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Atheism: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This article is an exploration and definition of atheism and its constituent pieces. What is atheism? Who are atheists? How does society view those who are atheist?

It is an unfortunate habit of our society for groups to ridicule and dehumanize whatever is not part of their own group. I was going to begin this section with a quote about atheism, and when that didn't work I was going to begin it with a quote of a religious person's view of atheism. Both theists (religious people) and atheists (see below) had quotes mainly dealing how little the other knew and how foolish their beliefs were.

Atheism

Atheist
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Atheism is a lack of a belief in gods. We see this when we break down the word, with a- meaning 'no' and -theism meaning 'belief in deity.'

Atheism is not a belief system. It is not disbelief or a denial of the gods. To deny something is to admit it exists. This sounds paradoxical, but it is more accurate. There are people who deny the Holocaust; they stick their fingers in their ears and go 'la la la' when people bring it up. But the Holocaust happened; to disbelieve it does not change it. From an atheist's perspective, there is nothing to deny or disbelieve. You cannot deny or disbelieve what is not there.

Atheism is not a devotion to science. There is no centralized doctrine or ideology that atheists follow. Atheism does not automatically mean that a person believes in the big bang, the theory of evolution, or that hippos can fly (I believe they can; do you lack this belief?!). Most atheists have a strong interest and focus on science, but not all atheists do.

Major Points

Here we'll analyze some of the major arguments that theists use to debase or deride atheism.

Ethics and Morality

If you look up most articles involving atheism, there is usually one person in the comments section stating that without religion you cannot have ethics or morality. To expand further, Gervais, Shariff, and Norenzayan in 2011 published an article that found atheists were seen as more distrustful than rapists, and this distrust of atheists increased as the participant's religiousness increased (religiousness goes up, distrust goes up; religiousness goes down, distrust goes down). A rapist is someone who has violated the social order. An atheist is someone who does not believe there is a god. Yet both of them are viewed with the same level of distrust.

Some researchers suggest that atheists represent the 'ultimate out-group,' the group which the larger in-group can oppose without rebuke. Gervais, Shariff, and Norenzayan put forth the idea that atheists do not have an ultimate watcher and judge of wrong and right. Most theists believe that they are watched and judged on their actions, but if an atheist does not have this then they cannot be trusted to act in an ethical and moral way. This is derived from research that found people would act more ethical and moral when they knew they were being observed by another (for example, people at a job typically work better when the boss is around).

Who acts in a moral way? Most people do, regardless of beliefs
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Is it possible that someone will do the right thing when nobody is watching? Of course! Humans are a social creatures and we have long ingrained in our society that theft, murder, and rape are not allowed. A cosmic watcher and judge does not change that. To challenge you a little: who is less likely to speed, the person who thinks it is wrong OR the person who fears being watched and judged by police?

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