Who are the atheists?
How many atheists are there?It is hard to count the number of atheists in the world for several reasons. First, global surveys on religion often do not provide atheism as an option. The classical options in such surveys are the world religions and “other” or “none”. These “other” options group together agnostics, atheists, non-religious people, and adherents of minority religions. Second, as we have seen, definitions of atheism vary, and some people who identify with atheism could be believers in non-theistic religions, or just non-religious based on the definitions advanced earlier. Third, atheism is socially unacceptable, oppressed, or even illegal in a number of countries. This makes it hard or even illegal for pollsters to ask and awkward (or even unimaginable) for atheists to answer truthfully. Vice versa, some governments support or even enforce atheism, which may yield an overrepresentation of atheism in the polls.
Global surveys on religious attitude report the number of atheists to be between 2% and 8%. The 2019 Eurobarometer poll 1 said that 64% of European Union citizens identify as Christian, 17% as agnostics or non-believers, and 10% as atheist (see map). A 2012 poll by WIN/Gallup International 2 found the number of atheists to vary from 0-4% in African countries to 5-10% in some richer countries, and closer to 50% in China (which could be a product of government suppression of religion). As cautioned before, all such statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt.
What makes atheists atheist?We have seen that the vast majority of people in the world are religious and have been so throughout written history. This is due to a number of factors that we will discuss later, in the Chapter on Following Religion. Then we can ask why these factors (whatever they are) do not apply to atheists. What makes someone an atheist?
Before the 19th century, there were actually few atheists . The concept of atheism took hold only in the late 19th and 20th century — possibly because the factors that make people religious have become gradually less strong. For example, there is less need today to explain the phenomena of nature by the supernatural. This has nurtured the debate whether the supernatural exists at all. Some people then resolve that it does not, and become atheist. Other people become atheist by rejecting religious dogmata. They find that religious stories, values, or philosophies are incompatible with what they know or what they believe. Some of them might have started out as religious “seekers”, who, driven by the desire to learn more about religion, delved into scripture and then found it incompatible with their convictions. A few might be born into atheist environments. Much like religious children follow the religion of their parents, children of atheists then might follow atheism.
There appear to be a number of conditions that influence whether or not someone would become an atheist. We know, for instance, that people who live in an unstable environment (with a high risk of losing their job, falling ill, or being victimized by crime) have a tendency to be more religious. Thus, atheism generally flourishes more in stable environments. Similarly, people without access to education are less able to pursue an interest in alternative life philosophies and scientific knowledge. Thus, atheism generally finds more adherents in educated environments. For example, in the US, atheism correlates positively with education 34. Last but not least is a contrarian spirit. More often than not, becoming atheist means opposing the thought of the mainstream society.
Are most atheists men?Surveys on atheists usually find that the majority of self-proclaimed atheists are male. The ratios vary somewhere between 50% and 75% of male atheists. This still means that there are millions of female atheists, but the discrepancy is nevertheless significant. In general, women are more likely to say that religion is important to them 5.
Several reasons have been proposed 6: In most contemporary societies, women have statistically speaking less control over their lives than men. Women usually earn less than men, they are often expected to deal more with child care than their husbands, they are less likely to have dominating positions in industry or politics, and in some countries they have less legal rights. In many societies, women are (or have been) less educated than men, with two-thirds of the illiterate population in the world being women 7. This imbalance in equal treatment is due to cultural, legal, historical, and sometimes religious biases8. Now we know that people who have less control over their own lives tend to be more religious. This could be part of the explanation for why statistically women are more religious. And if this explanation is true, then women and men should be roughly equally religious in societies that give an equal position to men and women. That is indeed the case: in the Nordic countries, the difference in religiosity is smaller.
In addition, in many contemporary societies women are raised to be kind, obedient, and consensual. Women are expected much less than men to stand up against the mainstream, question what they are told, or defend controversial theories. Yet, atheism in a predominantly religious society often requires exactly this.
I’m an atheist and a secularist. I think everyone should be free to believe what they like, as long as they express these beliefs peacefully and allow others the same freedom. I also believe that all governments, schools and public institutions should be secular and base their laws, teachings and judgements on reason and science. I believe in being kind to people and in treating everyone equally, whichever belief system they follow. Moreover, I think all children should be free to grow up in a world where they are allowed to question, doubt, think freely and reach their own conclusions about life’s big questions – and I hope that, within our lifetimes, this will happen.
Do atheists belong to an organization?A religion often takes the form of an organization, i.e., a legal entity. This organization can run schools and hospitals, offer religious education, employ priests, own territory, build temples, define a world view, define social values, and implement a jurisdiction for these values.
Atheism has none of this. Atheism is just unbelief in the supernatural. Atheists are as organized as people who do not play golf. They are individuals spread over the globe, whose only common point is that they do not share enthusiasm for a certain activity. There is no “atheistic value system”. Most atheists subscribe to certain values, but these are not unified, let alone “atheistic”. Likewise, there is no unified atheistic world view. There is also no “Atheist Church”. Therefore, atheists have no specific community — much like non-golf-players have no specific community.
The picture is different for Humanism, the particular brand of atheism advocated in this book. There are some organizations that aim to represent the interests of Humanists. These are, e.g., Humanists International, with its member organizations in different countries. However, these organizations are de facto nowhere as established as the major religious organizations. Most people who are technically Humanists will probably not even know about these organizations.
Atheism: a non-prophet organization.
How do atheists live without God?
How do atheists find a purpose in life?One of the biggest philosophical conundrums of humanity is the quest for the “meaning of life” or its “purpose”. From a religious worldview, people exist to worship God, to go to Heaven, to reach Nirvana, etc.. Thus, the life of religious people has a purpose, whereas the life of an atheist appears to lack meaning.
In an atheist worldview, there is no god or supernatural being who could give our lives a purpose. This does not mean that atheists cannot have a purpose of life — it’s just that this purpose does not come from God. Atheists have to give a purpose to their life by themselves. They have to discover for themselves what they want to do with their time on Earth. Everyone makes their own choice. And hence atheists dedicate their lives to a variety of ends, including raising a family, being a good person, helping others in need, doing their job well, or being a constructive member of society. As we shall see, some atheists dedicate their lives to the moral advancement of society, to the arts, or to science.
Not all those who wander are lost.
Where do atheists get moral values from if not religion?Religion is often portrayed as the sole source of morality. Where do atheists get their moral values from if they do not believe in God?
In general, humans are empathetic beings: they abhor suffering. This is true for believers and atheists alike. We will later argue that there are evolutionary instead of supernatural reasons for this: societies in which people care for each other have a better chance of success. Driven by this trait, humanity has developed moral rules. The best known of these rules is probably the Golden Rule – “Treat others as you want to be treated”. It was formulated and reached wide circulation in Ancient Rome already – without reference to any of the major world religions that are in existence today. This shows that people can create moral rules without today’s religions. Many of the other rules in our societies have likewise been developed without a religious basis: the ideals of freedom of belief, of accepting people of other religions without proselytizing them, of democratic decision taking, of marriages regardless of the faith or gender, and of gender equality, e.g., were not born from religious sources. On the contrary, they were often developed in opposition to religious teachings. These ideals have given rise to Humanism, the specific moral philosophy advocated by this book.
Human societies continuously adapt the rules they live by. For example, slavery was once widely accepted. Today, it is shunned. Thus, morality is not an eternal set of principles (as some religions would have it), but a continuously evolving judgement of human activity. In this continuum, an individual’s moral understanding is a mixture of what was learned by education, what the society preaches or values, and one’s own conclusions.
Where do atheists get inspiration?Throughout history, people have always been inspired by religion. So then the question arises what inspires atheists.
There are different sources from which atheists can draw inspiration. Some atheists are inspired by nature. We will later see several examples, including Claude Monet. Other atheists are inspired by philosophy – the human attempt to understand the principles of being. Again other atheists draw inspiration from the works of other people: from poetry, music, literature or the arts. We will later list several dozen famous authors, philosophers, and artists who found inspiration without religion.
How do atheists protect themselves from the winds of fortune?A religious person can pray to gods in order to ask for protection from illnesses, bad luck, accidents, or being fired. An atheist has no such remedy. How do atheists protect themselves against the difficulties of life?
Atheists cannot hope for supernatural intervention to save them. Thus, they cannot protect themselves from misfortune – and they believe no one can entirely. All that atheists can do is try to reduce the risk of mishap by making careful life choices. In many countries in the world, this means first and foremost to conceal the fact that they are atheist. This is often the only way to avoid the stigma, discrimination, and persecution associated with atheism. Beyond this, atheists can try to take the basic steps that anybody can try to take in order to make life a bit less prone to mishap and a bit more likely to be stable and happy: finding a job that one enjoys, and making sure one has the necessary qualifications for it; taking one’s work seriously and trying to be good at it; choosing a life partner whom one loves; taking care of one’s body and monitoring one’s health; as well as following the law. To protect against accidents that may still occur, atheists can try to build up a financial buffer and subscribe to health and accident insurance.
Atheists and religion
What would an atheist do if a god showed up?If a god appeared, then an atheist would be in the same position as a theist when a god appears that she or he does not believe in. It would be as if Zeus appeared to a Christian, or Jehova to a Shintoist. What would the believer do?
As for the atheist, she or he would recognize this as a proof of that god’s existence. Any physical and verifiable appearance of a god would prove atheism wrong. It is just that this has never happened.
What would atheists do if a god showed up? This really depends on which god shows up. Dionysus or Pan: party time. Jehova: run for cover. Zeus: lay low. Shiva the Destroyer: try to undo as much karma as possible. Krishna: break out your dancing shoes. Aphrodite? Hold my calls!
Do atheists want to abolish religion?Atheism is the rejection of belief in the supernatural. Thus, one might think that atheists would want to abolish this belief, and religion in general. And yet, a personal rejection does not imply a desire to abolish. As an analogy, take people who opt not to play golf. From the fact that they do not play golf, we cannot deduce that they wish to abolish golf.
There are some atheists who take an active stance against religion. They see religion as an institution that stifles free thought, encourages harmful rituals, and induces intolerance (see the Chapter on Criticism of Religion). Many atheists also demand the separation of state and church and criticize certain religious practices. However, most atheists do not demand the abolition of religion in general. This is also the viewpoint of Humanism, the life stance advocated in this book.
I think of religion like alcohol. I don’t want to make it illegal. I just want to keep it out of the workplace, schools, and government decisions. And, like alcohol, until I believe they are ready for it, I'd like for it to be kept away from my children.
Couldn’t atheists just try out religion?Atheists do not follow a religion. Hence, we may ask why the atheists do not at least give religion a chance and try it out. Then they can decide first-hand whether it makes sense to them or not.
The first question is to ask which religion they should choose. There are several thousands of them, and they are all incompatible: some of them believe in several gods, others believe in one god, and again others believe in no gods, but in spirits or aliens. Believers tend to forget from time to time that there are more religions than their own.
If told to just pick an arbitrary religion, many atheists could reply that this is indeed what they did: they were brought up in a religious household, taught to pray, and went to church or temple. They participated in religious rituals, and yet in spite (or as a result) of this they have decided to become atheist. These people have tried both options, the religious one and the atheist one, and have made a conscious decision between them. Few believers can say the same.
Can atheists marry religious people?Nothing in the concept of atheism prohibits an atheist from marrying a religious person. Humanism, too, has no constraint whatsoever on marrying religious people. On the contrary, the Human Rights stipulate that everyone has the right to marry, no matter their religious views or those of their partner 9 (§16).
Things are different from a believer’s perspective. Most religions urge their followers to marry within their own denomination. Some denominations even forbid interreligious marriage explicitly. Therefore, a reason against an atheist-theist marriage is more likely to come from the believer’s side than from the atheist side.
Can atheists go to church?Whether an atheist may attend a religious ceremony or not is foremost the decision of the respective religious group. Some groups forbid atheists from participating in their ceremonies. Other groups do not have an explicit opinion on the matter. Again others explicitly welcome nonbelievers as “lost sheep”.
Some religious ceremonies serve to express a certain intention. For example, taking the eucharist or saying the Apostle’s Creed indicates a belief in the divinity of Jesus. In general, it is not ethically permissible to engage in these actions if one does not share these intentions. Naturally, this applies also to atheists. Other parts of religious ceremonies are noncritical. For example, an atheist can listen to sermons or sing religious songs without believing what they express — just as they can sing a love song not because they love somebody, but because they like the melody.
Thus, an atheist’s attending a religious ceremony is much like an anthropologist attending a Khonvoum ceremony at a Bambuti tribe: They are interested in the ceremony and maybe respect the believers’ faith, but do not share it.
Can atheists celebrate Christmas?Yes. To see why the most important Christian celebration can be enjoyed by atheists as well, let us take a look at the history of Christmas: Many cultures had a winter festival long before Christianity existed. One reason for this is the winter solstice on December 21st, which marks the turning point in the year, when days become longer again. Christmas, as the celebration of Jesus’ birth, was placed in this time by the early Church in order to entice pagan Romans to convert to Christianity without losing their own winter celebrations. Later, the old pagan symbol of life and spring, an evergreen bough, found its way into the Christmas celebration as the Christmas tree. Thus, the origins of the festival are completely unrelated to Jesus’ birth.
Today, Christmas is a mixture of several aspects — religious ones as well as social ones and even economic ones. For many atheists, it is the social aspect that is most important: the reuniting of family, the giving of gifts and spending time together. This aspect can be enjoyed without any reference to religion.
Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them. For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold...”
Stereotypes about atheists
Atheists are immoralOne of the most common stereotypes about atheists is that they would be immoral. In fact, morality is a dimension that is orthogonal to atheism. Atheism without ethics is immoral, but atheism with ethics is not. It’s just like brown-eyed people with ethics are moral, but brown-eyed people without ethics are immoral.
Overall, there is no evidence that atheists would be in any way more criminal than believers. They behave just as well or as badly believers, and it is usually impossible to tell whether someone believes in the supernatural or not just based on their behavior.
The belief that atheists would be immoral stems probably from the fact that some religious people cannot imagine where morality could come from if not from God. This belief has been reinforced at times by religious authorities, with the goal to present atheism as a slippery slope towards immorality, and their religion as the only bulwark against indecency. And yet, morality predates all of today’s major religions: The prohibition of killing, the Golden Rule, and entire legal frameworks were in place thousands of years before Jesus or Muhammad set foot on Earth.
One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion,
because religion makes men virtuous.
So I am told; I have not noticed it.
Many evil people are atheistsThe so-called “Famous-people-argument” argues that many famously evil people were atheists. This is seen as an indication that atheism is associated to evilness.
It is true that some evil people were atheists. However, these people do not derive the motivation for their deeds from atheism. They cannot do this, because atheism lacks a moral stance. Atheism is just the absence of a belief. It cannot instigate people to kill. Therefore, evil atheists need other motives for their deeds: the belief in a class struggle, the desire to impose a communist regime, or the belief in the superiority of their race. Atheism alone cannot provide a motivation to act – either way.
The picture is different on the religious side. Religious arguments have been brought forward (rightly or wrongly) to justify slavery, female genital mutilation, terrorist acts, and even war. In such cases, religious people are evil, and they derive their motivation from their religion alone – something an atheist cannot do.
Atrocities are committed by atheists, but never in the name of atheism.
This distinguishes atheism from religions.
Atheists are satanistsSatan (aka. “the devil”) is a supernatural entity who is considered responsible for the evil on Earth. Atheism is often linked with satanism, i.e., the admiration of Satan.
But atheists reject belief in the supernatural. As Satan is supernatural, atheists reject belief in Satan. For atheists, Satan is a fictional character — just like all the other mythological figures. Thus, atheists cannot be satanists.
Of the two of us, only one believes in Satan.
Hint: It’s not me.
Atheists do not respect authorityAtheists do not acknowledge any personified authority above mankind. This makes it look as if atheists are by definition egoistic or anarchistic. However, the rejection of belief in God does not mean the rejection of authorities in general. Most atheists respect all authorities of their country. They submit to the law just as everybody else. The only difference to believers is that atheists see no supernatural authority above humanity. This means that atheists believe that humanity has to take matters of law into its own hands. And this is indeed what happens: The law of a country is always written by humans and not by gods. This is true even if people have the habit of ascribing their laws to the gods.
Some believers, on the other hand, hold that their god has the highest moral authority. Thereby, they actually raise their own human interpretation of morality to the status of the divine — i.e., to a status that is higher than human laws. This can be not just arrogant, but also dangerous.
There are no atheists in foxholesAtheists do not believe in God. However, so the common thinking goes, they can only uphold this defiance of the supernatural as long as their life goes well. As soon as they are exposed to extreme stress (such as a war, and hence “in the foxholes”), like everybody else they start believing in God.
There is indeed a correlation between exposure to war stress and frequency of prayer. This may be because powerlessness increases the need to appeal to the supernatural. However, by assuming that all military personnel would be theist, we are doing injustice to those who are not. The atheists in the military are represented by the “Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers” (MilitaryAtheists.org). The association speaks for thousands of these people in the military. However, due to public discrimination against atheists in the US, only a few hundred have spoken out.
If the faithful truly and fully believe in a protective deity, why would they dive into a foxhole to protect themselves from the bullets whizzing by? A part of their brain knows damn well that if they do not protect themselves, the bullets will hardly discriminate between those who claim faith and those who reject it.
Atheists are arrogant in ignoring God’s WillAtheists do not believe that there is a God, and therefore can ignore his will with impunity. To the faithful this makes them look arrogant.
In the view of atheists, all gods are mythical creatures, and none of them has any influence on the world. To an atheist mind, people just invented the gods in order to explain and justify the events of life. Hence, atheists reason, there is no need to follow their will.
This does not mean that atheists are immune to the risks and dangers of life. Atheists know very well that they, as well as anybody else, can fail an exam, lose their job, fall ill, or suffer an accident. Not believing in gods does not imply believing in immunity from distress. In fact, two famous atheists died as a result from illness: Christopher Hitchens, one of the driving forces behind the New Atheism movement, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010, and died one year later . Stephen Hawking, one of the most famous physicists of the 20th century, was diagnosed with a motor neurone disease that paralyzed him over the decades until his death in 2018. Yet people of faith also suffer. Bill Johnson is an active faith healer who believes he can heal people from cancer by praying. Yet, he was unable to heal his father who died from the disease 10.
Atheists make their life easyAtheists do not have to follow religious rules, and therefore, the thinking goes, they make their life easy. And indeed, atheists don’t have to follow rituals or traditional rules and it may appear easier for them to justify their world view.
Now making life easy is not necessarily bad. On the contrary, if one succeeds in making life easier without violating moral norms then such a life might even appear desirable. However life is not necessarily easier for an atheist. Unlike believers, who can follow the values given by their religion, atheists have no such guidance. They have to decide for themselves for a set of values and for a view of life — despite the claims of religious parties that this is impossible. We discuss this journey in the Chapter on Morality and the Chapter on the Meaning of Life.
You see me as an atheist. God sees me as the loyal opposition.
Atheists think humans are creatures of instinct like animalsMany atheists take a scientific view of the world. This view includes the Theory of Evolution and the Theory of the Big Bang . This is sometimes seen as evidence that atheists believe that everything can be explained by the drive to survive.
Certainly, the drive to survive plays a role in many decisions. But it is for sure not the only factor: empathy, pleasure, or moral duty are others. Claiming that an atheist’s decisions are determined only by the drive to survive is as false as claiming that a believer’s decisions are determined only by the fear of the Last Judgement.
Atheists think they know everythingAtheists do not believe that God created the Earth. This makes it seem as if atheists are arrogant in thinking they know better than theists how the Earth came into existence.
In fact, most atheists make no such claims. Nobody knows for sure how the universe came into existence (if it did at all). Most atheists will plainly admit that. Indeed, instead of using God to explain these mysteries, atheists say that they do not know the answer.
Many atheists (and Humanists in particular) believe that science is best positioned to answer these questions one day. Most religions in contrast offer a supernatural explanation for the questions of life. Adherents of these religions believe that they know how the world came into existence, what the nature of the human soul is, what is good and what is bad, and what will happen after death — even though there is no scientific evidence for their theories. This is what many atheists then consider arrogant.
Don’t think we cannot see the sun as clear as you,
we just think it comes from a different source.
Atheists are angryIf atheists in general were angry people, that would indeed be reason for concern. However, it is hard to measure whether one group of people is more angry than another. If happiness can count as a proxy for lack of anger, then there is some evidence that religious people tend to be happier. At the same time, atheist societies as a whole tend to be happier than theist ones, and some research suggests that atheists are more altruistic and generous than believers 11. Thus, there is no reason to believe that atheists are more angry than believers.
Atheists have a satirical view of faithThere is no single view on religion that all atheists share. Some atheists have the highest respect for religion – for example when it contributes to social justice, when it encourages people to show empathy towards others, or when it helps adherents cope with their life. Other atheists are very critical of religion, and it may happen that they are satirical.
To understand why these atheists are satirical, it is worth observing that some religious practices are surprisingly bizarre. Some religions believe that a man has to suck the penis of a baby boy, others that a certain ritual can protect them against throat illnesses, others that God wants them to cut off a part of their body, again others that they have to throw their babies from a 10 meter balcony, and yet another one believes that they eat a human.
Beliefs such as these are incompatible with enlightened values. Therefore, many atheists believe (and Humanism holds) that they deserve to be exposed and discussed in public. Unfortunately, believers themselves are often unable to see the absurdity of their beliefs, having been brought up with them since childhood. Many will not even have noticed that the above rituals are those of conservative Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, variants of Hinduism, and Christianity. Therefore, the task of exposing such absurdities falls disproportionally on the unbelievers – and satire may sometimes be the most effective means to that end.
Atheists intend to insult the faithfulAtheists reject belief in God. If they say in public that God does not exist, that belief in God is nonsense, or that religion is harmful, then this can be seen as an insult to the faithful.
It turns out that it all depends on how we define the term “insult”. One standard definition (as used in legal systems) is that an insult is a pejorative statement about a person that cannot be proven true. The key point here is that an insult always concerns a person, and not an ideology. This definition disallows any unreasonable attack against a person, but it allows criticizing philosophies, concepts, and world views. In particular, it allows atheists to criticize belief and religion, and it allows believers to criticize atheism.
Humanism (the variant of atheism promoted in this book) holds that human progress happens mainly when people are open to question beliefs. The right to question and criticise opinions is one of the fundamental achievements of the Enlightenment. It is the bulwark against totalitarian, extremist, Stalinist, fascist, and also Islamist ideologies. If we prohibit or even just discourage criticism, we will never be able to find out which world views are wrong. Worse, we risk that harmful ideologies take hold and proliferate. A Humanist’s nightmare is the rise of an ideology that prohibits criticism of its tenets. Such an ideology is a trap that humanity cannot leave.
In this spirit, religious viewpoints, like all others, deserve to be criticised if they are in conflict with secular values or scientific evidence. This holds even more if they aim to shape laws or politics. From that moment on, they are no longer a personal belief. They are a political program. In a democracy, political programs have to be criticisable.
When you sing about religion you run the risk of hurting religious feelings, that’s not my intention. But at the same time my enlightened-humanistic feelings have been hurt for quite some time, too.
Atheists don’t realize God loves themIn discussions about faith, religious people will often state that God loves everybody — even the atheist. Thus, no matter what an atheist says or does against God, God will still love them.
To atheists, this is surprising. In all Abrahamic religions, the holy scripture asks believers to kill the atheists. Once that is achieved, the god promises to burn them in eternal hell fire. This is not exactly what atheists would call love. And even if these scriptures have since been superseded (or re-interpreted), God has never retracted his original words from the scripture, let alone apologised for them. These words have led to very brutal persecutions of atheists in the past, and they still do in the present.
We question your beliefs because you’re too afraid of a vengeful fictional character to do it yourself.
Atheists hate GodAtheists have no belief in God. They cannot hate him.
Suggesting that I hate people with religion because I hate religion
is like saying I hate people with cancer because I hate cancer.
Prejudice and persecution against atheists
Prejudice against atheistsAtheists are widely subjected to prejudice in the US. They are the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry — ahead of Jews, Muslims, and black people 12. They are the least liked group of most major religious groups in the US 13. 40% of Americans say they would not vote for someone who is an atheist 14. Many people in the US associate atheism with criminality 15. In some extreme instances, if someone identifies as atheist, family members turn against them, they lose friends, people denounce them in prayer groups, and they are excluded from clubs and associations 16. It is therefore unsurprising that many US atheists hide their views.
Nor is prejudice limited to the US. Over 70% of people in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia believe that one has to believe in God in order to be a moral person 17. This means that they believe that atheists are immoral people – although, as we have seen there is no factual reason for this belief.
Legal discrimination against atheistsIn quite a number of countries, one can be legally discriminated against for being an atheist. The US constitution, e.g., explicitly states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” 18. However, the constitutions in eight US states prohibit atheists from holding public office. The constitutions of Arkansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, North and South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas explicitly require belief in a supreme being as a precondition for holding the office.
Discrimination against atheists is not just a problem in the US. Several countries limit free speech, marriage rights, or public service for atheists 19. For instance in Algeria, atheists cannot inherit, religious education is mandatory in schools, and the president must be Muslim. Indonesia demands that people declare themselves as one of six religions; atheism and agnosticism do not count 20. Non-religious people are barred from government offices, atheist organizations cannot register, and the constitution requires the education to “increase the level of spiritual belief” 19. In Lebanon, a non-religious person is dealt with according to the religious laws they had acquired at birth, even if they do not believe in or recognize them, including for marriage, inheritance, and public positions, divorce, and other personal matters 21. In Morocco, adoption is permitted only for Muslims, religious instruction is compulsive, atheists cannot marry Muslims, and citizens are automatically assigned to either Islam or Judaism. Thailand, likewise, recognizes only 5 religions. In Tunisia, Islam is anchored in the constitution, Islamic education is mandatory, and non-Muslims are barred from the presidency. Egypt’s constitution allows for only three religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Muslim-born people cannot erase the association with Islam from their ID cards. Religious education is mandatory, it is illegal to register a Humanist organization, and the Ministry of Youth started a campaign to “eradicate atheism” 19. In Israel, atheists cannot marry without a religious ceremony, because Israel does not recognize the concept of a civic marriage 22. Overall, over 80 countries have laws that discriminate against atheists in one way or another 19.
In many Western countries, this discrimination takes more subtle forms. In Germany, for example, religious organizations run hospitals, kindergardens, and senior citizen homes. 80%-100% of the financial support for these institutions comes from the state, but the religious organizations have free reign in their governance. They can teach their faith in state-sponsored kindergardens, and legally reject atheist job candidates.
The German constitution identifies religious education as a subject in school 23, and the course content is designed by the respective religious community. The subject is mandatory in confession-based schools, which are one third of Germany’s schools. Secular alternatives are often not available in rural areas. The constitution of several German states (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saarland) requires children to be educated in obedience to God.
Public tax money is used to sponsor theology professors that are appointed by the churches. The advisory council of the public radio and television is staffed with representatives from the churches, but not with representatives for an atheist or Humanist world view. By law, the churches can request broadcasting time for their messages, which leads to daily religious broadcasts on state-sponsored radio and television. The state levies taxes for the churches. In a nod to the churches, dancing is prohibited on religious holidays (“dancing ban”). Blasphemy is a crime, and a dozen people are convicted each year 24. The situation is similar in several other nominally secular countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Spain, Italy, UK, Kenya, New Zealand, Poland, and Romania. While these laws do not threaten the life or freedom of belief of atheists, they still constitute a state-sanctioned legal bias against non-believers.
Persecution of atheistsIn some countries, atheists are systematically persecuted. In 22 Islamic countries, for example, a Muslim is not allowed to commit apostasy, i.e., to abandon their faith for another or for atheism. Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia imprison people who publicly profess their atheism. In 12 countries (Brunei, Maldives, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, Mauritania, Qatar, Somalia, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, and Yemen) apostasy is punishable by death 19. This means that those who want to become atheist risk being legally executed in these countries. Just imagine that a Western country enacted a similar law, establishing the capital punishment for those who want to become Muslim. That would spark an outcry and protests all over the world – and rightly so.
These laws are just the tip of the iceberg. In general, atheists in the Islamic world are met with severe social stigma, hatred or violence. They suffer widespread social persecution, up to beatings or beheadings 20. All four schools of Sunni Islamic law teach that male apostates should be put to death 20.
Famous atheist beaux-espritsDespite the negative attitudes directed at atheists, quite a number of philosophers, artists, and authors who have been recognized or honored by society were or are atheists.
- Atheist Philosophers
- Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
- French author and existentialist philosopher.
- David Hume (1711-1776)
- Scottish philosopher, historian, and economist, Hume joked about him being an atheist.
- Denis Diderot (1713-1784)
- French philosopher, and the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopédie, the first systematic collection of human knowledge.
- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
- German philosopher known for his criticism of religion and his work on morality.
- Karl R. Popper (1902-1994)
- philosopher of science, who promoted falsifiability as a necessary criterion of empirical statements in science.
- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
- British philosopher, who co-wrote the “Principia Mathematica”, the quintessential work of classical logic, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950.
- Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
- French existentialist philosopher, dramatist and novelist who rejected the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964.
- Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
- Pessimistic German philosopher, often considered the father of existentialism.
- Atheist Authors
- George Orwell (1903-1950)
- British journalist and author, best known for his dystopian “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.
- Douglas Adams (1952-2001)
- British radio and television writer and novelist, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”.
- Isaac Asimov (Исаaк Юдович Азимов, 1920-1992)
- Russian-born American author of science fiction and popular science books, who invented the word “robot”.
- Albert Camus (1913-1960)
- French existentialist philosopher and novelist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957.
- Franz Kafka (1883-1924)
- Jewish Czech-born writer, who is best known for his novella “The Metamorphosis” and novels such as “The Castle” and “The Trial”.
- Arthur Miller (1915-2005)
- American playwright and bookist, known among other things for his play “Death of a Salesman”.
- George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
- Irish playwright who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, and who wrote the play “Pygmalion” (which later became the plot of the musical “My Fair Lady”).
- Wole Soyinka (born 1934)
- Nigerian writer, poet and playwright who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.
- Gao Xingjian (born 1940)
- Chinese emigre novelist, dramatist, critic, and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2000.
- Nadine Gordimer (born 1923)
- South African writer and political activist who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991.
- Pablo Neruda (1904-1973)
- Chilean poet and diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.
- José Saramago (1922-2010)
- Portuguese writer, playwright and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.
- Atheist Artists and Actors
- Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
- French artist whose work is most often associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements.
- Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
- French artist, draughtsman, printmaker, and sculptor, known primarily as a painter.
- Claude Monet (1840-1926)
- French painter regarded as a founder of French impressionist painting and known for paintings such as The Water Lily Pond (shown above).
- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
- Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, and ceramicist who founded the Cubist movement.
- Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
- Dutch post-Impressionist painter, known among other things for his painting “The Starry Night”.
- Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)
- American architect, interior designer, writer and educator
- Woody Allen (born 1935)
- American screenwriter, who directed over 50 movies, among which “Annie Hall” and “Midnight in Paris”.
- Rowan Atkinson (born 1955)
- British comedian, who is best known for his character of “Mr. Bean”.
- Jodie Foster (born 1962)
- American actress, film director, and producer.
Atheism — because the universe is far more fascinating than any god your imagination can create.
Famous atheist social reformersSeveral atheists have worked towards making society more just and more open.
- Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)
- British philosopher of law, who founded modern utilitarism – the idea that humanity should aim for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.
- Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)
- British social theorist, and the “the first female sociologist”, who spearheaded women’s rights in the UK.
- Margaret Sanger (1883-1966)
- American leader of the reproductive rights movement, who contributed to the legalization of contraception in the US.
- A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979)
- African-American civil rights leader, who was the head of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech.
- Saraswathi Gora (1912-2006)
- Indian social activist who campaigned against untouchability and the caste system.
- Andrei Sakharov (Андрей Дмитриевич Сахаров, 1921-1989)
- Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 (and lent his name to the Sakharov Prize, which is awarded annually by the European Parliament for people and organizations dedicated to human rights).
- Mikhail Gorbachev (Михаил Сергеевич Горбачёв, born 1931)
- Soviet president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for his role in ending the Cold War.
- José Mujita (born 1935)
- President of Uruguay, who donated 90% of his salary to charity, declined to use the presidential palace and lived on his farm instead.
- Peter Singer (born 1940)
- Australian animal rights activist, who wrote “Animal Liberation”, and has been campaigning for veganism since the 1970’s.
- Narendra Dabholkar (1945-2013)
- Indian physician and social activist who campaigned against the caste system and superstition.
- Sarah Haider (born 1991)
- Pakistani-American political activist who helps those who have left Islam and campaigns for women’s rights and freedom of religion.
- Ingrid Newkirk (born 1949)
- British animal rights activist and president and co-founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the world’s largest animal rights organization.
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 1969)
- Somali-Dutch feminist and activist who campaigns (among other things) against female genital cutting.
- Atheists are miserable. No light at the end of the tunnel.
- Yep. Just darkness. But at least we have light in the tunnel.
Famous atheist scientistsQuite a number of famous scientists are or were atheists – some of them winning Nobel prizes.
- Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783)
- French mathematician, mechanician, physicist, philosopher, and music theoris, who was a co-editor with Denis Diderot of the Encyclopédie.
- Augustus De Morgan (1806-1871)
- British mathematician and logician, who formulated De Morgan’s laws and nailed down the principle of mathematical induction.
- Alfred Nobel (1833-1896)
- Swedish chemist, engineer, the inventor of dynamite, and founder of the Nobel Prizes.
- Ivan Pavlov (Иван Петрович Павлов, 1849-1936)
- Nobel Prize winning Russian physiologist, psychologist, and physician, widely known for first describing the phenomenon of classical conditioning (Pavlov’s dog).
- Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
- French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and a philosopher of science.
- Andrey Markov (Андрей Андреевич Марков, 1856-1922)
- Russian mathematician who is best known for his work on stochastic processes (e.g., Markov-chains).
- Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
- Austrian psychologist, the father of psychoanalysis.
- Pierre Curie (1859-1906)
- French physicist, who received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on radioactivity.
- Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945)
- American evolutionary biologist, geneticist and embryologist, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 for discoveries relating the role the chromosome plays in heredity.
- Niels Bohr (1885-1962)
- Danish physicist best known for his foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.
- Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961)
- Austrian-Irish physicist who won the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physics, and who is best known for his thought experiment of “Schrödinger’s cat”.
- Julian Sorell Huxley (1887-1975)
- English evolutionary biologist, the first Director of UNESCO, and a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
- James Chadwick (1891-1974)
- English physicist who won the 1935 Nobel prize in physics for his discovery of the neutron.
- Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956)
- French scientist, the daughter of Marie Curie and Pierre Curie, and the Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1935.
- Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
- American chemist, double Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1954) and Peace (1962).
- Paul Dirac (1902-1984)
- British theoretical physicist and one of the founders of quantum mechanics who predicted the existence of antimatter; won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933.
- George Wells Beadle (1903-1989)
- American geneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1958 for discovering the role of genes in regulating biochemical events within cells.
- Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
- American inventor who patented more than 1,000 inventions, including the electric light, the phonograph, and the motion-picture camera.
- Hans Bethe (1906-2005)
- German-American nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate for his work on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis.
- Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)
- German civil engineer and computer pioneer, whose greatest achievement was the world’s first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer.
- Alan Turing (1912-1954)
- English mathematician, logician, and cryptographer, who is often considered the father of modern computer science.
- Paul Erdős (1913-1996)
- Hungarian mathematician who has published 1500 scientific articles in mathematics – more than any other author.
- Francis Crick (1916-2004)
- English molecular biologist, physicist, and neuroscientist, who co-discovered the structure of the DNA molecule and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.
- Richard Feynman (1918-1988)
- American theoretical physicist, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on Quantum electrodynamics.
- Paul D. Boyer (born 1918)
- American biochemist and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry in 1997.
- John Forbes Nash, Jr. (born 1928)
- American mathematician whose works in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations (coining the Nash-equilibrium).
- James D. Watson (born 1928)
- American Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.
- Peter Higgs (born 1929)
- British theoretical physicist, recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics, known for his prediction of the existence of the Higgs boson (nicknamed the “God particle”).
- Amartya Kumar Sen (born 1933)
- Indian economist who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.
- Steven Weinberg (born 1933)
- American theoretical physicist, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for the unification of electromagnetism and the weak force into the electroweak force.
- John Horton Conway (1937-2020)
- British mathematician who is best known for the invention of the cellular automaton called Conway’s Game of Life.
- Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)
- Arguably the world’s pre-eminent cosmologist.
There are so many scientists in hell that it’s probably air-conditioned by now.
Was Adolf Hitler an atheist?Adolf Hitler was the German dictator who initiated the Second World War, and started a genocide against Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and other communities. He is often regarded as an atheist. However, Hitler was not an atheist. He believed in an “active deity”, which he frequently referred to as the “Creator” or the “Providence”. Going further, he wrote in his book “Mein Kampf”: “I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Almighty Creator. By fighting the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.”. He was thus not only a believer, but used his belief to justify his killings (as others have before him).
Did Einstein believe in God?Albert Einstein is often cited as a believer in God. This is seen as an argument for theism, because Einstein, as a physicist, should know something about the universe. But Einstein once wrote, “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”.
Many other physicists believe in God or have a theistic view of the universe, but as we have seen many do not . In fact, 59% of American scientists do not believe in God 25, and 40% of them identify as atheists.
None of this is to say that atheism is true or false. A theory does not become true just because someone says it is. Rather, the only way to find out if a theory is true is to validate it . Thus, a claim by a scientist is not true just because that person is a scientist. The claim is trustworthy only in so far as the scientist reports about a scientific validation of that claim. For example, when a physicist reports that an experiment validates some theory in physics, we have reason to believe in that theory. However, when the physicist makes a statement that is not validated by experiments (be it about God’s existence, his inexistence, or about the literary quality of the Harry Potter books), then that statement is a priori no more trustworthy than anybody else’s statement 26.
- Special Eurobarometer 493: “Discrimination in the European Union”, 2019
- WIN-Gallup International: “Global index of religion and atheism”, 2012
- Pew Research Center: “In America, Does More Education Equal Less Religion?”, 2017
- Pew Research Center: “Religious Landscape Study”, 2014
- Pew Research Center: “Women generally are more religious than men, but not everywhere”, 2016
- Phil Zuckerman: “Are Men More Likely to Be Secular Than Women?”, 2014
- UNESCO: “Literacy data shows persistent gender gap”, 2014
- Fabian Suchanek: “Why are poor countries poor?”, 2018
- United Nations General Assembly: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
- GodSpeak.net: “The Cost of Healing”, 2013
- Time: “Study Shows Non-Religious Kids Are More Altruistic and Generous Than Religious Ones”, 2015-11-06
- Penny Edgell et al.: “Atheists as ‘other’ — Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society”, in American Sociological Review , 2006-04
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- Will M. Gervais et al.: “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice”, in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011-06
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- Pew Research Center: “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”, 2013
- Constitution of the United States, Article IV
- Humanists International: “The Freedom of Thought Report: Key Countries Edition”, 2019
- The Economist: “Ex-Muslim atheists are becoming more outspoken”, 2012-11-24
- Freethought Lebanon: “Atheists in Lebanon”, 2021-04-02
- US Embassy in Israel: “Marriage”, 2021
- German Basic Law, Article 7
- Michael C. Bauer and Arik Platzek: “Gläserne Wände”, 2019
- Pew Research Center: “Scientists and Belief”, 2009
- Armin Navabi: Why there is no god, 2014