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LEADER RESOURCE 1: Atheism/Agnosticism Background

Atheism has been granted protection as a religion under the law for purposes of freedom of religious expression and protection from religious persecution. It was established that not believing in a god or gods is a religious belief, and deserves equal protection under the law.

Atheism is often understood only by its seemingly negative nature: it is defined by what is not believed.

The word "atheist" comes from the roots "a," meaning "without," and "theos" meaning "a god." Therefore, it literally means "godless" or "without a god."

Write the word "Atheism" at the top of a sheet of newsprint. Share that atheism is, like other religious beliefs, not uniform. Some atheists do not believe in the existence of a god, but do not assert that the existence of a god or gods is impossible. Other atheists believe absolutely that no god or gods exist or can exist.

Atheists may be called, or call themselves "non-believers" meaning they do not believe in the existence of a supernatural deity described in Christianity and other Abrahamic traditions. Atheists, of course, believe in many things, including values, ethics, human capacity, reason, love, and so on. It is important that people describe themselves in terms of what they do believe and care about, rather than be labeled by one theological position.

Write "Agnosticism" on the newsprint. "Agnosticism" is neither believing nor disbelieving in a god or gods. From its roots, it means "without knowing." ("a" meaning "without or not" and "gnosis" Greek for "knowledge") The word, "agnostic was coined by British scientist Thomas H. Huxley in the 19th century. Most people who consider themselves agnostic believe they cannot know for sure whether God exists or that no one can know for sure whether God exists. Some are interested in knowing; others, like many Unitarian Universalists, are comfortable without knowing and believe there are more important questions to pursue.

Because Atheism and Agnosticism are commonly defined by what they DO NOT believe, it is easy to forget that they DO believe in a great many things, including many beliefs shared with Unitarian Universalism. They believe that humans are responsible for our own actions and should be held accountable. They believe that the here and now is important and most would say we should work to make this world a better place. An atheist or agnostic is as concerned with what is right and wrong as much as anyone else; they simply do not believe that God is necessary to keep people good.

Ask youth if they would describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. If atheist or agnostic, would they say they always have been so, or have their beliefs changed over time?

Ask how old participants would guess atheism is. Almost any age is a good guess—the twentieth century is when atheists came into their own politically, fighting for the freedom to be open about their beliefs. In the mid seventeenth century, during the Age of Enlightenment, atheists began openly discussing their doubts. Throughout time, there have been atheists, although until recently most have kept their beliefs to themselves. Ask, why do you think this was so?

Atheism could be said to be among the oldest as well as among the newest religious traditions. Before people became what we would recognize as human, their thoughts were similar to those of other animals, and largely unknown to us. There is no indication, though, that belief in god was part of those thoughts. As humans came to seek safety in numbers, use tools, and think beyond immediate survival, they began to seek meaning the moment and religion began to emerge. Just as more people describe themselves as believers during hard times, and as religions are born during hardship and crisis, it is reasonable to conclude that in a prehistoric human society, with subsistence-level lives full of toil and danger, there would be very few nonbelievers. The Bible itself acknowledges this phenomenon:

O Lord, in affliction they visited thee — Isaiah 26:16

Of course, what believers believed varied greatly around the world, in different cultures.

In today's world, there are many more nonbelievers. Grouped together, atheists and agnostics account for about a sixth of the world's population. It is the third largest faith tradition on earth—and has the least organization of any other faith stance. Ask, do you remember what the two biggest religions are? Christianity, at 2.1 billion adherents, is largest. Islam, with 1.5 billion, is next. Atheism/Agnosticism is third, with 1.1 billion human beings who say they do not believe in God or they just do not know. Until very recently, though, it was mostly a silent crowd.

Ask the youth if they have a guess about what percentage of Unitarian Universalists are atheist? In the most recent denominational poll, 19 % of Unitarian Universalists stated they did not believe in any God.

Having just explored Humanism, ask the youth: Why do you think we are talking separately about atheism? What differences do you see in Humanism and atheism? Many people fit both descriptions; are they the same thing? Does a person have to be atheist if they are humanist? Not necessarily—recall that a large number of humanists call themselves spiritual or religious humanists. What about the other way around: Does a person have to be a humanist to be an atheist? Probably so. Denial of a higher power implies that the only control over our lives is our own—a decidedly humanist point of view.

Share that the biggest challenges of atheism are not being accepted by society at large, and being forced, by expectation or law, to participate in faith practices they do not believe in. This is farther-reaching than one might suppose. While current celebrations of Christmas and Easter seem commercially secular to devout Christians—that is, virtually stripped of religious content—there is religion enough to make non-believers and non-Christians feel uncomfortable or marginalized.

Ask the youth: Is there harm in having an Easter egg hunt on the Capitol grounds? What is wrong with a nativity (Christmas manger scene) on the front lawn of the courthouse? Should Christmas be a national holiday? Some see these as state-sponsored religious observances in violation of the doctrine of separation of church and state. Do youth agree?

For more information contact web@uua.org.

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Last updated on Friday, November 15, 2013.

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