How to read (and think) like an atheist


There were two categories of teenagers in the 1950s: those who could name one book by an atheist and those who could not. I joined the small first category in 1958, at sixteen, after fortuitously discovering Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.” That single book was the complete atheist wing of my local public library.

I didn’t know anyone else without a God belief. More accurately, I didn’t know anyone who acknowledged such nonbelief. I felt better about myself after learning that Russell was more than just not a Christian. He was as many “nots” as I was, and brave enough to say so.  Bertrand Russell transformed the lives of many in my generation. For the first time we heard articulate arguments that confirmed and gave voice to our own skepticism and doubts. Even some true believers were led on a thoughtful journey toward altered religious states.

Today there are countless “nonspiritual” heirs to Bertrand Russell. Many teens who consider themselves religious fundamentalists have heard about or even read best-selling books like “The God Delusion,” “God is Not Great,” “The End of Faith,” “Breaking the Spell,” and “The Demon-Haunted World.”  Conservative religionists might believe that Satan inspired these and other such authors, but godless views are gaining traction in our culture. (Note to fundamentalists: Is Satan winning?) I agree that God is both a delusion and not great, and that it would be nice if we could bring an end to faith by breaking the spell of a demon-haunted world. But in-your-face books aren’t always the most effective ways to change minds or activate atheists.

There aren’t many atheist evangelists to take on that challenge. In fact, most of them rarely discuss their atheism because it’s not a big issue in their lives. I had long been an apathetic atheist, and turned into an accidental activist atheist only when I saw how the religious right had become politically influential and was impacting my life. I still fear for our country when politicians base decisions more on theocratic than on secular values.

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Written By: Herb Silverman
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  1. The real trouble with religion in the US is that it’s so linked to the culture. Religion is the support network and other network… The non religious are seen as enemies of the religion and lacking something beautiful, rather than potentially like minded people who see a beautiful and logical universe.

  2. Thank you, Herb. An enjoyable read as always. I look forward to your next contribution.

  3. Here in South Africa,or at any rate,in my neck of the woods,one can scarcely move without tripping over an xtian and a particularly virulent strain at that.I remember the first time I came across an atheist book in a store.I snatched it up with unseemly haste and read it with great relish.My kind of people at last! That was just a few years ago.Now we have a feast of Dawkins,Hitchens Sagan,Harris,Grayling to mention just a few.And investing in a Kindle is wonderful too.It is saddening to see the enormous churches springing up and the sleek, wellfed pastors who prey on the poor and ignorant.Lots of people look upon atheists as wicked people .I saw a woman in a bookstore looking at Hitchen’s ‘God is not Great’ and mistaking her for a kindred spirit told her what a wonderful book it was.She looked at me asif I ate babies for breakfast .Her comment was not one of which Jesus would have approved.

  4. I grew up in U.K. and unlike Herb, I didn’t know anyone who HAD a God belief!

    “I didn’t know anyone else without a God belief. More accurately, I didn’t know anyone who acknowledged such nonbelief. “

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