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
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
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
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
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.