Perhaps it is, for some. But many people have parents who do not attempt to force any religious (or atheist) ideas upon them, and many of those people choose to call themselves atheists.
It's also doubtless the case that some religious people chose religion as a backlash against an atheist upbringing, as a way of being different. On the other hand, many people choose religion as a way of conforming to the expectations of others.
On the whole, we can't conclude much about whether atheism or religion are backlash or conformism; although in general, people have a tendency to go along with a group rather than act or think independently.
"How do atheists differ from religious people?"
They don't believe in God. That's all there is to it.
Atheists may listen to heavy metal--backwards, even--or they may prefer a Verdi Requiem, even if they know the words. They may wear Hawaiian shirts, they may dress all in black, they may even wear orange robes. (Many Buddhists lack a belief in any sort of God.) Some atheists even carry a copy of the Bible around--for arguing against, of course!
Whoever you are, the chances are you have met several atheists without realizing it. Atheists are usually unexceptional in behavior and appearance.
"Unexceptional? But aren't atheists less moral than religious people?"
That depends. If you define morality as obedience to God, then of course atheists are less moral as they don't obey any God. But usually when one talks of morality, one talks of what is acceptable ("right") and unacceptable ("wrong") behavior within society.
Humans are social animals, and to be maximally successful they must cooperate with each other. This is a good enough reason to discourage most atheists from "antisocial" or "immoral" behavior, purely for the purposes of self-preservation.
Many atheists behave in a "moral" or "compassionate" way simply because they feel a natural tendency to empathize with other humans. So why do they care what happens to others? They don't know, they simply are that way.
Naturally, there are some people who behave "immorally" and try to use atheism to justify their actions. However, there are equally many people who behave "immorally" and then try to use religious beliefs to justify their actions. For example:
"Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners... But for that very reason, I was shown mercy so that in me... Jesus Christ might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever."
The above quote is from a statement made to the court on February 17th 1992 by Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious cannibal serial killer of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It seems that for every atheist mass-murderer, there is a religious mass-murderer. But what of more trivial morality?
A survey conducted by the Roper Organization found that behavior deteriorated after "born again" experiences. While only 4% of respondents said they had driven intoxicated before being "born again," 12% had done so after conversion. Similarly, 5% had used illegal drugs before conversion, 9% after. Two percent admitted to engaging in illicit sex before salvation; 5% after. [Freethought Today, September 1991, p. 12.]
So it seems that at best, religion does not have a monopoly on moral behavior.
Of course, a great many people are converted to (and from) Christianity during adolescence and their early twenties. This is also the time at which people begin to drink and become sexually active. It could be that the above figures merely indicate that Christianity has no effect on moral behavior, or insufficient effect to result in an overall fall in immoral behavior.
"Is there such a thing as atheist morality?"
If you mean "Is there such a thing as morality for atheists?" then the answer is yes, as explained above. Many atheists have ideas about morality which are at least as strong as those held by religious people. See "More research concerning atheist morality."
If you mean "Does atheism have a characteristic moral code?" then the answer is no. Atheism by itself does not imply anything much about how a person will behave. Most atheists follow many of the same "moral rules" as theists, but for different reasons. Atheists view morality as something created by humans, according to the way humans feel the world 'ought' to work, rather than seeing it as a set of rules decreed by a supernatural being.
"Then aren't atheists just theists who are denying God?"
A study by the Freedom From Religion Foundation found that over 90% of the atheists who responded became atheists because religion did not work for them. They had found that religious beliefs were fundamentally incompatible with what they observed around them.
Atheists are not unbelievers through ignorance or denial; they are unbelievers through choice. The vast majority of them have spent time studying one or more religions, sometimes in very great depth. They have made a careful and considered decision to reject religious beliefs.
This decision may, of course, be an inevitable consequence of that individual's personality. For a naturally skeptical person, the choice of atheism is often the only one that makes sense, and hence the only choice that person can honestly make.
The word "deny" can be used to mean "fail to accept the truth of." In that sense only, atheists deny the existence of God. They are not "in denial," willfully ignoring evidence; nor do they necessarily positively assert the nonexistence of God.
"But surely discussing God in this way is a tacit admission that he exists?"
Not at all. People talk about Santa Claus every Christmas; that doesn't mean he climbs down the chimney and leaves us all presents. Players of fantasy games discuss all kinds of strange creatures, from orcs and goblins to titans and minotaurs. They don't exist either.
"But don't atheists want to believe in God?"
Atheists live their lives as though there is nobody watching over them. Many of them have no desire to be watched over, no matter how good-natured the "Big Brother" figure might be.
Some atheists would like to be able to believe in God--but so what? Should one believe things merely because one wants them to be true? The risks of such an approach should be obvious. Atheists often decide that wanting to believe something is not enough; there must be evidence for the belief. See "The Revelation Game."
"But of course atheists see no evidence for the existence of God--they are unwilling in their souls to see!"
Many, if not most atheists were previously religious. As has been explained above, the vast majority have seriously considered the possibility that God exists. Many atheists have spent time in prayer trying to reach God.
Of course, it is true that some atheists lack an open mind; but assuming that all atheists are biased and insincere is offensive and closed-minded. Comments such as "Of course God is there, you just aren't looking properly" are likely to be viewed as patronizing.
Certainly, if you wish to engage in philosophical debate with atheists it is vital that you give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are being sincere if they say that they have searched for God. If you are not willing to believe that they are basically telling the truth, debate is futile.
"Isn't the whole of life completely pointless to an atheist?"
Perhaps it is to some, but still, many atheists live a purposeful life. They decide what they think gives meaning to life, and they pursue those goals. They try to make their lives count, not by wishing for eternal life, but by having an influence on other people who will live on. For example, an atheist may dedicate his life to political reform, in the hope of leaving his mark on history.
It is a natural human tendency to look for "meaning" or "purpose" in random events. However, it is by no means obvious that "life" is the sort of thing that has a "meaning."
To put it another way, not everything which looks like a question is actually a sensible thing to ask. Some atheists believe that asking "What is the meaning of life?" is as silly as asking "What is the meaning of a cup of coffee?." They believe that life has no purpose or meaning, it just is.
Also, if some sort of mystical external force is required to give one's existence a "meaning," surely that makes any hypothetical god's existence meaningless?
"So how do atheists find comfort in time of danger?"
There are many ways of obtaining comfort:
Your family and friends
Food and drink
Music, television, literature, arts and entertainment
Sports or exercise
That may sound like rather an empty and vulnerable way to face danger, but so what? Should individuals believe in things because they are comforting, or should they face reality no matter how harsh it might be?
In the end, it's a decision for the individual concerned. Most atheists are unable to believe something they would not otherwise believe merely because it makes them feel comfortable. They put truth before comfort, and consider that if searching for truth sometimes makes them feel unhappy, that's just hard luck. Often truth hurts.
"Don't atheists worry that they might suddenly be shown to be wrong?"
The short answer is "No, do you?"
Many atheists have been atheists for years. They have encountered many arguments and much supposed evidence for the existence of God, but they have found all of it to be invalid or inconclusive.
Thousands of years of religious belief haven't resulted in any good proof of the existence of God. Atheists therefore tend to feel that they are unlikely to be proved wrong in the immediate future, and they stop worrying about it.
"So why should theists question their beliefs? Don't the same arguments apply?"
No, because the beliefs being questioned are not similar. Weak atheism is the skeptical "default position" to take; it asserts nothing. Strong atheism is a negative belief. Theism is a very strong positive belief.
Atheists sometimes also argue that theists should question their beliefs because of the very real harm they can cause--not just to the believers, but to everyone else.
"What sort of harm?"
Religion represents a huge financial and work burden on mankind. It's not just a matter of religious believers wasting their money on church buildings; think of all the time and effort spent building churches, praying, and so on. Imagine how that effort could be better spent.
Many theists believe in miracle healing. There have been plenty of instances of ill people being "healed" by a priest, ceasing to take the medicines prescribed to them by doctors, and dying as a result. Some theists have died because they have refused blood transfusions on religious grounds.
It is arguable that the Catholic Church's opposition to birth control--and condoms in particular--is increasing the problem of overpopulation in many third-world countries and contributing to the spread of AIDS worldwide.
Religious believers have been known to murder their children rather than allow their children to become atheists or marry someone of a different religion. Religious leaders have been known to justify murder on the grounds of blasphemy.
There have been many religious wars. Even if we accept the argument that religion was not the true cause of those wars, it was still used as an effective justification for them.
"Those weren't real believers. They just claimed to be believers as some sort of excuse."
This is rather like the No True Scotsman fallacy.
What makes a real believer? There are so many One True Religions it's hard to tell. Look at Christianity: there are many competing groups, all convinced that they are the only true Christians. Sometimes they even fight and kill each other. How is an atheist supposed to decide who's a real Christian and who isn't, when even the major Christian churches like the Catholic Church and the Church of England can't decide amongst themselves?
In the end, most atheists take a pragmatic view, and decide that anyone who calls himself a Christian, and uses Christian belief or dogma to justify his actions, should be considered a Christian. Maybe some of those Christians are just perverting Christian teaching for their own ends--but surely if the Bible can be so readily used to support un-Christian acts it can't be much of a moral code? If the Bible is the word of God, why couldn't he have made it less easy to misinterpret? And how do you know that your beliefs aren't a perversion of what your God intended?
If there is no single unambiguous interpretation of the Bible, then why should an atheist take one interpretation over another just on your say-so? Sorry, but if someone claims that he believes in Jesus and that he murdered others because Jesus and the Bible told him to do so, we must call him a Christian.
"Obviously those extreme sorts of beliefs should be questioned. But since nobody has ever proved that God does not exist, it must be very unlikely that more basic religious beliefs, shared by all faiths, are nonsense."
The commonality of many basic religious beliefs is hardly surprising, if you take the view that religion is a product of society. From that viewpoint, religions have borrowed ideas which contribute to a stable society--such as respect for authority figures, a prohibition against murder, and so on.
In addition, many common religious themes have been passed on to later religions. For example, it has been suggested that the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament actually have their roots in Hammurabi's code.
The claim that because something hasn't been proved false, it's less likely to be nonsense, does not hold. As was pointed out earlier in this dialogue, positive assertions concerning the existence of entities are inherently much harder to disprove than negative ones. Nobody has ever proved that unicorns don't exist, and there are many stories about them, but that doesn't make it unlikely that they are myths.
It is therefore much more valid to hold a negative assertion by default than it is to hold a positive assertion by default. Of course, "weak" atheists may argue that asserting nothing is better still.
"Well, if atheism's so great, why are there so many theists?"
Unfortunately, the popularity of a belief has little to do with how "correct" it is, or whether it "works"; consider how many people believe in astrology, graphology, and other pseudosciences.
Many atheists feel that it is simply a human weakness to want to believe in gods. Certainly in many primitive human societies, religion allows the people to deal with phenomena that they do not adequately understand.
Of course, there's more to religion than that. In the industrialized world, we find people believing in religious explanations of phenomena even when there are perfectly adequate natural explanations. Religion may have started as a means of attempting to explain the world, but nowadays it serves other purposes as well. For instance, for many people religion fulfills a social function, providing a sense of community and belonging.
"But so many cultures have developed religions. Surely that must say something?"
Not really. Most religions are only superficially similar; for example, it's worth remembering that religions such as Buddhism and Taoism lack any sort of concept of God in the Christian sense. In short, there is no consensus amongst religions as to what God actually is. Hence one of the problems you must face if you wish to discuss God with an atheist, is that of defining exactly what you mean by the word.
Also, most religions are quick to denounce competing religions, so it's rather odd to use one religion to try and justify another.
"What about all the famous scientists and philosophers who have concluded that God exists?"
Firstly, note that surveys typically find that around 40% of scientists believe in god; so believers are in the minority. (The most recent survey was by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham, was carried out in 1996, and was reported in the journal "Nature.")
For every scientist or philosopher who believes in a god, there is one who does not. Besides, as has already been pointed out, the truth of a belief is not determined by how many people believe it. Also, it is important to realize that atheists do not view famous scientists or philosophers in the same way that theists view their religious leaders.
A famous scientist is only human; she may be an expert in some fields, but when she talks about other matters her words carry no special weight. Many respected scientists have made themselves look foolish by speaking on subjects which lie outside their fields of expertise.
Also, note that even famous scientists' views are treated with skepticism by the scientific community. Acknowledged experts in a particular field must still provide evidence for their theories; science relies on reproducible, independently confirmed results. New theories which are incompatible with a large body of existing scientific knowledge will be subject to especially close scrutiny; but if the work is sound and the experimental data reproducible, the new theories will displace the old.
For instance, both special relativity and quantum mechanics were highly controversial, and required that a lot of existing scientific theory be thrown out. Yet both were relatively quickly accepted after extensive experiments proved their correctness. Pseudoscientific theories such as creationism are rejected not because they are controversial, but because they simply do not stand up to basic scientific scrutiny. (For further information, see the FAQs for http://www.talkorigins.org/.)
The Constructing a Logical Argument document has more to say about scientific verification and proof by authority.
"So are you really saying that widespread belief in religion indicates nothing?"
Not entirely. It certainly indicates that the religion in question has properties which have helped it to spread so far.
The theory of memetics talks of "memes"--sets of ideas which can propagate themselves between human minds, by analogy with genes. Some atheists view religions as sets of particularly successful parasitic memes, which spread by encouraging their hosts to convert others. Some memes avoid destruction by discouraging believers from questioning doctrine, or by using peer pressure to keep one-time believers from admitting that they were mistaken. Some religious memes even encourage their hosts to destroy hosts controlled by other memes.
Of course, in the memetic view there is no particular virtue associated with successful propagation of a meme. Religion is not a good thing because of the number of people who believe it, any more than a disease is a good thing because of the number of people who have caught it.
The memetic approach has little to say about the truth of the information in the memes, however.
"Even if religion is not entirely true, at least it puts across important messages. What are the fundamental messages of atheism?"
There are many important ideas atheists promote. The following are just a few of them; don't be surprised to see ideas which are also present in some religions.
There is more to moral behavior than mindlessly following rules.
Be especially skeptical of positive claims.
If you want your life to have some sort of meaning, it's up to you to find it.
Search for what is true, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Make the most of your life, as it's probably the only one you'll have.
It's no good relying on some external power to change you; you must change yourself.
Just because something's popular doesn't mean it's good.
If you must assume something, assume something easy to test.
Don't believe things just because you want them to be true.