Atheism For Dummies (For Dummies (Religion & Spirituality))

BOOK: Atheism For Dummies (For Dummies (Religion & Spirituality))
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Atheism For Dummies

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Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.

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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication Data

McGowan, Dale Atheism for dummies / Dale McGowan.

Includes index.

1. Atheism.  I. Title.

BL2747.3.M354 2013 211’.8 C2012-906678-8

ISBN 978-1-118-50920-3 (pbk); ISBN 978-1-118-50921-0 (ebk); ISBN 978-1-118-50922-7 (ebk); ISBN 978-1-118-50924-1 (ebk)

Printed in the United States

About the Author

Dale McGowan, PhD
, conducted orchestras, earned a doctorate in music composition, and spent 15 years as a college professor before chucking it all to become a writer.

Editor and co-author of
Parenting Beyond Belief
(“A compelling read”—Newsweek) and Raising Freethinkers, the two top-selling books for nonreligious parents, Dale also offers secular parenting workshops in cities across North America and writes a popular blog for nonreligious parents called “The Meming of Life” (\\blog

Dale edited the historical anthology
Voices of Unbelief: Documents by Atheists and Agnostics
, and reviewers have called his satirical novel
Calling Bernadette’s Bluff
“an undoubted triumph of satire” and “a riot.”

He was named 2008 Harvard Humanist of the Year for his work in nonreligious parenting. In addition to writing and speaking, he is the founding executive director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a nonprofit charitable foundation focusing and encouraging humanist generosity and compassion.

Dale lives near Atlanta with his wife and three kids. To learn more or to contact Dale, visit


This book is dedicated to my parents, Dave and Carol McGowan, who raised me to be curious about the real world and never told me there was a thought I couldn’t think.

To my kids, Connor, Erin, and Delaney, to whom I return the favor.

And to Becca, the perfect partner for a great adventure.

Author’s Acknowledgments

Thanks first of all to the great and friendly atheist Hemant Mehta, the first person to think I’d be a good person to write this book. I’m deeply indebted to Ed Buckner and Amanda Metskas, two giants of the freethought world who took the time to read this book while it was in progress and whose rod and staff guided me when I went astray.

Greta Christina and Jennifer Michael Hecht are the two great writers and thinkers on whose work I’ve drawn more than any others for this project.

Immense thanks to the staff and interns at Foundation Beyond Belief who kept things humming while I wrote: Airan Wright, Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, Claire Vinyard, Kelly Wright, Walker Bristol, Joshua Brose, Cathleen O’Grady, Andrew Geary, Sam Shore, Sarah Hamilton, Kate Donovan, Chana Messinger, Corey Glasscock, Lauren Lane . . . and special praise for the dynamic duo of Noelle George and AJ Chalom.

A hat tip to my blog readers at The Meming of Life who helped plumb the depths of several big questions.

Many thanks to the professional and supportive team at John Wiley & Sons, Inc., especially Anam Ahmed and Chad Sievers, and my splendid agent Dr. Uwe Stender.

Finally, all thanks and love to my wife, Becca, who also read and improved every page, and our three spectacular kids, Connor, Erin, and Delaney. You make it all worthwhile.

Publisher’s Acknowledgments

We’re proud of this book; please send us your comments through our online registration form located at
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Atheism For Dummies

to view this book's cheat sheet.

Table of Contents


About This Book

Conventions Used in This Book

What You’re Not to Read

Foolish Assumptions

How This Book Is Organized

Part I: Understanding What Atheism Is

Part II: Following Atheism through the Ages

Part III: Reading the Great Works of Atheism

Part IV: Living a Full Life without Belief in God

Part V: The Part of Tens

Icons Used in This Book

Where to Go from Here

Part I: Understanding What Atheism Is

Chapter 1: Meeting Atheism

Getting a Grip on Atheism

Seeing the many forms and faces of religious disbelief

Examining what nonbelievers believe and don’t believe — and why

Seeing the Progression of Atheism

In the distant past and in different cultures

The 19th century

The 20th century

Atheism today

Examining Atheism in the Written Word

Understanding What Atheism Means in Everyday Life

Chapter 2: Unweaving the Rainbow of Disbelief

Tomato, Tomahto? The Wonderful, Maddening World of Atheist Labels

Defining atheism: Implicit versus explicit

Coming to terms: A quick look at labels

Answering the capital question: Is it Atheist or atheist?

Believing and Disbelieving by Degrees

Roberts’s rule: “We are both atheists”

Russell’s labels: Why most atheists are agnostics and vice versa

Dawkins’s degrees: The seven-point belief scale

Emphasizing Doubt: Agnostics Aren’t Sure (and Neither Are You)

Discovering Humanism: The Thousand Steps That Follow

Looking at the world in a different way

Coming to terms with terms: Humanist or secular humanist?

Seeing the humanist heart of atheism

Forcing a Square Peg into a Round Hole: The Unpigeonholeables

Believing in a different kind of creator: Deists

Seeing nature as God: Pantheists

Being religious without a god: Religious atheists

Moving beyond labels: The rise of the Nones

Chapter 3: Recognizing What Atheists Do and Don’t Believe — and Why

Understanding Why Atheists Don’t Believe in God

Crossing from the will to believe to “the will to find out”

Getting a handle on confirmation bias

Asking new questions

Comparing religions

Reading the Bible

Admitting the weakness of the arguments and evidence

Solving the complexity problem

Noticing the steady retreat of religious answers

Getting humble about humanness

Coming (really, really) late to the party

Grasping the size of the universe

Seeing that the universe is just as you would expect it to be without a God

Knowing What Most Atheists Actually Do Believe

Seeing the natural universe as all there is — and enough

Accepting that this is our one and only life

Valuing ethical behavior

Taking responsibility for ourselves and each other

Asserting that God is actually “that kind of question”

Addressing the negative consequences of religious belief

Discovering meaning and purpose

Realizing that a universe without God can be even more wonderful and inspiring

Setting Aside Misconceptions: Things That Few (If Any) Atheists Believe

That there is no right and wrong

That life arose and evolved by chance

That all religion is the same

That religion has made no positive contributions

Answering the Question: Is Science Incompatible with Belief in God?

Part II: Following Atheism through the Ages

Chapter 4: Finding Atheism in the Ancient World

Uncovering What the Ancients Believed (Or Didn’t)

Leaping Forward: The Axial Age

Inferring Unbelief in Ancient Judea

Finding Unbelief in Ancient China

Understanding the concept of t’ien (heaven . . . but not quite)

Getting to the roots of Confucianism

Visiting ancient India: 320 million gods and none at all

Whispering doubts in Ancient Greece and Rome

Chapter 5: Going Medieval

Continuing to Doubt in Medieval India

Putting atheist Hinduism front and center

Calling out “foolish men” — Jinasena

Sweeping Out the Superstitions in China

Trash-Talking in Medieval Islam

Kindling the Islamic Golden Age

Railing theologians: “Against the Unbelievers”

Railing back: Unbelievers say “Muhammad was a liar”

Freezing Out the Gods in Iceland

Giving Europe the Third Degree: The Inquisitions

Eyeing the Inquisition’s main focus

Meeting Jacques Fournier, Inquisitor

Finding unbelievers among the heretics

Chapter 6: Enlightening Strikes

Transmitting the Classics

Bringing the Greeks back to Europe: The Arab scholars

Saving atheism: Catholicism’s ironic role

Getting a (Bad) Name: Athée

Discovering a Whole New Way to Think: The Scientific Revolution

Copernicus knocks the Earth off-center; Galileo backs him up: The first humbling

Reconciling science and religion (or not) — Whiston’s New Theory of the Earth

Stirring the Pot: The Clandestine Manuscripts

Singing the War Song of an Atheist Priest

Thinking Dangerous Thoughts: The Enlightenment Philosophers

Crushing infamous things with Voltaire

Daring to know: Kant’s “Sapere aude!”

Meeting of minds in coffeehouses and salons

Getting explicit in Paris: The incredible Encyclopédie

Challenging the Powers That Be: The French Revolution

Dechristianizing France

Creating a Cult of Reason

Back to the future: The Cult of the Supreme Being

Checking In on the US Founding Fathers

Chapter 7: Opening a Golden Age of Freethought

Killing God: Atheist Philosophers Do the Crime, a Pantheist Writes the Eulogy

Freethinking with Early Feminists

Bracing for the Collision of Religion and Science

Aging the Earth: The second humbling

Dethroning the human species: The third humbling

Mixing signals: The Vatican warns against “the unrestrained freedom of thought”

Challenging the Religious Monopoly in Politics

Denying unbelief a seat at the table: The Bradlaugh Affair

Waxing eloquent in unbelief: Robert Green Ingersoll

Creating a Religion without God: Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture

Chapter 8: Growing Up in the Tumultuous 20th Century

Clashing at the National Levels: Atheism and Religion

Encountering violence and intolerance in the Soviet Union

Provoking the Cristero Rebellion in Mexico

Examining the horrors of a Cultural Revolution in China

Birthing Modern Humanism

Redefining God: John Dewey

Making manifestos and declarations

Building a philosophy of humanism: Corliss Lamont

Disagreeing with Gandhi

Leading a religious nation: The atheist Jawaharlal Nehru

Pressing Gandhi on social issues: Gora

Meeting the “Most Hated”

The “Most Hated Man in Kentucky”: Charles Chilton Moore

The “Most Hated Woman in America,” Part I: Emma Goldman

The “Most Hated Woman in Britain”: Margaret Knight

The “Most Hated Woman in America,” Part II: Madalyn Murray O’Hair

Courting the Separation of Church and State

Doing Religion with an Optional God: Unitarian Universalism

Burying God, Keeping Jesus: The Death of God Theologians

Skipping Yahweh: Humanistic Judaism

Reconciling Science and Religion (Or Not) Again: Gould’s NOMA

Chapter 9: Voicing a New Atheism, and a New Humanism, for the 21st Century

Tracing the Birth of the 21st-Century Atheist Movement

Feeling “Deep Grief and Fierce Anger”: The Four Horsemen

Sounding the alarm: Richard Dawkins on “the elephant in the room”

Joining (or rejoining) the battle: Harris, Dennett, Hitchens . . . and Dawkins again

Hearing the Chorus of New Atheists: We Are Here, We Are Here, We Are Here!

Calling out from billboards and buses

Coming out with the Out Campaign

Rallying around reason

Welcoming the young and the godless

Founding new organizations

Spreading Humanism Worldwide

Creating humanist chaplaincies at Harvard and beyond

Setting a place at the table — national and international humanism

Promoting humanism in Africa

Exploding into a Thriving Online Community

Considering how the Internet has helped

Surfing to some popular atheist websites

Maturing as a Movement

Making accommodations —is “interfaith” a bad word?

Moving beyond words

Part III: Reading the Great Works of Atheism

Chapter 10: Uncovering Lost, Secret, Censored, and Forbidden Works

Speaking Volumes in Two Sentences: Protagoras’s On the Gods

Hearing Echoes of the Lost Sutras of Cārvāka

Listening to Al-Razi on “Fraudulent” Muhammad

Discovering the First Explicitly Atheist Book — Theophrastus Redivivus

Making a Whispered Myth Real: The Treatise of the Three Impostors

Expelling the Atheist: Shelley’s Necessity of Atheism

Disguising Darwin’s Autobiography

Censoring Himself . . . for Awhile: Mark Twain

Chapter 11: Sampling Important Works: Deep Thoughts, Big Thinkers

Spotting the Survivors

Musing on the Nature of Things with Lucretius

Correcting the Unenlightened with Chang

Appreciating Unorthodox Believers

Praising Folly with Erasmus

Reasoning with Paine

Clearing the Way

Hiding disbelief with an atheist priest

Promoting Good Sense with d’Holbach

Rejecting Christianity with Russell

Building a New Vision

Drawing crowds with Robert Ingersoll

Imagining a humanist world with Lamont

Waxing miraculous with Dawkins

Chapter 12: Laughing in Disbelief: Challenging the Divine with Humor

Getting Satirical

Mark Twain

George Carlin

The Onion

The Power of Parody: The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Skewering the Sacred Musically: Tim Minchin

Blaspheming at the Movies: Life of Brian

Bringing the Blasphemy Home on TV

The Simpsons

South Park

Family Guy

Downloading Disbelief

Mr. Deity

Jesus and Mo

Eternal Earthbound Pets

Chapter 13: Reawakening Passionate Disbelief: Key Works of the 21st Century

Sparking an Atheist Renaissance

Setting the stage: Hecht and Jacoby

Urging The End of Faith – Sam Harris

Diagnosing The God Delusion with Richard Dawkins

Breaking the Spell with Daniel Dennett

Arguing that God Is Not Great with Christopher Hitchens

Continuing the Conversation: Great Blogs

Reflecting intelligently: Greta Christina’s Blog

Commenting on the current: Friendly Atheist

Leading the Marines: Pharyngula

Building bridges: Non-Prophet Status

Providing perspective: Skepchick

Going beyond the Intellectual: The Complete Life without Gods

Getting godlessly spiritual

Flipping the idea of holiness

Creating a humanist Bible

Seeking the good without God

Building bridges with the religious

Part IV: Living a Full Life without Belief in God

Chapter 14: Getting Personal with Atheism Today

Counting Heads: The Growing Nontheistic Presence around the World

Figuring Out the Who, What, and Where of Atheism

Mapping religion and doubt: Atheists hiding in plain sight

Disbelieving differently around the world

Talkin’ about My (Kids’) Generation

Answering the Question: “Why Are Atheists So Angry?”

Opening Up the Freethought Movement

Speaking of gender

Honoring Harry — the “classic” atheists, and what they built

Seeing Sally — the “community” atheists, and what they need

Considering race and ethnicity

Creating a Satisfying Community for Nonbelievers of Every Stripe

Taking a Quick Look at Issues around the World

Chapter 15: Being Good with or without God

BOOK: Atheism For Dummies (For Dummies (Religion & Spirituality))
2.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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