How to read (and think) like an atheist

There were two categories of teenagers in the 1950s: those who could name one book by an atheist and those … Continued

There were two categories of teenagers in the 1950s: those who could name one book by an atheist and those who could not. I joined the small first category in 1958, at sixteen, after fortuitously discovering Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” That single book was the complete atheist wing of my local public library.

I didn’t know anyone else without a God belief. More accurately, I didn’t know anyone who acknowledged such nonbelief. I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many “nots” as I was, and brave enough to say so. Bertrand Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states.

Today there are countless “nonspiritual” heirs to Bertrand Russell. Many teens who consider themselves religious fundamentalists have heard about or even read best-selling books like “The God Delusion,” “God is Not Great,” “The End of Faith,” “Breaking the Spell,” and “The Demon-Haunted World.” Conservative religionists might believe that Satan inspired these and other such authors, but godless views are gaining traction in our culture. (Note to fundamentalists: Is Satan winning?) I agree that God is both a delusion and not great, and that it would be nice if we could bring an end to faith by breaking the spell of a demon-haunted world. But in-your-face books aren’t always the most effective ways to change minds or activate atheists.

There aren’t many atheist evangelists to take on that challenge. In fact, most of them rarely discuss their atheism because it’s not a big issue in their lives. I had long been an apathetic atheist, and turned into an accidental activist atheist only when I saw how the religious right had become politically influential and was impacting my life. I still fear for our country when politicians base decisions more on theocratic than on secular values.

Religions have long known how to organize communities. For a long time, atheists were so proud of their independent thinking that the idea of bringing atheists together seemed like trying to herd cats. It’s much easier to herd religious sheep, as in “The Lord is my Shepherd.” But the times they are a changing. Atheists have seen the light, so to speak, and now lots of atheist and humanist communities exist locally and nationally. For instance, the Secular Coalition for America counts eleven national nontheistic organizations as members.

Besides many books that make persuasive cases against god belief, there are numerous books with tangential themes. They include why and how secular Americans should organize, how to live good lives without any gods, a history of living without gods, how to raise children without gods, and even how to have better sex without gods. See, for instance: “Good Without God,” “Nonbeliever Nation,” “Attack of the Theocrats,” “Freethinkers,” “Parenting Beyond Belief,” and “Sex & God.” These and dozens more are written by scientists, philosophers, educators, doctors, lawyers, and excellent expositors. All of them talk about living a good life without the need for any gods.

There are also scores of atheist blogs in flavors from plain vanilla to hot pepper. Here is a site by an individual who lists his top thirty blogs. My favorite is Hemant Mehta’s The Friendly Atheist. Hemant once sold his soul on eBay. His new book, “The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide,” is written for secular high school and college students.

There’s another important movement within atheism: support groups. Smart Recovery, a self-help program for substance abuse and addiction, differs from Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs that expect participants to rely on God or a higher power for a cure. The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. Its participants discuss the difficulty of being an unbelieving leader of a religious community, and offer support for each other as they move beyond faith.

Recovering From Religion is for people dealing with the negative impact religion once played in their lives. Their Hotline Project offers national, regional, and local resources—a secular support network people can phone in times of need. The Hotline makes clear that its purpose is to offer support, comfort and assistance to callers, but not to debate them about religion.

All these advances in secularism have come with pushback and misinformation from the religious right. For instance, William Lane Craig, perhaps the best-known Christian apologist in the country, said recently about the Hotline Project, “Either this group is completely ignorant of arguments for and against God’s existence or they’re ignorant of the best theistic scholarship.” Criticizing an organization for not doing what it explicitly says it will not do sounds to me like an act of desperation. He must know that people don’t generally call a support hotline to have an intellectually rigorous discussion. There are plenty of resources for those who wish to debate God’s existence. Many, including me, have had such debates with Craig. I describe in this book my debate with Craig and with other religious leaders.

Long story short, atheists are here to stay and, in fact, we’re growing. It’s a very different world from my teen years in the 1950s. The Internet has probably been the single most important factor in empowering young people with inquiring minds to learn about the many choices for religious belief or non-belief. Those who doubt religious claims no longer need to search randomly in a library or rely exclusively on information from within their small local communities.

The figurative genie is out of the bottle, and it’s out for good. No matter how hard religious and social conservatives strain to put the genie back in the bottle, they will not succeed in their attempts to pray the atheist away.

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Herb Silverman
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  • leibowde84

    Just waiting for the Christian pitty party to come out and comment about how sorry they feel for this guy. It just always strikes me as pathetic that religious people actually think that a belief in God or Jesus somehow makes them better people. Why would God care if we believed in him?! Do they really think God vain enough to demand praise?! Are you insufficient if you merely live a good life without believing in God?

  • leibowde84

    I pray every day. I have a very close relationship with God. And, I have read the Bible more times than I can count. Further, I have studies the historical Jesus and his teachings in an attempt to better understand what his teachings already mean. And, it seems like a no-brainer that belief in God is irrelevant in striving to live a good life.

  • Cubby_Michael

    It’s quite refreshing to read a person of faith knowing and understanding that one can be a totally decent person without any faith at all. I wish our society would understand that Atheists can be just as good or bad as a religious person can–and that the non-religious person will be bad for reasons that aren’t at least excused by some squirelly readings of antiquated texts or the like.

    Heck, just reading world events from the past 20 years alone (let alone the rest of history) produces a host of bad actors who claim their piety gives them license to do all sorts of horrible things that appall most thinking people deeply.

    I can’t think of a single Atheist who believes their lack of belief gives them such license. In fact, it seems to me that the lack of belief in any sort of after life tends to lead one to worry and act as if the here and now is what really matters.

  • NoVA09

    An informative, thoughtful article. As a Christian, it reminds me that perspectives can be so very different. For example, I forget that some (or perhaps even many) atheists, secularists and humanists feel like they have to hide their convictions in our society since, from my point-of-view, our social, political and economic systems are so repleat with secularism at this point that I assume I’m in the minority.

  • NoVA09

    leibowde84, out of genuine curiosity, what are some of the primary motivators or “imperatives” (to borrow from Kant) that compel non-believers to strive to live a good life?

  • leibowde84

    Well, first I would say general human compassion. Most people in modern society have a problem with violence, or causing physical, fiduciary, or mental harm to others. There is also the philosophical and realist notion of Karma, which presents the idea of having to give in order to receive. Further, there is the idea of family and the recognition of its importance, in that people feel for others when they lose a family member. Not because of religion, but because we have sympathy for the people we care about. Finally, there is the notion of self-gratification. When I give money to a bum on the side of the street, I feel good about it. It is a selfish feeling of self-approval, but it is still a positive to me.

    There are countless other reasons to live a good life that don’t have anything to do with God or the after-life. Even the urge to “make the world a better place” is superior than simply believing in a God who wishes you to do these things. The idea that people do good deeds simply because they fear repercussion for not doing so severely cheapens the good act. Religion, while helpful to some, is not necessary in order to have the urge to live a good life. Does that help a bit?

  • leibowde84

    I would agree that you are becoming the minority (if, of course, it hasn’t already happened). But, I applaud your willingness to get used to it. It isn’t a negative sign for our society, it is basically a form of human evolution into a more enlightened era. Not to say that religion isn’t still celebrated by the masses, but it’s importance in daily life is dwindling with more Christians realizing that certain doctrinal teachings could be wrong. The questioning of one’s faith is the most essential part of having faith. It needs to be a constant struggle in order to have meaning. When you have blind faith, you come across as a self-righteous know-nothing-know-it-all, and it alienates a large portion of the population. But, when you can back up your religious beliefs with logic and an understanding of why they make sense, people will listen. I think this movement of the blind believers to become the minority is a great thing for our country. We will see children searching for answers instead of just believing what their priests or parents teach them. We will have intelligent young men and women who will have the courage to redefine what it means to be a Christian in the modern world. I’m excited.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Hi liebowde. Great post, as usual. I am interested in the concept of altruism, and the fact that it exists in other species too. The interest that we have in proliferating our genes, and the fact that sacrifices are made for others, depending on how many genes that we share is only part of it. Whilst I am unsure of the Karma idea, I think that the feeling that we have when we know we have helped others is also pleasurable for us. Is the warm glow of satisfaction down to the release of endorphins, and does that make everyone ultimately selfish? The idea of doing good deeds for an increased chance of a reward in heaven certainly does seem selfish to me. Generally, I think all social animals function better when we co-operate, rather than live in isolation. Doing good is instinctively programmed into all of us, religious or not, and to be a misanthropic is the anomaly.

  • jonesm2

    Bertrand Russell’s book was my first introduction to non-theistic thinking. Before that, I thought I was the only one. This book really helped me a lot, not to mention got me out of having to attend church any longer with my family!

  • Rongoklunk

    Hundred of years ago we had no choice but to believe in God’s existence.. In those days the average person was illiterate, totally superstitious and knew very little about the real world. It was only after Darwin showed that evolution made better sense than the old stories about how God created everything – that had scientists searching for more evidence of our origins. And now we have countless books to verify and improve on our knowledge of the facts of life. Hawking writes that no God was needed in figuring out how life and existence came to be. It was all about chemistry and eons of time. Dawkins shows us the truths of biology and how we all originated from a single cell lifeform millions of years ago. Neil Shubin in his book “Your Inner Fish” shows how the first lifeforms originated in water, and how all land animals including us humans have our origins in the sea. Fishes are our ancestors, and the ancestors of all land animals. Books like this are being written all the time and it’s inevitable that religion will eventually be pushed aside as knowledge continues to change the way we see the reality of things. And it can’t happen quick enough for many of us – who were appalled by the insanity of 9/11 which showed clearly how dangerous and incredibly silly faith in a skygod can be.

  • NoVA09

    leibowde84, yes that does help, thanks. As a believer who has spent a good deal of time in graduate school and other settings getting to know non-believers, I have come to understand my religious faith to be one lens among many through which human experience can be viewed. By virtue of our senses and intellects, we all see the same situations play out (i.e., a violation of human rights or a public show of generosity), but we then have different lenses through which we view, talk about and respond these events. One thing that continues to befuddle me is how it ever came to be assmed that religious faith and identity was somehow PRE-supposed of people – be it individuals or entire societies. Speaking from my own Christian formation, I’d say that our Scriptures are very clear that faith and discipleship are ways of life to be chosen by those who wish to undertake them; they are not, at least according to my understanding, meant to be some sort of “default setting” against which non-believers are rebelling. This is why I find Mr. Silverman’s (and others’) use of the phrase “beyond faith” troubling, because I think religious and secular worldviews are different lenses for the same microscope, so to speak, rather than inevitably opposing forces.

  • Rongoklunk

    Great book. Read it years ago. Russell was a wonderful philosopher and a very brave atheist.
    It’s time I read it again. One can never know enough about reality. Sure beats magic and superstition.

  • WmarkW

    “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand was a New York Times bestseller for almost six months crossing 1957-58.

    Her brand of atheism, though, is out of fashion with most Four Horsemen fans, for its advocacy for laissez-faire capitalism.

  • tonykdarcy

    From the article:

    “The figurative genie is out of the bottle, and it’s out for good. No matter how hard religious and social conservatives strain to put the genie back in the bottle, they will not succeed in their attempts to pray the atheist away.”

    With the genie out of the bottle the Christian, and other theists, wish for an afterlife. The atheist knows this this is it, and there is no dress rehearsal for that great show in the sky. The atheist wishes for a better life in the here an now!

  • Myra Rubinstein

    Thanks, as always! This is a great piece to share on Facebook, or via e-mail (or even snail mail) with others who are new to atheism or atheist-curious. The more we “come out” the more we will be accepted.

  • gillk1

    I recently got a copy of Hermant Mehta’s book and found it fascinating. More people should read it.


  • DigitalQuaker

    What exactly was the point of this rambling statement? That Herb is an atheist, and that there are others out there too? Some hyperlinks, and a lot of smack talk about those who view things differently? The editors of the faith section of the post are in dire need of either new material, a solid class on what an editors function is, or both.

    I’m all for the right of anyone to choose their beliefs, even if it’s a non-belief. What I can’t abide from those of either camp is those who can only express their understandings as being based on how others are wrong, miss-informed zealots. Nowhere does Herb articulate how Atheism informs him, guides him, or liberates him. He just goes on about how right it is, and how traditional theology and/or religion is inferior.

    Again, I fully support the rights for authentic atheists and agnostics to hold and speak to their understandings. But when given a platform such as an article in the Post to speak to others, if all they have to share is what they “don’t” believe in, they come across as ethically shallow and morally lazy. I think your point of view deserves a better advocate.


  • inreasonitrust

    I understand and believe that there is no God, Lord, Jehovah, Allah, or any other supreme creator. I understand these creators are created by the mankind to herd the sheep. Do I wish one day majority understand this? Of course I do. Do I think it may happen? I am not optimistic. I have encountered numerous “sheep” who believe in “The Lord is my Shepherd” the same way as a fake drug’s placebo effect on some patients. But, this “GOD” is a very delicate “fake drug” with strong “placebo effect.”

  • Tender Hooligan

    Hi Digital Quaker. I thought that the point of the article was that there are many ways to exchange and explore our views now. I remember being very worried about discussing my atheism as a child of very religious parents, in a religious school. The fact that I can now communicate with you, and people of differing views, in this way is something to be celebrated, and maybe it will produce a tipping point for religion. That alone makes it a worthwhile article, and more than just a commentary on who is right.
    As a UK citizen, I greatly enjoy the On Faith thread, as I get to see viewpoints that are very different from what I experience here. That could never have happened without the books, blogs and websites mentioned by Mr Silverman. It may seem like it is stating the bleeding obvious, but the Internet really could be the death of religion, so let’s discuss that, and not dismiss it out of hand.

  • bflorhodes

    Atheism certainly would want to separate from Rand’s work.

    Just because you don’t believe in some god, doesn’t mean that you ascribe to the truly self-centered world of Ayn Rand.

  • bflorhodes

    You are surprised we have to hide from your religious friends? Christians are dangerous folks throughout history. Without their suppression, the cult would have died many centuries ago.

  • edwills

    Digital Quaker missed the entire point of this article. Silverman pointed out that there are now lots of atheist and humanist communities and information so that atheists no longer need to feel alone or hide their beliefs. There was no smack down of religion, other than one ridiculous individual who insists on debating those just looking for support. Silverman is pleased that atheists have learned to follow what works well with religious folks, forming supportive communities.

  • Rongoklunk

    Digital Quaker;
    Don’t you think that truth might be important? There are many religions which can’t all be true, in fact it’s possible that none of them are true – considering they came to us from the ancients who knew a lot less about the world than we know today. The big difference is that we have ways of establishing what’s true and what’s not, and it’s called science. Ancient belief systems don’t make the kind of sense that they used to in the days before science. For instance, today we no longer believe in magic, or anything supernatural. Gods would seem to be man’s invention. After all – we know that they were forever making up Gods, and we know of more than 3500 Gods that they invented over time. That would seem to be a good argument that current Gods are also invented.
    A recent book might interest you, it’s called “And Man Invented God” by Selina O’Grady, who researched the days when Jesus was alive. It was a mad, mad, mad, mad world. Everybody believed everything. They had Gods galore and every superstition you’ve ever heard of. Jesus was one Messiah among hundreds of others who also believed they were Messiahs. We’ve come a long way since then. But there are those who would love to bring those wacky times back again. But it will never happen.

  • veginpost

    Excellent article as usual. A free thinking society cannot exist within the dictates or any particular religion. Hopefully with the work of freethinkers like Herb Silverman and others the nation our children have inherited will recapture the vision of freedom that our forefathers established and fought and died to maintain. In our nation The Age of Reason is not dead but it has taken some strong hits during the past century.

  • RafaelR

    Digital Quaker, the irony runs thick in your rambling smack talk. You need to accept that not all articles by atheists are about the topic you want to read about. This one is about a different issue that clearly has no significance for you.

  • SimonTemplar

    ” The Internet has probably been the single most important factor in empowering young people…”

    That is a statement that should come with a disclaimer. If there is one problem I have with the internet it is the propagation of incorrect and sometimes fabricated information (on all subjects). When free people form their opinions on any debatable subject, they should do so with good information, not the worthless drivel or opinions passing as facts, which is so pervasive on the web.

  • WmarkW

    But remember before internet, right-wing preachers would tell unverifiable stories about a teen girl who went to Planned Parenthood for birth control, and got sold to a Satanic cult.

    They can’t get away with that any more.

  • h5r2

    There is plenty of worthless drivel on and off the Internet. Empowerment is about hearing lots of options and then deciding what makes sense. Before the Internet, many people didn’t hear about alternatives to the drivel they were taught as a child.

  • gnelsonsbts

    In response to leibowde84 – upon what basis do you argue there is a “good” life versus a “bad” life to be lived? Also, by what standard do you conclude the urge to make the world a better place is better than believing in a God who wishes you to do these things? Also, it is apparent from your statements that you do not truly comprehend Christian belief if you assume that Christians only try to do good because they wish to avoid the repercussions for not doing so. True Christian motivation to do good results from an understanding that but for God acting through Christ, there would be no life worth living at all, and, therefore, there is thankfulness and joy in this life because of God’s actions on our behalf. The desire to do good arises out of gratitude, not fear.

  • edwills

    You say “True Christian motivation…” You may be so motivated, but by what criteria do you decide who the true Christians are? Some Christians read their Bible and are motivated only to believe that Jesus is savior. Otherwise, you will be tortured in hell. They could just as easily say that you are not a true Christian. After all, atheists are also motivated to do good works without fear of hell.


    If you don’t believe in God, logicall you don’t believe in Satan, either, so rest easy, fundies.

  • Tender Hooligan

    Just so as you know Nelson, life is absolutely worth living, and there is much thankfulness and joy without any knowledge of or belief in God. I give thanks to my fellow humans, who inspire and support me, and I derive great joy from gaining knowledge, listening to my son play guitar, food and companionship, the list could just keep going. I know that it can be difficult for people of faith to appreciate how people without can have completely joyful and fulfilled lives, but we really can. I’m afraid religion only brought me misery and unecessary guilt. Life is so much better for me without it. You may feel differently, but you need to realise that there are plenty of people just like me, and accept our differences.

  • itsthedax

    Just read anything by Carl Sagan. Cosmos is brilliant, in either print or video, and Demon-Haunted World is an eye-opener.

    If nothing else, it’ll help teach you how to express yourself in english.

  • SimonTemplar

    Empowerment is having enough knowledge to discern truth from falsehood. We don’t get to “decide” what is true (only journalists and politicians get to think that way). It is either true, independent of us, or it is not (journalists and politicians not withstanding).

  • h5r2

    Yes, and the more information you receive from different sources, the more knowledge you have to discern truth from falsehood. So-called religious truths I learned in childhood I now realize are false after reading other information from credible sources. I no longer consider the Bible a credible source for what is true.

  • veginpost

    Well Rongoklunk, it doesn’t sound like you know very much about Herb Silverman’s writings or thoughts. Nor do you seem acknowledge any familiarity with his work toward enlightenment about Secular Humanism. Something is missing in your critique. to those who want more than fairy tales to govern their socio-political involvement in the prevalent discourses of our times Herb’s thoughts are much more valuable than whatever he has exposed as his personal beliefs.

  • Secular1

    Bible is not only, a book of fiction (by that I mean nothing in it can be taken as a fact, just as any Perry mason Novel), but it is a filthy wicked book. It promotes lying against any and all except your own kind. It promotes bigotry, prejudice and ethnic cleansing. It promotes debauchery and human sacrifice. It promotes sincerity over ethics. The list goes on.

  • Mark Plus

    I’ve met a few people who had the good fortune to have grown up as atheists, without having to deprogram themselves of childhood religious indoctrination. To me they seem almost like characters from an advanced, futuristic civilization out of science fiction. In fact, I suspect that the increasing visibility of atheists in the U.S. gives traditional theists the creeps because we look like an invasion of time travelers from the future, where religion has long since died.

  • Susan K. Perry

    Your essay is so timely, Herb. I just read your book and it’s sitting here next to me on my desk, with some other atheist tomes. And I agree with you that Hemant Mehta is a great blogger to follow on Patheos, as he seems to be endlessly energetic and up-to-date with breaking news of interest to atheists. In fact, he recommended me to his editor and I now have my own blog on Patheos (up in a week or two), called Creative Atheist. I’ll be interviewing atheist authors (fiction and non, plus poets and perhaps filmmakers, too) and reviewing their work.

    Our best hope for a fair, sane, and reason-filled future lies in offering information and inspiration to this and the coming generations. If the Europeans were able to become much more secular in the current generation, perhaps we in the U.S. can too. I’m a tiny bit hopeful that eyes and minds can be opened.

    (Sorry if this is a duplicate, but the signing on routine seemed odd.)(