April 17, 2024

Academic Study of Atheists

I’m sure I’m not the only one here on FtB participating in the academic study of atheists conducted by the sociology department of Berkeley University.  I just want to share my answers to their questionnaire.

Background Questions:

1. Were you raised atheist or did you have a religious upbringing of some sort?

I was raised in an exclusively creationist environment.  Most of my family were country redneck Christians of no particular denomination.  Many never read the Bible and never seemed to question their own beliefs either.  Nor did they have any interest at all in topics outside their insular little sphere.  A few of my family were Mormon.  There were two advantages to that.  First, Mormon doctrine holds that children not be indoctrinated until they reach the age of reason, which they decided to be eight years old.  By then, I was already in the second grade, and had studied enough about dinosaurs and evolution.  Once Genesis was presented to me as the ‘absolute truth’, the most credit I could give that was that the fables in that book were parables meant to represent concepts that Bronze-age tribes in the middle-east might understand.  The second of being raised Mormon was that it was not a popular religion.  This was an advantage for me because it enabled me to witness bigotry within and between the different denominations of Christianity.  This was another excellent way to wear away at the absolute truth claims.

2. If raised religious – When and why did you become an atheist? What was this transition from religion like for you, for your family, etc.? Was this a quick transition or a slow one? Was it easy for you or difficult?

I was raised by people who believed that gullibility was virtuous and wise, and that skeptics were foolish and cynical for missing out on the bigger picture, the one that required imagination to see.  Consequently I was raised to believe in all sorts of unsupported assertions; UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis, everything required to be hired as a ghostbuster.  But I never believed anything on faith.  I believed all these things because I saw a lot of pseudoscience growing up, and I thought all these things had evidence to support them.  So when I wanted to learn more about them, I looked into them deeper, and one-by-one, all these things turned out to be falsehoods, frauds, and fallacies.

3. If raised atheist – Have you ever been drawn to religion at any point in your life?  Why or why not?

My son was raised atheist.  The only religion he cares about are jokes like the Church of the Subgenius.  For example, he joined with the protesters at the Reason Rally, but instead of chanting for Christ, he was  yelling for the cult of Cthulhu.  This confused the Christians next to him, who said, “but Cthulhu doesn’t exist”, to which my son cocked his head and said, “Yeah”.

Thinking About Atheism:

1. Do you identify yourself as an atheist? If so, what does being an atheist mean to you? Also, how does it feel to be an atheist . . . optimistic / pessimistic, hopeful / cynical, happy / sad, connected to / isolated from other people, etc.?

I define an atheist as someone who is not convinced that any actual deities necessarily or probably exist.  An agnostic is one who admits that it is impossible for humans to have certain knowledge of the true properties of the supernatural.  Most atheists tend to be agnostic also, though there are a very few exceptions.  Most Theists tend to be Gnostic, meaning that they pretend to know the unknowable.  So they not only claim to know that a god exists, but they also feign knowledge of which god it is, and many other specific details about it -which cannot be verified by anyone. I have often said that it is impossible for humans to know whether anything supernatural actually exists.  At the same time, deities seem absolutely impossible.  I don’t believe in any magical scriptwriter for everything that ever happens to everybody everywhere because, how could I?  Worse, it is dishonest to assert as fact that which is not evidently true, and that is what theism does. Remember that evidence should be objectively verifiable, demonstrably factual, and positively indicative, and no religious belief is supported by anything like that.  Likewise, it is never wise to believe anything completely with unquestioned inerrant authority either, but that too is what religion demands. Belief in God requires the utmost gullibility. More than that, defense of faith also requires a dependance on a compilation of logical fallacies.  These begin with circular arguments routing back to an assumed conclusion, and they end with confirmation bias refusing to acknowledge evidence proving where they’re wrong.  That’s why there are only subjective impressions, deliberate lies, and logical fallacies at the source of all god-claims.

2. Why do you think most people in the United States believe in God, practice some form of religion, and do not identify themselves as atheists?

Cultural indoctrination from childhood.  There is an old saying, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.”  If one can sufficiently instill religion in the formative years, the damage might never be undone.  Remember that my family didn’t begin to indoctrinate me until I was eight.  By then it was too late.  I was already able to think critically.  That ability hadn’t already been diminished or restricted by years of authoritarian conditioning since birth.

3. Do most people who know you – family, friends, co-workers, etc. – also know that you’re an atheist? Why or why not?

Everyone knows that I am an atheist because I am so open and vocal about it.  I am a political activist making videos and giving speeches on this subject, as well the advocacy of secularism, science education, and other related issues.  My wife however is a public school teacher in the Bible belt.  If her overtly religious co-workers knew she was an atheist, she would likely be subject to discrimination.  So she keeps quiet about that.

4. Are most of your friends atheists? Why or why not?

Very few of my friends identify as atheist, including some who obviously are.  Among my oldest friends, there is one who calls himself Christian because he has always worn that label, and won’t discard it, even though he doesn’t appear to actually believe in any of the Christian doctrine.  Another of my oldest friends is unambiguously atheist, but he refuses to adopt that label, because that word means something else to him –regardless what a consensus of published definitions all say.  In fact, the few my personal friends who now identify as atheist never would have if I had clarified the definition for them; they’d all still call themselves agnostic otherwise.

5. Have you ever been treated differently by people because you’re an atheist? If so, please describe this in detail.

Yes, I am treated unfairly specifically because I am an atheist.  When someone tells me to have a blessed day, I’m not allowed to explain to them how that literally means that I should have a ‘magically-enchanted’ day.  They’re able to feign knowledge of God’s plan for me –even if it means torturing me for all eternity –in his mercy, but I am considered rude if I say –quite correctly- that they don’t know what they’re talking about, that no one deserves that, and that their god isn’t remotely realistic, and apparently does not exist.  My children can be forced to be complacent with religious traditions in public school, and will be ostracized in some manner if they refuse.  And proper lessons are not taught on science, sex, or social studies in this state, because the religious right enforces their wrong on everyone here.  Atheists are certainly misrepresented and abused in the media too  –especially in the news, but the worst judgements against us tend to come from actual  judges –particularly in family court cases.

Thinking About Religion:

1. Overall, would you say that other people’s belief in God is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?

Believing in anything that isn’t even partially true is pointless.  Only accurate information has practical application.  Otherwise the most faith can offer is an emotional placebo.  Belief in God is too often used as a means of escaping responsibility for our own actions and behavior.  It is a way of pretending that reality doesn’t matter, of wishing things would be better without actually doing anything to improve the situation.  Belief in the supernatural isn’t just unproductive, it’s counter-productive.

2. Overall, would you say that organized religion is a good thing, a bad thing or something you’re indifferent about? Why?

Faith is the most dishonest position it is possible to have.  Religion has been predominantly and overwhelmingly negative throughout human history.  Where it pretends to inspire morality, it has completely failed with negative statistical correlations across the board.  Despite its claim to support education and scholarship, religion has added nothing to the sum of human knowledge and ultimately retards, reduces, or rejects much of what we do know.  It has evidently been an impediment to social and political progress since inception, and is commonly cited as unifying hate groups.  As Voltaire said, “Those who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities”, and that comment has been vindicated by history.  Whenever religion has had rule over law, the result has been an automatic violation of human rights which has only ever been diminished by education of the masses.  Since religion offers nothing we could honestly call knowledge or wisdom, then there is nothing of value in anything religion pretends to teach.  Weighing the overwhelming damage done by religion against its comparatively pitiful attempts to appear charitable or moral, I would have to say that there is neither anything useful nor good in the doctrines or policies conceived and promoted by the world’s major religions.

3. If not a religious person, do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Why or why not?

For decades, I was both atheist and spiritualist in that I still believed in things like spirits. Shaman and Taoist spiritualism could be considered atheist religions in a sense.  I don’t believe in anything commonly described as supernatural anymore, but I once believed in a life-force akin to that in the Jedi religion.  For a while I believed in some other elements of paranormal manifestations too, but these all systematically fell away one-by-one upon investigation. Belief in a deity was only the third of many in my list of supernatural notions to be discarded, following the concept of Hell, and then of Satan.  At this point, I believe our ‘soul’ exists only in the context of music, like when I hear a really good riff of blues guitar.  The dissipation of my soul has not diminished my spirituality, but enhanced it.  I am literally awed by the wonders of the natural universe, both in what we have discovered so far and what we still don’t understand.  There is a grandeur in this view of life. Imagining anything else is just cheap fiction.

Living as an Atheist:

1. Many people say that belief in God provides a foundation for their morality. As an atheist, on what do you base your morality? How do you decide what things are good or bad, whether you’re behaving rightly or wrongly, etc.?

Psychiatric studies seem to define ‘morality’ as ‘prosocial behavior’, and ‘immorality’ (or “evil”) is apparently when one person or group victimizes another unnecessarily.  It’s a simple matter of population mechanics to see that society as a whole (I’m talking about species-level populations here) benefits from those who are naturally altruistic, being supportive of their family, friends, and fellows.  This can be extended to care of animals, artwork, and other things too, both artificial and natural, even the environment.  The greater the degree of care provided, the more net benefit is cultivated.  That’s the real reason why human society succeeded out of the stone age.  Technology alone isn’t enough without empathy and solidarity.  Obviously less compassionate individuals, (also known as sociopaths) will find themselves limited in, or eliminated from the parent gene pool.  So there are two powerful pressures of natural selection working here even in lieu of anyone’s concept of law or authority, and this provides the real source of human morality.  It certainly didn’t come from any vengeful racist sexist authority who demands that people be enslaved or killed for not preserving some backward tradition.

2. Many people consider belief in God and religious practice to be essential for raising well-rounded children with a connection to a tradition that helps them to see meaning in the world. What’s your opinion about this viewpoint?

Humans tend to value that which is rare and fleeting, and that includes our lives.  Imagining a posthumous eternity devalues the life we really do have.  If the Abrahamic concept of God were true, then we exist only to cower and serve an inescapable and indomitable despot, an omnipotent djinn which will keep us either imprisoned in Hell or enslaved in Heaven for all eternity.  It doesn’t matter whether we are good or bad; gullibility is the only criteria.  The fables are all lies, and their morals amount to abominable atrocities.  All these dogmatic beliefs do is quell curiosity and nurture bigotry.  This cannot give meaning to life, the universe, or anything.  Since we are to believe all these atrocious absurdities without question, without reservation, and without reason –against all sense or wisdom, and since we are even compelled by threats of torture to maintain this belief against tests of our faith in the form of reasons to the contrary, then facts don’t matter either.  If facts are meaningless, they can’t equate to evidence.  If evidence is meaningless, then nothing means anything anymore; everything is meaningless.  The only way our children will benefit is if the fables are NOT true.  Then life becomes so precious that what we know and what we can actually do must count for something.

3. For many people, belief in God provides an explanation of how the world came into existence and why we’re here. As an atheist, do you have answers or insights pertaining to these questions? If so, what are they?

We once believed that epilepsy was the result of demonic possession. The father of Protestant Christianity argued that diseases were some sort of spiritual curse, and that doctors were fools for treating illnesses as they come from some natural cause. Many Asian religions believed in the firmament, which was a giant dome over the earth with windows in it, and water above it, and that’s where the rain came from. Comets were an omen, and the stars and planets were anthropomorphized even in the Bible. Lightning was blamed on Zeus or Thor, depending on where you lived, and the part of the Abrahamic god was played by a volcano in the book of Exodus, which was obviously written before anyone knew about plate tectonics. Even if a supernatural belief were actually correct, there is no way to know that because it can’t be tested, and it would be of no benefit because it still wouldn’t explain anything. Supernatural explanations have always been literally useless, if not counterproductive and detrimental too. Every time we have ever tried to evoke the supernatural to explain anything we did not yet understand, we still didn’t understand it; all progress stopped until we became dissatisfied with those excuses. And in every case, once we discovered the real explanation, it revealed a whole new field of study with benefits previously unimagined. The natural explanation always turns out to be more complex and fascinating and far more valuable than our earlier notions of gods and magic. So I think it will be if we ever discover the true origin of the universe. That too will cause gods to appear useless, senseless, and silly assertions by comparison.

4. For many people, belief in God provides hope or comfort with respect to suffering in the world and to the inevitability of death. As an atheist, how do you come to terms with these things?

When my granddaughter was seriously ill, a lot of people tried to seem sincere when they said they would pray for me.  How can I respond to that? They might just as well tell me that they’ll write a letter to Santa for me.  That is exactly what their ineffective wishes sound like to me, and I can’t pretend otherwise.  So for a few of them, I said, “Don’t bother praying, because prior prayers did not prevent this situation, and I’ve noticed that your prayers won’t take effect only after  the medicine is administered”.

Conclusion: No questionnaire could possibly cover all dimensions of this topic. So, do you have any additional information or any further reflection that could help us to understand your experience as an atheist better? If so, please feel free to add this now.

There are those who have a deep-seated need-to-believe, and there are those with only a desire to improve our understanding.  Honestly, I am an atheist not because I believe in God but hate him.  Do not believe the lies of religion; I don’t.  I am atheist only because finding out what truth really is matters more than whatever I would rather believe.  I am an atheist because there has never been even one credible proponent of religious knowledge anywhere, No one can honestly claim to know anything of what they only believe because there is no religious belief that anyone can actually show to be true.  Thus there is no truth in it, any of it.  What I believe instead, I believe only tentatively, conditionally, and I know that my knowledge is incomplete, even though I can also prove what I know so far beyond all reasonable doubt.  Ultimately though, it boils down to this; if it requires faith to believe it, and we’ll be punished if we don’t believe it, simply because we don’t believe it, that’s enough to call it a lie -and discard it.

36 thoughts on “Academic Study of Atheists

  1. As a former sociology student at Berkeley and then (and now) atheist I feel left out from the survey.

    So hear me roar…

    Background question answers:

    1. Neither. I went to Sunday school a few times because my friends did and I bugged my parents to take me. But they didn’t raise me as an atheist…they didn’t raise me as a theist. Religion was like Lacrosse in our house. Nobody played it but nobody was against others who do.

    2. N/A

    3. N/A (see 1.) But will answer this anyway. Never been drawn to religion. Even when I tried to imagine if it might be true. Imagining it might be literally true turned me off religion. Spirituality, afterlife, and “holy law” hold no interest for me whatsoever. Interpreting religion as humanity expressing itself in metaphor fascinates me…I think there is often value in it in that sense.

    Thinking About Atheism answers:

    1. Meh. Srsly-to me this is as absurd a question as being ask how closely my identity is linked to being non-Lacrosse.

    2. Because their family and community enculturated them to do so.

    3. I doubt it but I don’t know because the subject never comes up. I assume they think that I’m the average person and the average person (so polls say anyway) is a believer of some kind.

    4. I assume no, but the topic never comes up. See answers to 1, 2 and 3.

    5. No.

    Thinking about religion answers:

    1. None of the above. It’s interesting because it’s so demonstrably prevalent it is indicative what human beings are about. ‘Good/bad/whatever’-good question but is there a good answer? Like asking if I’m good/bad/or indifferent” that alley cats have striped tails.

    2. Mixed thing. Religion is clearly a bad thing but it’s a bad thing that can nuke worse things. Like Clan. Tribe. Sometimes. Context is everything. To majority of people it’s a good thing, at least they think so. Needs further study.

    3. No. I think I get “spiritual”-and I think I get “material” – I don’t get why people think they’re mutually exclusive. Not my native language, I guess.

    Living as an atheist answers:

    1. Gut instinct…same as theists. We’re products of the same culture. It’s just that theists (in my culture, the USA) think it comes from the God on High. And I think it comes from cultural memory.

    2. It’s horseshit.

    3. No. I don’t think it comes from me being an atheist. The “how” I look to science. The “why” I think doesn’t matter. Religious people who seem to think they need a Supreme God’s license or directive to validate the common sense….I don’t get it.

    4. Comfort is good. Unless I’m interested in selling them an alternative, unprovable scenario for what happens after death, why would I play this game? I’m an atheist! I think none of us will care 2 shits once we’re dead-because we’re, [drumroll], dead.


    What I want understood is that even if few in the so-called “atheist community” reflect my pov but that doesn’t mean my pov isn’t legitimate.

  2. Funny that you mentioned epilepsy. Hippocrates of Kos had something to say on the subject,” Men think epilepsy divine because they do not understand it. However, if we attribute divinity to everything that we don’t understand, there would be no end to divine things.”

  3. If they’re looking for volunteers for their study I’d pass the link around my local atheist group. Are they still taking volunteers?

  4. This was great. Aronra, you are once of the most well-spoken individuals I have ever heard! I found myself wanting to compare my own answers to yours, and while I agree completely with everything you said, I find myself being more of a “covert” atheist. I never lie about my beliefs when asked, but I don’t freely offer up my non-religious views either. I’ve encountered too much bigotry and it seems that rational discussion with believers is wasted–they don’t end up respecting my position or truth any more than prior to the discussion. In fact, they get along with me better when they don’t know my beliefs. I used to talk with people much more freely, especially after my “deconversion” from Christianity. Out of the approximately 20 Christians I shared my beliefs with, one sister and one brother-in-law also deconverted, 10 just didn’t care one way or the other and 8 became distrusting, even resentful of me. The distrust of the 8 or so people also negatively influenced others they were close to at times. It has been years and the damage that could be repaired has been, but I am not very close to my family anymore because of this.

  5. What is the aim of the study? With such open questions it is hard to see how they can objectively use any data from it… But then again I don’t know a whole lot about sociology.

    I like the answers anyway – reads as an interviewer/interviewee dialog.

    Also on a side note, the more you post the better they get so keep it up.

    1. I agree. I feel like the study is baiting atheists. The result may be to say, “man, atheists are a grumpy lot”. For example, in one of Aron’s answers, he doesn’t say if he is pessimistic or optimistic. The studier may conclude on Aron’s behalf.

      It would be better to provide a set of binary answers, that are measurable.

  6. I agree with #8 on this. The wording of most of the questions is very biased. As an atheist, every question seemed in my face. Belief in Dog provides comfort, explanations of origins, morality etc. how do you as an atheist account for all of this.

  7. Aronra:

    First, Mormon doctrine holds that children not be indoctrinated until they reach the age of reason, which they decided to be eight years old.

    Fascinating. I did not know that.

    I wonder if that makes it somewhat easier for some individuals to reject their Mormon upbringing, than say, a Baptist one.

  8. hello, sorry to bother, but I just can’t find the link to participate the study, could you post it or send me an email with it ? thx !

  9. I guess you’re right, that not being indoctrinated before “the age of reason” is a great step towards liberation from religions.

    I was raised free to choose, and until I was around 8 I didn’t really care much about religions or god. Only at that time I started asking questions and noticing it all. But I had noticed before that churches and priests were amazingly boring, which couldn’t repell me more.

    But at the age of 8 I had already, like you, read about dinossaurs and a few other things, and somehow the absurdities of religion seemed nothing more than stupid to me.

    I still believed in god for a while, because I chose to, and also because, since no one had a clear idea of what god was, I just made up my own, just like them. It kind of conforted me, but then I started noticing that I couldn’t even tell when god had ever done anything about anything. And besides that, I thought that if god did really exist, why would anyone ever choose to not believe? Why would we have a choice on believing or not in a fact?

    By the time I was 12 I was decided atheist, even though I didn’t know the word. I also didn’t read the bible until I was 20-some, but when I did it only made religion seem even more riddiculous to me.



  10. evidence should be objectively verifiable => mehhh…

    It’s my first time commenting here, so I’d like to say how much I enjoy and admire AronRa’s robust and uncompromising censure of religion. But this fixation with objectivity is misplaced. The term subjective doesn’t have to be pejorative.

    My problem with religion, beyond its being dangerous nonsense, is primarily that it distracts attention from subjective science, generally called meditation. I’m not talking about specific techniques: I mean structuring one’s life around a deliberate, persistent, empirical enquiry into one’s own subjectivity.

    To forestall gratuitous misrepresentation: I can’t abide any kind of new-age woo, I pay no dues to any “authority”, and I don’t pretend about stuff I don’t know.

    But consciousness just can’t be reduced into information, it can’t be finessed into non-existence. I AM, and even though my nature is obscure, still nothing is more directly observed than the fact of my own existence. Verification – literally making true – is redundant here.

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  12. I understand the being brought up in a religious environment and turning against it. I was brought up catholic and ended up hating.

    I dont see the point of promoting atheism though – it makes us look like “preachers”. I also hate NatWest and RBS banking but I wouldn’t promote a move away from such institutes. I dont use them, some people like them a lot.What difference to me or society does it make if some people bank with one bank beleiving it to be the best when I choose another? What difference does it make to me or society if some people beleive in Buddha, Christ or Allah wheras I don? There is no real difference.

    In a world where freedom of choice exists (for some) let them choose what bank, supermarket, model car and god they want. I choose what I want and am happy with it.If I try to convince people to change to my opinion I am no less irritating than those who preach or hard sell.

    I’m must say I am dissapointed with the amount of anti-theists who don’t realise they have become the “virtual” irritating loudmouth holding banners on the street near Westboro. And I am sad that my faith choice is now becoming a hostile one lead by angry know it alls.

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