Frequently Asked Questions
This page covers Frequently Asked Questions that we receive on our show, through email and in our day-to-day contact with theists.
The answers to the questions on this page do not reflect the views of every atheist in the world, or even every member of the ACA. Atheists are a diverse group of people, and we do not necessarily agree on most points. There is no central set of things that all atheists are supposed to believe, and we sometimes argue just as passionately with each other as we do with theists. Bear that in mind if the answers are sometimes not what you'd expect.
- Don't atheists have basically empty, meaningless lives, when they don't believe that there is any higher power out there?
- What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?
- What do you think happens to you when you die?
- Aren't you afraid that you'll go to hell?
- How can anyone possibly be moral without believing in God?
Atheism and Politics
Arguments for belief in God
Connecting with other atheists
Q: Don't atheists have basically empty, meaningless lives, when they don't believe that there is any higher power out there?
A: Nope. We don't think that the world is an empty, meaningless place, even though we don't think a god designed it. We think the world is a fascinating, wonderful, interesting place, and we enjoy living in it. Now, you may think that it's impossible to "really" enjoy this world without believing of God as the designer. We don't feel that way.
Suppose you are walking in a beautiful garden with a friend, and your friend says, "I heard there are fairies living in this garden!" You tell your friend that you don't see any fairies, and you don't see any particular reason to believe that these fairies are there. You are just enjoying the garden. But your friend insists: "How can you enjoy this place if you don't believe in fairies?"
Unless you're a little kid, you would probably feel that your friend missed the point. Here you are, enjoying a nice day and great scenery, and your friend is trying to convince you to stop enjoying the garden the way it really is. He is telling you that you have to make something up, which isn't real as far as you can see, or else you don't have as much of an appreciation of the garden as he does.
In fact it is probably the other way around. It's a fine thing to have an imagination, but it seems like your friend is cheapening the experience, because he can't just enjoy something beautiful for its own sake.
The world has a lot of things to enjoy in it. Food, music, a well-told story, romance, sex, physical activity, the outdoors, the feeling of solving a difficult puzzle... just to name a few. These are things that most people enjoy on a day-to-day basis. And we don't appreciate the world around us any less for not thinking that those things come from God.
Also, it's not like there are no mysterious unknowns or "greater forces" right here in the physical universe. Most likely we will never know everything there is to know about this vast universe or our past. Who really understands quantum mechanics? Are there parallel universes out there? Are they accessible to us? Is time travel possible? Can we find a better way to generate our own energy before our sun burns out billions of years from now? These are all very big mysteries. One of life's great pleasures is applying your mind to solving hard questions like these. Learning is fun. Knowledge is fun. So it seems likely that we will never run out of things to enjoy in that sense.
You may have plenty of good reasons for believing in God, but if you think it's bad to be an atheist because atheists lead a cold, barren, loveless, uninteresting life, you are really kidding yourself.
Q: What kind of horrible experience did you have that caused you to become an atheist?
A: Mostly, we didn't. This is a common misconception among Christians... they assume that everyone believes in God, and that people who pretend not to believe must have had a traumatic experience that made them hate God (see below). Commonly it is assumed that an atheist must have, say, prayed to God and not been answered, or had a loved one die, and then renounced God in anger.
In reality, few people come to their atheism that way; and those who do usually don't stay atheist for very long. In the majority of cases, you'll find that atheists have thought very hard about their belief in God, and found that it just doesn't hang together logically. A great many atheists were raised in a religious household and decided, after much inner struggle, that they just couldn't continue to take their faith seriously. A few were brought up in atheist households and taught to think about the world and question conventional wisdom.
Ironically, many evangelists use their own stories of traumatic events as a way of convincing people to find religion. Often you will hear stories of how a person had "hit rock bottom", was perpetually drunk and unemployed and had no hope for the future, and that's when they found the Lord. While they dismiss us by saying that we must have become atheists for dramatic emotional reasons, they use the same techniques to recruit new parishioners.
Q: What do you think happens to you when you die?
A: Just in case there are any misconceptions about this, most serious atheists don't believe in reincarnation or spirits any more than we believe in hell. What defines "you" is what you think and feel, and how you interact with the universe. When this stops happening, you're not you anymore. So you simply stop existing.
If this idea scares you, think about all the millions of years that passed before you were born. Do you remember it? Was that scary? Interestingly enough, the fate that Christians find so inconceivable -- complete nonexistence -- is regarded by Buddhists as the best possible outcome for your life ("Nirvana").
Some people take this a step further and argue this way: "The first law of thermodynamics says that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. Since life is a form of energy, it must go somewhere." We don't see life as a self-contained form of energy. It's more of a process that matter and energy goes through.
Some people find this idea disturbing. They really want to be around forever. We all would. But realizing that you won't be around forever makes this life seem more valuable in a way. Since you only get one shot, it's important to do the best you can to be happy and make others happy before you're done.
Q: Aren't you afraid that you'll go to hell?
A: Not really. Since we don't believe that hell exists, we're not expecting to go there. What if we're wrong, is this a big gamble? That's essentially a simple formulation of Pascal's Wager. See that question below.
Q: How can anyone possibly be moral without believing in God?
A: Pretty much the same way that anyone else can be moral: by considering their actions, weighing the consequences, and deciding whether they are doing more harm than good to themselves and other people.
Despite what evangelists tell you, the threat of hell is not what stops most people from, say, going on a mass-murdering spree. Even if there was no hell, there are still bad consequences for bad behavior. Our society has laws that threaten criminals with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. And even if those laws didn't exist, there would still be the threat of punishment from other sources. For instance, if you commit a murder, the victim's family and friends might come looking for revenge. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. The justice system just makes the whole process a little more orderly, which is a good thing.
However, it seems like the threat of punishment and the promise of rewards is not really the only thing that keeps people from being bad. With or without religion, people don't like to be hurt, and they usually recognize that other people getting hurt is a similarly undesirable thing. Jesus didn't invent the principle of treating others the way you would like to be treated; it was around for centuries before. When people are in danger of being mistreated, they seek out protection through cooperation and relationships. Society is simply a much larger extension of those relationships.
With rare exceptions, people (atheists included) don't really have the urge or desire to run out and kill or steal or otherwise harm other people. And honestly, when people say "If it weren't for God holding me back, there would be nothing to stop me from being a criminal", we worry about them. If your grasp of right and wrong is so shaky that you can't stop yourself from doing bad things, and you need someone threatening you with eternal punishment to keep you in line, then we wonder how safe you really are to be near.
Q: Do you hate God?
A: Nope. We don't hate Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy or Darth Vader either. Remember, atheists do not believe God exists. Hating a nonexistent being is rather a waste of time.
Q: You guys believe there is no God, but you can't prove that there isn't. So being an atheist obviously requires at least as much faith as being a Christian.
A: This assumption is rooted in the elementary logical fallacy that two opposite things--belief and disbelief--are actually the same thing. A basic tenet of logic is that anyone making a positive claim bears the burden of proof for that claim. For example, in a court of law the lawyers for the prosecution bear the burden of proof, because they are making the positive claim that the defendant has committed a crime.
To take a skeptical position regarding an extraordinary claim for which one has not been provided with compelling evidence is not an act of faith; it is simple common sense. Here is an analogous situation: supposedly, as a Christian, you do not believe in the Roman or Aztec gods. Is it just as much an "act of faith" on your part not to believe in those gods as it was for the Romans and Aztecs to believe in them? If a man walks up to you and says he has an invisible magic elf sitting on his head, do you automatically believe his claim? If not, is it an "act of faith" on your part not to? Or are you simply responding to the claim with common sense and skepticism because the man has failed to provide you with adequate evidence for his elf? Choosing not to believe in something when you have no reason to believe in that thing is not an act of faith, it is just the smart thing to do.
Finally, one can turn to the Bible's definition of faith--the "substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"--to see that this is a definition that excludes disbelief. So if you still don't agree with us that atheism is not a faith, then check your Bibles.
Q: What's the difference between an atheist and an agnostic?
A: It has to do with the difference between what you believe and what you think you know. For any particular god that you can imagine, a "theist" is one who has a belief in that god. In contrast, an "atheist" is one who does not have a belief in the god. A "gnostic" is one who knows about the existence of god and an "agnostic" is one who thinks that god is unknowable.
Notice that the terms "atheist" and "agnostic", by these definitions, are not mutually exclusive. You could be an agnostic atheist, meaning you don't think that the existence of gods is knowable, but you don't choose to believe in one without further proof. Many people assume that atheists believe that gods can be proved not to exist, but this isn't strictly true and there is no proper word to describe this. You could call such a person an "untheist", perhaps. Or, you could just call such a person a "gnostic atheist", one who doesn't believe in a god and thinks that his non-belief can be proved.
So there are four possible ways one could be.
- Agnostic-Theist: believes god exists, but the existence of a god is unknowable
- Gnostic-Theist: believes in a god for which he claims knowledge
- Agnostic-Atheist: does not believe god exists, but it can't be proved
- Gnostic-Atheist: believes it can be proved that god does not exist
Case 3 is sometimes referred to as "weak atheism" and case 4 is sometimes referred to as "strong atheism". Only strong atheism positively asserts that there are no gods.
Finally, it should be pointed out that when a person is asked about their beliefs and replies that they are agnostic, they are avoiding the question and answering a different one. Someone who can't positively say he/she believes in a god is an atheist.
Q: Admit it, isn't atheism just another religion?
A: The website Dictionary.com gives the following definition of "religion":
- Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
- A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
- The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
- A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
- A cause, a principle, or an activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.
Clearly, definitions 1-3 do not apply to atheists since we reject the notions of supernatural powers and spiritual leaders. Definition 4 could possibly apply to atheists, but then, it could also apply to a bowling league or a Britney Spears fan club. The claim that atheism is a religion is generally made by Christians who have been religious all their lives and thus cannot conceive of anyone not having some kind of religion as an integral part of their lives.
It's instructive to point out that theism is not a religion either. Theism simply has to do with believing in a god, which one can very easily do without engaging in any sort of religious activity—to wit, the practice of worshipping that god. A person who believes a deity or higher power exists, but never in his life sees fit to go to a church or pray or partake in any kind of practice designed to worship or revere that deity, would be theistic, but not religious.
Atheism, which is about not believing in god(s), and theism, which is about believing in god(s), are philosophical or theological points of view, but they are not religions.
Q: America is a Christian nation.
A: The myth of a "Christian" United States goes something like this:
Christians seeking religious freedom founded our nation as a place where they could properly obey god's law. The Puritans and others founded biblical law settlements that established a Christian colonial culture. Christian leaders and ideals thus generated the American Revolution, our Constitutional democracy of personal freedom, and everything else that made our nation great. Bad things now happen because we have fallen away from our founders' Christian values. America now needs religion in government and laws promoting religion so we can restore our lost Golden Age of Christian Faith.
Like most religious traditions, the evidence fails to support this Golden Age myth.
Puritan heritage is nothing anyone should be proud of or wish to restore. The Puritans came to the colonies to establish a religious tyranny. As a state church, Puritans oppressed other religions like they had been oppressed in England. They wanted religious freedom only in the sense that they wanted the freedom to practice their Puritanism and to punish or banish all other religious beliefs. Only Puritan Congregationalist churches were allowed. Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Catholics and others were banished, often with a death sentence if they returned. Puritans punished even minor "impious" behavior, and they killed 25+ people as witches. America's colonial Christians were an undemocratic minority that opposed freedom of conscience and denied political rights based on religious beliefs.
The actions of the Constitution's authors at the 1787 Convention best reveal their thoughts and intent regarding religion. They avoided attempts to insert worship into their deliberations, keeping religious activities separate from the process of creating our government. If no religion at the Constitutional Convention was good enough for our founders, it should be good enough for all public officials in the execution of their duties.
Our founders created a secular government based on freethinking political philosophies. Our founders' Constitution is a stunning rejection of government under god. Only the Constitution establishes our government, not any other document with pious words, such as the Declaration of Independence, Mayflower Act etc. The Constitution ignores god, except for the date, "in the year of our Lord." "We the People," not god, is the authority for our government. The Constitution prohibits any religious test for national office. The Constitution's first amendment prohibits Congress from passing any laws even "respecting an establishment of religion." During many Constitution ratification sessions in the states, Christians tried to add references to God and Jesus into the Preamble and to remove the "no religious test for office" provision. Their failure demonstrates that even though the Constitution was a heated public issue, it was ratified as written. Our founders and the public knowingly chose a godless Constitution.
Conservative Christians argue that the First Amendment language, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," means our founders only meant to prohibit one denomination from becoming the official national religion. The evidence refutes this narrowest of interpretations, aside from the fact that the Constitution must give government such a power, and there is no power to do anything religious in the Constitution. In his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1/01/1802), Thomas Jefferson cited "a wall of separation between Church and State" as his reason for denying their request for a national day of fasting. Jefferson's metaphor came from London schoolmaster James Burgh, one of England's leading enlightenment political writers. Burgh's Crito (1767) had the phrase, "build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil." Along with numerous other documents, Jefferson's message clarifies the intention of the amendment.
The Constitution and amendments only mention religion three times, and only as prohibitions against government doing things religious. One cannot pervert express prohibitions against government doing religious things into powers for government to do religious things. Many public officials have a long history of violating their oath of office by mixing religion into government or by supporting religious groups. A tradition of violating the Constitution does not, however, change the Constitution. This traditional disrespect for the Constitution by religious believers should end.
We have an invaluable ally in our uphill struggle to preserve the truth. We have the words and actions of our founders, which directly contradict the myth of a "Christian" United States.
(This answer (c) Howard Thompson, from DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF A "CHRISTIAN" UNITED STATES)
Q: Aren't all atheists Communists (or vice versa)?
A: All Communists may well be atheists, simply because their political system rarely exposes them to anything else. It does not follow that all atheists are Communists. Atheism is a view on the existence of the supernatural, not a political system. Some atheists favor some form of socialism. Many agree with the writings of Ayn Rand, who was a very strong supporter of both unbounded Capitalism and atheism. Many atheists are Libertarians and Democrats; fewer tend to be Republicans, but that is mostly because of their stance on church and state, not always because of their financial plans.
Atheists come in all political flavors. We don't feel that the Communist system does anything to promote well-reasoned atheism, so we don't support it.
Q: What is your deal with evolution? Why do you support it so strongly? Why shouldn't we teach creationism in school as an "alternative" to evolution?
A: We support evolution because it is a generally accepted scientific theory that explains the diversity of life on this planet. The reason it is so well accepted in the scientific community is because it is supported by a wide variety of evidence, including fossils, taxonomy, genetics and experimental biology results.
The reason we talk about it so much on our show is because there is a small but vocal community of Christians who object to the theory on religious grounds. They think that the evidence supporting evolution should be removed from science classes, or else their own myths about genesis should be taught side by side with them. We do not object to Judeo-Christian stories about origins being taught in the classroom. What we do object to is the stories being taught as if they were science. They aren't. Science is a process of making observations, testing evidence, and above all, finding and correcting mistakes. This is almost the exact opposite of what religions do. Religions rely on unalterable texts handed down from ancient teachers, which are not to be questioned regardless of what evidence comes up.
Evolution isn't "atheist science", however. Most scientists who accept evolution are not atheists. As biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, "Evolution doesn't make you an atheist, but it does make it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." This is because it takes most of the force out of the Argument from Design for God (see below).
Evolution is a large, complicated academic subject. We highly recommend reading the talk.origins archive to learn more about this fascinating subject. It contains an overview of evolution, and extensive articles discussing most common creationist objections. Whenever somebody calls about evolution, if we do not know the answer right away, we will almost always look up the information at the talk origins site and have the answer the following week. Creationists would be wise to keep this in mind, and look up their own arguments on the site to be aware of the responses ahead of time.
Q: You know what they say—there are no atheists in foxholes!
A: This assertion effectively says that, when things get tough, atheists will be turned into blubbering beggars, praying to some god to rescue our pitiful lives. This is nothing but an insult to the many non-believers who act courageously and give their lives for their country when in life threatening situations. One organization that shows the hollowness of this myth is the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and here are a handful of personal profiles. Christians, despite what some of them think, do not have a monopoly on patriotism, nor does the experience of bullets and missiles whizzing directly over one's head inspire in everyone the conviction that they're being protected by a benevolent magic invisible being. Without such baggage, atheists are unencumbered and often do a better job of rising to the occasion.
Q: What is Pascal's Wager?
A: It's a well-known logical argument why you should believe in God, even if there's a strong chance that it might not be true. Simply put, the argument is that you should believe in God just because there's a chance that you might go to heaven and avoid hell.
Blaise Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician in the 17th century, first formally put the argument forth. He is considered the founder of probability and he made other significant contributions. There's also a programming language named after him.
Pascal's wager, in a nutshell, is this. No one knows for certain whether God exists. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. It's a gamble whether you believe in him or not. So let's treat it like a gamble, says Pascal, and look at the odds.
He described the payoff of this gamble like so. If you choose to believe in God, and you happen to be right, then the reward is infinity: eternal bliss in heaven. However, if you are wrong, then you lose nothing at all. On the other hand, if you choose not to believe in God, and you're right, you GAIN nothing (in either of the previous two cases, you just die and that's the end). But if you are wrong, your payoff is negative infinity: eternal suffering in hell.
Now here's the main thrust of the wager. Since the chance of God existing is unknown, but the payoff/punishment scheme is infinitely in favor of believing in God, just on the small chance that he might exist, you'd better believe. It's the only wager that makes sense.
Okay, that's Pascal's wager, now here are our reasons for not agreeing with it.
Reason 1: In the case where God does not exist, there really is a clear advantage to not believing. In other words, the payoff is not zero. For one thing, if you go through life believing a lie, that is a bad thing in itself. Besides that, there is more to being a believer than just saying "Okay, I believe now" and getting on with your life. Serious believers spend a lot of their time in church, and contribute a lot of money as well. There's a reason why some towns have very affluent looking buildings for churches, and why large and elaborate cathedrals are possible: they're funded by folks who donate 1/10th of their income throughout their lives to tithing. This is surely quite a waste if the object of worship isn't real. That's to say nothing of the persecution of other groups that's been instigated in the name of God throughout the ages.
Reason 2: Even if you buy into Pascal's wager and decide you should believe, that doesn't give any basis for choosing which religion to believe in. Fundamentalists often use the wager to prove that you should be a Fundamentalist, but of course, Pascal was Catholic and was using it to prove you should be a Catholic! This just highlights the whole problem of which religion is the right one. Since many Fundamentalists believe that Catholics are going to go to hell, Pascal's not much better off than an unbeliever. We don't know if the Jews are correct, or perhaps the Muslims, or if reincarnation is right... or worse, if there's a perverse God who only lets atheists into heaven! It's not impossible. For all we know, maybe God exists but he doesn't care at all whether people believe in him.
Reason 3: If you can accept Pascal's wager as a realistic reason to believe, that leads you to a point where you have no choice but to believe just about everything on the same grounds. Maybe if you don't own a complete library of Seinfeld episodes, you'll go to hell! Why not? You don't know. Maybe you have to send $10 a week to the Atheist Community of Austin for life. Hey, what's a measly ten bucks if it will save you from eternal hellfire? Or maybe God really likes nude mud wrestling and he will punish those who do not partake of His gift.
Does all this sound utterly silly to you? Good! That's probably because you know that you should only believe things that have some sort of clear evidence favoring them. You don't believe just any old preposterous claim about UFO's, pyramid shaped get-rich-quick schemes, or magic pixies just because somebody tells you they're true and because there's a chance you might be wrong. You have a brain—use it!
Further reading: "Pascal's Sucker Bet" by "Reverend" Jim Huger
Q: What is the Argument from Design / the Watchmaker Argument?
A: There are many arguments advanced by Christians that attempt to infer a God's existence by the alleged evidences of intelligent design in nature. All are deeply flawed in that they commit the fallacy of first presupposing design in order to prove a designer, putting the cart before the horse.
One of the most popular of these is the watchmaker argument, first advanced by theologian William Paley in 1802. Basically it goes like this. If you're walking through the forest/along a beach/wherever, and you see a watch lying on the ground, you could pick it up and tell just by looking at it that the watch could not have just materialized there out of nothingness for no reason at all. Clearly this is a highly intricate piece of machinery, deliberately created and manufactured for a purpose. From here, the argument points out that since organisms in nature exhibit just as much complexity in their makeup as this watch, it is reasonable to assume that nature is the work of deliberate design too.
And this is the first and most obvious problem with the watchmaker argument: it is nothing more than an assumption, based upon an appearance of order. The appearance of order in nature is not alone sufficient justification for assuming that this order is the result of purposeful, intelligent design by a supernatural - trees providing oxygen etc.- but most of the sciences have shown us that there are practical, mechanistic explanations for how and why things work in nature the way they do. In order to mount a convincing argument that things in nature require a Divine Creator to explain them, Christians must first demonstrate that it is impossible to explain them in any other way, and such design arguments as the watchmaker argument fail to do this.
Viewed another way, the structure of the watchmaker argument is self-refuting. The hypothetical person noticing the hypothetical watch on the hypothetical beach thinks it looks designed...but compared to what? In order for one to recognize design, one must have a concept of non-design as a frame of reference to work from. So if the watch looks designed compared to its natural surroundings, then that clearly implies those natural surroundings were not, in fact, designed, though they may exhibit the appearance of order.
Even if one were, for the sake of discussion, to take the watchmaker argument seriously, it would still not be a strong argument that the designer inferred by the comparison of watch-to-nature bears any resemblance to the Christian God. For one thing, no watch is made by a single person these days; they are usually made by factories employing thousands of workers. And the factories that make watches are not the same factories that make chairs, Styrofoam cups, computers, or Winnebagos. So why assume that nature, with all its dazzling variety, must be the work of only one designer? At best, the watchmaker argument can be said to be an argument for polytheism, or a highly clever and advanced race of aliens who have figured out how to make solar systems and planets.
Still another refutation along these lines is that watches do evolve. The modern digital watch was not dreamed up in every detail by anyone in the modern day. It evolved from older watches, which evolved from analog watches, which evolved from hourglasses, sundials and other time-keeping methods. Each step in the "evolution" of the watch was achieved by people thinking about older designs and coming up with new ways to improve them. So if the analogy is going to work, it's going to have to allow at minimum for God experimenting and modifying his design through an evolutionary process and selection. This is important when you consider that many creationists try to use this argument to refute evolution.
Finally, it can be pointed out that Christians who argue from design take a highly selective view of nature. One woman who called The Atheist Experience some months ago couldn't understand why we weren't convinced of God's existence because of "all the beauty" in nature. We pointed out that while things like butterflies, waterfalls, and sunsets were indeed beautiful; other things like earthquakes, cancer and the Ebola virus were not. "Beauty" is a human concept that individuals apply subjectively to things we observe. One must wonder why the loving God of Christianity would consider it "beautiful" to set nature up so that animals in the wild had to massacre one another to survive. Surely God would not take pleasure in the death agonies of a gazelle having its throat torn away by a ravenous cheetah...would He? If God is such an "intelligent designer," why couldn't He have created "meat trees," so that the carnivores could pluck their meals every night and leave the gentle herbivores alone?
Do we know with absolute certainty that the universe is not the result of deliberate design? Well, no. But any sort of objective view of nature must lead one to conclude that the specific design arguments of Christianity are invalid, as it makes no sense their supposedly omni-benevolent God would design a nature so harsh and cruel.
Q: How do I find other atheists in my area?
A: The Internet is a great source of information if you're looking for other atheists. Try out the following web sites for starters:
- American Atheists
- Atheist Alliance International
- Center for Inquiry (international)
- American Humanist Association
- Freedom from Religion Foundation
All of the above groups (except for FFRF, which is based in Madison Wisconsin) have list of affiliated organizations by country and state. Some affiliates are "grass roots" and some are full-blown branches of the national organization. Some fledgling groups list themselves at Atheist Meetup. Usually, these listings will be simple mingling events, which are great places to meet other atheists.
If there isn't something nearby, you have several options. First, you might try broadening your search a bit. There are many organizations, both local and national dedicated to the support of science, church-state separation, and skepticism. Many Unitarian/Universalists churches are full of non-believers. You'll have to decide where your interests lie and how to best expand your search.
You might try participating in some online atheist communities on the web such as:
Many of the national groups have their own forums where you can participate, as well. Also, consider joining a national group to start getting regular reading material and effectively participating in their large-scale efforts. Other options for connecting include going to a national conference. Above groups all host conferences all over the US and there are many other conferences of note, such as The James Randi Educational Foundation's The Amazing Meeting (TAM). They're a lot of fun and a great way to meet a lot of enthusiastic people and new friends.
Finally, you can start your own group, which is the next FAQ topic.
Q: How do I go about starting an atheist group?
A: The very first thing that should be said is that it's not that difficult to start your own group. The ACA got its start because a local person put an ad in the paper for atheists to meet at a bagel shop. With the Internet, starting a group is even easier than it was when the ACA was started in 1996.
Here are some suggestions for what you might do:
- First, see if there are other groups in your area. Don't duplicate the effort of starting a group if there's one nearby. If there's not, you can use your search to see what other groups are doing and whether your new group might have common interests with them, such as tackling church-state issues in your state.
- Start small. Put an ad in the local paper or use Atheist Meetup to have mixers. Use these events to find some other people who also feel serious about building an organization.
- Don't underestimate the importance of community. Most atheists will be grateful for having an opportunity to make like-minded friends. It's an important service just by itself. Having a community of friends will allow some of those people to become vocal and more likely to embrace activism. Community allows people to learn from each other and grow. Building community takes time, but it might be the most important benefit of your group.
- Start and maintain a web site. They're not terribly expensive and there are lots of people with web skills these days. The web site can be the place where you connect to your people and start to build an identity.
- You can do a lot without incorporating. There's no need to rush in defining an identity, charter, or getting a tax exemption. Many of these things are not important until there starts to be money involved or your group has established its identity and purpose. A great deal can be done with an organization with a limited budget and a little ingenuity. The ACA has been meeting at restaurants for years, for example. Our lecture series is done without money exchange. Our TV show is done with a minimal budget.
- Pace yourself. Most volunteer organizations suffer the fate that the most enthusiastic people try to do too much and burn themselves out. Think about maintaining your pace for at least 5 years. That will give you time to find others who can take on responsibility and eventually the reins of your creation. Sharing responsibility is part of building community. It's the only way to do something big.
- Pace your group. It's much better to do a small number of projects consistently and well than have a large number of half-baked efforts that stress everyone out and don't add up.
- Think about your group's public image. Once you have a social structure in place, you should think about doing one or more projects that are visible to the surrounding community. This can be a public lecture series, a debate, a school library book drive, or street pick-up. Projects like this will help your group in a number of ways. They can help build community within your organization and they help make your larger community more aware that atheists are good people, too.
- Network. As your group gets stronger, network with other groups on common causes--even if you disagree on many issues. Church-state separation is a great example. Many minority religious groups "get" the importance of church-state separation. There's no reason why atheists can't work with them to achieve this worthwhile goal.
- Tout your successes. If you have a success (even a partial one), be sure and let everyone know about it. Write it up on your web site. Similarly, keep a history of what you're doing so that someday, people can look back in awe at how much you accomplished and how you've made a difference in the world. When you need a little boost, go back and take a look at it.
We hope that the ACA inspires still more groups. Write us and let us know if we've inspired you!
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