A need for atheism 101?

I often find myself arguing with people about what I see as basic points about atheists and the atheist movement. And a big problem is that I find these points to be extremely obvious, and can only discuss them with scorn or snark. I often want to tell people that it’s not my job to educate them, and they can educate themselves.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any good place to refer people. Despite the vast online presence held by atheists, decent atheist 101 resources are lacking.

I can speculate why: most introductory atheist materials address the adversarial relationship between atheism and religion. “Atheism 101” seems to consist of going over basic arguments for theism, and explaining why they’re wrong. And then there are a few extras, like why atheism doesn’t imply a lack of morality, and a lot of hairsplitting over agnosticism vs atheism.

Maybe the issue isn’t a lack of resources, but that the available resources simply aren’t to my satisfaction. When I want 101 resources, I often want them to explain “Yes, there is an atheist movement, no it is not a religion, why is this so fucking hard?” or “No, not every context is appropriate to argue about religion, but you’re effectively telling atheists to shut up,” or “Yeah some atheists are angry, and why shouldn’t they be?” Only, say it nicer than I would.

One of the more useful resources I’ve found is Greta Christina’s Blog (and her old site has a nice sidebar with many highlights from the archives). I should also plug her recent book, The Way of the Heathen, which I believe includes some of this content.

Perhaps this is because Greta talks about atheism in a similar context to when I talk about atheism. Namely, Greta is an experienced and long-time queer and feminist activist, as well as an atheist activist. Perhaps like me, she has to give an account of her activism to other activists, justifying her cause without necessarily trying to convince people that religious beliefs are wrong.

Perhaps other atheists never find themselves in such contexts. Perhaps they’re satisfied with the current 101 resources, because the only thing they ever want or need to explain about atheism is that atheism is right and religion is wrong. Or maybe they’d rather not rely on atheism 101 at all, doing all the work for themselves.

I also have complaints about some of the common contents of atheist 101 resources. I get peeved at discussions of definitions, particularly ones that talk about agnostic atheism, or the distinction between “strong” and “weak” atheism. It’s prescriptivist rubbish, with no concern for how words are used in practice. If you ever want to know where “dictionary atheism” comes from, try reading some basic atheist resources.

The controversial nature of atheist definitions can be an obstacle. Obviously you want a 101 resource to explain definitions, but you also want it to stick to basic uncontroversial facts. My preferred solution is for everyone to agree with me so that it’s no longer controversial, haha.

Dear readers, do you know of any good atheism 101 resources? What sort of things would you like to see in atheism 101?


  1. says

    What’s in them? Trouble with books is I can’t vet them. And if I were to refer someone on the internet to a book, I think most would ignore the recommendation.

  2. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    What is the context in which you find yourself wishing for atheism 101 things to send people? Are these people other atheists yet people you disagree with, or are they religious/theistic believers?

    The best thing I’ve read recently is David G. McAfee’s Mom, Dad I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer, which has a pretty misleading title as a book and really is about explaining atheism to anyone at all, and honestly if I had a captive enough audience I’d likely just hand them my copy of the e-book because I think he explains all the nuance of what it really means to be an atheist in the USA and within the movement too so well, complete with personal stories. It is so much more than “dictionary atheism” and it’s well written too. But it is a book. I don’t generally recommend random strangers on the internet read a book. 😛

    Perhaps this is close to what you’re looking for? http://atheism.about.com/od/definitionofatheism/p/AtheismReligion.htm Especially the final 3 paragraphs there. Except… phrased differently, haha, because unfortunately I also think it’s in disagreement with you about “What atheism is” and kind of contradicts a lot of the points (that I’m really happy) you have started to make, and that you’ve pointed out to me that Greta Christina (who I unfortunately started paying a lot less attention to starting around 2012-ish when I graduated college, the way I drifted in general away from the New Atheist movement…) Your perspective is a fresh one I’m coming to really appreciate. And that Atheism.about.com whole section of about.com is like the typical 101 resource that gets you “peeved”, right?

    It’s true that Hemant Mehta (aka “The Friendly Atheist”) has some good videos if someone is curious as to what atheism is, what atheists like to talk about, etc: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheAtheistVoice/playlists

    But Pierce, I don’t understand why you’d bring up Christopher Hitchens’ “The Portable Atheist” anthology in response to this particular blog post. Actually his book “God Is Not Great”, while having far too antagonistic of a title, might be a better choice if you’re going that kind of book route, wouldn’t it? Since he dives into all these PROBLEMS, “How Religion Poisons Everything” being the subtitle, and really captures the heart of what the atheist movement feels strongly and why they care about atheism, in a really well written and compelling best seller book. But that anthology… My dad owns it and I’ve looked at parts of it while sitting on airplanes beside him lol, and it seems like a heavy compilation of ancient philosopher’s writings rather than any kind of “101” thing lmao. Actually… this Wikipedia article describes the gist well. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Portable_Atheist

    Btw that new book from Greta Christina… I might have to read it. 😛 Thank you for the plug. I’m intrigued.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Siggy @ # 2: What’s in them?

    Russell makes a clear, if rather dry, case for disbelief in the absence of clear evidence.

    Hitchens collected a wide range of articles & essays, mostly from the Euro/American unbelievers of the last 2 centuries – something to beguile, and to irritate, every taste.

    Mehta I have read only blog posts from, but gather from his general approach that he has tried pretty hard to avoid antagonizing at least the more open-minded believers. (He hasn’t always managed that with quite a few non-believers, but that requires different criteria…)

    You might also want to check out some of Mehta’s fellow Patheos Atheist channel bloggers. In particular, The Disillusionist by “Big Mr. E”, ruminations by a man who has just recently left the world of faith, might be most approachable by believers, but Across Rivers Wide, Roll to Disbelieve, Leaving Fundamentalism, Godless in Dixie, and Love, Joy, Feminism also come from former believers who deal with their previous comrades with sympathy and insight. Patheos also features bloggers from the disbelieving black (Barrier Breaker), Latin_ (Sin God), and Muslim (On the Margin of Error) side of the tracks, and it has “channels” for just about every faith tradition as well.

  4. says

    Yeah, atheism.about.com was the very website I had in mind when I mentioned not liking present atheism 101 resources.

    I spent most of the OP complaining about how every atheist 101 resource is so focused on making the case for disbelief. Your first recommendation, by your own description, is about making a case for disbelief. I’m sorry, but did you read the OP?

  5. says

    The “atheism 101” I’d like to see would be similar to the 101 you’d see on any other identity term. For instance, on the sidebar I have an “Asexuality 101” page, which explains the meaning and structure of asexuality, followed by a short list of common misconceptions. This page is targeted primarily at would-be allies. It’s somewhere I can point to if someone wants to get up to speed, or if someone is trying to derail one of my comment threads.

    If someone starts derailing an atheist-related comment thread by spouting common misconceptions, I am not really interested in persuading them that there is no god. I just want them to have a short and non-snarky explanation of why what they said was wrong.

  6. says

    Not to mention that plenty of the derails, in my experience, come from people who already don’t believe in gods.

  7. khms says

    I’d think it should have stuff like

    * why atheism is not a belief system

    * which kinds of belief systems are often coupled with atheism (humanism, materialism, even some kinds of Buddhism and Jedi-ism(sp?)) (preferably with links to their 101 pages)

    * list of various ways to define the various terms (atheist, agnostic, anti-theist, strong/weak atheist, apatheist, … and which versions of the definitions go together)

    * short sketch of the history of atheism, including what are the oldest roots we know about (maybe differentiated by culture?)

    Stuff like that. (Thinking about it, that sounds like the stuff that ought to be in a Wikipedia article about atheism, doesn’t it? But isn’t that true for all 101-type resources?)

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Emily (luvtheheaven) @ # 3 – the point of suggesting The Portable Atheist in this context is that it is an anthology introducing the reader to the roots of atheist thought: an overview from multiple perspectives seems like a good way to see what’s going on.

    Siggy @ # 6: Your first recommendation, by your own description, is about making a case for disbelief. I’m sorry, but did you read the OP?

    Yes but apparently I misunderstood something. Russell, as I thought I said, presents a calm and logical epistemological study, rather than making fun of the talking snake and magic rabbi and flying horse stories – and I’d gotten the impression you wanted an ideas-not-mockery modality.

  9. says

    @Pierce, yes, understood. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so confrontational.

    That’s a good list. I tend not to be very interested in historical background, but I agree that a good introductory resource should have it. Now that you mention it, the Wikipedia articles on atheism seem perfectly fine, although they’re not going to spend much time on misconceptions.

  10. Emily (luvtheheaven) says

    What khms said sounds good, as does the idea of the overview perhaps in Atheism for Dummies – I have not read that book but in general Dale McGowan seems like the kind of person who consistently respects believers enough that his goals are similarly in line with what was proposed in this blog post. Dale also focuses his activism on things other than deconversion. Description as to WHY anyone is an atheist is NOT what Siggy was getting at, I realize, and I agree – it’s not what we need. Roots of atheism and stuff? No people don’t need a history lesson. And we need a non-book answer. A website to refer people to. Something quick and easy and short to read. A 101 resource that doesn’t either directly NOR indirectly try to deconvert, but rather helps someone else understand you as a person with “atheist” as an identity label. What does it really mean to say “I’m an atheist” and why does the fact that you’re an atheist matter to you as a person, as a part of your identity.

  11. says


    I still find myself using Common Sense Atheism even though Luke M. hasn’t updated it in 5 years (he ended it).


    Jeffery Jay Lowder’s Blog is a great resource but he also has a FANTASTIC survey of all the arguments for atheism and it is awesomely extensive.



    Related to JJ Lowder is http://infidels.org/ which has been around forever.

    The most 101 is Luke’s CSA site. The issue is that it hasn’t been updated and many of the posts that seem to be extensive indexes of atheist topics are incomplete but most of the missing entries are just discussed in single blog entries.

    I would rec my debate review site but it’s not very-101.

    This is Joe btw, from BASS. I stumbled across your blog looking for a resource describing falsification to undergrads in an approachable manner. Glad to see you’re still interested in this stuff, too.

  12. says

    I did not know that Luke Muehlhauser ran an atheist blog prior to being the director of MIRI. The blogging format isn’t really ideal for a 101 reference, but the index looks like it could be helpful.

  13. Cicada Cycle says

    I’m half way thru Greta Christina’s book. It’s really good. Looking forward to following up on the links in the comments above.

    I’ve thought of myself as an agnostic since I was about 9 or 10. I’ve only become comfortable identifying as an atheist in the past couple years, though, and I’m in my mid 40’s now.

    I feel that your blog, and the links from your blog to people like Greta Christina, have helped me a lot in thinking about things a little differently.

    A good, atheism 101 resource, along the lines of what you describe here, would be really helpful. Dictionary atheism is pretty pervasive.

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