Atheism FAQ

This page covers Frequently Asked Questions that we receive through email and in our day to day contact with theists.

The answers to the questions on this page do not reflect the views of every atheist in the world, or even every member of the Society of Edmonton Atheists. Atheists are a diverse group of people, and we do not necessarily agree on most points. There is no central set of things that all atheists are supposed to believe, and we sometimes argue just as passionately with each other as we do with theists. Bear that in mind if the answers are sometimes not what you might expect.

List of Questions
personal lives
simple misunderstandings
atheism and politics
arguments for belief in a god
Questions and Answers

personal lives

Q: Don't atheists have basically empty, meaningless lives, when they don't believe that there is any higher power out there?

A: Nope. We don't think that the world is an empty, meaningless place, even though we don't think a god designed it. We think the world is a fascinating, wonderful, interesting place, and we enjoy living in it. Now, you may think that it's impossible to "really" enjoy this world without believing of God as the designer. We don't feel that way.

Suppose you are walking in a beautiful garden with a friend, and your friend says, "I heard there are fairies living in this garden!" You tell your friend that don't see any fairies, and you don't see any particular reason to believe that these fairies are there. You are just enjoying the garden. But your friend insists: "How can you enjoy this place if you don't believe in fairies?"

Unless you're a little kid, you would probably feel that your friend missed the point. Here you are,       enjoying a nice day and great scenery, and your friend is trying to convince you to stop enjoying the garden the way it really is. He is telling you that you have to make something up, which isn't real as far as you can see, or else you don't have as much of an appreciation of the garden as he does.

In fact it is probably the other way around. It's a fine thing to have an imagination, but it seems like your friend is cheapening the experience, because he can't just enjoy something beautiful for its own sake.

The world has a lot of things to enjoy in it. Food, music, a well-told story, romance, sex, physical activity, the outdoors, the feeling of solving a difficult puzzle... just to name a few. These are things that most people enjoy on a day-to-day basis. And we don't appreciate the world around us any less for not thinking that those things come from God.

Also, it's not like there are no mysterious unknowns or "greater forces" right here in the physical universe. Most likely we will never know everything there is to know about this vast universe or our past. Who really understands quantum mechanics? Are there parallel universes out there? Are they accessible to us? Is time travel possible? Can we find a better way to generate our own energy before our sun burns out billions of years from now? These are all very big mysteries. One of life's great pleasures is applying your mind to solving hard questions like these. Learning is fun. Knowledge is fun. So it seems likely that we will never run out of things to enjoy in that sense.

You may have plenty of good reasons for believing in God, but if you think it's bad to be an atheist because atheists lead a cold, barren, loveless, uninteresting life, you are really kidding yourself.

Q: What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?

A: Mostly, we didn't. This is a common misconception among Christians... they assume that everyone believes in God, and that people who pretend not to believe must have had a traumatic experience that made them hate God (see below). Commonly it is assumed that an atheist must have, say, prayed to God and not been answered, or had a loved one die, and then renounced God in anger.

In reality, few people come to their atheism that way; and those who do usually don't stay atheist       for very long. In the majority of cases, you'll find that atheists have thought very hard about their belief in God, and found that it just doesn't hang together logically. A great many atheists were raised in a religious household and decided, after much inner struggle, that they just couldn't continue to take their faith seriously. A few were brought up in atheist households and taught to think about the world and question conventional wisdom.

Ironically, many evangelists use their own stories of traumatic events as a way of convincing people to find religion. Often you will hear stories of how a person had "hit rock bottom", was perpetually drunk and unemployed and had no hope for the future, and that's when they found the Lord. While they dismiss us by saying that we must have become atheists for dramatic emotional reasons, they use the same techniques to recruit new parishioners.

Q: What do you think happens to you when you die?

A: Just in case there are any misconceptions about this, most serious atheists don't believe in reincarnation or spirits any more than we believe in hell. What defines "you" is what you think and feel, and how you interact with the universe. When this stops happening, you're not you anymore. So you simply stop existing.

If this idea scares you, think about all the millions of years that passed before you were born. Do       you remember it? Was that scary? Interestingly enough, the fate that Christians find so inconceivable -- complete nonexistence -- is regarded by Buddhists as the best possible outcome for your life ("Nirvana").

Some people take this a step further and argue this way: "The first law of thermodynamics says that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Since life is a form of energy, it must go somewhere." We don't see life as a self-contained form of energy. It's more of a process that matter and energy goes through.

Some people find this idea disturbing. They really want to be around forever. We all would. But realizing that you won't be around forever makes this life seem more valuable in a way. Since you only get one shot, it's important to do the best you can to be happy and make others happy before you're done.

Q: Aren't you afraid that you'll go to hell?

A: Not really. Since we don't believe that hell exists, we're not expecting to go there. What if we're wrong, is this a big gamble? That's essentially a simple formulation of Pascal's Wager. See that question below.

Q: How can anyone possibly be moral without believing in God?

A: Pretty much the same way that anyone else can be moral: by considering their actions, weighing the consequences, and deciding whether they are doing more harm than good to themselves and other people.

Despite what evangelists tell you, the threat of hell is not what stops most people from, say, going on a mass-murdering spree. Even if there was no hell, there are still bad consequences for bad behavior. Our society has laws that threaten criminals with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. And even if those laws didn't exist, there would still be the threat of punishment from other sources. For instance, if you commit a murder, the victim's family and friends might come looking for revenge. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. The justice system just makes the whole process a little more orderly, which is a good thing.
However, it seems like the threat of punishment and the promise of rewards is not really the only thing that keeps people from being bad. With or without religion, people don't like to be hurt, and they usually recognize that other people getting hurt is a similarly undesirable thing. Jesus didn't invent the principle of treating others the way you would like to be treated; it was around for centuries before. When people are in danger of being mistreated, they seek out protection through cooperation and relationships. Society is simply a much larger extension of those relationships.

With rare exceptions, people (atheists included) don't really have the urge or desire to run out and kill or steal or otherwise harm other people. And honestly, when people say "If it weren't for God holding me back, there would be nothing to stop me from being a criminal", we worry about them. If your grasp of right and wrong is so shaky that you can't stop yourself from doing bad things, and you need someone threatening you with eternal punishment to keep you in line, then we wonder how safe you really are to be near.

Further reading: The Human Basis Of Laws And Ethics

simple misunderstandings

Q: Do you hate God?

A: Nope. We don't hate Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Darth Vader either. Remember, atheists do not believe God exists. Hating a nonexistent being is rather a waste of time.

Q: You guys believe there is no God, but you can't prove that there isn't. So being an atheist obviously requires at least as much faith as being a Christian.

A: This assumption is rooted in the elementary logical fallacy that two opposite things--belief and disbelief--are actually the same thing. A basic tenet of logic is that anyone making a positive claim bears the burden of proof for that claim. For example, in a court of law the lawyers for the prosecution bear the burden of proof, because they are making the positive claim that the defendant has committed a crime.

To take a skeptical position regarding an extraordinary claim for which one has not been provided with compelling evidence is not an act of faith; it is simple common sense. Here is an analogous situation: supposedly, as a Christian, you do not believe in the Roman or Aztec gods. Is it just as much an "act of faith" on your part not to believe in those gods as it was for the Romans and Aztecs to believe in them? If a man walks up to you and says he has an invisible magic elf sitting on his head, do you automatically believe his claim? If not, is it an "act of faith" on your part not to? Or are you simply responding to the claim with common sense and skepticism because the man has failed to provide you with adequate evidence for his elf? Choosing not to believe in something when you have no reason to believe in that thing is not an act of faith, it is just the smart thing to do.

Finally, one can turn to the Bible's definition of faith -- the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" -- to see that this is a definition that excludes disbelief. So if you still don't agree with us that atheism is not a faith, then check your Bible.

Q: What's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?

A: It has to do with the difference between what you believe and what you think you can prove. For any particular god that you can imagine, a "theist" is one who has a belief in that god. An "atheist" is one who does not have a belief in the god. A "gnostic" is one who believes that the god can be proved to exist, and an "agnostic" is one who believes that the god cannot be proved to exist.

Notice that the terms "atheist" and "agnostic", by these definitions, are not mutually exclusive. You could be an agnostic atheist, meaning you don't think one can prove the existence or nonexistence of gods, but you don't choose to believe in one without further proof. Many people assume that atheists believe that gods can be proved not to exist, but this isn't strictly true and there is no word to describe this. You could call such a person an "untheist", perhaps. Or, you could just call such a person a "gnostic atheist", one who doesn't believe in a god and thinks that his non-belief can be proved.

So there are four possible ways one could be.
  1. Agnostic-Theist: believes god exists, but it can't be proved 
  2. Gnostic-Theist: believes it can be proved that gods exist 
  3. Agnostic-Atheist: does not believe god exists, but it can't be proved 
  4. Gnostic-Atheist: believes it can be proved that god does not exist
Case 3 is sometimes referred to as "weak atheism" and case 4 is sometimes referred to as "strong atheism". Only strong atheism positively asserts that there are no gods.

Q: Admit it, isn't atheism just another religion?

A: The website gives the following definition of "religion."
  1. a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe; b. Personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
  2. The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
  3. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
  4. A cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Clearly, definitions 1-3 do not apply to atheists since we reject the notions of supernatural powers and spiritual leaders. Definition 4 could possibly apply to atheists, but then, it could also apply to a bowling league or a Britney Spears fan club. The claim that atheism is a religion is generally made by Christians who have been religious all their lives and thus cannot conceive of anyone not having some kind of religion as an integral part of their lives.

It's instructive to point out that theism is not a religion either. Theism simply has to do with believing in a god, which one can very easily do without engaging in any sort of religious activity—to wit, the practice of worshipping that god. A person who believes a deity or higher power exists, but never in his life sees fit to go to a church or pray or partake in any kind of practice designed to worship or revere that deity, would be theistic, but not religious.
Atheism, which is about not believing in god(s), and theism, which is about believing in god(s), are philosophical or theological points of view, but they are not religions.

atheism and politics

Q: What is your deal with evolution? Why do you support it so strongly? Why shouldn't we teach creationism in school as an "alternative" to evolution?

A: We support evolution because it is a generally accepted scientific theory that explains the diversity of life on this planet. The reason it is so well accepted in the scientific community is because it is supported by a wide variety of evidence, including fossils, taxonomy, genetics and experimental biology results.

The reason we talk about it so much because there is a small but vocal community of Christians who object to the theory on religious grounds. They think that the evidence supporting evolution should be removed from science classes, or else their own myths about genesis should be taught side by side with them. We do not object to Judeo-Christian stories about origins being taught in the classroom. What we do object to is the stories being taught as if they were science. They aren't. Science is a process of making observations, testing evidence, and above all, finding and correcting mistakes. This is almost the exact opposite of what religions do. Religions rely on unalterable texts handed down from ancient teachers, which are not to be questioned regardless of what evidence comes up.

Evolution isn't "atheist science", however. Many scientists who accept evolution are not atheists. As biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "Evolution doesn't make you an atheist, but it does make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." This is because it takes most of the force out of the Argument from Design for God (see below).

Evolution is a large, complicated academic subject. We highly recommend reading the archive to learn more about this fascinating subject. It contains an overview of evolution, and extensive articles discussing most common creationist objections. Whenever somebody calls about evolution, if we do not know the answer right away, we will almost always look up the information at the talk origins site and have the answer the following week. Creationists would be wise to keep this in mind, and look up their own arguments on the site to be aware of the responses ahead of time.

arguments for belief in a god

Q: What is Pascal's Wager?

A: It's a well-known logical argument why you should believe in God, even if there's a strong chance that it might not be true. Simply put, the argument is that you should believe in God just because there's a chance that you might go to heaven and avoid hell.

The argument was first formally put forth by Blaise Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician in the 17th century. A very good mathematician, in fact, to whom we owe several interesting formulas. There's also a programming language named after him.

Pascal's wager, in a nutshell, is this. No one knows for certain whether God exists. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. It's a gamble whether you believe in him or not. So let's treat it like a gamble, says Pascal, and look at the odds.

He described the payoff of this gamble like so. If you choose to believe in God, and you happen to be right, then the reward is infinity. Eternal bliss in heaven. However, if you are wrong, then you lose nothing at all. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, and you're right, you GAIN nothing (in either of the previous two cases, you just die and that's the end). But if you are wrong, your payoff is negative infinity. Eternal suffering in hell.

Now here's the main thrust of the wager. Since the chance of God existing is unknown, but the payoff/punishment scheme is infinitely in favor of believing in God, just on the small chance that he might exist, you'd better believe. It's the only wager that makes sense.

Okay, that's Pascal's wager, now here are our reasons for not agreeing with it.

Reason 1: In the case where God does not exist, there really is a clear advantage to not believing. In other words, the payoff is not zero. For one thing, if you go through life believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more to being a believer than just saying "Okay, I believe now" and getting on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church, and contribute a lot of money as well. There's a reason why some towns have very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate cathedrals are possible: they're funded by folks who donate 1/10th of their income throughout their lives to tithing. This is surely quite a waste if the object of worship isn't real. That's to say nothing of the persecution of other groups that's been instigated in the name of God throughout the ages.

Reason 2: Even if you buy into Pascal's wager and decide you should believe, that doesn't give any basis for choosing which religion to believe in. Fundamentalists often use the wager to prove that you should be a Fundamentalist, but of course, Pascal was Catholic and was using it to prove you should be a Catholic! This just highlights the whole problem of which religion is the right one. Since many Fundamentalists believe that Catholics are going to go to hell, Pascal's not much better off than an unbeliever. We don't know if the Jews are correct, or perhaps the Muslims, or if reincarnation is right... or worse, if there's a perverse God who only lets atheists into heaven! It's not impossible. For all we know, maybe God exists but he doesn't care at all whether people believe in him.

Reason 3: If you can accept Pascal's wager as a realistic reason to believe, that leads you to a point where you have no choice but to believe just about everything on the same grounds. Maybe if you don't own a complete library of Seinfeld episodes, you'll go to hell! Why not? You don't know. Maybe you have to send $10 a week to the Society of Edmonton Atheists for life. Hey, what's a measly ten bucks if it will save you from eternal hellfire? Or maybe God really likes nude mud wrestling and he will punish those who do not partake of His gift.
Does all this sound utterly silly to you? Good! That's probably because you know that you should only believe things which have some sort of clear evidence favoring them. You don't believe just any old preposterous claim about UFO's, pyramid shaped get-rich-quick schemes, or magic pixies just because somebody tells you they're true and because there's a chance you might be wrong. You have a brain—use it!

Further reading: "Pascal's Sucker Bet" by Jim Huger

Q: What is the Argument from Design/the Watchmaker Argument?

A: There are many arguments advanced by Christians that attempt to infer a God's existence by the alleged evidences of intelligent design in nature. All are deeply flawed in that they commit the fallacy of first presupposing design in order to prove a designer, putting the cart before the horse.

One of the most popular of these is the watchmaker argument, first advanced by theologian William Paley in 1802. Basically it goes like this. If you're walking through the forest/along a beach/wherever, and you see a watch lying on the ground, you could pick it up and tell just by looking at it that the watch could not have just materialized there out of nothingness for no reason at all. Clearly this is a highly intricate piece of machinery, deliberately created and manufactured       for a purpose. From here, the argument points out that since organisms in nature exhibit just as much complexity in their makeup as this watch, it is reasonable to assume that nature is the work of deliberate design too.

And this is the first and most obvious problem with the watchmaker argument: it is nothing more       than an assumption, based upon an appearance of order. The appearance of order in nature is not alone sufficient justification for assuming that this order, like trees providing oxygen, is the result of purposeful, intelligent design by a supernatural being. Most of the sciences have shown us that there are practical, mechanistic explanations for how and why things work in nature the way they do. In order to mount a convincing argument that things in nature require a Divine Creator to explain them, Christians must first demonstrate that it is impossible to explain them in any other way, and such design arguments as the watchmaker argument fail to do this.
Viewed another way, the structure of the watchmaker argument is self-refuting. The hypothetical person noticing the hypothetical watch on the hypothetical beach thinks it looks designed...but compared to what? In order for one to recognize design, one must have a concept of non-design as a frame of reference to work from. So if the watch looks designed compared to its natural surroundings, then that clearly implies those natural surroundings were not, in fact, designed, though they may exhibit the appearance of order.

Even if one were, for the sake of discussion, to take the watchmaker argument seriously, it would still not be a strong argument that the designer inferred by the comparison of watch-to-nature bears any resemblance to the Christian God. For one thing, no watch is made by one man these days; they are usually made by factories employing thousands of workers. And the factories that make watches are not the same factories that make chairs, styrofoam cups, computers, or Winnebagos. So why assume that nature, with all its dazzling variety, must be the work of only one designer? At best, the watchmaker argument can be said to be an argument for polytheism, or a highly clever and advanced race of aliens who have figured out how to make solar systems and planets.

Still another refutation along these lines is that watches do evolve. The modern digital watch was       not dreamed up in every detail by anyone in the modern day. It evolved from older watches, which evolved from analog watches, which evolved from hourglasses, sundials and other time-keeping methods. Each step in the "evolution" of the watch was achieved by people thinking about older designs and coming up with new ways to improve them. So if the analogy is going to work, it's going to have to allow at minimum for God experimenting and modifying his design through an evolutionary process and selection. This is important when you consider that many creationists try to use this argument to refute evolution.

Finally, it can be pointed out that Christians who argue from design take a highly selective view of nature. Some Christians can't understand why we aren't convinced of God's existence because of "all the beauty" in nature. While things like butterflies, waterfalls, and sunsets were indeed beautiful, other things like earthquakes, cancer and the Ebola virus were not. "Beauty" is a human concept that individuals apply subjectively to things we observe. One must wonder why the loving God of Christianity would consider it "beautiful" to set nature up so that animals in the wild had to massacre one another to survive. Surely God would not take pleasure in the death agonies of a gazelle having its throat torn away by a ravenous cheetah...would He? If God is such an "intelligent designer," why couldn't He have created "meat trees," so that the carnivores could pluck their meals every night and leave the gentle herbivores alone?

Do we know with absolute certainty that the universe is not the result of deliberate design? Well,       no. But any sort of objective view of nature must lead one to conclude that the specific design arguments of Christianity are invalid, as it makes no sense their supposedly omni-benevolent God would design a nature so harsh and cruel.

Further reading:
Argument from Design entry at the Skeptic's Dictionary
Atheism Resources at

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