"If I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street, I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods."
The first question to be resolved when discussing atheism is the basic one: what is an atheist?
Atheism is not an organized belief system the way Christianity or Islam is. An atheist can believe any number of things, ranging from the standard "there probably aren't any gods" to "there are no gods" to "god is dead" (this one is purely philosophical, not the literal belief that a god existed, then died) to "humanity is god" (again, generally philosophical) and anything in between.
To begin with something simple, 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."
Definitions of this kind are generally accepted, bearing in mind that "disbelief" can be interpreted to mean anything from simple lack of belief to active rejection of belief.
The first solution includes anyone who doesn't actively profess the existence of a god, including people who have never been exposed to theistic ideas, like for example infants. This sits well with the etymology "without god", but isn't what people usually talk about when they say "atheist". It is known as "implicit" atheism.
If you only consider people who actually know what a god is, the atheists will necessarily be "explicit" atheists. They might be undecided, though. If you ask them if a god exists, they might say "maybe" or "no", they just won't say "yes".
Within this group, there are those who do go one step further and actively believe that no god exists. This is called "strong" or "positive" atheism (the rest being "negative" or "weak" atheism).
Then, there are a number of other labels some prefer to "atheist". The main one is Agnosticism but some call themselves "apatheist" (indicating sheer indifference as to the existence of deities), "theological noncognitivist" (indicating they feel that words like "God" aren't coherent) or simply "non-religious" (which does not necessarily entail any kind of atheism, mind you...)
This is further complicated by special cases such as 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). According to Vivekananda, the attainment of moksha (salvation) does not actually require belief in a God at all, but it is usually regarded as making the process easier, particularly in the beginning. Even pantheism can sometimes be conflated with atheism.
In short, someone being an atheist can mean a number of things, so before you ascribe beliefs they do not hold to someone (a good way to piss anyone off...), make sure you're on the same page!
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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 although atheism is a religious posture, it is in no way a religion.
First, as the popular quip goes, atheism is a religion as much as baldness is a hair color, 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 more on the level of "monotheism" or "polytheism" than "Christian" or "Sikh". It tells you how many gods the person believes in (zero) without telling you anything about what they precisely believe about the world or which rules they live by beyond that.
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 they posit 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.
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 don't usually 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 organized religion starts having a negative impact 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, e.g., 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. Some theists argue, conversely, that science can give evidence for miracles.
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.
Trying to convert an atheist to "save his soul" will usually lead to annoyance or ridicule. Save yourself the trouble.
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 (many atheists believe that the afterlife can exist as a scientific phenomenon, not spiritual), 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 are usually atheists, 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.
Interestingly, for a long period of history, the investigation of so called "miracles" and the discovery of naturalist explanations for the phenomena was considered an affirmation of faith (as in, "Hey, look how God made this amazing thing we thought was impossible actually happen without leaving any direct fingerprints")
Atheism does not prescribe a system of morality or code of behavior. There is no built-in system of reward for good acts and punishment for evil ones. While some religious people would expect this to lead atheists to become Straw Nihilists, atheists form moral codes as they grow up, through their education, culture and personal reflection, like everyone else. That is not an explicitly self-imposed limitation, it is the natural way things happen in a normal, sane, developing human brainnote 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.. And it's for their benefit too, of course, as Good Feels Good, and sanity is its own advantage.
An atheist might view the idea that the fear of hell would be "necessary" to act morally as rather flattering: aren't they amazing, managing it without such fear? Or more critically, they might say that one should do good because virtue is it's own reward, it's just the right thing to do, or it would be for the greatest benefit, not because of fear of punishment (this is the lowest on the Kolhberg scale of moral development).
Some moral principles and systems used by atheists are:
The Golden Rule "One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself" (a concept which has existed since at least as early as 1780 B.C.) usually comes up.
Contrasted with Kantianism. Kantianism, unlike utilitarianism, justifies rights such as private property in spite of the happiness/suffering of others. Consider for example that you currently have two kidneys. Someone in the world is surely and currently in the need of one of the kidneys you can provide right now and will only suffer and be less happy without it. Under utilitarianism, ANY action that promotes happiness and limits suffering is morally good, therefore under some interpretations there is an obligation on your part to give up your kidney by a nominally painless surgical procedurenote Most modern utilitarians reject such reasoning on the basis that, generally speaking, forcing people to give up organs makes them unhappy, and knowing a society has authorized such an invasive violation of the individual leads to less happiness overall. They would have far less problem with mandating that organs be harvested from people that have died (with allowances for those with religious objections, say) a policy countries like Australia have already. Under Kantianism, you're only obligated to act on a rule that you yourself would want to be generally applied to society. Because a society where people are forced to give up body parts isn't ideal, nor exercises good will, you are under no obligation to render your meat stuff to the sick (and therefore have a right to your private property). Kantianism is independent of the consequential suffering of others and thereby Negative Responsibility. For example, say an armed gunman takes you and five other people hostage. The gunman says he'll shoot all of the other hostages except if you kill one of them yourself. As a consequence, utilitarianism might dictate that you kill one of your fellow hostages else you'll be morally wrong for letting all of the hostages die (more suffering, less happiness). Kantianism considers that the decisions of your actions and the gunman's actions are two separate entities, i.e. you're only responsible for your own actions and the gunman for his/her own. Therefore, you're under no moral obligation to murder at gunpoint, and it is the gunman who's at fault if he therefore murders the other hostages when you refuse to accept this sadistic choice.
Religious "moral bundles", for those who follow a religion that is compatible with atheism such as Buddhism or Jainism will build their moral code around that.
Secular Humanism (basically the idea that morality is defined by humans independent of religion or supernatural forces). It often is some form of utilitarianism, as discussed above.
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.
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 Straw Nihilist 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.
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. Here are a few possible reasons:
Interpretations of holy texts are extremely varied between people and over time, and the actual text is the part that can be readily analysed and criticized.
Religions move the goalposts as time goes by, declaring that parts that were previously considered literal truth are actually myth or parable when science has proven that it can't be literal truth or society has evolved too much for the literal sense to be acceptable by contemporary morality. This makes it pointless to attack any specific selection of what is parable and what is literal truth, since they can always simply concede a tiny point and keep everything else unchanged.
In fact one might be led to believe that religious morality and wisdom is largely decided independently from the text, and then the text is interpreted to mean whatever the reader wants, reading it literally when possible and seeing it as parable otherwise.
Atheists are more concerned with the literal, extremist religious fringe, who do more harm to society. And those are who they address. This is particularly aggravating because the two sides are often political allies, for example in defending the separation of church and state.
Worship Science, Richard Dawkins, Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection, Galileo (for being persecuted by the Church), and <insert anything sciencey here>: Atheists do not worship, venerate, idolize or serve (in the religious sense) anything or anyone, regardless of their stature, existence or whatever. They may respect or even admire scientists for their achievements, but they do so without thinking he or anyone else was infallible or had all the answers — or was even necessarily a nice person. It's not as if claiming "Darwin was racist" disproves evolutionary biology, for example.
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.
You will occasionally encounter a minority who, despite claiming the above, fairly obviously do have an attitude towards "science," (or a false, anthropomorphic projection thereof) which is primarily emotive and illogical. When interacting with such people, it is important to remember that they are a small minority of atheists as a whole, and that you should not allow them to give you an equally inaccurate and negative preconception, of the more genuinely rational majority of atheists that you will encounter. Honest atheists are willing to recognize and acknowledge that this obnoxious minority genuinely exists, (which is also part of the reason why a number of tropes have been cataloged describing them) and to empathize with those who find said minority annoying; but again, it must be emphasized that that is all these types are; a minority.
Close their minds and 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 detect it doesn't mean nobody can), it also disarms you of any objective means to know.
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 Strawman-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 some of the other alternatives. "Does (s)he even want to be worshiped?" etc.
Many atheists assert that they cannot hate that in which they do not believe, and thus the idea that they "hate" God is... well, quite strange. In a similar sense, most atheists do not believe in dragons, and as such are incapable of hating them.
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 "love the sinner, hate the sin."
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 god(s) to begin with).
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 evil. The argument is that if the fifth commandment is the only thing stopping you from committing murder, you're not obeying out of the goodness of your heart, but because you fear divine punishment.
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 in-between/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.
Given the degree and severity of psychological (and sometimes sexual) abuse which has been experienced by some Christians during childhood, you may at times encounter new atheists/former Christians who appear to conform to the "angry," stereotype. This can be because they are still experiencing pain due to post traumatic stress, or it may also be due to cognitive dissonance. If reinforcement of the idea that they were going to Hell was particularly strong, then residual mind control along these lines may still cause a former Christian considerable emotional distress, even if logically they no longer have this belief.
When you encounter atheists or former Christians who are in this situation, it is important to remember that the main thing they need is compassion. While they may at times react to you in a similar manner to that of the proverbial wounded animal, (that is, use aggression to alienate or drive people away, etc.) their pain should not be falsely associated with atheism as a whole, but should instead be recognized as a consequence of the abuse that they have suffered. They don't need more condemnation for their anger0they need understanding and healing.
As a related point to the above, some atheists can have an extremely strong sense of positive morality themselves, and if they appear angry, it can be due to the mistreatment which they have seen people receive at the hands of Christians. In some cases, this has led some Atheists to positive action, as far as activism against Catholic child sexual abuse is concerned, or attempting to start secular charitable organisations.
Adhere to Communism, Nazism, or <insert extremist political ideology here>: Atheism by itself does not entail any political views; there are atheists who are liberals, conservatives, socialists, social democrats, 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 antisemitic actions aplenty, but these ultimately stemmed from the long history of antisemitism in Europe, not the communist doctrine of the USSR (and it was more ethnic rather than religious persecution of Jews in any case-they were classed as a distinct ethnicity in 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 of Evil.
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 go on to 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 across more as a You Are A Credit To Unbelievers statement than anything else.
Indeed, there are several atheist organizations for military members. One? Foxhole Atheists.
Want to take your rights/religion/babies away/believe killing theists is morally justified: 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. P. Z. 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.
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 natural, though alien, beings (so the religion isn't supernatural, but they did spark debates between characters about where one draws the line between genuine Gods and Sufficiently Advanced Aliens. and the importance of "faith" in making that determination), 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 mostly secular, although laterseries' after Roddenberry died showed religion more openly (albeit none of the majority human religions we have now, like Christianity, but that could have just been avoiding the Moral Guardians). The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ''Who Watches The Watchers'' was the most anti-religious/anti-theistic the show ever got, and even that was a depiction which came out of nowhere, with it never being mentioned again.
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 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 £11,000 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 the first £5,500 worth of donations. 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.
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".