Recent polls have shown that the stigma of atheism has all but disappeared. It doesn't surprise me though, because the majority of Americans say they believe in God. And their preachers, pastors, fathers, and priests have no-doubt told them what they think an atheist is:
- someone who hates God (or rejects God so they can be free to live in sin)
- they hate America / they're Communists
- they're bigots
- they have no morals
- they serve Satan
- they worship (and/or have faith in) science
- they don't believe in anything
- they eat babies
Atheism is the lack of a belief in a god.
That's it. It is not a religion, dogma, creed, political outlook, lifestyle, belief, belief system, or moral code. It's merely a lack of theistic belief. It doesn't tell you anything else about the person, or why they don't believe in god; it only tells you that they don't believe in god. It's a single answer to a single question.
After that, anything goes. You can find atheists who have varying opinions on all kinds of things. There are atheists who support the political left, some who support the right. There are atheists who believe in evolution, and some who don't. Some believe in abortion, and some don't.
Some Buddhists can be considered atheistic, as they don't have a belief in a god (though there are a lot of atheists who wouldn't tend to agree with the rest of the supernatural claims). The Raelians believe that we were created by a race of intelligent alien beings. No god belief=Atheist. A 'theist' is someone who has a belief in a god. The prefix 'a' means 'without', so an 'atheist' literally means 'non-theist' or 'without a belief in god'.
Most people know what it's like to be an atheist with respect to Thor or Zeus. Some just go one god further. The same reason a Catholic doesn't believe in Allah is the same reason an atheist doesn't believe in the Catholic god.
But, You're Not Sure, Are You?
Even if the average person doesn't think that an atheist barbecues babies, they may still have heard (and believed) the following 'escape clause':
"If you think there's no God, you're an Atheist. If you're just not sure, you're an Agnostic."
Again, this common misconception is untrue. In reality:
Gnosticism and Agnosticism address what you know (or claim to know).
Theism and Atheism address what you believe.
The two aren't mutually exclusive; it is possible to be a(n):
- Gnostic Theist - Someone who claims to know and believe that god exists
- Agnostic Theist - Someone who doesn't know for sure that a god exists, but believes anyway
- Gnostic Atheist - Someone who believes that no god exists and claims to know that this belief is true
- Agnostic Atheist - Someone who doesn't claim to know that no gods exist, but chooses not to blindly believe
The reason that agnosticism is not a "third option" in the question, is that agnosticism addresses a different aspect of the question. Agnosticism is the lack of knowledge of something. It deals with the basis for belief; it is not itself, belief. Agnostic atheism holds that knowledge of the divine is impossible (or currently unobtainable) and thus belief in God is unjustified and illogical. It is often used to soften the blow of such a "harsh-sounding word" as atheist.
Atheists are not making a positive claim. They're not saying "There is no god." (An atheist might say that, but that's not what 'atheism' means. You're free to believe what you want.) Most atheists might say that they are as sure that there is no god as they are that there are no fairies or leprechauns.
I am an Agnostic Atheist. I do not have hard proof of the non-existence of a god or gods, and I am not 100% absolutely sure there can be nor is such a being. But I do not believe in the proposal because the evidence provided that suggests said being has proved to be lacking in substance, structure, and credibility.
So there you have it. Atheists have no charter or doctrine. They are just people who have ONE thing in common: they don't hold a belief in a god or gods. They are everywhere. They are you doctors, your teachers, your computer techs, your airline pilots...your small-town neighbors.
(see more: youtube.com/smalltownatheist)