I have often been baffled when I hear theists state that atheists do not believe in anything. It always seemed to be such a nonsensical statement that I did not understand what they were trying to convey. Thanks to a Christian who commented on this site, I think I may finally understand what theists mean when they say that atheists don’t believe in anything.
If I understood him correctly, the reason he stated that atheists do not believe in anything is because when he researched atheism, all he could find was what atheists do not believe. He couldn’t find anything about what they do believe. Therefore, he assumed that atheists did not hold any beliefs. Before I go any further, I want to commend him for researching atheism to learn something about it.
It is true that atheism does not contain a set of beliefs. It is simply a rejection of the claim of gods. Therefore, I could see how someone who was expecting to see a list of tenets that atheists believe might think that atheists don’t believe in anything.
I think that it boils down to a misunderstanding of atheism. Atheism is simply a lack of a belief in gods. Atheists might not have anything more in common with one other than the fact that they don’t think that there is sufficient reason to accept the theistic claim of gods. Of course, this does not mean that atheists do not believe in anything. Of course, they have beliefs. Everyone holds beliefs. It’s just that their beliefs are not dictated by the fact that they lack a belief in any gods. Therefore, one cannot say exactly what a particular atheist will believe without knowing more about that atheist.
It might be easier to understand using a different example. Instead of a belief in gods, let’s consider a belief in the Loch Ness Monster. Some people believe in the Loch Ness Monster; others do not have a belief in the Loch Ness Monster. For purposes of this illustration, I will call those who believe in the Loch Ness Monster, nessists and those who do not have a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, anessists. Knowing that someone is an anessist would not tell you much about the person other than the fact they do not have a belief in the Loch Ness Monster. They are simply people who have rejected a claim that another group of people has put forward. Each individual person would hold many beliefs (just like every other person), but there would not be a set of beliefs that could be attributed to all anessists.
Many of the anessists may have similar beliefs. For example, the anessists may tend to be skeptics who are value scientific evidence and critical thinking. Most likely, that group of anessists became anessists because they have did not think that the nessists have presented compelling evidence to persuade them of the veracity of nessists’ claim. In this case, it would be the fact that those people were skeptics that led to them becoming anessists, not the fact that they were anessists that led to them becoming skeptics. (Of course, there could also be skeptics who, at least in theory, have become persuaded by the evidence that there is a giant creature in Loch Ness. And there could be some people who are skeptics in other areas of their lives but they simply feel that the Loch Ness Monster is real, therefore they believe it.)
Not all anessists will be skeptics. And not all anessists will have examined the evidence. Some anessists will not believe in the Loch Ness Monster simply because they have never thought much about it or no one in their circle of friends believes in Loch Ness Monster or to them it just doesn’t seem likely but they don’t know why. Regardless of the reasons why they do not have a belief in the Loch Ness Monster, they will all hold some kinds of beliefs; it just won’t be because they are anessists that they hold those beliefs.
Atheism is similar to anessism in the sense that neither label proscribes a set of beliefs that all (or most) people using the label adhere to. Just like anessists, many atheists will be skeptics, but not all. And, typically, it will be the person’s skepticism that led to them using the label atheist, not the other way around.
When you are trying to figure out what a particular atheist believes, it may be helpful to know what other labels they attribute to themselves. If they also consider themselves a skeptic, there is a strong likelihood that they value critical thinking and the scientific method. If they consider themselves humanists, there is a strong likelihood that they value human life and believe people should work together to improve conditions for everyone. Of course, when trying to decide what an individual atheist believes it will be most helpful to ask him or her specific questions about their beliefs.
I would love to have a discussion on this topic.
If you are a theist who thinks that atheists do not believe in anything, did I represent your understanding of atheists correctly? If not, can you clarify your thoughts on the matter? If so, did this article give you any insights into the beliefs of atheists? What other questions do you have?
If you are an atheist, have you ever been told by a theist that you do not believe in anything? Does this article seem to represent that theist’s understanding of atheism?
This article is a follow-up to the article titled Atheists Don’t Believe in Anything.
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