(This post is part of my Christians’ questions feature.)
Here are some answers to general questions you may have about atheism.
Q1: Why don’t atheists believe in God?
A1 (part 1): Atheists don’t believe in God because they don’t see any evidence for his existence.
There are two potential sources of evidence that most Christians rely on: personal revelation and the Bible. Atheists do not consider personal revelation to be reliable, for two reasons. First, research on the brain has shown that the human mind is capable of all manner of experiences that do not match reality. The human imagination is a powerful thing, and we can easily be deceived by false perceptions. Experiences that are purely in the mind, then, cannot be relied upon to tell us about the state of the outside world (God, as most Christians understand him, does not simply exist in people’s minds, but has some greater objective existence outside those minds).
The second reason atheists doubt personal revelation is that people of many different religions have what they claim to be personal revelations. But if only one god exists – if only one religion is the true religion – then not everyone’s personal revelations can be real. In fact, it’s entirely possible that none of them is real. The sensation of religious experiences may simply be a feature of our biology. (Some scientists have been able to induce religious experiences in people by stimulating specific parts of their brains.)
What about the Bible? The research of biblical scholars has, over the last few decades, revealed some interesting facts about the Bible. For instance, the gospels were probably not written by Jesus’ disciples, but by people who never met Jesus. We do not even know who some of these people were. Furthermore, the gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death. All of this information raises serious doubts about the accuracy of the gospels’ claims.
Additionally, the Bible’s contents never exceed what people from that time are expected to have known. Biblical prophecies, for instance, are not convincing, primarily because the New Testament stories of their alleged fulfillment were written by people who already knew about those prophecies beforehand, and therefore could easily have built their stories around those prophecies. In fact, most biblical prophecies are exceedingly vague, and some are not even written as prophecies but as descriptions of past events. It would therefore be fairly easy for later writers to pick Old Testament scriptures that appeared to predict their own stories, even though these scriptures were never intended as prophecies in the first place.
In short, then, atheists see no reason to conclude that the Bible is the inspired word of God, just as Christians see no reason to conclude that any other religion’s holy text is the inspired word of another god.
Given the questionable reliability of personal revelation and the Bible, atheists feel there is simply not enough evidence to support the claim that the Christian god exists. It’s not that they don’t want God to exist. They just feel there is insufficient evidence.
A1 (part 2): Another answer to this question starts with a series of further questions: Do you, as a Christian, believe that Thor exists? Vishnu? Loki? Osiris? If you don’t believe in any of these gods, then whatever reasons you have for not believing in them are probably similar to the reasons many atheists have for not believing in just one more god on this list – the god of Christianity.
Q2: How do you know that there isn’t something bigger than yourself – something transcendent?
A2: Atheists don’t know this. In fact, atheists don’t even know for sure that God does not exist. The belief that God does not exist is based solely on the available evidence. And the evidence indicates (to the atheist, at least) that God does not exist. This evidence does not, however, constitute some sort of “proof” that God does not exist, so the atheist can never claim absolute certainty.
In the same way, the atheist cannot conclude with certainty that there is nothing larger than herself – some mysterious power that may not be the Christian God but something similar. However, since no evidence for such a thing exists, atheists see no reason for assuming that it is true. On the contrary, the lack of evidence warrants the belief (taken provisionally, as always) that nothing transcendent (in a supernatural sense) exists.
If some compelling evidence of a transcendental phenomenon were to come along, atheists would, as their commitment to evidence requires, change their minds and cease being atheists.
Q3: How do you deal with the fear of death?
A3: Before giving a direct answer, I should say that it is important to find the truth about this (indeed, any) issue regardless of how satisfying or comforting it may be. There is surely only one true answer to the question of what happens to us when we die, and that answer will be true whether we’re comforted by it or not. We’re deceiving ourselves if we pretend that the answer is the one we wish it to be.
The scientific evidence indicates that when we die, we will cease to be conscious, self-aware beings. We will have exactly as much awareness of our existence after death as we did before our conception: None.
Most people have some fear of death, whether they are believers or atheists. Believers allay this fear by denying death altogether. Atheists, on the other hand, are obliged to face death head on. This may be scary at first, but in the long term it may help to prepare atheists for the day they finally find themselves at death’s door.
There is also a certain peace in the atheist’s conception of death. There is no Judgment Day, no apocalypse, no upheaval of the earthly life, just a quiet return to the earth.
Q4: Atheism means you don’t believe in anything, so surely your life is meaningless?
A4: It is a common misconception that atheists “don’t believe in anything”. Atheists may not believe in supernatural entities like gods or spirits, but they do believe in many other things. They believe in things like love and empathy, and they believe in causes like the eradication of hunger or nuclear non-proliferation. Of course not all atheists have exactly the same beliefs, nor do they champion the same causes. But they do have plenty of beliefs and causes to choose from.
Like everyone else, atheists find meaning in things like friendships, family relationships, learning, sports and hobbies. All humans naturally find these things meaningful. Meaning is not, in the atheist worldview, handed down by a higher power, but is part of human nature. It is therefore perfectly consistent with a world without gods.
Q5. If there is no God, then how do you know what your purpose in life is? Does your life even have a purpose?
A5: If God does not exist, then the natural conclusion is that we are free to chart our own course in life – to set our own purpose. In fact, most atheists see something oppressive in the idea of having their life’s purpose set for them by someone else, even before they are born. So, while most atheists do indeed consider their life to have purpose, that purpose is self-directed.
This question may lead you to ask about morality, and what obligations atheists have to behave well. If so, check out the FAQ on atheist morality.