UPDATE: Believe It, You Know an Atheist is now available for purchase in paperback and all e-formats. Links to the online sites are available on this page!
You’re probably a Christian, but you might also be Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu, and you bought or were given this book because you know somebody who is an atheist and you either are or somebody expects that you are having or are going to have a hard time accepting it. The purpose of this book is to help you to understand what atheism is and is not. This is not an attempt to indoctrinate you into atheism or to make you question your faith; however, I will defend the atheist’s right to be an atheist, so it’s possible, therefore, that at some point(s) in this discussion you will find I challenge long-held beliefs.
If at some point while reading, you find yourself angered or if you begin to simply dismiss difficult concepts or arguments just because they make you uncomfortable, that’s not my fault. Your faith is either strong enough to stand up to scrutiny, or it is not. If it is, that’s great. You’re a theist. We knew that coming in. If not … if you begin doubting your convictions and struggling with your desire to maintain beliefs that no longer fit you, that’s okay too. That’s probably similar to what happened to the atheist you know.
I’m going to tell you a little bit about who I am and why I am writing this book. Then I am going to tell you a little bit about how this book is structured. I’m providing this information now to prepare you for the experience of evaluating what—for some—might be a challenging read. Not challenging because of the language and not challenging because it’s over your head, but challenging because it deals with subject matter you long ago decided was a fixed part of your worldview, and now somebody you care about is challenging that worldview.
You’re probably wondering what qualifies me to write this book. Am I a lapsed theologian, a philosophy PhD, the appointed spokesman of the Church of Atheism? No, I’m just a guy who used to believe in God, had a crisis of faith at a young age, came out to my family as a non-believer, and grew up in a country where my beliefs (or lack thereof) are marginalized and in many cases scorned outright. My educational background is in communications, and I have written professionally for years, including working as a news writer for the YouTube channel AtheismTV’s news broadcast, The Infidel. You may be thinking this means you can take my opinion with a grain of salt since I rejected belief and cannot appreciate the experience of faith. I’ll cover that a little deeper later in the book, but for now, let me assure you—that opinion is not supported by the facts.
I was raised in a Catholic home by Catholic parents who had me baptized and confirmed. We attended mass weekly, and I underwent eight years of CCD classes (basically Catholic Sunday School.) Nothing “bad” ever happened to me in the Catholic Church. In fact, growing up I wanted to be a priest for a while. My first wife was a member of the Church of Christ, and we attended church together frequently, even though by this time I was an out and proud atheist. My second wife was a Methodist and we were married in the Methodist Church, although we never attended. (I encouraged her to attend services and to take our daughter if she wished, and even offered to attend with her. She remains a nominal Christian to this day.) I am currently in a relationship with a woman who considers herself a social Mormon. She’s very spiritual and believes in ghosts. I have friends who practice Reiki and go on ghost hunting adventures. Another friend is a minister in the Nazarene Church. I have rung bell for the Salvation Army (although I stopped because of their anti-gay policies.) One of my cousins is an evangelical, and whenever we meet, we respectfully discuss whatever apologetic meme Ray Comfort or Rick Warren introduced to his minister that month.
The bottom line is I don’t hate religion or God or the religious. I’m actually fascinated by the topic and know it pretty well. I respect my religious friends and they respect me.
Now for a little about this book: I have divided it into three parts. The first part is the basic layout of what atheism is and is not and why a person might come to it. It’s the meat-and-potatoes of why you have this book to begin with. If you read only the first part and then quit, you’ll have a better understanding of your atheist relative or friend.
The second part is for those of you who want to better understand how a person comes to reject the God hypothesis (as Carl Sagan called it.) Note that I did not say “how a person comes to reject God.” Atheists do not reject God; atheists do not believe in God. The two concepts are not interchangeable. For example: you may believe in fairies; but if I don’t, that does not mean I reject fairies. But we are getting ahead of ourselves—more on that later.
The third part is a deeper defense of atheism itself. It explores the harder philosophical issues and the more deeply ingrained social/religious norms. If you choose to read it, expect to have your beliefs questioned. Read the second part if you want an idea of how your atheist associate possibly thinks, and read the third part if you want to know how he or she could feel confident in his or her decision.
In reading this introduction, you may have noticed I wrote it assuming as little as possible about the reader and the person he or she is reading for. That’s about to change. For purposes of clarity, I am going to make certain assumptions about the reader and the reader’s atheist. I realize this opens me up to accusations of straw manning, but it’s necessary so the narrative doesn’t bog down in “he/she” slashes and “Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu …” mini-lists. From now on, except where otherwise indicated, I am writing to an American Protestant mother who has just learned that her son is an atheist. Odds are, that’s you. If not, I have every confidence you can make the adjustments.
Part One – Understanding the Fundamentals
Typically, the older we become, the more ingrained our worldview becomes. Conversely, the younger we are, the easier it is to accept new (and foreign) knowledge and adapt to it. Consider that babies learn language much easier than adults, and young people adapt much more easily to changes in their situations. Yet, as we age, it becomes harder to learn languages or to acclimate to environmental upheaval. A baby with absolutely no foreknowledge will learn to passably speak the language of her parents with no formal education or training at all. A six year old will quickly adjust to a move from the Deep South to the Snow Belt … or from the US to Dubai for that matter.
However, as adults, many will not only find diphthongs, umlauts and gender-based articles confusing, they will probably consider them to be just wrong. Meanwhile, the culture shock some experience on vacation in Europe or Asia can be enough to make them so uncomfortable that the idea of moving there permanently would actually cause heart palpitations.
Yet people of all ages do move to Europe and Asia all the time. Each and every day, adults learn to speak languages with rules that seem to make no sense. There are socially accepted reasons for this to happen, so nobody tends to question why one would make such a drastic change to the status quo. However, changing one’s long-held ideas about the nature of existence is another matter. If you think about it, what one believes about the nature of the universe isn’t automatically right just because a person believes it. Many people believe a number of discordant things about such topics as creation, death, eternity, afterlife, etc. Clearly some of those beliefs are incorrect, and obviously those who believe “A” do not think that you are the one with the right answer if you believe “B.”
If you are a Christian, you do not think the prophet Mohammad was the emissary of God. If you were Muslim, you would not believe that Jesus was divine. The tenets of the other religion would be, in your opinion, something to reject. You would be, in effect, an atheist toward that religion. Here’s a hard fact: in regards to your beliefs, most people in the world are atheistic towards what you believe, and you are atheistic in regard to most of the world’s beliefs.
This is known as Roberts’ Rule. First articulated by an atheist named Stephen Roberts, the rule says simply, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
In other words, asking an atheist why he doesn’t believe in God is like asking you why you don’t believe the prophet Mohammad was delivering God’s message. A person believes what he believes, and disbelieves what he cannot believe. In that sense, atheism is not a decision one makes, but a realization one comes to about one’s self.
Try to make yourself believe something you simply don’t believe. Yes, it can be done, but not under normal conditions. Stockholm Syndrome, for example, is a legitimate psychological phenomenon in which a person under duress from a captor begins to empathize with his oppressor. However, not every example of belief by indoctrination is so severe. Through meditation you can convince yourself that you are not feeling pain or that a red barn is blue. However, if your son tells you that he is the one who believes the barn is blue, he’s not going to simply stop believing it just because you make a compelling argument that it’s actually red. Also, his refusal to acknowledge the redness of the barn—while a rejection of your interpretation—is not a rejection of you as a person.
This is one way you can begin to understand his atheism. It’s not a rejection of you or of your love. Somewhere in your family history, your ancestors converted to Christianity—rejecting the faith of their forebears. This doesn’t mean that your great-great-great-great-grandmother didn’t love her mother and father. It means she made her own decision for her own life, and she was brave to do so.
Keep this in the front of your mind as you continue to read. Your son just came out as an atheist, but he didn’t just become one yesterday. It’s been a process, and he has thought about it. He was an atheist yesterday, and he loved you then, and you loved him. The only thing that’s changed is you now know something about him that you didn’t know yesterday but was true yesterday nonetheless. It’s no different than the time you learned that he doesn’t care for your eggplant casserole.
A word of caution: many theists (people who believe in God) approach discussions with atheists disingenuously. A well-known theistic vlogger known as shockofgod invented a term he calls “Santa Syndrome.” Whenever an atheist compares coming to the realization that he does not believe in God to when he realized there was no Santa, Shock derisively dismisses the argument as sour grapes. In doing so, he ignores the underlying point the atheist is making which denies Shock of the possibility to engage on an honest level. Please do not make that mistake as you read on.