Free Booklet: Atheism in 15 Minutes

by Luke Muehlhauser on February 20, 2010 in General Atheism,Resources

atheism in 15 minutesIf someone had just 15 minutes in their entire life to read about atheism, what would I tell them to read?

Recently, I realized there was nothing quite like that I could recommend.

So I decided to write it.

If you read about atheism for only 15 minutes in your entire life, read this. If you’re an atheist and you want your believing friend to spend just 15 minutes to understand atheism, send them here.

Here it is: Atheism in 15 Minutes. [PDF]

Or, the audio: Atheism in 15 Minutes. [MP3]

Like everything else on this site, you are welcome to use this booklet however you like as long as you (1) credit me and (2) don’t charge money for your derivative work. So go ahead: distribute it, make a video from it, make an audio recording, copy and past the text to your blog – whatever.

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Haukur February 20, 2010 at 6:41 am

At first I thought it was going to be a neutral summary sort of thing – where people couldn’t even necessarily tell whether the author was an atheist or not. Then you kind of switched gears in the middle and started talking down the Christian god and talking up atheism.

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DoubtingMonk February 20, 2010 at 6:43 am

Luke,
I enjoyed this booklet alot. You were able to address the topic with enough subtlety in such a limited space. I’m sure others will have suggestions or complaints, but you are able to paint a picture where imagining a world with more atheism is desirable. I now know what to send people interested in atheism, if they have 15 minutes to spare.

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Rick M February 20, 2010 at 6:57 am

• Brad Pitt, actor
• Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
• Woody Allen, filmmaker
• Lance Armstrong, cyclist
• Warren Buffet, investor and philanthropist
• Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft/ and philanthropist
• Francis Crick, molecular biologist
• Ricky Gervais, comedian
• Bruce Lee, martial artist
• Randy Newman, musician
• Teller, magician
• James Callaghan, former Prime Minister of the U.K.

so, atheists are men? 92% of atheists are either English or American?

“healthy, stable, well-educated societies
(Scandinavia, France, Iceland, and the U.K.),”

so, h,s,w-e societies are Western European?

Consider opening up your view to include the world beyond European & American white males!

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Rob B February 20, 2010 at 7:18 am

Well done.

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Landon Hedrick February 20, 2010 at 7:28 am

Luke,

Well done. I noticed the shift that Haukur mentioned as well. In any case, it seemed like a good summary of some of the important issues.

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lukeprog February 20, 2010 at 8:58 am

Rick M,

It’s a 4-page book, for English-speaking Western audiences. Simma down now. Sheesh.

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lukeprog February 20, 2010 at 8:59 am

Haukur and Landon Hedrick,

It’s not a neutral booklet. It’s what I want to tell people about atheism in just 15 minutes.

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Jeff H February 20, 2010 at 9:16 am

I like it. I think perhaps it might be good to have some sort of “suggestions for further reading”. Since it’s a short booklet that is designed to fit into 15 minutes (although I guess that depends on how fast you read :P ), it feels to me like an introduction to get people “interested”, so to speak. To get people interested and then give them nothing else seems a little counter-productive. But either way, I thought it was a good summary.

And on a side note: Do you use a special program to create these? They look really professional…

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Briang February 20, 2010 at 9:30 am

Few thoughts:

1) I question whether it was a good idea to discuss the differences in the definition of atheism and agnosticism right at the beginning. I think that, in general, when people are introduced to a topic definitional differences can be difficult to grasp. I think that those of us who do a lot of reading on a topic, find these distinctions important and we want to make sure we’re clear on definitions, but that those who want to learn the basics don’t want to know about the technical definitional arguments. It seems that atheists are motivated to clarify the definition of atheism for two reasons: 1) to establish who has the burden of proof, 2) to explain why they’re not calling themselves agnostics. It may be more helpful to address those two issues directly, and mention in passing that atheists define their atheism differently.

2) I have a question atheist growth rate you give (going from 0.2% to 15%). Are atheists counted the same in both instances? Would a Buddhist have counted as an atheist in 1900?

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lukeprog February 20, 2010 at 10:04 am

Jeff H,

I wrote a book about how to do this with free software. See my sidebar for ‘Design a Book with OpenOffice.org Writer’.

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Haukur February 20, 2010 at 10:18 am

lukeprog: Haukur and Landon Hedrick,

It’s not a neutral booklet. It’s what I want to tell people about atheism in just 15 minutes.

I wasn’t saying you should write a neutral one, it’s your booklet, you can write whatever you want. But for maximum effectiveness in getting your points across you should be aware of what kind of reader expectations you’re raising at each point. The booklet starts off very general, talking about definitions of atheism and other things in a very broad context – involving Jains and what not – and trying very hard to represent everyone fairly. By this point I was half-expecting an exegesis on the Samkhya philosophers.

Then we’re somewhat suddenly thrust into the much more specific context of the current state of play between atheism and Christianity in the West. And we get to hear that Iceland (yay!) and Bill Gates (boo!) are awesome and that the Christian god, if he exists, is a big meanie.

I don’t know. It makes sense to play up the strengths of your worldview at the end but I think it would propably be more effective to keep closer to one tone throughout and not attack Christianity so explicitly. It’s just that attacks on the Christian god are a dime a dozen while relatively few atheist writers seem to be both capable of and interested in a more even-handed approach. You, Luke, are clearly capable of such an approach as evidenced by many of your blog posts. Maybe that’s a strength you should play to.

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BJ February 20, 2010 at 11:17 am

Maybe I missed something, but there is no “Atheism” is the “… For Dummies” series of books. I’m seeing an opportunity here.

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Lorkas February 20, 2010 at 1:25 pm

BJ: Maybe I missed something, but there is no “Atheism” is the “… For Dummies” series of books. I’m seeing an opportunity here.  

That’s because atheism isn’t for dummies.

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poban February 20, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Nice book Luke. It could have made huge applause drawing opening speech in any god debate. I will reading it again so that I remember more of it.

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poban February 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Can anybody please explain what are Non physical moral values or physical moral values?? Thanks.

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BJ Marshall February 20, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Atheism isn’t for dummies; neither is Quantum Mechanics.

For those not familiar with the “… for Dummies” series. It’s a series of books on a number of different topics like parenting, investments, various software packages, and almost anything else. It’s a way of taking almost any subject and distilling a lot of the pertinent information into a version the average reader could understand and appreciate.

I was thinking that, given how the “… for Dummies” series has a reputation for being easily approached and understood, it might be a good venue for getting the word out about atheism.

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Laura February 20, 2010 at 4:51 pm

poban: I think physical values are meant to be those that will allow for the most happiness, or the best consequences, or perceivable virtues, or something tangible like that, while non-physical values are meant to be the type of values that we cannot actually point out to each other and say “This is what we should be achieving”.

I read this not expecting it to be neutral or anything, so I guess I just read past the sudden shift that apparently happened! I liked this, especially as it made the distinction between different types of atheism—it is used in much wider terms than the way in which I usually use it: “the belief that one CAN give a rational and valid argument against God” (although I did find some of those arguments on page 3 not-exactly-sound). I find myself in the “there are objective moral values/yet atheist” camp, so I’m glad that was mentioned, since it does seem to be a big contention that those two are mutually exclusive. Yet I wonder how you would say we should differentiate between a monotheistic God as most of us know it, and a simple “something’s out there” type of transcendental thing?

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Hermes February 20, 2010 at 5:06 pm

I like Penn Jillette’s take on it, even if it’s not philosophically rigorous. It’s not perfection, but it’s close enough for a 3 1/2 minute rant.

* * *

Excepts;

“Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now?”

“So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power. All the people I write e-mails to often are still stuck at this searching stage. The atheism part is easy.”

“Believing there’s no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I’m wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate.”

“No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future. ”

“Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-O and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.”

Many more…

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lukeprog February 20, 2010 at 5:08 pm

poban,

I’m talking about ethical naturalism and ethical non-naturalism.

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Kiwi Dave February 20, 2010 at 6:10 pm

“An atheist might be …. Christian.”

Really? I suspect most Christians would deny this. At the very least, you can expect a lot of objections beginning “No true Christian…”

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Hermes February 20, 2010 at 6:32 pm

Kiwi Dave: “An atheist might be …. Christian.”Really? I suspect most Christians would deny this. At the very least, you can expect a lot of objections beginning “No true Christian…”  

Have you heard of a ‘cultural/secular Jew’? Same thing. Just a Christian version of it. There are even priests that love the religion but don’t believe the deity actually exists. I’m betting there are quite a few of those. There are, of course, other priests and nuns who figure it out after making a career of being a religious cleric first and then live to regret their vocation, feeling trapped or disingenuous. The most famous, it seems, was Agnes Bojaxhiu.

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Charles February 20, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Luke,

I liked what you did with the first half, especially the section “How could anyone not believe in God?” However, I think starting with “Atheism and morality” there is a rather serious change in tone. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to these things because my wife is a fundamentalist, and I often read articles thinking I may show them to her. I doubt she would be able to get all the way through yours. (The same goes for my parents.)

If you want to reach Christians with this, I suggest you tone down some of the language. For example, saying, “Religion offers lots of hope, but it is false hope,” is just going to evoke a visceral reaction. They won’t be able to hear you. It might be better to say something like, “Religion offers lots of hope, but an atheist would say it is false hope.” Can you see the difference? And you still get to make your point. (Eek! I’m channeling Dale McGowan.)

Other than that, I would just add references. Lots of references. If you don’t, the reader is likely to simply dismiss any unwelcome facts.

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Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth February 21, 2010 at 3:04 am

I refer to Agnes Bojaxhiu as Mother Dearest Teresa for my contempt of the sorry lover of suffering!
Charles, thanks for that point!

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Ted February 21, 2010 at 4:04 am

I take a much simpler view on morality: All religions were created by humans, so the source of all morality (whether or not you agree with it) in religions is human. All atheists are doing is proper attribution, and taking responsibility for the outcome.

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Rick M February 21, 2010 at 5:19 am

lukeprog: Rick M,It’s a 4-page book, for English-speaking Western audiences. Simma down now. Sheesh.  (Quote)

Luke, After re-reading my post I agree that the tone is confrontational and mocking. I apologize for that. I meant to supply some constructive criticism.

White, male, English-speaking thinkers should recognize that there is a history of institutional bias favoring and promoting their opinions to the exclusion of others. I’m asking you to consider being more inclusive.

Here’s a few names you could add:
Björk
Salman Rushdie
Emma Thompson

Also, Japan and Israel are two countries that have a sizable atheist citizenry.

If you have the time please look at these articles:
Greta Christina: Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race>

Daylight Atheism: Atheism, Race and Gender>

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Hermes February 21, 2010 at 8:00 am

Ted: I take a much simpler view on morality: All religions were created by humans, so the source of all morality (whether or not you agree with it) in religions is human. All atheists are doing is proper attribution, and taking responsibility for the outcome.

Exactly. Very well said.

Discussions of morality tend to drag in highly abstract, unfounded, and incoherent concepts from both religion and philosophy. Morality is difficult and messy. So are many other careful investigations of reality where the details matter.

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Haukur February 21, 2010 at 8:13 am

Rick M: Here’s a few names you could add:
Björk

I’m not much of a Björk expert but I really doubt that she belongs in a list like that. She usually comes across as adhering to some sort of eclectic paganism or nature spirituality.

Here’s a quote from a summary of a documentary about her:

Bjork discusses that she thought she was at first an atheist, but then she matured and realized she did have a religion, nature.

Here’s a quote from a 1998 IRC chat:

bjork: mountains are incredibly important in iceland . we’re still pagan after all these years and instead of going to church on sundays we climb a mountain . revelation!!!!!!!!

Here’s a snippet from a 2004 interview:

Björk said: “I’m very religious, yes. But I have my own religion. In Iceland it doesn’t makes sense two people be in the same religion. It’s like have the same fingerprint.”

“Compared to America, or even Europe, God isn’t a big part of our lives here. I don’t know anyone here who goes to church when he’s had a rough divorce or is going through depression or something. We go out into nature instead. Nature is our chapel.”

And here’s a 2007 interview where she refuses to self-identify as an atheist:

I have heard you are very negative towards organized religion – is it the root of all evil?
I think religion is very tiresome, that is true.

Would you consider yourself an atheist?
Isn’t that being religious too? I am more just outside all of this.

Also some relevant discussion here.

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Chris Hallquist February 21, 2010 at 8:20 am

That was frickin’ awesome. Seeing it made me think of how I’d write a book like that–and I have no idea how I’d do it better.

One worry I had reading it is that I hadn’t heard the thing about most scientists being atheists before. I guess it’s probably true if you talk globally, not just in the U.S., but I haven’t ever seen an international study done on the issue. Have you?

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Landon Hedrick February 21, 2010 at 8:36 am

Kiwi Dave,

You’re right, many people do object to the very idea of Christian atheism. After a philosophy conference I was able to speak with the wife of one of the philosophers who had attended, and she was adamant about how you could not be a real Christian unless you believed the kinds of things she believed. I’ve encountered the same reaction from some Christian apologists.

If you’re interested, you should look into it a bit. Paul Tillich, the great Christian theologian of the 20th century, is often cited as a key thinker in this area. My impression is that Bishop John Shelby Spong and Dr. Robert Price fit into this category as well. If you consider pantheism to be a form of atheism (and, really, it can be meaningfully considered atheism in one sense and theism in another), you might look into Richard Grigg’s “Beyond the God Delusion.”

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Hermes February 21, 2010 at 10:01 am

Haukur: [interviewer] Would you consider yourself an atheist?
Isn’t that being religious too? I am more just outside all of this.

Sounds like she’s bought into the hype. Sorry to say it but unfortunately she’s not alone in making that mistake.

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Haukur February 21, 2010 at 11:04 am

Hermes: Sounds like she’s bought into the hype. Sorry to say it but unfortunately she’s not alone in making that mistake.

I don’t think she’s saying anything absurd or necessarily contradictory here. It’s just that ‘religion’ has more than one meaning. In one sense, Björk is “very religious” and in another sense she thinks religion is “very tiresome”. The second sense is probably something like “a movement with annoying dogmatic people who tell you what to believe”. Björk probably feels that atheism is/has such a movement.

She’s basically thumbs up on individualistic spirituality and thumbs down on dogmatic movements.

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Hermes February 21, 2010 at 1:17 pm

No question on that. The thing is, though, that she equates atheism with a religion. While that’s a common mistake, it’s also just silly. After all, theism isn’t a religion, though many (but not all) religions are theistic. She has a sentiment I agree with, but she’s using the wrong words and as such doing a ham-fisted job at expressing what it is she really means without smearing others in the process.

Agreed?

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Haukur February 21, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Hermes: Agreed?

Well, not quite. I usually think “Atheism is a religion!” is a pretty stupid attack. Normally it comes from people who do adhere to a religion and think religion is a good thing – so why would they think it was a bad thing for phenomenon X to be a religion? I don’t get it. I guess they say it because they know it gets a rise out of atheists.

But for someone like Björk, who hates organized religion, to make this accusation at least isn’t inherently contradictory. I also think Björk is entitled to dislike, say, Christianity and atheism for being tiresome in the same way.

The rest is a debate about the meaning of words and maybe we don’t want another one of those so soon. Is “Björk is Haukur’s cousin” a true statement? Yes, for a broad enough definition of ‘cousin’ (she is my 7th cousin according to this handy geneology site) but it would be highly misleading for me go around saying that.

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Hermes February 21, 2010 at 6:20 pm

So … you agree then?

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AJ February 22, 2010 at 5:14 am

Quote from your bookAtheism in 15 minutes:
“Some use the word ‘atheism’ to mean merely a ‘lack of belief in
gods.’ But that’s a strange definition, for it means that cats and rocks
are ‘atheists’.”

Then these words are also ‘strange’: illiterate, blind, deaf, mute.
And we should do away with them?
We dont say rocks are atheist, or blind becouse its obvious., and those words are used when the entity in question has, in principle, a choice between the two, elieving & not believing.

Quote from your bookAtheism in 15 minutes:
“Statistically, atheists don’t appear to be any more or less moral
than believers.”

New Study Links Religion to Immoral Behavior
http://richarddawkins.net/articles/5126

I know, you posted this on the 20th, and he on 21th.
Just pointing to new information.

For the the rest I tend to agree, more examples of “moral theories” would be nice. Like a scientific approach to ethics and morals.

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Reginald Selkirk February 22, 2010 at 8:40 am

Too bad for you that Clayton Sullivan has proven The Impossibility of Atheism.

His method is based on the work of the ancient philosopher Parmenides. According to Parmenides, it is impossible for the mind to think about something that does not exist. Sullivan contends, therefore, that atheism is fraudulent or intellectually bankrupt because atheists, ignoring Parmenides, do not understand that it is impossible to think about God if He does not exist.

How can you argue with logic like that?

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lukeprog February 22, 2010 at 9:20 am

Reginald,

I knew it! Santa Claus does exist!

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Haukur February 22, 2010 at 1:52 pm

Hermes: So … you agree then?

Is there some statement in particular that you want my assent to?

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Hermes February 22, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Nope. Thank you for your comments.

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Revyloution February 23, 2010 at 7:45 pm

After reading Crispins booklets on chiropracty, I had the same reaction

How can I buy a box of pamphlets like this to give out?

I think its time to bring back pampleting in the spirit of Thomas Paine. Short works that can be easily read and passed on.

The internet is turning into a segregated place where people seldom leave their comfort zones. I would love to have a box of these to deposit in train stations, doctors waiting rooms, school lounges, library tables, etc.

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lukeprog February 23, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Revyloution,

I think pamphlets are a cool idea. Conversational Atheist is working on some, I think.

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lukeprog February 25, 2010 at 7:23 am

Hallq,

Damn, I know I’ve seen some charts before on the profession and religiosity thing. I’ll keep looking for it.

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lukeprog March 1, 2010 at 12:18 am

Hallq,

Here is some data, though not the specific data on scientists and atheism I was thinking of…

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