The Introduction to Atheism for Dummies March 18, 2013

The Introduction to Atheism for Dummies

Dale McGowan‘s new book Atheism for Dummies arrived at my house last week and I’ve been having a wonderful time leafing through it. The writing is extremely accessible and the book is a thorough, helpful introduction to atheism both as a philosophy and as a movement. If you read this book cover-to-cover, you’d have a very good idea of what sorts of issues atheists are dealing with in our society.

With Dale’s permission, I am able to reprint portions of the opening chapter so you can get a sense of what the book looks like. Hope you enjoy it:


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 you (and more importantly, that guy over there) be a good and moral person?
  • What happens when you 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; however, it’s much less flinch-worthy than you may think. And one purpose of this book is to bring that flinch down to a mild tic.

About This Book

This is a book about atheism written by an atheist. I’m also an agnostic and a humanist, which makes more sense when you finish Chapter 2. If you finish Chapter 2, I should say, because this book is written for dipping and diving. Skip Chapter 2 completely if you want. (I wrote that one on evenings and weekends instead of playing with my children, but you know, whatever.)

This book isn’t the first one about atheism written by an atheist, but it’s different from most. It’s an overview, an intro for people who are interested in finding out more about the topic. It does include some of the reasons atheists are atheists, but it’s not written to convince you to become one. If that’s what you’re after, other books can serve you better. And though it includes some of the complaints atheists have about religion — because hey, that’s part of the picture — it’s not a broadside against religious belief either. In fact, I spend a good deal of ink talking about the good things religion has to offer and the things believers and nonbelievers have in common. Chapters 17 and 18 are bursting with that sort of thing, which is one of the likely surprises for readers of Atheism For Dummies.

Although a lot of atheists spend a lot of time (and rightly so) fighting against the bad things religion does, just as many of atheists are interested in co-existing with religion and religious people. And sometimes the same person goes back and forth, depending on the issue. If the idea of atheism freaks you out a bit, my hope is that this book can help you relax. Atheists are mostly perfectly normal folks, and everyone will be better off if they’re less fearful of each other.

On a personal note: You’ll see a lot of personal notes in this book. It’s one of the most striking differences between Atheism For Dummies and, say, Catholicism For Dummies. There’s no atheist Vatican, no catechism, no scripture, so I can’t point to a central, defining authority to tell you who atheists are or what they believe. I end up relying on surveys, on the reports of organizations, on research, on histories, on anecdotal evidence from the thousands of atheists and humanists I’ve met during my years in the freethought movement, and on my own personal experience as an atheist and humanist. (To keep myself honest, Dr. Ed Buckner, one of the true giants of the American freethought movement, is the book’s technical editor to catch my errors. If any got through, blame Ed.)

The lack of an atheist Vatican is a good thing. Just as not all Catholics believe what the Vatican defines as “Catholic belief,” so any central atheist authority would instantly fail to represent the true diversity of belief among those who claim one of the many labels under that great big umbrella.

So as you flip through this book, instead of a single grand procession through history, you can see religious disbelief as it really is — a collection of millions of individual voices, millions of separate stories, millions of individual human beings asking questions, questioning answers, and finally arriving at the conclusion that God, for better and worse, is all in our heads.

Finally, no one should expect a complete reckoning of the wonderful world of atheism. It’s not possible, it’s not desirable, and it’s not the purpose of this book. Instead, I try to stick to the things that are most interesting and relevant to the past and present of atheism, then give you tips for finding out more if you want to.

Foolish Assumptions

From the start, I assume a certain ideal reader. Here are the assumptions that I make about you:

  • You’re probably not an atheist yourself and don’t know much about the subject, but you’re curious and would like to learn more.
  • If you identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist, I bet you can come away from this book knowing and appreciating more about the history and underpinnings of our worldview. If you can stand being relegated to the nosebleed seats for this performance, I promise to occasionally aim the KissCam at you or shoot a T-shirt their way.
  • You’re not actually a dummy. In fact, one of the best assumptions made by the publishers of the For Dummies series is that its readers aren’t dummies in general, just uninformed about a particular subject. So although I’ve tried to keep the tone light and the details brief, I assume you can chew on some serious ideas and handle a few unfamiliar terms.

The rest of the book is (obviously) far more informative but it’s written with just as conversational a tone. The best part is that a religious person could read it without getting offended in any way. It really is intended to be explanatory, not persuasive.

Normally, these sorts of books are written as guides to help you understand a subject you know little about. But as someone who is about as steeped as you could get in “atheist culture,” a lot of information was brand new to me and I know I’ll be referencing this book for years to come.

So if you haven’t ordered your copy already, get to it.

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