Disbelief in the existence of God is an enduring, worldwide phenomenon that is quite possibly also one of the most misunderstood belief systems in the world. For many, the term “atheism” immediately spurs negative imagery inspired by years of indoctrination – churches proclaiming the sins of the infidels, and how questioning God’s infinite love will result in instant damnation. Atheists are perceived as dark, nihilistic, immoral, amoral, pessimistic, and even evil, because without God, clearly they are also without morality and goodness. But if this disbelief is so negative, why would nearly 1 billion people globally, and more than 16 percent of the American population identify themselves as “nonbelievers”? In fact, a survey published in January 2007 by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press found that “20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves atheists or agnostics – nearly double those who said that in a similar survey 20 years ago” (Abel). Surely there is something to be gained in denying one of contemporary civilization’s most accepted and cherished beliefs in order to garner the respect of (and often participation from) some of the greatest minds in human history. Indeed, for most nonbelievers, it seems the justification for atheism far outweighs the justifications for theism, which they view as moot, obsolete, and inaccurate.
Put simply, atheism is the belief that there is no God or gods. In this sense, it is true that atheism is a “negative” philosophy in that it is the negation of theism (the word is derived from the Greek ‘a’ - without, ‘theos’ - God). However, as we shall see, this perception of atheism as a negative worldview is nothing more than a historical accident. In reality, it is the conclusion reached by rational minds who do not perceive the need for any supernatural deity, and understand the world through natural and physical causes.
Many of atheism’s critics are quick to call the worldview invalid because they assume it wouldn’t exist without theism – without the idea of the Divine. In fact, some even go so far as to say that atheism is actually parasitic on religion. This is an incorrect statement. Without theism, the only part of atheism that wouldn’t exist is its name. Julian Baggini, the editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, weaves this analogy in his book Atheism:
In Scotland there is a deep lake called Loch Ness. Many people in Scotland – almost certainly the majority – believe that the lake is like other lochs in the country. Their beliefs about the lake are what we might call normal. But that is not to say they have no particular beliefs. It’s just that the beliefs they have are so ordinary that they do not require elucidation…However, some people believe that the loch contains a strange creature, known as the Loch Ness Monster. Many claim to have seen it, although no firm evidence of its existence has ever...