Welcome To Atheism: A Beginner’s Guide to Compassionate Disbelief


Congratulations on becoming an atheist! You are now in possession of what is, to the extent that the concept is meaningful at all, the only ‘correct’ theological position: none.

You will have noticed that a great many people take different positions, ones which are more or less fantastical, brutal, humourless, ill-defined, bigoted, intolerant, antiquated, misogynistic and flat-out idiotic.

All these people take issue with the fact that there is no god. But many of them also take issue with homosexuality, evolution, the scientific method, sex for fun, other people taking different positions, women doing anything other than what they’re told, girls not having their genitals mutilated, predatory priests being subject to the law of the land, contraception, divorce, and drawing pictures of illiterate medieval nomads.

Make of that what you like.

But don’t worry, we’re not here to talk about them. Today is all about you, the newly minted infidel. We humbly present six simple steps which will help you to make the most of the wonderful gift of godlessness.

1. Decide what kind of atheist you are.

Many nonbelievers fetch up in the company of other nonbelievers, for obvious reasons. If your peer group does not consist exclusively of god-deniers, it’s probably a mélange of agnostics, humanists, vegans and thoughtful liberals with vestiges of familial obligation which only surface at Christmas, Eid, Diwali, Pesach, weddings or funerals.

This homogeneity will make your life more pleasant in many ways. You will have many superficially satisfying conversations, in real life and online, in which your views are confirmed by those who share them.

We’re not denying that it’s fun to lambaste Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus for the silliness or toxicity of their beliefs. And it’s always comforting to have your own opinions validated. We do, however, suggest that you ask yourself the following important question:

Are you content to be the type of atheist who spends her limited time agreeing with other atheists about how dumb religion is, or do you genuinely believe that atheism is a benevolent force which can mitigate the spectacular horrors humans visit on other humans?

This is the most fundamental decision you’ll ever make about your faithlessness.

2. Consider the importance of tone.

Let’s go ahead and assume that you want more from your atheism than warm fuzzies.

You may be required to talk to people of faith. This is always going to be tricky; the axiomatic overlap on which you and the believer can agree prior to discussion is so slim that you may as well be speaking different languages (see 3a. below). Nonetheless, the following truism holds:

Nobody likes being told what to do. Ever.

"I'm loud. You're wrong. Case closed."

“Hey you! Do a thing!”

Remember when you were a teenager and your parents told you to tidy up your room, and you totally stopped whatever you were doing and ran straight to your room and tidied the shit out of it? No? We don’t either. People react so badly to the imperative tense that even if it’s in their best interest to do whatever they’re being commanded to, they may instinctively favour the opposite course, as well as nurturing a simmering resentment against the commander.

About the worst thing you can do in the service of atheism is to tell believers that they should join you, to enumerate all the ways they’re wrong or stupid or ignorant, to establish a value gradient with you at the top and them at the bottom.

When talking to devotees, we suggest that you try to be friendly, warm, inclusive, non-judgemental. No matter how limpid and elegant and logically unassailable your argument is, if you bellow it from the mountaintop it will fall on deaf, angry ears. Speaking of which:

3. Avoid the R. Dawkins trap.

If you haven’t already, you will soon encounter one R. Dawkins, former evolutionary biologist and now full-time scorn trumpet. This Kenyan-born Oxford academic once wrote excellent, awe-inspiring popular science books like The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and made radical contributions to evolutionary genetics in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The Dawkins Delusion: clever, but not big.

The Dawkins Delusion: clever, but not big.

Since then he has foregone his academic career and dedicated himself to making fellow atheists look bad. He has had considerable success in this endeavour.

His book The God Delusion introduced a generation of indignant Christians and embarrassed humanists to a new kind of self-serving, fatuous, vainglorious literary format in which the alleged target audience of religious believers is abused and then entirely abandoned during the introduction, with the rest of the text addressed redundantly to fellow atheists, like a stand-up comedian doggedly performing to an empty house after offending the entire audience into walking out.

That said, you will find yourself agreeing with the content of most of R. Dawkins’ statements. He is, for better or worse, an eloquent and intelligent man with keen critical faculties. You will also find yourself burying your head in your hands when he says things like:

“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.” (Tweeted on August 8, 2013)

This is a near-perfect storm of avoidable atheist snares. The inflammatory glibness. The supercilious tone. The failed attempt at humour. Most of all, the dangerously reductive and simplistic central argument, which wilfully ignores millennia of divergent geopolitical development in the Christian and Islamic empires (much of which involved the former violently colonising the latter), the dozens of avowedly Christian Nobel winners, the numerous  Muslim academics in Cambridge, and the Nobel Prize itself being a Western institution built on Christian foundations. (Let’s not even mention the awkward detail that Trinity College is named after the central bullshit-mystery of Christianity.)

If you’re seeking an example of how not to further the cause of non-belief, look no further than R. Dawkins. He is the weird second cousin who comes to visit for a drunken weekend, covers the family name in shame, and necessitates you apologising to friends and co-workers for months afterwards.

3a. A caveat.

Let’s face it. In many cases, even the most polite and measured and mutually respectful conversation between an atheist and a religionist is a waste of time for both sides. The atheist will argue from logic and empirical evidence or lack thereof. Revealed religion operates through unquestioned articles of faith, so the believer will argue from tradition, authority, and that most impregnable of fortresses, nothing at all. The whole point of mystical faith is that you believe despite the illogic, the lack of evidence, the endemic inconsistencies in what is believed.

Because shut up, that's why.

Because shut up. That’s why.

Be pragmatic. It’s unrealistic to expect you will convince a devotee to drop half a lifetime of indoctrination the moment he hears your awesome argument. If human nature were that amenable to reason, nuclear weapons would be the stuff of grimmest science-fiction.

But try anyway. You never know which well-timed little logic bomb might sow a tiny seed of doubt in your opponent’s brutalised mind. It may take years or decades to bear fruit, and you probably won’t be there for that anti-Hallmark moment when he sees the error of his ways and turns ecstatically apostate, taking his wife and kids with him to godless pastures new.

Unsung heroes are the best heroes.

4. There but for the grace of (no) god, go you.

From the lavish fastness of a Western middle-class life, tap-tapping on your iPad as you sip chai latte in your heated, ventilated, plumbed and electrified crib, luxuriating in the consequences of tertiary education and state-of-the-art healthcare, it is easy to the point of effortlessness to dismiss religion. Life, the catalogue of first-world problems you bemoan and are consoled about online notwithstanding, is preposterously good.

Why would anyone in her right mind buy the whole Abrahamic shell-game of a paranoid, sex-obsessed, egomaniacal God looking down on His contemptible flock (which He created in his own image) with alternating fury and indifference? Why fixate on a notional afterlife for which there is no evidence at all, when actual life is so replete with scientific wonder, sensual delight and artistic diversion?

Please consider this: in many many places on Earth, actual life is unutterably horrible. Humans there are born into relentless misery, and in misery they die. They’re not stupid, but they’re sure as hell uneducated: they spend every waking moment trying not to die of starvation or disease or the latest raping-and-pillaging militia. Good luck finding time to learn to read, let alone open a book. (See 6. below.)

Imagine yourself growing up in a flyblown village in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The well is dry, as always. The last two consignments of anti-typhoid drugs were blown up by the LRA, so if your numerous children don’t die of malnutrition or dehydration, they’ll bid fair to die of internal bleeding.

Lord's Resistance Army. Specialists In making earthly life as hellish possible for countless innocents. True servants of God.

Lord’s Resistance Army. Specialists in making earthly life as hellish as possible. True servants of God.

Can you be sure – absolutely sure – that in such conditions of unremitting hardship, where billions of others failed, you would succeed in resisting the allure of the delicious dangled carrot of spiritual salvation?

Are you really that psychologically bulletproof?

When immanent life is literally unbearable, the act of grabbing at any available hope of something better is not a choice; it’s a reflex. The idea of a numinous sequel, in which wrongs are righted and the grimy slog of subsistence on the material plane made retroactively worthwhile, is too seductive to decline. Moreover, it’s logical. Given the reasonable assumption that the motivation behind all human activity is to maximise personal pleasure and minimise pain, having in mind the prospect of a hereafter, however fictional or absurd or dumb it may seem from your lush remove, makes the subjective difference between a life worth living and one as pointless and tragic as an unheard scream.

5. Observe that not all atheists are created equal.

We might be wrong, but we’re pretty sure you grew up in a place with decent libraries, decent schools and the rudiments of freedom of expression. You may not have been born into an atheist family, but it’s a fair bet that whatever religion your parents professed, it wasn’t rammed down your throat under pain of beating or disownment or death.

So you arrived at your atheism at your leisure, so to speak. There might have been some unpleasantness when you first ‘came out’ to your folks or conservative older relatives, but for the sake of an easy life, all parties have since agreed to bury the hatchet.

We intend no offence, but what that means is this: there are more interesting atheists than you.

We’re referring to the ones who were fully indoctrinated into a seriously proscriptive and prescriptive and lunatic sect like the Westboro Baptist Church or a branch of militant Islam, did some bad shit, and then late in life, at great personal cost, publicly renounced their faith.

These people are fascinating. They are the saints of atheism. We can learn more from one such person than from a hundred privileged WASAs (white Anglo-Saxon atheists) who cultivated their incredulity jeopardy-free over the pages of Huxley or Vonnegut or Russell.

You see why, right? Somewhere in them lies the key to our salvation, the humanist Rosetta Stone that turns believers into atheists. We haven’t identified or isolated it yet, because we don’t spend enough time celebrating, rewarding or studying these heroic heretics. If you are lucky enough ever to meet one, buy him a beer, tell him he’s marvellous and try to figure out what makes him different from his former coreligionists.

6. Conclusion: adopt an oblique strategy.

You now know that the direct approach to swelling atheist ranks is unlikely to work. People balk at being barked at, and the very nature of religious belief makes it all but impervious to logical argument. But there’s more than one way to skewer a calumny.

Multiple studies have shown a strong correlation between standards of education and prevalence of atheism. It seems that the more people know, the less they believe. The Catholic Church was once more powerful than all nation states in Europe. Now it’s a laughing stock where it’s not a disgraced cultural pariah.

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and Schrödinger didn’t make their discoveries just to thumb their noses at the almighty. They followed their constitutional yen for truth, found some astonishing stuff, and along the way happened to blast gaping holes in the walls of heliocentric/anthropocentric theology.

Atheism advances subtly, hitching itself to the wagon of knowledge. It grows, slowly but surely, in soil fertilised by tolerance, education and compassion.

You can’t make a seedling sprout by shouting at it. If you truly want to stop the madness, teach it new things quietly.

Good luck.

5 thoughts on “Welcome To Atheism: A Beginner’s Guide to Compassionate Disbelief

    • Hi Centurion13,

      Many thanks for your comment.

      I infer from your tone that you consider it to be a sad event when someone ‘chooses’ to become an atheist, given the many supposedly more optimistic alternatives.

      There are two problems there.

      The first is with the idea that it’s a choice at all, like someone running her finger over a menu, trying decide what she’s in the mood to eat. Atheism isn’t like that. The vast, vast majority of atheists don’t ‘choose’ not to believe; they consider that there is no choice BUT not to believe, given the overwhelming balance of evidence against the existence of a supernatural deity.

      (It’s also worth pointing out that if anyone DID come up with conclusive proof that a god exists, the vast, vast majority of atheists would get down on their knees and scream a hoarse hallelujah from here to eternity. Those who don’t believe don’t believe because they don’t believe there’s anything to believe. If it turned out that there were something to believe, the belief would be knowledge, and no faith would be required.)

      The second problem is that the alternatives to faithlessness are only superficially attractive. While in some cases this is enough (see point 4. in my original post), in most it isn’t. The baggage that comes with every human religion (if you think Buddhism is an exception, have a look at what’s been going on in Rakhine province in Burma over the last couple of years) is so ponderously noxious that the kernel of decency within it doesn’t stand a chance. “Don’t be an asshole,” said the Fantastic Mr. Jesus; millions of Christians proceeded to slaughter millions more over thousands of years because some of them thought he’d said “try not to be an asshole” while others were sure it was “seriously, stop being assholes.” You get my drift.

      Anyway, thanks again for stopping by and feel free to continue the conversation.

      I’ll end by pointing out that the original post is actually addressed to existing atheists, not trying to recruit new ones. Which is not to say that I don’t appreciate your input.

  1. Aside from your bitching about my friend Richard (who has single-handedly done more for doubt than either of us ever will), with whom I too disagree at times, this was a nice primer. I especially like the fact that I can now consider myself an Atheist saint. Woohoo!!!

    • Hi Brian, thanks for your comment. It’s nice to know that reflective humans are still reading the piece three years on.

      FYI pre-God Delusion I would have agreed with your assertion on Dawkins completely. He remains one of the greatest popularisers of hard science; books like TSG, The Blind Watchmaker and The Extended Phenotype are true masterpieces, and were primary texts for me (a non-scientist) in appreciating and partially understanding and completely loving the scientific method.

      I still agree with the content of most of what he says lately. But his tone has become so dismissive and bellicose and arrogant that I really fear he does more harm than good to the cause, *IF* you define the cause as getting more humans to doubt/reason/reflect.

      If on the other hand the cause is deepening the trench between reason and religion, making fun of manifestly highly-strung and vulnerable groups, and cutting off the nose of peaceful coexistence to spite the face of irrationality, then he’s cooking with gas!

      Your thoughts?

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