NOTE: This is a repost of an article I wrote. I originally wrote in back around 2001 or so. I'm transferring it here to keep it together with my recent writings.
This title says a lot about the person reading it.
If you came here thinking you would find out exactly how most atheists think, you are probably a religious person (probably Christian) and think in terms of groups.
Most Atheists reading this title are probably thinking "What does this guy think he's doing trying to speak for me?" or "Hmm, I wonder what I have in common with other Atheists?"
Atheists as a whole are a mixed bag and not prone (at the moment) to large gatherings. This makes us hard to nail down because there is no real "group" mentality.
Because of this I will write instead about my personal beliefs and what I think being Atheist has done for me.
In that light, I suppose the title should be "What It Means To Me To Be An Atheist", but that sounds like a 4th grade homework assignment and you wouldn't have bothered to come here to read it. (Does this qualify as false advertising? Maybe so.)
In the strictest sense of the word, being an Atheist simply means you believe there are no God(s) or Goddess(es). Nothing more. However I believe that along with that basic concept are a few general notions that set the stage for lifelong decisions.
Ability to break away
For me to be an Atheist I had to go against my parents wishes (they were Jewish) and many of my neighbors wishes (Most of them being Christian or Jehovah's Witness). So the concept of breaking away from the pack is a built in function. Some people prefer to stay in line with the group even if things may not make sense at the moment. They trust that many people can't be wrong and must know something they don't. I, and people like me, don't have this condition.
However this doesn't mean I'm a rebel. This "breaking from the pack" only extends to group actions that I don't agree with. When I'm involved in a group that I agree with, I jump right in line. If the majority of people became Atheist, would I change my religion to stay out of the group? Nope. I'm very comfortable in my beliefs. A good example would be that I wouldn't participate in an aggressive action during war if I don't believe that action is warranted. (For the record, I'm not a pacifist. I study martial arts and believe in harsh punishment for crimes. I simply don't believe in pain without reason.)
Many intelligent Atheists I know look at things with a scientific eye, meaning they want clear understandable evidence before believing in something. Blind faith isn't a character trait we emulate. This "understandable evidence " is based on common sense. There have been enough tests to prove the existence of oxygen. I don't have to physically see it to believe it exists.
Looking for Reasons
Being of the Atheist mindset also means that I don't attribute Godly properties to something I can't explain. I understand that there are forces in this world we don't understand yet. (for the human race to believe that we know every physics law and concept this universe has to offer is a very near-sighted and wrong viewpoint. We may have more knowledge then we had 4,000 years ago but we don't have all of it yet, and we probably never will.) I look for rational explanations for occurrences I learn about. This is a desirable quality for some and is the basis for every invention and creature comfort you take advantage of today.
Looking for Truths
When a scientific theory is used to explain something and I have enough knowledge that I don't agree with it, I skip it and keep looking. Bad theories to me are lumped in the same group as religious belief: Good sounding concepts that fall under hard scrutiny. I want to know the actual truth about things that happen.
For those of you that want to argue about what the word "truth" means here's a hard definition. The "truth" is that which actually happened, happens or will actually happen regardless of what anyone believes.
For example: If someone was murdered and everyone says Person A did it even though they didn't actually see him do it, and the reality is that Person B committed the crime and framed Person A, even if we never find this out, that's what the truth is.
My favorite example is the Galileo effect. At one time, most people believed the Earth was the center of the universe. This was held to be the truth. But when the actual situation became known, did the universe magically change to coincide with the new beliefs? No. Our beliefs changed to coincide with the new findings. (This situation occurs much more often then people like to believe.)
Taking Responsibility for my own Actions
Since I have no deity to look up to, I can't place my life in their hands. When I do something good it is because I did it and I want proper credit for it. When I do something bad, it is my fault not anyone else's and I deserve the correct punishment. I believe this is true with all people. Blaming someone else for our mistakes or personal weaknesses is wrong no matter who or what we blame.
This goes right along with the above part. Since I fully believe that my actions are my own and that I will be punished if I do bad things, then I must make sure I don't do bad things. I don't steal, lie, cheat, kill, etc, etc. I stay away from smoking, drugs and drinking because I'm aware what the consequences can be if I participate in any of these actions. I don't have the privilege of going to a church after committing crimes, praying for forgiveness and expecting my soul will be in Heaven or Valhalla or anywhere else when I die.
Here and Now
My actions are based on what's good for me, family and friends here and now and on into the future. I'm not worried about my soul going to heaven. I don't believe in Heaven or Hell. I don't believe in Satan anymore than I believe in any Gods anymore than I believe in the Hydra fought by Hercules anymore than I believe in Loki. The list goes on.
The one thing I do believe strongly in is that my actions as a person has a real effect on things and other people on this planet. And it is that belief of interaction that drives my actions.
Some people will try to say that this attitude makes me unique compared to other Atheists. Based on the other Atheists I've met in my life I don't think so. Some, of course, don't share some of these ideals, but many do.
Action vs. Prayer
With a belief in no Gods I am keenly aware that if there's something I want, I can't pray, sit back and let it happen. If I want something to happen, I must go out and do the necessary actions to make that take place. I can't hope for miracles. If I want an action to occur but I have no control over the situation, I hope as hard as I can (we'll talk about hope in a little bit) but I relax and wait to see what the outcome is. Depending on the results I choose what my next personal action should be and go from there.
Limited Personal Time
Since I don't believe my soul will live forever in either eternal bliss or everlasting damnation, I believe that I have a limited amount of time in this world to experience things. This sense of urgency helps push me toward my goals before I die. It also makes me think in terms of long range success.
For example: If I create an organization and it runs fine until just after I die, that's not good enough for me. I won't be in eternal bliss while my creation crumbles and hurts those around it. People will simply be hurt after I'm dead and that's not what I want. So I have to be careful in planning any organizations or fixing any businesses or anything like that. I have to calculate the long term effects of my actions so they aren't too many bad problems after I'm gone.
No Inflated Sense of Self
Since I don't believe any God(s) made this world specifically for humans, I fully realize my place in life. I am no more important than any animal. Not in the overall scheme of things sense. My life is important and worth defending just like an antelope running away from a hungry lion. Both animals are trying to survive, and to deny the instinct for survival would be unrealistic, but neither is more important than the other one. They (and I) are a small part of a great whole and we must participate in our part, but to misconstrue our importance in this universe is dangerous in my opinion.
Sense of Spirituality
Remember when I said that I am by nature a skeptic? I also said that I look for realistic solutions to problems and that I admit we don't know everything. These things come together to force me to state that there are forces that we don't understand yet.
What I mean by this is that I have personally witnessed things that seem to be out of synch with what most people expect in reality. Many people attribute these things to ghosts, angels spiritual forces, or something similar because they have no understanding of the forces behind the occurrence.
My personal interpretation of some things I have witnessed in my life based on my education is that there are forces and natural rules that can be used under the correct conditions to produce amazing effects and outcomes. However these conditions are difficult to reproduce and/or control and therefore make normal scientific tests difficult. But they are not magic in the sense of breaking the rules of reality. They are simply specialized rules that we don't know or understand yet. In other words these are rare, but existent situations and not "Proof of an afterlife" or any such thing.
To draw a bad analogy, it is similar to finding a deliciously made but unknown type of dinner on your table. It is the most fantastic meal you've ever had. With no one around to explain what the ingredients are and without any ability to tell what it is made from, you could assume that it was magic or you could simply conclude that a master chef made it from a highly guarded recipe and enjoy the meal. Shucks its even conceivable that your children's children will learn the secret of that magical meal and be able to recreate it at will, just like we learned to do with radio, digital and other sciences.
I think that is enough to help you understand how an Atheist mind might view this world we live in. I look forward to seeing what you have to say about this.