|THE ESSENTIAL ATHEIST LEXICON
One of the most frequent subjects of conversation among free-thinkers is the
meaning of the word, "atheist" and its relationship to related concepts, such as
agnosticism, rationalism, deism, humanism, etc. So this booklet will attempt to
clear up a few misconceptions.
The term, "religion" normally encompasses three major functions. First, there is the
metaphysical function, which attempts to define the nature of reality – that is, where
the universe came from, how it functions, and man's place within it. The second
function of religion is the moral one. This is a code of behavior prescribed by the
culture, and based on the previous metaphysical assumptions. The third function of
religion is social. Frequent rituals and constant repetition of symbolism are
necessary to maintain consistency of beliefs and to pass them on from one
generation to the next. So virtually all tribal activities revolve around sacred rites,
and participation in them is a major socializing force in personality development.
Now, atheists have no objection to any of the three functions of religion. It is
necessary to have some concept of the nature of reality. It is necessary to
have a moral code of behavior. And for each newborn child to develop into a
genuine human being instead of a wild animal, it is necessary to belong to
social reference groups. What atheists do object to are metaphysical beliefs
that present a false concept of reality, which then leads to self-contradictory moral
codes and anti-social behavior.
Theism and Atheism
The metaphysical belief to which we object is the concept of "theism." This is the
belief in "anthropomorphic" supernaturalism. In other words, theists believe that
the universe was created by a "person," or group of people, very much like
themselves. In most cases, theists conceive of a group of spirits, dominated by a
single male figure, who is referred to as "Father," "Lord," "King," etc. In fact, the
only real difference between theists and their gods is that the gods can make
themselves invisible, they are immortal, and they have various other powers over
the forces of nature.
Christian metaphysics, as handed down from the Middle Ages, went something
like this: Once upon a time, about six-thousand years ago, there was nothing at all
– except a god named Jehovah who was just floating about in space and feeling
very bored because there was nothing to do. So he decided to create a universe
to amuse himself. First, he created an infinite ocean and then plunked an island in
the middle of it, which he called Earth. Next he created heaven as a home for
himself, and all the rest of the universe as decoration. Then he created a likeness
of himself and called this creature "Adam." From Adam he created "Eve." And
then, as an afterthought, he made all the other plants and animals. All this took him
exactly seven days, or 168 hours. He also created an opponent, named Satan,
who would play a cosmic game with him. Jehovah would try to get man to obey
him while Satan would try to get him to disobey.
Jehovah gave Adam and Eve everything they needed – except understanding.
Then he placed a magical fruit in their garden which would instantly confer
understanding, but they were told they must not touch it. Satan, obediently
following orders, then persuaded them to eat it. Immediately, they were
transformed from innocent children into self-conscious and thinking adults. In order
to punish them for their sin, Jehovah deprived them of their divine nature so they
would then have to work, sweat, suffer and die.
Jehovah watched over the descendants of Adam and Eve, dropping in for visits
with Abraham, Noah, and Moses, constantly telling them what to do, like any bossy
old grandfather. He demanded that his children must worship him and constantly
bring him presents – called sacrifices. If he was pleased with the presents then he
would do favors for them, like smiting their enemies. But if he was displeased he
would punish them with a plague, famine or massacre.
At one time, just to make his wishes perfectly clear, he dictated a list of
Commandments and told Moses to make sure everybody read them.
During the reign of Augustus Caesar, Jehovah had an affair with a Jewish virgin
and fathered an illegitimate son, named Jesus. People had raised a number of
questions about the confusing plethora of Commandments by this time, which
Jesus attempted to clarify. Then he added a number of new ideas which Jehovah
had thought up later. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Jehovah then had his
son crucified. Afterwards, however, he was resurrected and flew up to heaven to
live with Jehovah. But eventually he'll be sent back to Earth to rule over it as
Emperor. And the earth will be transformed into paradise once again.
In the meantime, Jehovah had written an anthology of short stories, poetry,
science, history, biography, etc., and had it marketed all over the world. This book,
called The Bible, is THE final word about everything. And anyone who doubts it,
contradicts it, or misinterprets it, will suffer eternally in hell.
There are many other supernatural spirits in the Christian cosmos. There is the
heavenly host of angels, Satan's battalions of demons, the Catholic pantheon of
saints, plus all manner of ghosts, witches, vampires, zombies, prophets and
Now, Christians, of course, will object that this is only a caricature of their beliefs.
And indeed it is. If a Christian were trying to explain his theology he'd have to
embellish this outline with so much poetic language that it would be impossible to
summarize in a few paragraphs, as I've just done. But a caricature is a brief sketch
which captures just enough essential elements to be instantly recognizable. And in
this sketch there is no mistaking the basic concepts of Christian theology. It's just
that when stripped down to the bare bones, it appears ludicrous to a modern adult.
In any case, notice that throughout Christian metaphysics, all of the spirits are very
human. Jesus was supposed to have been an actual man, and Jehovah is given
the personality of a senile old king whose every whim must be humored.
Well this is the kind of metaphysical thinking that is meant by "theism." The prefix
"a" is a negation of the word which follows. So "a-theist" simply means a person
who does not believe in theism.
There are an unlimited number of theistic religions in the world – all involving
anthropomorphic gods and goddesses, but following totally different scenarios. It
therefore follows that there are an unlimited number of atheists, because every
theist is an atheist relative to all religions but one. Those of us who identify
ourselves as atheists simply believe in one less god than those who call
There are definite personality differences among atheists, depending on which
theistic scenario they most strongly object to. So within organized atheism we
generally have Protestant Atheists, Catholic Atheists and Jewish Atheists –
depending on what kind of family and community they come from. Of course we
disagree with any variety of theism, but in America we don't focus our energy on
pointing out the absurdities of Islam or the Hindu caste system, because those are
not serious problems here. Our problem at the moment is in combating the rise of
Christian fundamentalism – which seriously threatens not only our Constitution but
the security of the entire planet.
The Christian metaphysic which I have just sketched made perfectly good sense
during the time of Augustus Caesar. But that was two-thousand years ago, and
we've learned a great deal about the nature of reality since that time. We have
learned that the earth is not flat. It is not an island floating in an infinite ocean. We
know that in outer space there is no such thing as "up" or "down," so the idea of
"heaven" being "up in the sky" and hell being "below the earth" makes no sense.
We know that the earth is billions of years old – not six-thousand. We know that all
plants and animals, including man, evolved over millions of years – not created in
168 hours. Scientists have never been able to find any convincing evidence of a
"soul" which survives the death of the body. Nor is there any evidence that prayers,
sacrifices, curses, or magical incantations have any effect whatever on nature. We
know that there are scores of Holy Books in the world which are all believed by
their followers as the "revealed Word of God" – but all disagreeing with each other
on what that revealed word is. We know that most of the religions encompassed
by Augustus Caesar's empire believed in resurrected savior gods. We know that
everything in the Bible is borrowed from other religions, and that there is no
historical record to verify any of the supernatural events described in it. In short,
everything about the Christian metaphysic is inconsistent with today's body of
scientific knowledge. And this conflict between science and religion creates
severe problems. At a time when the United States is slipping behind other
nations in economic and technological development, Christians continue to tell
their children that if they study science, they'll go to hell. And during the last few
years there has been more censorship of textbooks and outright book-burning than
at any other time in our history. Sociological surveys have proved again and again
that there is a highly significant negative correlation between religious belief and
intellectual achievement. As Doctor Albert Ellis, the famous psychologist put it,
"The only thing we are not sure about is whether only stupid people are religious, or
whether religion makes them stupid." So our objection to Christian metaphysics is
that it presents a totally obsolete concept of reality.
Now since Christian theology is in conflict with modern society's view of the world,
it isn't surprising that the Christian version of morality also leads to conflict.
According to Christian doctrine all moral values must be handed down by Jehovah
and communicated to man through interpretation of the Bible, plus "intuition,"
"visions," "epiphanies" and other types of divine "revelation." The result is an
infinite number of opinions about what "God" really wants us to do. On any given
moral issue – from abortion to nuclear arms control we hear a daily chorus of
announcements from religious leaders all proclaiming "God's Will." Except they all
disagree with each other about what "God's Will" happens to be. And since their
reasons depend entirely on personal "inspiration," there's no possible way to
reconcile these differences. This is a guaranteed formula for violent conflict. The
history of civilization has been a constant procession of religious wars. And it
continues to this day. The Pope urges nuclear arms-control while Jerry Falwell
denounces it as a Satanic plot. In Northern Ireland the Protestants and Catholics
continue their holy war that's been raging for the last four-hundred years. Hitler's
Third Reich was only the latest of Christian pogroms against the Jews. In Iran
another genocide is presently being conducted against members of the Bahai
religion. The war against Iraq is really between the Shiite Moslems and the Sunni
Moslems. While in Lebanon we have the Shiites versus the Sunnis, versus the
Druze, versus the Christian Falangists, versus the Zionist Jews, versus the
American Christians and Jews. In Kashmir we have the Sikhs versus the Hindus.
What these religious wars are really about is which group of priests shall be
allowed to dictate public policy.
Atheists believe there are better ways of resolving conflicts other than bloodshed.
They are called science and democracy. Science is a technique for resolving
disagreements about the nature of reality. And democracy is a method of
resolving disagreements about public policy.
Neither of these techniques was thought up by a group of revolutionaries one
afternoon. They were slowly and painfully worked out over many centuries of trial
and error. Records show that the very earliest civilizations were theocratic – that
is, the people were governed by priests, and kings who were believed to be divine,
or divinely inspired. But it has taken nearly ten-thousand years of constant warfare
for the realization to finally sink in that government leaders could not be "divinely
inspired" because if they were listening to a single, benevolent god then they would
not be getting contradictory orders.
By the same token, scientists have gradually realized that "visions" and
"epiphanies" about the nature of the universe are no more valid than the
"revelations" of any schizophrenic or opium smoker. Matters of fact can only be
determined by comparing observations. And the more qualified observers there
are who agree on their descriptions of a phenomenon, the more reliable the fact
becomes. In other words, if something cannot be detected by one of the five
senses, measured and defined in a precise manner – and repeatable by any
observer, then it does not exist. It's merely a figment of someone's imagination.
Science assumes a materialistic universe. It consists of physical objects and
forces which operate according to universal and consistent laws. Man will never
be able to understand all these laws, but by constantly refining our techniques of
observation we can gradually come closer to an understanding. And as our
understanding increases we can continue to improve the quality of our lives.
Through the application of science and technology we have powers that our
ancestors never even dreamed of. But there is no place in science for the concept
of super-naturalism. If something exists then it is part of the natural order of things,
and it can be measured studied, and controlled. If it cannot be measured, studied,
and controlled then it does not exist. It's only imaginary. Now of course there are
an infinite number of phenomena which MIGHT exist, but which we have not yet
been able to observe. However, there's a world of difference between saying
something MIGHT exist and saying that it DOES exist. And we must base our daily
actions on facts – not wild speculations.
Uneducated people always complain that the materialistic view of the universe is
too "restricted." Frequently they like to call it "old fashioned," and refer to
themselves as "new age" thinkers who have made a "breakthrough" beyond the
limitations of science and into the realm of "pure spirit." But this is not a new way
of thinking; it's archaic. If these same people went to college, they would
undoubtedly complain that their courses are too "restricted," and their professors
too narrow-minded and critical – because they are not allowed to do anything they
please. But if they manage to stick it out through graduate school they would finally
come to realize that what they had been complaining about is called "discipline,"
and that nothing can ever be accomplished without it. Science is so effective
precisely because it is so highly disciplined. There is no room for the vague and
lazy thinking that human beings normally prefer
Very small children are unable to distinguish the difference between reality and their
fantasies. They frequently come running to Mommy with reports of a monster hiding
under their bed, etc. As they mature they gain some skill in learning to separate fact from
fantasy. But it's a difficult process. And the scientific method is simply a set of techniques
for carrying this kind of discrimination to its utmost degree. Learning to filter out personal
bias, fallacious assumptions, misperceptions, erroneous measurements, faulty inferences,
and outright fraud and trickery are essential in learning the truth about anything –
especially complex scientific questions. On the other hand, schizophrenics and mystics
who claim to be receiving orders from “God” have never learned these techniques and
are simply behaving like children.
In summary, an atheist is someone who does not believe in the concept of theism because
theism is diametrically opposed to the basic philosophy of science. Theistic philosophy
creates conflict while science resolves it. In America, atheists actively oppose Christianity
because it teaches a metaphysic which is completely inconsistent with the facts – which, in
turn, leads to serious conflicts within society. Furthermore, theism is inconsistent with
democracy because theists don’t believe in the rule of man-made law. They think that by
following the dictates of their inner voices, or someone else who claims to be hearing such
voices, they are following a "higher authority." And over the last few thousand years we
have seen that this concept has led only to bloodshed.
ANIMISM, POLYTHEISM, MONOTHEISM AND DEISM