A friend who heard I was writing Atheism For Dummies said it would be the skinniest book on the shelf. “Just one sentence long,” he said. “‘Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.’”
I replied by suggesting a book on the Grand Canyon: “The Grand Canyon is a big hole in Arizona.” Of course that sentence would miss most of what’s really worth knowing about the Grand Canyon — its geology and geography, how it came to be, its wildlife and formations, and its significance among other formations on the planet.
Likewise, a book on atheism that stops at the definition of the word would miss what’s really interesting about the startling idea that (despite what your mother and your hunches may tell you) God doesn’t actually exist. It’d be just as incomplete as saying, “Religious people believe in God,” and leaving it at that. There’s a bit more to say.
People who’ve entertained the possibility that God doesn’t exist, and sometimes even said it out loud, make up a seldom-explored thread of human history that intersects with the biggest questions in human life:How did everything get here?What is the meaning and purpose of life?How can I (and more importantly, that guy over there) be a good and moral person?What happens when I die?Seriously, is somebody steering this thing?
The idea that an unseen power created and runs the universe is surely as old as the human mind. From the first time one Homo habilis saw his neighbor fall down and never get up again, the curious human neo-cortex would have demanded an explanation. Lacking any good way of figuring out what happened, that same neo-cortex would have provided an answer that seemed true.
But every guess in human history that “seemed right” has almost certainly been doubted by somebody in the room. When the guess is “God,” and the doubt rises to the level of strong conviction, you have yourself an atheist.
Atheist. If that word makes you flinch, you’re not alone. People are conditioned to flinch at certain words. When my son came home in seventh grade and said, “You know what? I think I’m a communist,” I nearly flinched down a flight of stairs. He’d learned about systems of government, you see, and the one where everybody shared what they had sounded good to him. But I grew up in the 1970s, and before I could actually learn anything about communism, I’d heard it hissed so many times that I couldn’t think about it at all. All I could do was flinch.
The same is true of atheism. But it’s much less flinch-worthy than you may think. One purpose of this book is to bring that flinch down to a mild tic.