Other Religions Atheism and Agnosticism What Does It Mean to Be an Atheist? Share Flipboard Email Print Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images Atheism and Agnosticism Belief Systems Atheism and Agnosticism Logic Ethics Key Figures in Atheism Evolution Atheism Myths and Misconceptions By Austin Cline Atheism Expert M.A., Princeton University B.A., University of Pennsylvania Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, writes and lectures extensively about atheism and agnosticism. our editorial process Austin Cline Updated June 25, 2019 Simply put, an atheist doesn't believe in the existence of gods. There are many myths and preconceptions when you identify yourself as an atheist. Here are answers to the most common questions about atheists. Why Do People Become Atheists? There are as many reasons for being an atheist as there are atheists. The road to atheism tends to be very personal and individual, based upon the specific circumstances of a person's life, experiences, and attitudes. Nevertheless, it is possible to describe some general similarities which tend to be common among quite a few atheists, particularly atheists in the West. It is, however, important to remember that nothing in these general descriptions is necessarily common to all atheists. Do People Choose to Be Atheists? Many theists argue that people choose to be atheists and, hence, will be held accountable for such a (sinful) choice. But is atheism chosen? No: belief is not an action and cannot be attained by command. Once a person realizes what they must believe beyond all doubt, what other steps do they take in order to have that belief? None, it seems. There is nothing left to do. Thus, there is no extra, identifiable step which we can label the act of choosing. Are Atheists All Freethinkers? For freethinkers and those who associate themselves with free thought, claims are judged based on how closely they are found to correlate with reality. A freethinker is someone who evaluates claims and ideas based upon the standards of reason and logic rather than tradition, popularity, or other commonly used standards. What this means is that free thought and theism are compatible while freethought and atheism are not the same and one does not automatically necessitate the other. Are There Any Famous Atheists? Some people might tend to think that atheists are such a minority that they have never heard of any famous atheists who have contributed to society. As a matter of fact, many famous philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and more have been atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, secularists, humanists, etc. Although separated by time and profession, what unites them is a common interest in reason, skepticism, and critical thinking—in particular when it comes to traditional beliefs and religious dogmas. Some of the atheists actively discussing atheism at the current time include British biologist Richard Dawkins, author Sam Harris, and illusionist duo Penn Jillette and Teller. Do Any Atheists Go to Church? The idea of an atheist attending church services seems contradictory. Doesn't that require belief in God? Doesn't a person have to believe in a religion in order to attend it's worship services? Isn't freedom on Sunday morning one of the benefits of atheism? Although most atheists don't count themselves as part of religions which require regular attendance at churches or other houses of worship, you can still find some who do attend such services from time to time or even regularly. Is Atheism Just a Phase You're Going Through? This sort of question is asked much more often of young atheists than of adults, perhaps because young people do go through a number of phases during which they explore various ideas, philosophies, and positions. Although the term "phase" is used in a derogatory manner, it shouldn't be. There is nothing genuinely wrong with such exploration and experimentation, so long as it is accurately recognized and accepted as such. If someone is going through an "atheism" phase, what's wrong with that? Are Atheists All Materialistic, Hedonistic, Nihilistic, or Cynical? Although there are a lot of different myths about atheism and atheists, there is one theme which keeps coming up over and over again: the assumption that all atheists share some political position, philosophical system, or attitude. In short, it's assumed that all atheists believe some "X," where X has little or nothing whatsoever to do with atheism. Thus theists try to pigeonhole atheists into a single philosophical straight-jacket, be it humanism, communism, nihilism, objectivism, etc. Are Atheists Anti-Religion, Anti-Christian, Anti-Theistic, and Anti-God? Because atheists are so often seen critiquing religion, it's common for religious theists to wonder what atheists really think about religion and why. The truth is complex, however, because there is no single atheistic opinion about religion. Atheists' critical stance with regards to religion is more a product of cultural trends in the West than of anything internal to atheism itself, which is only the absence of belief in gods. Some atheists hate religion. Some atheists think religion can be useful. Some atheists are themselves religious and adherents of atheistic religions. What Is Practical Atheism? This is a category used by some religious theists to describe all those theists who technically believe in a god, but who behave immorally. The assumption is that moral behavior follows automatically from genuine theism, thus immoral behavior is a consequence of not genuinely believing. Theists who behave immorally must really be atheists, regardless of what they believe. The term practical atheist is thus a smear against atheists generally. See more on why immoral theists are not practical atheists.