code around that.
Science has theories like kin selection and reciprocal altruism to explain how things like empathy, a sense of right and wrong, and self sacrificing behavior could have evolved. So science leaning atheists are able to rationalize being moral people. There is more to it than just those two theories but much of the rest is:
debunking myths about Evolution. Particularly the myth that the creatures brought forth by evolution are the best choice for surviving in that environment. Evolution is only interested in creatures surviving long enough to pass on their genetic material, not surviving in their environment indefinitely.
Groups need to be maintained. If a member suffers an injury is it more cost effective to shield the member until it heals or find another member to replace it. All individuals in the group need to be operating at peek capacity so you should show at least some interest in the happiness of the person next to you. If you have more than one group and banding together in groups is their only major advantage over other organisms evolution states the ones with the most chemistry will be the ones to survive since they're the most efficient.
The above is also why appearances and reputation building are important. If a group is looking for new members it increases your chances of being accepted. Not to mention in a small enough group not caring about your reputation would be akin to committing suicide. Do something wrong and everybody is going to know it leading to them not trusting or wanting to work with you.
If evolution starts on the path to increased cooperation but then a change in the environment makes cooperation the less efficient method the creatures will either die off or gradually shift back to being loners. In fact how well a group works together can be placed on a scale and a particular line can go through ups and downs on the scale as time marches on.
Our genes give us sensory perception, memory, simulation software, and the ability to learn. They pretty much tell us to use these to do what we think is the best way to pass on our genes. There might be a strong urge not to do some obvious hazards but it's too much work for our genes to have every piece of behavior coded.
Once the supernatural is rejected, the meaning of phrases like "the meaning of life" seems to fall away. Most atheists do not believe in a meaning to their existences or a purpose given to them by a higher power (after all, who would give it?). Like the "no afterlife" thing this can seem depressing, so most atheists have learned to invent their own purposes instead. This is a liberating feeling, with plenty of destiny-screwing satisfaction. Indeed, some atheists claim that even if a higher power did exist, it would not have any right to dictate their life, and they would still choose their own purpose.
The philosophical concept that there is no ultimate meaning that can ultimately apply to all human beings is called, somewhat confusingly, Philosophical Absurdism. R. Scott Bakker (author of the Second Apocalypse) coined the slightly cooler term Semantic Apocalypse.
The person who coined this term Absurdism, Albert Camus, did a significant body of work writing about this idea. The term 'absurdism' comes from the idea that the conflict between the impermanence of life and human actions is a paradox and, well, absurd. To quote The Other Wiki on this: We value our lives and existence so greatly, but at the same time we know we will eventually die, and ultimately our endeavors are meaningless. While we can live with a dualism (I can accept periods of unhappiness, because I know I will also experience happiness to come), we cannot live with the paradox (I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless). Camus' writings were based around the theme that the paradox, the absurd, showed that the universe was meaningless — but that human endeavors could still create meaning. Basically, that we live in a Cosmic Horror Story, where the Nietzsche Wannabe is right...but that we still, despite that, create meaning.
Oddly enough, most atheistic belief systems have a tendency to sit farther toward the idealistic end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism than the religious ones do. This comes in a large part from their acceptance of their own mortality and belief in this world as the only world that matters - if this is all we have, we should do right with it. Further, since atheists believe that we humans have only ourselves to rely on when it comes to moral guidance, the apparent fact that most societies grow more compassionate and egalitarian over time suggests that human nature is pretty virtuous.
It might also help that atheistic belief systems usually (not always) assume that anything proposed is going to go through a some pretty rigorous testing for logical and rational integrity before actually being implemented. Thus, they can afford to start out as idealistic as they like; the ideal will conform to reality as it develops.
Finally, truly cynical people are less likely to call themselves atheists where it is an unpopular label. It's easier and more rewarding to accept whatever faith is locally considered prestigious, without taking the faith seriously. Unless, of course, the people they need to impress consider atheism the prestigious label. (Which might explain why people associate atheism with Communism, come to think.) However, there are still plenty of cynical atheists out there, and some of them, while technically being atheists, adopt an even more unpopular label - "Satanist", and who would argue that those people are idealists?
A Few Words On...
A Few Words on Faith
Faith gets bandied around a lot by both sides in the religion versus atheism debate, and the term is misused quite frequently. For example, in the two groups most often at odds in English-speaking countries — atheists and Christians — the word is usually read completely differently.
Atheists see "faith" as a justification Christians use to (irrationally, they argue) believe that God is real despite lacking evidence.
Christians see "faith" as the trust they have in the power and benevolence of God, of whose existence they are confident for other reasons.
The conflation of these two concepts contributes materially to the hollowness of the Hollywood Atheist character.
(That said, atheists will often be told that they have faith in the former sense also, just faith in the scientific method and what they perceive with their senses. This tends to annoy the atheists greatly — not in the least because the only defense of this claim is the aforementioned conflation of the two senses.)
A Few Words on Literalism
Liberal theologians often complain that atheists don't talk about their religion - that atheists instead mock a caricature based on a shallow understanding of their holy texts. Conversely, atheists complain that liberal theologians ignore the obvious meanings of the same texts, and will even be heard to offer (left-handed) compliments to fundamentalists and the like for their willingness to stand by a literal reading. This is particularly aggravating because the two sides are often political allies, for example in defending the separation of church and state.
However, atheists usually have no reason not to take holy books literally. First, many sects of these religions have endorsed this same approach, both at present and historically. Second, much of the material is written in the same language as historical accounts — written as if it were meant to be taken literally. Third, the atheists involved in this debate generally read these books for three reasons: to check if the account is factually correct; to judge the religion described in a given holy text; and to compare the beliefs and behavior of adherents with the pronouncements and prescriptions of their holy texts. None of these motives provides a reason to interpret an account as purely myth, parable, or poem save where the text makes this explicit.
Having read the book this way, atheists often conclude that liberal theology takes attitudes from sources outside the canon of its religion and imposes them on its texts. These atheists will cite as evidence of this inconsistent treatment of different passages within the holy book: given a selection of passages that contradict current knowledge or moral sensibilities, many liberal theologians will defend some as they stand, defend others via unusual readings which justifies their views, and dismiss the rest as irrelevant or only intended to apply to the time period in which the holy book was authored. An atheist might be forgiven for drawing the implication (rightly or wrongly) that liberal theologists first create their ethical frameworks from whole cloth, then simply assert that their deity agrees with them — in essence, defining "Good" and "Right" as "Whatever I decide is good and right, so long as I can twist some selected out of context sentences out of a very long and diverse holy text to justify it".
The net result of this is that many atheists find less of a gap between themselves and literalists than they do between themselves and liberal theologians. In the former case, the object-level disagreements (e.g. about the morality of homosexuality) seem to arise from, if not rational, at least comprehensible grounds: after all, were a holy book authoritative, it would be reasonable to defer to it. In the latter case, however, what object-level agreements exist seem to be asserted either based on incomprehensible reasoning or entirely independently from their supposed source. In the former case, how can one depend on it? In the latter case, why worship the book?
(Of course, whether fundamentalist theologians actually adhere more closely to the text remains a matter of considerable contention. The proposed methodology of literalism, however, is primarily a fundamentalist trait.)
(Also of course, how people behave is more important to many atheists than what they believe — such atheists are generally more concerned about the literalists than the non-literalists.)
Atheists do not (usually):
WorshipSatan: While many "Satanists" are actually atheists who take the label for symbolicreasons, the vast majority of atheists do not believe Satan exists any more than they believe God does. Therefore, they cannot worship either.
In the same vein, atheists do not "adhere to" or "believe in" science in the religious sense of those words. For scientific atheists, the scientific method is seen as an objective method to ascertain how pretty much everything works (or as much of it as we can figure out). It is not a dogmatic belief system. Indeed, the scientific method is based upon the principle that we do not really 'know' what is going on and we are constantly trying to learn more. The nomenclature for hypotheses, theories, and even laws is the statement that these are things which 'seem to work pretty well', not 'complete and immutable understandings'. Science assumes every theory will eventually be proven incomplete by a newer, more comprehensive theory. Therefore, saying things that put on the same level "belief in God" and "belief in science" is a sure-fire way to make most scientifically-minded atheists (which is to say, usually, the majority) really angry. Same with assuming that quotes from the Scriptures are worth as much as quotes from scientific journals (or more) during debates.
Close their mindsand unfairly dismiss all supernatural claims without consideration: A common mantra is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." If you make a convincing argument for the universe having a "first cause", an atheist might ask you how you know that that cause was intelligent, that it still exists now, and so on. To most atheists, declaring that something is beyond the reach of science is not only obscenely arrogant (just because you can't think of a way to test it...), it disarms you of almost every argument they would consider relevant.
This is also a non sequitur — not believing in a God does not imply that one will not believe in anything else supernatural, and, conversely, believing in God does not imply that one will believe anything else supernatural
Most atheists dismiss claims of the supernatural because of the lack of evidence. Furthermore, the majority of atheists, especially the truly (and not Straw Man style) skeptical, will admit that their beliefs would change if appropriate evidence were discovered.
And some also assert that proving any kind of god wouldn't mean automatic conversion, as there are still the questions like: "Is this god worthy of worship?" Is (s)he good or someoftheotheralternatives. "Does (s)he even want to be worshiped?" etc.
Most atheists are not interested in the full annihilation of theistic beliefs, though many are concerned about its real-world effects. More common is support for both freedom of religion and strict separation of church and state: protection for religion where it exists, but restriction of its support to that of its adherents.
Some atheists, perhaps unexpectedly, even practice religions. Atheism is quite compatible with Buddhism, secular Judaism, and Unitarian Universalism; some branches of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) have atheist/agnostic members as well. That said, religious atheists are not likely to self-identify as "atheists," but instead as members of their religions. There are even atheists who attend theist churches (such as Christian Services) because they grew up in it and find it comforting, or because it is a part of their community — or because they like singing really loud where no-one complains if they do badly.
Also, most atheists will observe the holidays common to their cultures regardless of religious content; e.g. Christmas. This is more a matter of tradition and having an excuse to party and/or spend time with family and friends than religion for them.
The belief that atheists hate religious people likely stems from a confusion between atheism, antitheism and antireligion. To be an antitheist is to disagree with the concept of theism or of a God in whatever form, usually by criticising such beliefs. Antireligious people are against at least one religion, or may be against religions in general, including atheistic religions. It is perfectly possible for a religious person to be antitheistic or antireligious to a rival religion. Some atheists are antitheists or antireligious, while others are neither. The confusion likely comes from the fact that the most prominent critics of religion and theism tend to be atheists.
Bear in mind that even the strongest anti-theist or anti-religious persons don't necessarily hate the members of that religion, commonly stating things such as 'you are better than your god', as they attempt to explain how the religious person is moral even in the face of a god they claim is evil. It is quite similar, perhaps ironically, to the Christian principle of "hate the sin, love the sinner".
On a related note, the classic origin of the Hollywood Atheist—a terrible event that causes the to-be atheist to lose faith in their deity or religion—well, sometimes happens. Just not in every case, or even necessarily a majority of cases.
In fact, becoming an atheist/ losing or acknowledge your loss of faith is often a lengthy process and it can take years before a former theist is ready to actually call themselves an atheist. On the other hand, for some people, faith was just never a big part of life to begin with and so, there is really no defining point of when they started being an atheist (and it might be unclear if they ever believed in anything in the first place).
Some atheists usually respond to this by pointing out that the fundamentalists aren't really moral because they're basically showing that they need a dogma to avoid becoming a Complete Monster.
Besides, this suggestion doesn't even make sense; if the "atheist" really believed there was a God who would punish actions He didn't like, they would be as averse to performing those actions as any other person who believed this (which, granted, isn't very in some cases). It would be worse than pointless to use their fake atheism as a fig leaf, since that would presumably just compound the problems they would face when God caught up with them.
This may coincide with the concept of the "virtuous pagan", someone not of the religion or who was around before the religion in question existed and still did good works.
Have an angry, bitter or depressed disposition: The common stereotype that atheists are perpetually angry and/or defensive is often used as "proof" that atheism makes people unhappy. Ironically, atheists might be less cranky if "why are you unbelievers so mad all the time?" were a less common question. note Less ironically, the continual repetition of any of these myths can have a similarly infuriating effect. For one thing, the existence of angry atheists does not invalidate the existence of generally cheerful and upbeat ones (just as there are "God is love" believers as well as "fire and brimstone" believers). For another, many people have things they get upset about, and for atheists it may be the perception and treatment of atheists in society. It doesn't mean that the non-religious are angry all the time. Many atheists are simply happy, well-adjusted people, who aren't bitter at all. The stereotype seems to originate from the idea that atheists must be angry at God (see above), or that without belief in God, atheists must be unhappy all the time. Heck some atheists are even happier without the concept of God.
Unsurprisingly, there have been scientific studies of the question, although the conclusions might be fairly described as 'ambiguous': some studies found a positive correlation between religious fervor and happiness, some studies found no significant correlation, and at least one study has found a negative correlation. Needless to say, none has found a binary division between uniformly contented theists and uniformly depressed atheists.
One study found a U-curve when happiness was plotted with the strongly religious on one side, the strongly atheistic on the other, and the more inbetween/uncertain people in the middle. The most strongly atheistic and religious people were the happiest, with those caught in between the least. This implied that happiness was caused by the amount of certainty you had in your world-view, and not on the content of that belief. Or at least that those who had decided which answer they were satisfied with spent less time worrying over it than those who hadn't.
Adhere to Communism, Nazism, or <insert extremist political ideology here>: Atheism by itself does not entail any political views; there are atheist who are liberals, conservatives, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, and every other affiliation conceivable. Certain trends or tendencies occasionally manifest — for example, the strong religious bent of the American right causes many atheists there to gravitate towards the American left — but they are by no means decisive or shared by all. To give an obvious counterexample: Objectivism, which is an ideology based on an atheistic interpretation of the world, endorses a radically pro-free market and laissez-faire agenda.
Incidentally, the reason Communism is associated with atheism is because (1) most communist philosophies denounce religion and embrace state-wide atheism, and (2) the Red Scare was America's first encounter with widespread rejection of religion (one that would last for several decades). Even so, the association of Communism with irreligion is hardly perfect. As noted in the Reality Is Unrealistic page, even at the height of the USSR's power, religion was never suppressed completely, or even as much as the Red Scare portrayals would have you believe. The Russian Empire had one of the largest populations of Orthodox Christians in history, and a mere few decades would not have been enough to enforce atheism over it even had the Soviets seriously tried. They didn't. While they did start trying to enforce it, practical reality made it extremely difficult to implement, and the Russian Orthodox Church remained a significant enough force in internal USSR politics that even Stalin had to play nice with them. Khruschev did try to bring some of the sanctions back, but these were again relaxed by the Brezhnev era onward. There were anti-Semitic actions aplenty, but these ultimately stemmed from the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, not the communist doctrine of the USSR. "Opium of the people" or not, even the USSR's doctrine had to bend to the sociopolitical demands of reality.
Some atheists use the "political religion" ideal to argue that totalitarian systems of government are simply another form of the irrationality they see and reject in religion. Indeed, empiricism, humanism and skepticism are concepts frequently associated with atheism (or that atheists frequently associate themselves with) but are hardly the values any Genre Savvy dictator wants his people to be familiar with. To use the words of Sam Harris: "The problem with Nazism and Communism is not that they are not religions, but that they are too much like religions!" albeit particularly cruel and inhuman ones. Regardless of whether one believes this to be true or not, no serious historian cites atheism as a significant factor in the rise or actions of Hitlerism or Stalinism.
Spontaneously find God in foxholes: Contrary to the popular adage, there are and have been atheists in foxholes. Sometimes it may well be the old "trauma leading them to abandon religion" as per the usual origin of the Hollywood Atheist. More often than not, however, some soldiers started as atheists and live through their horrible experiences with their atheism intact. Many such atheists find "No atheists in foxholes" shockingly insensitive to atheist soldiers who served their country well.
There are those who take what one sees in foxholes as the best proof there could be of the nonexistence of God, or at least of a God that is at the same time all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent; if such a being existed, so the argument goes, he would know about, want to eliminate, and be able to eliminate the evils that exist in the world, therefore if God existed (and fit the above description), the world would be a much nicer place than it is. This is actually a popular argument against specific gods (Usually the God of Judaism / Christianity / Islam), and is referred to as The Problem ofEvil.
A related misconception is that, in times of great danger or trauma, any atheist (soldier or otherwise) will prove to be so uncertain about his or her convictions that he or she will immediately abandon atheism and turn to the nearest available deity. While some atheists not so certain about their standpoint may do that, a lot fewer do so than what popular media would have you believe. Just as the atheist soldiers in the above example, most atheists are perfectly capable of living through horrible experiences with atheism intact. Suggestions otherwise aren't just insensitive, they're downright insulting.
Some people use the full quote of "There are no atheists in foxholes isn't an argument against atheism, it's an argument against foxholes" to justify that the usage of the first part of the phrase isn't really meant to be offensive atheists. Such people far state that it's meant to portray atheists and anyone else in foxholes positively along the lines of "race, color, or creed doesn't matter" during war. Many atheists don't buy this explanation and cite that replacing "atheists" in the full quote with some other minority (like say Jews or homosexuals) illustrates perfectly how offensive the quote is at its core as doing so would produce an instant uproar from such groups. Essentially, even the full quote comes off as a You Are A Credit To Unbelievers than anything else.
Indeed, there are several atheist organizations for military members. One? Foxhole Atheists.
Want to take your babies away from your religious teachings: If for no other reason than that atheists are a minority in many countries, atheists as a rule are strong supporters of individual rights with respect to religion and context. Atheists often argue that religion ought not to be perpetuated, but they are usually arguing this as an idea which people should support, not a law.
Even those who do believe in shaming, etc... religious believers do not always advocate laws banning religious freedom. PZ Myers, of the blog Pharyngula, is probably the most well known "Mock the religious" atheist, but he has on several occasions, shown disgust at religious oppression in middle eastern countries.
Treat atheism as a religion: Atheism might, sometimes, be called a religious belief (as in, "a belief about religion"), but under almost all circumstances, people discussing religions are discussing systems of belief, behavior, or both. As we hope has been fairly demonstrated by the above, the specific factual lack-of-assertion that constitutes atheism can and has been an element of innumerable contradictory religions.
Atheism in the Media
Recently, atheism has gained some mainstream traction, though even before this happened, there were many people in the entertainment industry who were atheists. Noted examples include Gene Roddenberry, J Michael Straczynski, Joss Whedon, and Russell T Davies. Atheistic themes tend to show up primarily in science fiction and its subgenres, often alongside religious themes.
Prominent television characters who are atheists include Dr. Gregory House of House and William Adama of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Though never explicitly stated, Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation often articulated ideas consistent with Roddenberry's brand of secular humanism (the right of civilizations to develop unimpeded, the immorality and danger of using religion as a tool of manipulation, etc...).
In fact Atheism seems to be the norm in Star Trek. The Bajoran Prophets are real beings (so the religion isn't supernatural), and Klingon tradition is that their ancestors wiped out the gods that created them for being "more trouble than they were worth". Everyone else is either explicitly secular or mocked as primitive.
Although they are sometimes implicitly ascribed this status, unlike the clergy of organized religions, well-known atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens do not actually represent other atheists in any official capacity. This is something that non-atheists sometimes have trouble with, because they are used to the idea that (for example) a Baptist minister represents a Baptist ministry, but atheists don't have ministries because atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief system.
To put it another way: such people are not spokespeople for atheism. They're spokespeople for their own particular take, which a lot of people might agree with. Any correlation between the views of popular atheists and the views of any other random atheist is purely coincidental (beyond the "we don't think gods exist" bit). It is more likely for an atheist to simply say, "This person says what I think, only more eloquently," than to treat them as persons to follow.
Indeed, even the Four Horsemen themselves (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris) have a few very strong opinions which conflict with each other. To paraphrase Richard Dawkins: trying to get atheists to agree with each other is the intellectual equivalent of herding cats, and just as futile.
In London, an Atheist Bus Campaign decided to raise £100,000 to counter the evangelizing of religious groups, and Lo and Behold, atheists put aside their differences and stumped up the cash (Richard Dawkins offered to match £5,500 worth of donations)! And when the campaign decided on the slogan 'There's probably no God so just stop worrying and enjoy life', then they fell out again. Some atheists don't like the 'probably' and plenty of atheists aren't hedonists either.
Slight correction: They set out to raise only £11,000. Dawkins said that he would match the first £5,500 so the Campaign only needed to raise £5,500 from the public. The target was reached within a few hours of the website going live and the money kept coming. After 4 or so days the final amount raised was about £150,000. The Other Wiki has more information here.
The Advertisements Watchdog skirted the problem by saying that Christian advertisements where technically a "Political Campaign" for people to support the Catholic Church, that is to say, a technicality... the story continues.
Also put the Advertising Standards Authority (the UK body that handles complains about adverts and advertising) in the interesting position of having to rule on whether God exists or not.
Noteworthy here is that adverts by religious organizations are generally considered appeals for membership: "Join Our Church (because) we believe in X", with X automatically ruled an expression of faith or point of doctrine. Atheism operates from a purely secular perspective and constitutes a public call to action, therefore falling under a more stringent set of commercial and political advertising rules.
Incidentally, those ads have been spotted on buses in and around Washington, D.C.
As with the above London bus ads, a number of atheist organizations have begun renting advertising in the U.S. as well. These have raised quite a bit of controversy.
One popular campaign gets pictures of local atheists along with a quote from him/her along the lines of "I'm an atheist and I'm a good person", usually with a first name and the individual's profession. Despite being a very mild example, even this has raised ire.
And ultimately, Justin Vacula decided to test how much offense he'd generate with the most inoffensive ad he could devise, a bus ad which merely said "Atheists.", with the name and web addresses of two atheist organizations. They refused to run it, too "controversial".
Generation Xero Films has produced a series of YouTube videos entitled "Anything But an Atheist", dealing with recent poll results that show that atheists are "the most hated and mistrusted minority population in America".
Statler: Do you believe that God exists? Waldorf: Yes I do. Trouble is, I sometimes wonder if he believes any of us exist. Statler:Do you really think he would WANT to? Both: Do-ho-ho-ho-hoh!