We sometimes get inquiries from students who need to get a quote from an atheist or atheist group for their assignments. Many of the questions are duplicates or cover material that we have addressed for other students, so to save time, we are reprinting our answers here.

If there are still questions that you have, please do get in touch through the Contact Us page, but leave plenty of time for us to answer, so you can get your assignment in by your due date.

I have to do a school assignment on atheism/atheism in Australia/famous atheists in Australia, can you help?

In 2010, Warren Bonnet, in response to the need to have a history of atheism in this country, edited an anthology – The Australian Book of Atheism.

This book not only has examples of essays and analysis of the history of secularism, humanism, atheism, etc, but features work by academics, authors and figures who are contributors to freethinking in this country.

They include: Michael Bachelard, Dr Leslie Cannold, Robyn Williams, Lyn Allison, Tim Minchin, Kylie Sturgess, Jane Caro, Robin Williams, Peter Ellerton, Dr Tamas Pataki, and Dr Philip Nitschke and many more.

That is probably one of the most current and inclusive collections of writing from this country – you can also search under “irreligion in Australia” on Wikipedia and consult your state or local library for more resources. There are new books on the topic of atheism being published on a regular basis, so you can also use publishers’ websites and search engines to find resources that way too.

Are there any/who are the atheist leaders in Australia?

In responding to this, many atheists will tell you “no gods, no masters” – because unlike religion, there is no defined hierarchy, no formal leaders or atheist ministers, no “holy book” to follow. All that is needed to be an atheist is to shed belief in any gods.

If some Christians reckon they have “a personal relationship with god”… well, we think atheists cultivate an ongoing personal relationship with reality.

Of course, there are a number of organisations that represent atheists (the AFA being chief among those), and plenty of influential thinkers and writers – many of whom can be found in Warren Bonnet’s book. But you can trenchantly disagree with all of them, and still be an atheist – as long as you eschew god-belief.

When did “atheism” first start in/come to Australia, and how were/are atheists received?

Given that atheism can be traced back to the ancient Greek philosophers, it would be reasonable to posit that atheists have existed in almost every human society, with the difference being the extent to which they were able to identify as such – if at all.

While our research does not show much information regarding atheism among Indigenous Australians, it is notable that many Indigenous languages lack a parallel word for “religion” – because what seems religious to Western eyes see as religious, they see as respecting their ancestors and lands as part of daily life.

Again, it would be reasonable to posit that atheists were among those who arrived with the First Fleet and have been present in varying numbers since, but we suspect that they were all but invisible at that time. This is backed up by the 1901 Census, which reported a “No religion” tally among the non-Indigenous population of 0.4%.

From that point, and from atheists being largely reviled and mistrusted for their non-belief, we have progressed to the point where those reporting “No religion” are the second-largest and fastest-growing Census demographic. Someone in your street, on your bus, in your workplace and at your club or community gathering is an atheist. Probably more than one.

While there are still reversions to painting atheists as immoral, untrustworthy, nihilistic and deviant (usually by self-interested religious voices), increasingly we are accepted as normal members of society, who don’t need a god to be or do good. Finally, in 2010, Warren Bonnet, in response to the need to have a history of atheism in this country, edited an anthology that you can cite as well – The Australian Book of Atheism.

Do you believe that Atheism reconciles with contemporary culture?

Contemporary culture is diverse and always changing – only a few decades ago, the internet was just starting. Before then, the notion of a ‘world wide web’ was a science fiction dream by the likes of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. While there’s scientific evidence for the theory of evolution, for the age of the earth and for the ever expanding galaxy increasing all the time, there’s still many people who are skeptical. Therefore, it is great that for many people in this era, a lack of faith in established religions is acceptable – but there’s still a lot of pushback, even death-sentences, and rejection of atheism and for the people who question the existence or relevance of god/s in society.

Should Australia have government funded religious programs/organisations?

The AFA considers that all public education in Australia should be explicitly secular, as an essential component of separation between church and state.

We support genuine comparative religion studies, which inform students about all religions (and none) and critique these in an even-handed manner. We are a multi-cultural, multi-faith country, and it benefits everyone to know as much as we can about our neighbours, community and other lands.

However, SRI (Special Religious Instruction) in its current form constitutes little more than state-sanctioned religious instruction in a single religious doctrine, most usually Christian. This in precious teaching time, when teachers are already under severe curriculum pressure. And paid for by all taxpayers regardless of religious affiliation, when religions already receive direct tax concessions to the tune of $30bn annually.

This situation is clearly untenable in modern, 21st century secular pluralistic Australia, and needs to change.

What does suffering and evil suggest about whether gods really exist?

The “Problem Of Evil” (PoE) posits that suffering and evil mitigate against the existence of an omni-benevolent god. Relevant discussion, links and information about the PoE may be found here.

A shorter formulation of this is the quote attributed to the philosopher Epicurus:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

The PoE is premised on the relevant god being claimed to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent etc – an “omni-max” conception of god. A god who wasn’t omni-max couldn’t be held to be always aware of evil, or always having the power to do something about it. Because of this, the PoE is traditionally applied to the 3 main monotheistic conceptions of god.

One apologetic against the PoE is the “Argument from free will” – that is, that god is indeed omni-max, but created humans with free will, which allows for evil by humans.

We consider this to be unpersuasive, for a few reasons. For instance, if an existent god is indeed onmi-max, s/he will know in advance what all humans will be doing with their “free will”, and could still act to prevent resultant evil if it chose – but patently does not.

The topical example of child abuse by clergy and religious personnel also belies the Argument from free will – because to accept it requires humans to also accept that such a “all-loving, all-powerful god” is quite happy to tolerate that extreme evil being perpetrated by his/her appointed earthly representatives, on defenceless, vulnerable children who are devoted to their faith.

While it could be argued that the abusers are exercising their “free will”, this ignores both the harms to the child victims and their alleged free will. Where is that “free will” exercised in that scenario – given that in the vast majority of religious scriptures, children are supposed to obey their religious leaders? Clearly such a god has no apparent concern that by allowing the alleged exercise of “free will” by abusive priests, s/he is condoning the abrogation of the free will of those children, and standing by while unspeakable and permanent harm is done to them.

Tracie Harris has called such a claimed god a “moral monster” – because a human who knew a child was being abused would be considered a moral monster if they did not act to stop it. Yet god patently does not. We think that a god should be able to be relied on to do at least what we would demand of any ethical human being.

Contemplating this calls to mind the unadorned words found scrawled into a cell wall at the Mauthausen Nazi concentration camp:

“If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness.”

How do atheists position themselves in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society like Australia’s?

Australia’s secular political framework seeks to value and protect a multi-cultural, multi-religious society and we have no disagreement with that.

Atheists are indeed multi-cultural (as you can see by the recent studies on irreligion in Australia, which would include many cultures: Irreligion in Australia) and “multi-religious” people also include those of no religion.

We respect people’s rights to hold their personal religious beliefs, however we’re under no obligation to respect the content of those beliefs, nor to respect attempts to impose those beliefs (or consequences of them) on others – incursions into abortion and marriage equality are key recent examples of this. A person has a right to not have an abortion for religious reasons, but in a secular democracy they do not have a right to use those religious reasons to prevent other women (even those that share the same faith!) from accessing one if they choose. And we will unapologetically oppose against all such attempts to impose religious dogma.

As another example, we have been publicly critical of Reclaim Australia and their allies – the political shopfront for an evangelical Christian group with an anti-Muslim agenda. We’re not the ones protesting against the building of mosques or halal food or ridiculing Muslims, in fact the Atheist Foundation of Australia explicitly oppose those protests. Please feel free to peruse our Media Releases section for our relevant public statements.

Those who might request our aid could be anyone – such as:

  • a father seeking help in how to find good books on the topic of evolution;
  • a woman asking for suggestions in how to support a relative who is trying to flee persecution in Bangladesh;
  • students asking how they can start up a secular group at their university;
  • an overseas young man asking about good resources to introduce their family as to what atheism means;
  • or even a devoutly religious student asking for help with an assignment which requires them to find examples of diversity in Australia when it comes to beliefs.

This is only a small sample of the kinds of inquiries we get over the past few months – you can find more of them on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

If the tenets of your chosen religion conflict with certain aspects of “science”, that’s neither “science’s” fault nor ours. We care about what can be credibly evidenced to be valid, especially where human rights, secular democracy and public policy are concerned.

What are your views on marriage equality?

The Atheist Foundation of Australia’s stance on same-sex marriage is that many of the arguments that appear to be posed against it are based upon religious grounds. On that basis, and due to historical evidence and other arguments in support of same-sex marriage, marriage equality is something that should be supported.

Marriage is a secular contract in Australia, presided over by the Government. Marriage ceremonies do not have to be performed in a church (in fact, you’ll find numerous venues, halls, even gardens and restaurants that cater to non-church marriages, and celebrant ceremonies are held in places all over the country), nor must it be conducted by a church minister to be considered valid and legal. Civil and societal laws exist in Australia, which is a secular country, and that tradition has existed for a long time. You can find more about Australia’s secular history in a book of essays contributed to by a number of academics and writers, called The Australian Book of Atheism.

The Marriage Act was amended by John Howard in 2004 and it can be amended again to include same-sex marriage. The campaigns by groups like the “Australian Marriage Forum” includes a number of claims that can be found to be false.

Some of these false claims include that the status of opposite-sex families will be somehow changed by the acceptance of same-sex marriage. This is based on no evidence, and certainly the existence of civil unions, de facto and polygamous relationships do not change the status of opposite-sex families, since human rights and legal precedence do aim to protect relationships and people in cases such as prejudice and discrimination. There will probably still be divorces, breakups, remarriages and retaking of vows as there usually are for opposite-sex families in an equal-marriage world, no matter if their neighbours are gay, straight, whatever.

Other arguments include that marriage is for procreation and opposite-sex marriages are necessary for happy and healthy families. People may choose not to (or may not be able to) have children if they are married and yet their unions are still considered legal. Mothers and fathers may be single-parents, or divorce (and remarry, and even remarry again, and so on) – and yet we see many happy, healthy, well-adjusted children growing up in our communities. There are children who live with guardians, with their grandparents, with other relatives and may even be legally emancipated and working with no family whatsoever – and they can live fulfilling and meaningful lives:

Multiple studies across the social sciences have repeatedly demonstrated that there is no difference in psychosocial outcomes between children raised by opposite-sex couples and those raised by same-sex couples. There is no evidence that children are psychologically harmed by having two dads or two moms. The American Psychological Association (APA), the American Sociological Association (ASA), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has each endorsed the legalization of same-sex marriage and its capacity to provide a stable familial framework for children.

Finally, there’s the argument that traditionally marriage is only between opposite sexes. I would point out that for a long time, societal separation between different races was a ‘tradition’, and so was women not being educated the same as men (or not being educated at all), and marriage between people of different races seen as ‘wrong’. There are also countries where marriage can mean something completely different to ‘one man, one woman’ and therefore to say that Australia has it ‘right’ is very culturally narrow-minded.

Times change, traditions change. Ireland – with one of the most established Catholic demographics in the world – and the USA – known for a large number of religious groups – are just two countries that now have marriage equality. It seems nonsensical for Australia to adhere to a limited definition when the world is moving forward.

Is there a place for atheists in religious schools?

Regarding questions about being an atheist in a faith school and the issues one can have about being around matters of faith – this can be seen as a great opportunity. While an atheist may find themselves challenged by what is being taught around them, they can lead by example with their behaviour and questioning.

When stereotypes exist about those of other or no faith, an atheist can be someone who typifies that not everyone is like that stereotype. When people ask for examples of ethical behaviour intellectual rigour and leadership skills? An atheist can show them that it doesn’t require faith to do so. There’s going to be times where it is better to take a higher road or circumspect approach to problems and use them as a learning experience. Keep in mind that every school has to care for its students, and counsellors and heads of year exist to help carry the weight if there are issues that must be addressed. Do maintain these relationships and counselling sites and helplines if required.

There’s been a great many atheist writers, thinkers and activists who have been raised as a member of a faith or were in a faith school and it is the ability to say “yes, I do know what the faithful are like – I was amongst them and/or I was one of them and speak from experience,” and that is a strength to their bow. You’d be surprised how many atheists find religion and philosophy so fascinating as subjects, that then go on to be teachers of the subjects in schools.

It is a disadvantage to the faithful that they do not have a similar opportunity to be a minority and have their world views challenged and broadened by being different in a crowd. This is something that can help when an atheist finds themselves faced with narrow-mindedness and lockstep behaviour, and, like many atheists before, use it to become inspiration for great works.

Do not let the pressures of greater issues involving faith and non-faith distract too much from general study – there is so much time ahead to take on these challenges that can be overwhelmingly problematic for everyone. But certainly an atheist shouldn’t be ashamed of being an atheist and should consider reaching out to other atheist groups – there’s the Freethought Student Alliance in Australia, the discussion forum of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, and a lot of campus groups, community groups and the like that are either secular or do not require being a member of a faith group to join.

What are your views on God?

Atheists don’t believe in god. That’s what “atheist” means; to be without a god or gods. Being an atheist doesn’t mean one has to that there are no gods to be an atheist. Some atheists believe that there are no gods, but others don’t believe either way. Both kinds of atheists agree that they don’t believe in any gods.

That’s why it is difficult to speak for all atheists about things like what is moral or immoral. Being an atheist just means not believing in god. It doesn’t require any other beliefs. Some atheists are good people and some atheists are bad people, and sometimes atheists disagree on what it means to be a good person.

Many atheists also think that religion is harmful, when the good and bad things about religion are weighed. Many atheists also think that laws should not be made for purely religious reasons, nor should religions special treatment like exemption from taxes just for being churches (that kind of exemption in Australian law is separate from exemptions that would still apply for any charitable work they do). Because many atheists think these things, some people confuse these opinions with atheism or think that all atheists have to have these opinions. Thais not true. These are views on religion, and on secularism: that is, that religion and the law should be kept separate. There are plenty of Christians, for example, who think that religious laws, or religion itself, should not be forced on people who are not Christians.

Why do you have these views of God?

There are various reasons why individuals are atheists.

The only good reason for being an atheist is understanding that there is no good evidence for belief in a god or gods. That’s the same with any view about anything the world. We shouldn’t think anything is true or otherwise unless we have evidence to base our view. Atheism just applies this principle to god, and belief about god.

An important word here is “good” for in the phrase “good evidence”. Some people think that they do have evidence for god. Atheists think the evidence is not good enough to be persuasive. There are all sorts of things people think are true, but for bad reasons. Rational views about the world, and what it true and false, need critical thinking and good evidence.

Some atheists don’t believe in god because, for example, they think religion is bad. By itself this is not a good reason to be an atheist. Not liking something doesn’t make it not exist.

How do these views affect your moral compass and everyday decisions?

The main effect of atheism on morals is to reject rules which are just because, to put it simply, ‘god says so’.

Why, for example, follow commands not eat this or that, or treat other people – say, women, or lesbians or gay people – differently because of the supposed commandments of a god one doesn’t believe exists? On the other hand, positive rules – to care for each other, to avoid doing harm – don’t require commands from a god to follow (see a couple of paragraphs below).

There are atheists who are good people and atheists who are bad people. Most atheists probably follow the general rules of the societies they are in which for the most part are: don’t hurt other people, look after people. One doesn’t need to have god or religion to work those things out.

Many atheists are humanists, and so think about right and wrong in terms of what is good for people, individually and collectively, based on critical thinking and evidence. Many humanists extend that thinking to animals and the environment. But it’s not necessary to be a humanist to be an atheist.

It looks a lot like following social values is how most people, believers or otherwise, work out their morals. Holy texts have many contradictions and historically people focus on those bits of the holy texts that suit their situation. That is, they fit their religious beliefs to their moral views, rather than shape their morals to their religious beliefs. This is often a good thing. Consider two things:

  1. Some people say that morals come from the bible, and that without god there are no morals. One might ask, if that’s true, why can’t Christians agree on right or wrong; but more to the point, are those people really saying that it is true that without the bible they’d murder and steal? We don’t think so.
  2. Lots of people of faith have views that are flatly contradicted by their holy texts. For example, even though the media tends to ask people like the Australian Christian Lobby or Catholic bishops about homosexuality and the rights of gay and lesbian people, polls say that most Christians don’t have any problem with being gay or lesbian, or same-sex relationships or marriage. The Bible is pretty clear that being gay or lesbian is wrong, though. Less controversially: Paul, in the New Testament, says that women shouldn’t teach men, and that women should cover their heads in church. Lots of churches break the first rule and most break the second.

You might ask yourself why this is? One answer, that we think is some good arguments and evidence for it, is that people decide what is right, and then pick the bits of their faith or the bible that support that.

Did you once have a different views on religion? If so, what made you change them?

There are plenty of atheists who used to follow religions, including quite a few members of the AFA. The specific circumstances of each is different. A common feature of many ex-religious atheists’ experiences is asking questions and not finding answers in religion, and then thinking more about the issue and coming to the view that there is no good evidence that god is real.