Although there are many other excellent sites on the Internet that supply reasons to be an atheist, there are none, so far as I know, that attempt to gather all these reasons into one place. This essay seeks to remedy that oversight. It represents an attempt at providing a general defense and justification of atheism, listing the valid reasons both major and minor to be a nonbeliever. Although each individual item on the list will not attempt to comprehensively expound on the specific reason or argument it outlines, it should at least give an overview of that reason, and greater detail will be provided by links to other articles where applicable.
This essay will make the case for atheism in three sections. The first section consists of evidential reasons: factual statements about the world that under any reasonable interpretation make atheism more likely to be true than theism. Some of these facts strengthen the case against theism in general, while others are relevant to particular belief systems. However, even the facts that only constitute evidence against some religions make atheism more likely to be true, because when one alternative is removed from consideration, it must increase the likelihood of all the remaining possibilities, of which atheism is one.
For purposes of deciding what constitutes evidence, this essay will employ a “surprisingness” criterion: a given observation is evidence for a hypothesis if that observation is unsurprising – i.e., expected – assuming that hypothesis is true; and an observation is evidence against a hypothesis if that observation would be surprising and unexpected assuming that hypothesis is true. For example, if I leave a bowl of milk out in the kitchen at night and return in the morning to find the milk gone and the kitchen swept and scrubbed, this observation is not surprising under the hypothesis that my house is inhabited by fairies who do housework in exchange for food. On the other hand, such an observation would be surprising under the hypothesis that there are no such fairies, and so constitutes evidence for the former over the latter.
The second section of this essay consists of moral reasons for atheism: cases where the requirement to do what is right favors being an atheist, or at the very least, not supporting certain sects or practices of theism. If one believes (as I do) that morality is objective and that certain acts are right or wrong and will be right or wrong regardless of what anyone says, it therefore follows that we are morally obligated to reject any religious belief system that advocates or practices such wrong acts. Granted, rejecting a particular religion as immoral does not establish the truth of atheism. However, even if a religion’s claims about the world were factually true, if it commanded evil actions we would still be obligated to reject it; and those who cannot accept the notion of an evil god must conclude that any immoral religion is necessarily false. In any case, this essay will attempt to show that there are some moral shortcomings common to all religions.
The final section of this essay consists of practical reasons for atheism: reasons why accepting atheism over theism produces positive overall effects on a person’s life. While these do not in themselves provide reasons to think that atheism is true, if one is already convinced by the evidential and moral arguments in favor of atheism, they provide additional incentive to adopt it and make it one’s chosen worldview.
- Religions demand faith and discourage attempts to verify their claims through test and experiment, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Rarely, if ever, do religious evangelists win converts by presenting the evidence for their faith in a rational manner. Instead, they largely appeal to emotion and the bandwagon, encouraging others to join their belief system because it feels good to do so, regardless of whether it is supported by the facts. New members are then taught to maintain their belief not through continual testing, but through faith, which can be defined as belief in a proposition without sufficient justifying evidence. Indeed, not only are believers not encouraged to test their faith, but they are generally taught that it is outright wrong to do so – that it is a sin to carry out an experiment whose results would enable them to distinguish whether their belief was true or untrue. Such activities are generally grouped under the label “putting God to the test”, and most holy books carry stern warnings against attempting it. Some religions go even further by commanding their followers not to read arguments critical of the faith or have any contact with people who were once members but have since left the church. (For more on these and similar tactics, see “Thoughts in Captivity“).
If a particular religion was true, this is not what we would expect. On the contrary, a belief that was true would obviously pass any test it was subjected to, and therefore would have every reason to welcome people to test it so that they could see this for themselves. A belief that was true could be defended purely by recourse to the facts, without demanding its adherents believe in something of which they have no experience. A belief that was true would not need to fear its followers investigating opposing viewpoints for themselves. On the other hand, a belief system that was false, in order to protect itself, would most likely want to discourage its followers from doing things that would lead to them finding that out. Therefore, the anti-empirical attitude of most religions is less surprising under atheism than theism, and thus gives us reason to believe that atheism is more likely to be correct.
- Science is a very effective means of gaining knowledge whereas revelation and scriptural study is not, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Throughout human history, people have believed a great many ideas that in retrospect turned out to be wrong. However, what is most striking is the source of many of these incorrect ideas: with few exceptions, they ultimately emanated from religious scripture. The geocentric theory of the solar system; the Noachian deluge as an explanation for the geological record; the age of the Earth estimated as 6000 years old; the separate ancestry and simultaneous appearance of all species; the belief in epidemic diseases as caused by human sin rather than poor hygiene; the intellectual inferiority of non-European races; all these and many more mistaken ideas trace their origins to religious beliefs arrived at through faith without testing (see the previous item). There is not one single fact about the world that has been proven true in the long run and that is both non-trivial and non-obvious for which we ultimately owe credit to religious scripture rather than painstaking empirical examination.
Of course, this is not to say that people following the scientific method have not made mistakes as well. Science is primarily a way of studying the world, not an infallible oracle for gaining knowledge. However, science’s self-correcting nature enables us to discover these mistakes and fix them, whereas the nature of religious dogma offers no comparable way to correct errors. The result is that all the major advances in our knowledge over the past few hundred years are owed primarily to scientific study of the world; on the other hand, beliefs which were first arrived at through mysticism or faith almost always turn out to be wrong.
If any particular religion were true, this is not what we would expect. The effectiveness of science can be explained regardless of whether there is a god or not. However, if there was a being that had a role in creating the natural laws of the universe, and if some religious belief system was an effective way to contact and communicate with that being, it is reasonable to expect that revelation, either through written texts or personal experience, might occasionally provide genuinely new knowledge. But this does not happen. This fact is far less surprising under the assumption of atheism than under the assumption of theism.
- Many religions attempt to suppress outside examination and criticism, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Not only do most religions command their own followers not to put their beliefs to the test, many have gone further in taking action even against outsiders who attempt to critically investigate or speak out against them. The medieval European inquisitions that attempted to crush other faiths and silence scientists whose findings ran contrary to church dogma are the most obvious example, but there are many others as well: for example, many Muslim countries today are repressive theocracies where censorship is pervasive and sentences of exile and death are routinely issued against authors whose works are deemed to be blasphemous against Islam. Even in the United States of America, the deluge of threats of impeachment, boycott and even physical harm that instantly and predictably springs up in response to any opinion that is perceived to differ from the prevailing dogma has resulted in few if any nonbelievers being given a platform by major public institutions. Evidently, there are a vast number of religious believers who see nothing wrong with silencing speech whose content they disagree with.
As in the first example from this essay, this is to be expected if atheism is true. The church establishments that have accumulated vast amounts of money, power and influence have a vested interest in protecting those assets, and if their beliefs are not in fact true and cannot withstand criticism and investigation, it is to be expected that they would attempt to stifle such criticism if they feel it may be a serious threat. On the other hand, any belief system that is true should have nothing to fear from even the most searching outside examination, and should welcome scrutiny accordingly. This would be doubly true if there did in fact exist a god who would ensure his chosen people triumphed over all adversity. If God is truly on their side, what are so many faiths so afraid of?
- Many religions have histories of intolerance and violence, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Throughout history, religion has been used as a justification for countless crimes against humanity. Some of the most readily recalled examples include the medieval Crusades that pitted Christians against Muslims in bloody combat; the witch hunts that led to the torture and unjust execution of thousands of innocents; the Holocaust (Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles that said “God With Us”); the ongoing acts of terrorism waged by Muslim fundamentalists; the creation of tyrannical divine-right monarchies and theocratic regimes throughout Europe, Asia and Africa; the long-enduring oppression and unequal treatment of women; and the trans-Atlantic slave trade that persisted for centuries, whose painful legacy of racism and bigotry persists to some extent even today. Although religions usually plead for tolerance and freedom of conscience when in the minority, given the chance those same religions often attempt to gain civil power, force the public to support them and oppress or wage war on other faiths.
This pattern is far less surprising under atheism than theism. Religious apologists will usually claim that the actions of sinful humans are not evidence against the existence of God, but an atheist can reply that if there was such a being, we would have every right to expect him to prevent such things, or at least clearly show that they were in contradiction to his will. But neither has happened. Nor does belief in any particular religion seem to improve human beings’ sense of morality enough to keep them from committing such atrocities. If religions are composed solely of human beings, lacking divine moral guidance, this is to be expected.
- Many religions have cruel or morally unacceptable doctrines, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.The vast majority of religions postulate that the power that created the universe is benevolent and good, morally worthy of humans’ worship and devotion. In light of this, it is surprising that almost all of these religions also claim that this power has on various occasions commanded, condoned, or directly caused acts of terrible cruelty, violence, and evil. Foremost among these is the doctrine of Hell, which states that those who fail to worship the creator as he commands will, upon their death, be cast into a realm of agonizing, never-ending suffering. This idea is a vicious and evil absurdity, particularly because it is so often claimed that a merciful and loving god created such a place and desires to send some people there. (See “Infinite Punishment for Finite Sins” for more on the idea of Hell.) However, this is not by any means the only morally unacceptable doctrine put forth by some religions. As another example, many holy books contain approving records of past genocidal wars waged by the self-proclaimed chosen people against their enemies. Many others set cruel and disproportionate punishments for the most trifling crimes, or acts that are not crimes at all. For several examples of this pattern from the Bible, see “A Book of Blood“.
If these religions truly were inspired by a morally good deity, it is bizarre that they contain so many stories approving of bloodshed, violence and torture. Such an outcome is too implausible to believe. On the other hand, if these books were written by human beings alone, in an era where humanity’s understanding of morality was still primitive and poorly developed, it is not surprising at all that they contain verses that we today understand to be completely unacceptable.
- Religious societies reflect the prejudices of their time, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
If a religion was inspired by a consistent and unchanging god not limited by what human beings believed at any particular time, it is reasonable to expect that that religion would not merely mirror the changing beliefs of the cultures it passed down through, but would stay essentially the same through time. However, this is not what we find.
For example, take slavery. Today, this practice is widely recognized as immoral and universally condemned by Western nations of the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, the Jewish and Christian scriptures, which were written in a milieu where slavery was common, do not condemn it, but rather accept it and even work it into their teachings as though it were the most normal thing in the world; and for many centuries the societies that relied on these scriptures accepted it without question. However, with the rise of the abolition movement, these religions’ beliefs on the morality of slavery underwent a huge and dramatic shift. Similar reversals have occurred throughout history in many religions regarding many different issues.
This is not to say that no churches or religious individuals have ever been at the forefront of movements for social change. But rather than being a unanimous voice for moral progress, religious groups often sustain immoral practices for decades or centuries until the push for reform begins, and even then tend to be deeply split by such disputes. This is what we should expect assuming atheism is true.
- There is a vast amount of religious confusion and disagreement between many different belief systems, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Among human cultures both past and present, there is an enormous number of different and incompatible religions. Virtually every society from every era and every region of the planet has had its own pantheons of deities, its own mythologies about the origin of the world and humanity, its own set of rules for how the gods expect us to behave, and its own views about the nature of the afterlife and the fate of the universe. While some of these belief systems bear some resemblance to each other, in general their similarities are far outweighed by their profound differences; and the further separated by time and space they are, the more different they tend to be. Apologists for these various belief systems have been arguing over which is the correct one for millennia, and yet the dispute is not nearing resolution; there is no end in sight. If anything, many of these belief systems are drawing further and further away from each other rather than nearing a point of unification.
If atheism is correct, this is to be expected – if religions spring from human creativity and imagination rather than a common wellspring of revelation, it is hardly surprising that people from a diverse variety of different cultures, times and places have created many different ones. It would be extraordinarily unlikely for many different people who had no contact with each other to independently invent the exact same belief set. On the other hand, if there is a god, it is strange and unexpected that there would be so much religious confusion among humanity. Why would God, if such a being exists, not dispense his message to all people equally? For more on this argument, see “The Cosmic Shell Game“.
- Religions are fragmented into sects that cannot agree on key issues of doctrine or ethics, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Continuing the previous point, even within any particular belief system where all the members agree on the same basic theological principles and teachings, there is a vast diversity of opinion on how to interpret those teachings. The spectrum of interpretations within any given religion runs from extreme liberal to extreme conservative, from figurative to literal, from wide-open ecumenicalism to ardent fundamentalism. As above, the debates between the various points of view within a given religion have in most cases been going on since that religion existed, with the same arguments repeated endlessly by both sides, and with no resolution in sight. Though all participants in such a debate usually agree that they want to follow God’s will and are continually asking him to reveal to them what that will is, they are rarely if ever able to reach agreement.
This is expected under atheism. If there is no supernatural deity that reliably informs seekers of what was actually meant by a given teaching, it is no surprise that different people cannot agree on what those meanings are, nor is it surprising that these unresolvable arguments continue to lead to the fragmentation of existing religions and the formation of new sects. On the other hand, if there is a god that guides his followers, it is unexpected that this process would be allowed to continue. Why would God not clearly inform all believers what a disputed verse was intended to mean, particularly if holding a correct interpretation of that verse was a requirement for salvation?
- Religions emerge in isolated areas and only then spread in space and time, rather than appearing in every society at once, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Given that all human beings are fundamentally the same at the genetic and cognitive levels, it follows as a consequence that any god that desired to communicate with us would probably desire to communicate with all of us. Likewise, given the inherent unfairness of God’s directly speaking to only some people and leaving others nothing but indirect and second-hand evidence, especially if there is a penalty for nonbelief, it is to be expected that a religion truly founded by divine revelation would appear in every culture at once. There is no reason to expect God to play favorites.
But of course, this is not what we find, and that is to be expected if atheism is true. Instead, we find religions that emerge in specific places at specific times, often with specific “chosen” nations or ethnicities, and that only gradually spread via human evangelism. To postulate that any particular religion is true means that millions of people throughout thousands of years of Earth’s history lived and died without ever hearing of it. For more on this topic, see “The Argument from Locality“.
- The mind has a physical basis, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
A central part of the doctrine of many religions is that there is an immaterial component to the human mind, called the soul, that provides us with our identity, personality and sense of self and that survives the physical death of our bodies. This claim can now be conclusively disproven by the science of neurology, whose findings have revealed that the fundamental aspects of our consciousness all arise from and are unified with the physical structure of our brain. Damage to specific regions of the brain can fragment our sense of identity, splitting the mind up into distinct spheres of awareness, or erase it entirely by destroying the ability to form new memories, leaving a person caught in an endless mental loop. It can alter one’s personality and beliefs – including religious beliefs – in dramatic ways, or exert an uncontrollable influence over behavior, to a point where a person’s closest friends and relatives believe they are no longer the same person they once were. Such changes are very strange and surprising under a theistic hypothesis of the soul, but not at all surprising if we assume the atheistic position that the mind arises purely from the functioning of the brain. See “A Ghost in the Machine” for more information.
- Gratuitous evil and unnecessary suffering are abundant, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
It has long been recognized, even by theists, that the one fact about the world that is most unexpected and difficult to explain under the assumption of a benevolent creator is the existence of evil. But it is not just the mere fact of suffering that should give theists pause, but rather its magnitude and its distribution. There is not just a small amount of suffering in the world, but a vast, horrendous amount, stemming not just from acts of evil committed by human beings against each other, but also from natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts and epidemics. And evil is not distributed fairly, afflicting only those who deserve it, but rather seemingly by chance, striking the bad and the good alike. In fact, often suffering seems to avoid the truly evil while concentrating on the undeserving innocent.
If there is a powerful being overseeing the world whose attributes include goodness and justice, it should be surprising in the extreme that evil occurs as it does. On the other hand, if there is no higher power other than the impersonal natural laws that do not take human needs into account, it is not surprising at all that suffering exists. Therefore, when it comes to explaining evil, atheism has by far the superior explanation, and this gives us strong reason to think that atheism is true. For more on the argument from evil, see “All Possible Worlds“.
- Naturalism is the norm, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
This point can best be summarized as “miracles don’t happen”. Obvious supernatural events are nonexistent, although the holy books of most religions assure us they were common in the distant past. Claims of miraculous occurrences invariably turn out to be either trivial, anecdotal, spurious, or based on arguments from ignorance (i.e., “We don’t understand the cause of this, so it must be a miracle”). Science, the human enterprise which seeks to explain the universe by the operation of natural laws without invocation of the supernatural, has been resoundingly successful at this goal; so far a huge variety of phenomena have come into the sphere of our understanding, and none have been found that resist natural explanation.
These facts are, of course, to be expected under atheism. If the supernatural does not exist, then everything that happens must have a natural explanation, and it is no surprise that we do not observe any unambiguous miracles. Conversely, it is most unexpected under theism that God does not perform them more often, especially since a significant number of positive effects would probably result. See “One More Burning Bush“.
- There is no clear evidence of the existence of any gods, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Not only are there no obvious miracles, human beings do not possess any clear communication from God even in ways that are not obviously supernatural, such as the simple, basic ways we relate to each other. Nor does God perform any activities in our daily lives, not even simple, ordinary activities, in a way that can be reliably attributed to him. Although most religions assure us it is well within God’s power to disclose his existence and speak to us and interact with us in such a way that we could be sure that the message was genuine, this does not happen. Instead, believers claim to be assured of God’s existence based on mere inward conviction, which is not a reliable guide to the nature of reality regardless of how strong it is, and on documents written, interpreted and approved by human beings.
Any clear communication or activity from God would obviously be a death blow for atheism, but no such thing has happened. On the other hand, if atheism is true, we would fully expect that this would be the case. We would fully expect that believers would rely solely on subjectively acquired feelings inaccessible to outside verification, and that apologists and evangelists would go around telling each other that they have discovered the truth about God, although every single source the various factions cite would, ultimately, be a human source. We would fully expect that, although theists claim that “God is love”, he would never appear and show that love to us in the way a parent shows love to their children. We would expect that careful and painstaking examination of every aspect of the world would uncover a grand web of cause and effect, but not the slightest trace of influence of a power that stands above it all.
- Religious texts contain many contradictions and historical inaccuracies, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
If a particular book was dictated to humans by a perfect and self-consistent deity, it is to be expected that that book would likewise be free of internal error and contradiction. Similarly, if a book was the product of a being that was present when the events narrated in that book took place, we would expect it to contain an accurate account of those events. However, when examining religious texts, this is not what we actually find. Instead, we find books that contain many mutually contradictory or incompatible verses. In addition, when it is possible to independently verify these books’ historical accuracy through archaeological or other scientific investigation, we often find that they contain many passages which are implausible or false. For examples of such contradictions in the holy texts of two major religious traditions, see “Foundation of Sand” and “Much Incongruity“. For examples of historical inaccuracies in these traditions, see “Let the Stones Speak“. This observation is less surprising under atheism than theism. Contradictions or errors in a given religious text, of course, do not prove that that text was not divinely inspired, but it is much more surprising that a text inspired by a god would contain errors than that a purely human-written one would. Similarly, the errors in any one text do not mean that all religions are false, but the more we examine and find to contain such errors, the more confidence we can have in an inductive generalization that all of them are probably the same way.
- Arguments for God’s existence suffer from irreparable logical flaws, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Throughout the ages, theologians and philosophers have been attempting to devise rational proofs of God’s existence; and without exception, all such efforts have fallen short. Not only do these arguments ultimately fail, many of them are actually premised on fundamental logical fallacies. For example, the classic pro-theistic argument known as the ontological argument suffers from circularity, while the cosmological argument is built on special pleading, and the argument from design is really just a disguised argument from ignorance. The moral argument for God’s existence has been dogged for centuries by the insoluble Euthyphro rebuttal, while the more recent presuppositional arguments rely on the fallacy of the false dilemma. For more detailed refutations of these and other pro-theistic arguments, see “Unmoved Mover“.
Granted, it is possible for God to exist and for there also to be no irrefutable arguments proving that fact. However, this outcome is still less surprising under atheism than theism. If theism is true, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that God might have structured the universe so that reason would enable us to detect that fact. On the other hand, if atheism is true, then the ultimate failure of all pro-theistic arguments is the only possible outcome (assuming, of course, that logic does bear some correspondence to reality). Certainly the failure of many intelligent people throughout the ages to conclusively prove the existence of God should tell us something.
- There are moral, fulfilled, happy people from all religious backgrounds and also among nonbelievers, and this fact is less surprising under atheism than theism.
Many religions claim that genuine satisfaction in life can only be found by belonging to that religion and worshipping its deity, and that all attempts to acquire happiness any other way will ultimately end in misery and frustration. Were any particular religion true, we might well expect to find that this was indeed the case. But this is not what we find. Instead, even a cursory search will reveal that there are a vast number of wise, virtuous, spiritual and happy people from every religious background and from atheism as well. No religious belief system’s adherents are substantially better at dealing with life’s ups and downs, on the average, than members of any other belief system. This is exactly as we would expect if no one religion had a monopoly on the truth, giving further support to atheism.
- Many religions have cruel, dangerous or repressive doctrines which it is morally incumbent upon us not to support.
The first and most obvious moral reason to dissociate oneself from religion is the existence of cruel or otherwise unacceptable doctrines commonly associated with it. Though the specific nature of these doctrines varies from one belief system to another, virtually every form of theism so far conceived has at least a few. One that is very common is the belief that women are in some way inferior or subordinate to men. Such a belief shows up, for example, in the Old Testament’s valuation of women as worth half as much as men; in the Christian Bible’s command that women keep silent in church and submissively obey men; or in Islam’s permitting men to marry multiple wives but never wives to marry multiple husbands, or forcing women to wear stifling black garb in public. Another immoral religious doctrine is the belief that God will one day soon destroy the world and save only his own, and that it is desirable that this happen. This belief has led in many instances to believers taking no action to remedy evils such as terrorism or environmental destruction, on the grounds that it will all soon come to an end anyway – or worse, causing violence themselves in an effort to bring about the hoped-for apocalypse.
In addition to these pernicious beliefs, there are others, including the advocacy of death and torture as a punishment for even minor transgressions; the support of racism, caste systems and slavery; the opposition to the use of birth control even in already desperately overcrowded regions of the planet; the belief that God has granted us a divine mandate to ravage the planet in any way we wish; the belief that absolution is free and there is therefore no incentive to refrain from committing evil acts; the support of monarchies and theocracies; the belief that medicine should be withheld from the sick in favor of prayer; prejudice against homosexuals and other minority groups; and many, many more. In fact, any crime, injustice or evil deed can be excused by claiming “God is on my side”, and such justifications have been offered for countless wrongs committed throughout history.
Morality demands that we refrain from supporting such beliefs, and so the only moral course of action upon encountering a religion that teaches one or more of them is to refuse to be a member of it. Even if a religion was true and the god it described actually existed, if it advocated immoral or evil doctrines the only ethical thing to do would be to refuse to follow it. If there are such beings as gods, they are bound by morality’s principles as surely as humans are; neither the certain existence nor the great power wielded by Adolf Hitler, for example, made obeying him the moral thing to do. Fortunately, we do not seem to be in any comparable dilemma, as there are strong evidential reasons, apart from any moral considerations, to believe that no form of theism is true. However, this and other moral arguments against religion give additional reason to be an atheist.
- Many religions have histories of violence and hatred which it is morally incumbent upon us to dissociate from.
The history of religion on this planet is a history written in blood. As far back as records exist, people have been fighting, torturing and killing each other in the name of the gods. Essentially the only religions that have never engaged in warfare and bloodshed are those that have been so consistently oppressed throughout their history that they have never had the power to do so. The only ethical response for people of conscience, when presented with these facts, is to dissociate themselves from the religions that have been responsible for them. As Jesus is reported to have said, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit…. by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:17-20, NIV translation).
There are examples of this from every major religious tradition. In Judaism, the Old Testament contains many instances of the Israelites waging warfare and carrying out programs of genocide purportedly under divine sanction, and today there are still far-right Israeli nationalists who believe it is the Jewish people’s God-given right to own the entire Fertile Crescent, driving out the other inhabitants by violence if necessary. The crusades, inquisitions and witch hunts carried out by the various medieval Christian churches linger in memory, and today Christianity still has its share of racists and fundamentalists who murder gays, bomb abortion clinics, and picket the funerals of AIDS victims while gleefully proclaiming the departed’s eternal damnation. The terrorists and tyrants of Islam are too obvious to need enumeration. Even members of Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism have been known to form murderous mobs that go on the rampage against people of other belief systems. The Buddhist kingdom of Tibet prior to the Chinese conquest, presenting a sharp contrast with the current Dalai Lama’s rhetoric about democracy and human rights, was a brutal theocracy where the lay population was forced through torture and imprisonment to support the monasteries (see this article).
Although the more liberal and moderate members of such faiths may be repulsed by such actions and may categorically disavow them, this cannot change the fact that the extremists still use the same holy book, believe in the same god, and worship in the same way as their less conservative brethren, the only difference being that they have different interpretations of a few verses of their sacred texts. Nor does it change the fact that this violence and hatred is not confined to a few isolated events, but permeates the history of virtually every belief system ever invented by humans. The only moral response to this is a full and complete dissociation from these hatemongers, and the best way to do that is by not belonging to the same belief system as them at all.
Some theists will no doubt protest that the ethical believers should not be condemned for the crimes of the misguided ones. And I agree that the morally good believers do not bear blame for the actions of the evil ones, so long as they have not defended or supported such actions. Nevertheless, when the entire structure of a belief system is marred by violence and unacceptable doctrine, the moral thing to do is to dissociate oneself from it, in order to make it clear that such practices will not be tolerated or supported.
- Many religions accumulate unnecessary amounts of wealth and material possessions, a practice which it is morally incumbent upon us not to support.
Since time immemorial, religions worldwide have sought out the most effective tools from extracting the maximum possible amount of money from their followers. A common practice in Western religions is tithing – the church’s calling on its members to hand over a stunning ten percent of their income each year. In churches with millions of followers, even if only a small percentage choose to tithe, the amount of wealth that is thereby accumulated is enormous. Similarly, in many Eastern countries past and present, all of society is expected to labor to support the religious upper classes of monks and priests. The practices that churches use to keep the money flowing in are endless – the collection plates passed around at each sermon, the sale of indulgences and prayers, the promise of worldly benefits in return, the unceasing cries of persecution that inspire believers who feel their faith is threatened to give generously in support of it.
Were the riches gained in this way used to do genuine good, there would be little reason to object. But very often they are not. Instead, many religions simply accumulate countless millions of dollars in assets, including vast amounts of property, huge and lavish church buildings, and unceasing luxury for their leaders – this although virtually all religions teach that excessive wealth is a barrier to salvation. Religious groups’ control over society enables them to pass laws exempting themselves from outside scrutiny, so that they need not account to anyone how they spend the money they make. While most religions engage in at least some charity, the amount of good they actually strive to accomplish is small compared to what could be achieved if they put their full resources into the effort, and in any case religious charity often comes at a price.
Morality demands that we not support this. The amount of suffering and injustice in this world is so great that it is a pressing moral obligation for us to use our resources to combat it in the most effective way possible, rather than simply handing them over to further enrich already wealthy and powerful church hierarchies. Being an atheist, and giving the money thereby saved to genuine charitable groups, is an effective way to achieve this goal.
- Many religions display institutional corruption and hypocrisy which it is morally incumbent upon us not to support.
In addition to the evil actions discussed in the last point, it is sadly the case that many organized religions do not follow even the good teachings their canons contain. Many religions whose texts preach the virtues of poverty and generosity have leaders who enjoy extravagant riches and luxuriant lifestyles made possible by donations from their followers, many of whom are desperately poor themselves; others whose texts extol peace, compassion and nonviolence have repeatedly engaged in war and terrorism with the excuse that it is justified by God’s will. Others that preach about the necessity of fidelity and monogamy have leaders that have engaged in extramarital affairs or divorced and remarried numerous times. Still others have corrupt hierarchies that have tried to cover up sex abuse and other crimes committed by members of the clergy. (The Roman Catholic church is the most visible, though not the only, recent example.) Morality demands that we refrain from supporting such corrupt and hypocritical institutions until and unless they put an end to these transgressions and provide solid proof of their having done so.
- Many religions have psychologically unhealthy or harmful doctrines which it is morally incumbent upon us not to support.
Most religions have at least one or a few doctrines which, if believed in, are likely to cause mental suffering and anguish both to the believers and to those around them. Among these harmful beliefs are that life is a constant source of pain and sorrow and this cannot be changed; that suffering and persecution are desirable and bring people closer to God; that all people are worthless sinners fully deserving of damnation; that it is forbidden to associate with or speak to those who believe differently; that there are vast conspiracies aligned against the true believers; and that human beings are constantly under siege by malignant demons or other evil supernatural powers. The first two of these beliefs are likely to cause believers to accept and even seek out suffering and rejection, rather than making an effort to ease human suffering and get along with others; in the worst case it may lead them to actively inflict pain on others. The third belief leads to feelings of guilt, worthlessness and self-hatred, as well as disdain for the efforts of others to improve the general welfare, while the fourth breaks up relationships and drives apart people who could otherwise be happy together. There have even been cases where the last two beliefs cause the mentally ill to forego the medical treatment they need in favor of ineffective measures like prayer and exorcism, which not only will not cure their condition but may even drive them deeper into it. In all cases, the harm caused by these beliefs should be unacceptable to people of conscience, and should lead these people to reject any belief system that teaches them.
- In general, theistic belief is a force for stagnation and against progress, and it is morally incumbent upon us not to support this.
Throughout history, religion has been used to promote stagnation and the status quo, acting as a barrier to human advancement both intellectually and morally. It has had this effect for several reasons. First, and not least important, is the amount of resources that have been spent on religion. Even besides the money most churches accumulate, theism has encouraged many intelligent people to spend their lives debating pointless and irresolvable theological disputes or evangelizing other cultures, when their minds and their ability could much more usefully be spent doing something of benefit to humanity. Second is the frequent religious opposition to new knowledge. There was a time when men of science were persecuted, tortured and imprisoned by inquisitions, and even today, religious opposition to science is still widespread and strong. Creationists seek to prevent scientific theories that offend them from being taught in school, and theist apologists try to prevent natural phenomena from being studied by labeling them miracles, in an example of God of the Gaps reasoning. Third is the use of religion to justify the current state of society and denounce efforts for change. History is filled with examples of churches that have denounced societal progress and worked hand-in-hand with the ruling elite to oppress the poor and the disenfranchised, usually by teaching them that they will be rewarded in the next life for unquestioning obedience and passivity in this one. Finally, religion encourages fatalism, the belief that whatever happens is God’s will and we should not seek to change it.
It is the fearless willingness to investigate the world and follow wherever the evidence leads that has brought about every improvement in the human condition that we have ever achieved. Religion, although not always or in every case, very frequently works against this, and on balance it has been a force for stagnation and even regression, rather than progress. People of conscience should therefore reject it on these grounds.
- In general, theistic belief serves as an excuse for the few to impose their will upon the many, and it is morally incumbent upon us not to support this.
Although a very few religions teach – and, more importantly, put into practice – the belief that all people are equal in the sight of God and that all people have equal access to God, the opposite condition is by far more common. The absolutist theocracies, repressive caste systems and divine-right monarchies that have been so common throughout history and persist even today show how readily religion can be used as a tool of oppression and control, how easily it can justify inequality and unfair systems of rule. There is no major world religion that has not at some point been used to excuse such unjust institutions; even purportedly peaceful Eastern faiths such as Buddhism have given rise to tyrannical theocracies.
By contrast, history has shown us that democratic governments that abide by the principle of separation of church and state are far more efficient, more advanced, and more respectful of human rights. There is therefore strong moral reason to support this type of government, and the best basis for doing so is to be an atheist, since atheists have solid reason to reject the claim that some people are more favored by God than others.
- Atheism offers the freedom to live your life as you see fit.
Most religions offer a strict, tightly conscribed view of what constitutes acceptable behavior. They set restrictions on what sorts of activities their followers are supposed to prefer or reject, what their purpose and goals in life should be, whom they should obey, and what they should derive meaning and satisfaction from. There are long lists of things that their followers, in order to fit in, must do or refrain from doing; sometimes there are restrictions on how they dress, eat, speak and even vote. This effect is especially pronounced in conservative and fundamentalist religious communities where the lives of each person are planned out in advance with little if any regard for what those people themselves may want, and taken to an extreme in cults that attempt to control literally every moment of their members’ lives.
An atheist, by contrast, is free of this confinement. Atheism has no hierarchy of authority or immutable scripture that forces its followers to live a certain way; the essence of atheism is the free choice of the individual. This does not mean that an atheist can behave as they want without regard for others – no one is exempt from the principles of morality. But it does mean that an atheist has the freedom to choose their own purpose, select their own path, and decide for themselves what makes their life meaningful and worthwhile to them. The feeling of deep inner satisfaction that comes from living a fearlessly self-directed life can only be imagined by those forced into the narrow and shallow paths of conventional religion.
- Atheism offers the freedom to make up your own mind.
In line with the last point, most religions put limitations not on just how their believers may act, but what and how they may think. Ancient texts and their modern interpreters in the church hierarchies strictly prescribe how their followers are allowed to view the world, what topics they must approve or disapprove of, and often, what questions they are not allowed to ask. Some religions go as far as to command their followers not to expose themselves to certain knowledge deemed “dangerous”. To name an especially egregious example, the one-billion-member Roman Catholic church only several decades ago abolished its Index of Forbidden Books, which for centuries threatened with excommunication any Catholic who read any titles on the list without special permission.
In contrast to this barrage of prohibition, atheism offers the freedom to think, believe, question and form opinions as one sees fit. To an atheist, there is no forbidden knowledge, there are no prohibited books, and there are no questions that may not be asked. Where the religious mind sees a mental landscape bristling with bars and locks, the atheist sees a wide-open horizon, where nothing is off-limits and the inquiring mind may travel wherever it pleases. Atheists are entirely free to study all perspectives on any topic and decide for themselves what they believe.
- Atheism offers the freedom to tolerate others.
Many major religious traditions, in addition to dictating their followers’ actions and beliefs, further instruct them not to associate with those whose beliefs are different. The Christian Bible, for example, commands believers to live apart from non-Christians, “for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). The Islamic Qur’an is similar, with verses admonishing Muslims not to befriend those who believe differently (9:23).
By contrast, atheism has no such prohibitions. Rather than being limited to a restricted subset of humanity, an atheist can freely associate with anyone they choose, and can find friends and loved ones from any background. Nor is an atheist required to look down on others’ actions as “sinful”, but can accept them for who they are. Members of such xenophobic religious traditions will never know the many friendly, intelligent, loving, and generous people who come from belief systems other than their own, but an atheist labors under no such restrictions.
- Atheism saves time and money.
A minor point, though not too minor to overlook, is that being an atheist saves one the resources that would otherwise be spent on attending church and other religious services. More conservative denominations often expect members to attend services multiple times a week, sometimes for hours each time; but even just one hour a week gained back by not attending church can be a valuable resource, whether for accomplishing something productive or simply spent in quiet contemplation. Likewise, virtually all denominations expect constant donations, and many expect members to tithe as much as 10% of their income. Being an atheist allows one to use this money for more worthwhile ends than propping up an already wealthy church hierarchy.
- Atheism is an education in critical thinking.
For obvious reasons, most religions do not place a high emphasis on teaching their followers the principles of skepticism and critical thinking, preferring instead to convey the message that unquestioning faith is a virtue. But this way of viewing the world cannot help but have repercussions in other areas. Namely, theists who are taught that evidence is irrelevant and that truth is decided by the strength of one’s belief are more likely to be deceived by all manner of false or fraudulent claims. By contrast, an atheist accustomed to being skeptical of extraordinary claims and experienced in detecting common errors of reasoning already has a mental toolkit that will help them see through such impostures.
- Atheism relieves the need to defend the indefensible.
To be an atheist is to be released from the perpetual need to prop up tired, false beliefs with equally threadbare apologetics. Atheists no longer have to make excuses for why they are allowing the millennia-old writings of primitive and superstitious people to direct every aspect of their lives today. Atheists do not have to justify why they are following the moral advice of books that approve of slavery, the inequality of women, and war and genocide in the name of God. Atheists do not have to make excuses for why an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving entity never takes any clear action to help human beings who need it. Atheists no longer have to devote the mental effort to believing in absurd myths of talking snakes, people walking on water, or men being swallowed by giant fish and surviving, when everyone knows such things do not happen in the real world. Atheists, in short, do not have to believe in anything but what is real, verifiable, and provable, and can focus their energies on dealing with the world in which they live, rather than bending their minds to believing in another world of fantasy and miracle.
- Atheism offers respite from feelings of worthlessness and guilt.
Many religions teach that human beings are all sinners, stained and worthless in God’s eyes and fully deserving of his punishment and wrath. Others teach that there is a huge number of elaborate and arbitrary rules which people must strictly follow at all times, and that if they transgress they are “dirty” until they subject themselves to rituals of cleansing and absolution. Still others teach that a person’s worth is entirely dependent on whether they believe certain things. All such teachings are likely to produce in their adherents feelings of perpetual guilt, shame and self-loathing.
Atheism, by contrast, does not teach any of these things. Combined with a humanist philosophy that respects the inherent dignity and worth of each person, it offers a powerful antidote to feelings of worthlessness.
- Atheism offers respite from fear.
For many theists, following their religion is a life of constant fear: fear that the world is conspiring against them, fear that they are constantly under attack by evil spirits, fear that a wrathful God is watching them and will condemn them to Hell if they sin, fear that the world may end at any moment, fear that they will be excommunicated or ostracized by their church community if they put a foot wrong, fear that their friends and loved ones who believe differently will be damned. Atheism, by contrast, offers release from these superstitious and unfounded fears, and in their place offers a credo of hope: there are no supernatural powers arrayed against us, nor must we live in constant fear of judgment. We are human beings, alive and free, and our destiny is in our own hands.
- Atheism offers the ability to view yourself and others as equals.
As already noted, many religions contain morally unacceptable teachings about the inequality of women, homosexuals, minorities, and other societal groups and classes. Many others also contain teachings about how some people are closer to or more favored by God than others, while the rest are lesser in some way. Atheism offers freedom from these pervasive prejudices, granting instead the realization that we are all human beings, alike in dignity. But even beyond this, many religions offer a dire view of the world where many of the people you meet and interact with every day are destined for an eternity of unimaginable suffering in Hell, and where it is every believer’s duty to convert these people if possible, where the primary purpose of every relationship with a nonbeliever must ultimately be an attempt to “save” them. But it is impossible to have a deep and meaningful relationship with someone whom you view as a mere target for conversion rather than a human being, and so this belief will in many cases ultimately lead to frustration, loneliness, and unhappiness. Atheism lifts this psychological burden by allowing you to accept other people for who they are without feeling that you need to change them.
- Atheism offers happiness.
The last, and best, practical reason to be an atheist is that it can make possible a life of happiness and contentment. Despite the never-ending barrage of stereotypes from religious apologists who claim atheism offers nothing but darkness and misery, the truth is that this is not so. The process of deconversion is often difficult and emotionally wrenching for people who have had a strong religious upbringing, but on the other side of this transition there is clear air and freedom, and the promise of a peaceful life where all the strife, the confusion, and the wrestling with the insoluble questions of faith have finally ceased. Atheists understand the basis for morality, that simple compassion is a better reason to do what is right than ten thousand commands from on high. Atheists understand their relationship to the rest of the universe and the awe-inspiring cosmic processes that brought us into being here. Atheists appreciate the beauty of the world and the reasons why it is something worth fighting to preserve. Atheists possess the exhilarating freedom to determine their own destinies, chart their own heading in life, and make up their minds for themselves. Atheists know the thrill of a mind free to travel and explore wherever it wishes. And atheists can live lives of purpose, meaning and deep, genuine fulfillment and inner happiness just as well as any theist can.
There is nothing to fear about atheism, and much that it has to offer. The sooner we all realize this, the better off we will all be. Sadly, despite all the reasons to do otherwise, the human race seems poised to continue on its religious path into the foreseeable future, and the associated prejudices, injustices, and futile strivings after the unseen will almost certainly continue as well. However, a day may come when humankind finally grasps the necessity of atheism. On that day, we will wake from our religious dream and at last see the world as it truly is. On that day, perhaps, we can finally leave all the old fears and struggles behind and step into the light of the morning for all time. On that day, we will at last be free.