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Cheat Sheet

Atheism For Dummies

From Atheism For Dummies by Dale McGowan

Atheism is the simple but kind of startling idea that no god or gods exist. If you’re interested in exploring the topic, it helps to know some of the labels for different types and degrees of religious doubt, some of the most important thinkers in the history of atheism, and a few of the most fascinating spots on Earth for just saying no to God.

Words Used to Describe and Label Religious Doubt

Atheism and other kinds of religious doubt are chock-a-block with labels and terms. Some are more important than others; some are neutral or positive; others are used (even by atheists) as putdowns. The following list includes all of the major labels — good, bad, and ugly.

  • Atheist: Doesn’t believe a god or gods exist.

  • Agnostic: Not sure whether a god or gods exist.

  • Freethinker: Holds opinions based on independent reasoning without the undue influence of authority, doctrine, or tradition.

  • Skeptic: Withholds judgment pending actual evidence.

  • Humanist: Focuses on this natural world and this life. Sometimes used as a synonym for secular humanist. No, doesn’t worship humans.

  • Secular humanist: A humanist who specifically adds, “I don’t believe in God.” Still doesn’t worship humans.

  • Secularist: Used to mean someone who wanted to keep church and government separate. Now refers to a person who lives without religion.

  • Antitheist: Believes religion poisons everything and prays (hopes) for a future without it.

  • Apatheist: Doesn’t care whether there’s a God or not. Is annoyed that you asked.

  • Accommodationist: An atheist who seeks common ground with the religious. Much hugging.

  • Deist: Does not believe in God. Believes in “God.”

  • Pantheist: Believes the universe and God are one and the same, but not exactly.

A Few Key Figures in the History of Atheism

The history of atheism is filled with important figures — people who have thought outside of the religious box of their times and often used their eloquence and intellect to convince other to do so as well. Some have also distinguished themselves as moral or intellectual heroes in the great issues of their day. This list introduces a few of the biggest and best names in the history of atheism.

  • Epicurus: Greek philosopher. Felt that fear of the gods is the greatest obstacle to human happiness, and that human happiness is good.

  • Lucretius: Roman philosopher who described (and preferred) a world without gods, then wrote a 7,400-line poem about it.

  • Jinasena: Ninth-century Indian teacher who railed against intelligent design theory before it had a name.

  • *al-Rawândî: Ninth-century Islamic philosopher who called Muhammad a liar — out loud.

  • Chang Tsai: Eleventh-century Chinese philosopher who said heaven doesn’t have a mind, and if we had one ourselves, we’d notice that.

  • Jean Meslier: Eighteenth-century French Catholic atheist priest. Yes, you read that right.

  • Baron d’Holbach: Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinker, writer, enabler.

  • Ernestine Rose: Courageous nineteenth-century social reformer, abolitionist, feminist, atheist.

  • Robert Ingersoll: Great nineteenth-century agnostic orator.

  • Bertrand Russell: Hugely important twentieth-century atheist philosopher, teapot maker.

  • Madalyn Murray O’Hair: First president of American Atheists, plaintiff in the lawsuit that ended organized Bible readings in US public schools, designated atheist bogeyperson for the late twentieth century.

  • Richard Dawkins: Renowned evolutionary biologist, current designated atheist bogeyperson.

Religious Disbelief in Places around the World

Atheism, humanism, and all the rest of the nontheistic isms show up in different ways around the world. What follows is a list of some of the most interesting places to watch for developments in religious disbelief.

  • Earth: Current home to 1.1 billion nontheistic people.

  • Ireland: Where those who call themselves “religious” dropped from 69 percent to 47 percent in seven years — the largest drop on Earth.

  • United States: Where the religiously unaffiliated made up the single largest belief bloc (23 percent) of those electing Barack Obama to his second presidential term.

  • Norway: Where 80 percent of the population belongs to the Lutheran Church of Norway but 72 percent don’t believe in God.

  • Québec: Once 83 percent Catholic and the most religious province in Canada, now 83 percent Catholic and the least religious province in Canada. Yes.

  • United Kingdom: Where there’s a state religion and religious education and prayer services in schools — and belief in God is currently down to 38 percent.

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