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Understanding why People become Atheist

Atheism is the belief that there is no God or gods. It’s a stance that is becoming more commonplace and there are a variety of reasons why people are choosing to abandon religion and become atheist.

For many atheists, their stance is derived from an evaluation of the scientific evidence and a conclusion that the balance of probabilities lies heavily with there being no God or gods. Others may have reached their conclusion based upon the perception that religion is more of a cause for evil than for good, whilst others will form their stance on the basis that they have never felt any supernatural presence. Let’s look then at some of the specific drivers for the increase in atheism:

Science over supernaturalism:

Religion took root in the early days of humanity, first as belief in many gods (polytheism) and then refining to a belief in one God (monotheism), albeit that different peoples believe in a different one God. Religion was used to fill gaps in understanding about the natural world. Early man was awed by the power of nature and so worshipped sun gods and gods of thunder. As religion developed, its adherents produced texts (such as the Bible) that sought to explain how the world came into being and how we reached our place of pre-eminence within our world.

Over time, however, scientific advancements have shed light on how the universe came into being and upon how all life species evolved on planet Earth. Often the newly acquired scientific evidence has contradicted the views traditionally espoused through religious texts. The mainstream Christian churches have adapted to these scientific revelations by adapting their stance and explaining that much of what is written in the Bible should not be regarded literally. However, the fact that previous absolutes have had to be reworked has left religion looking weak in comparison to the testable logic that is inherent in science.

Negative perceptions of religion:

There has been a trend towards multi-culturism, particularly in the Western world, and this has led to a lower tolerance for activities that are perceived to either directly discriminate against other cultural groups or which indirectly serve to create a “them and us” mentality. It should be noted that many church leaders have taken great strides to work constructively with their equivalents from other religions but the bare fact remains that religion is not an inclusive club. For example, the Christian religion holds that you have to be a Christian in order to gain access to Heaven. The fact that you led a good life is immaterial if you happened to pick the “wrong” God and this applies even if you were brought up with no knowledge of Christian doctrine.

Additionally, religion is widely regarded as being a contributory factor in conflicts around the world. We only have to think of the tensions in Palestine/Israel, Northern Ireland or the deep-seated antagonism that exists between Iran and the Western world to see that religious division can support an environment where violence and discrimination thrive. It’s important to note that it’s not religion directly that necessarily causes the conflict but it serves to separate communities and polarize opinion.

Increased religious tolerance:

A pretty obvious point, but the increase in people identifying themselves as atheist has partly been driven by increases in religious tolerance. In previous centuries people may privately have been atheist but wouldn’t have risked making this stance public for fear of reprisals. Even today, there are parts of the world where claiming to be atheist may lead to negative consequences (sometimes very draconian) and this, partly, explains why developed liberal countries (such as Sweden) have much higher levels of atheism than countries like Iran.

Increased levels of education:

People are more likely to become atheist if they have benefited from an education that has enabled them to become literate and which has included a grounding in science. Understanding that religious belief isn’t the only viewpoint helps counter the threat of religious indoctrination and being able to read about the Big Bang and evolution theories drives more people from a belief in the supernatural to a belief in the natural. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that countries and regions that are renowned for their educational systems (such as Scandinavia) have a particularly high percentage of atheists in their populations.

Increased visibility of celebrity atheists:

It’s becoming much more common for celebrities to promote the fact that they are atheist. Some examples of high profile atheists include Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Adams, Brian Cox, Ed Byrne, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. The fact that people who have a prominent TV profile are prepared to be advocates for atheism helps to spread the message that atheism is an acceptable position to adopt.

Disillusionment with religion:

There are plenty of atheists who have always been atheist. However, there are also many who have converted to that viewpoint having previously held a religious conviction. Some who cross the divide do so because they have become disillusioned with their religion. There may be many reasons for this. Perhaps they’ve lost a loved one and have come to the conclusion that God must be cruel or that prayer doesn’t work. Or maybe they’ve concluded that it’s increasingly hard to believe in the doctrines espoused by their religion in the face of scientific discoveries.

An absence of spiritual feeling:

Atheists are often characterized as very logic-driven people, who reach their decision based on the fact that they can find no evidence to support the existence of a God or gods. However, many atheists also base their stance simply on the fact that they have never emotionally “felt” God. By this, I mean that they have spent time in churches or at religious shrines, etc, and have never felt even the slightest tinkling that some higher power is at work.

Clearly, there are a variety of reasons why people choose to become atheist and it would be a mistake to view all atheists as a homogeneous group. Science is playing a key role in leading a trend (in the Western world anyway) towards atheism and away from theism but education levels and cultural factors also play an important part.

As evidence of this, it’s interesting to look at the 2005 Eurobarometer Poll, which revealed widely different levels of religiosity across the European countries. Estonia came out as the least religious (only 16% believe in a God), with countries such as the Czech Republic, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and France also coming out as being non-religious. However, at the other end of the spectrum 95% of people in Turkey and Malta stated that they believed in a God, with Cyprus, Romania, Greece, Portugal and Poland also showing high levels of religious belief. In general, therefore, it can be concluded that atheism levels are  highest in the Northern European countries and religious belief highest in the Southern European nations.  

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