"Oh, NO!" exclaimed a dismayed former girlfriend, upon hearing me proclaim my atheism explicitly for the first time. "I'd like to see you say that on your death-bed!", said fellow student of mine. The more generic response is (say it with me): "you can't disprove the existence of a God", the assumption being that atheists are arrogant enough to "know" that there isn't one. I am tiring of reactions like this.
So, although I don't usually approve of advertisements, I am glad to hear that atheist groups in London, New York and elsewhere have started putting ads up, saying things like "There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life", and "A million New Yorkers are fine without God...Are you?". But many people have a big problem with these ads. However, nearly everyday I see a bus-mounted ad for a Christian elementary school that claims to be "Where kids love to learn, and learn to love", which - even objectively - strikes me as far more offensive. So although it is probably a bit selfish of me, it's also kind of nice to know that, somewhere out there, there are buses carrying equally disgruntled theists.
The reactions these "Atheism ads" provoked, as well as my own personal experiences, lead me to believe that Atheism has somewhat of a PR problem. Please allow me to further aggravate it.
I can, of course, only speak for myself. But, as an atheist, I don't think that I "know" that there is no God; I just highly doubt that there is one, just like I might highly doubt the existence of dragons. So if I am arrogant, it is only because I think the main difference in this matter between myself, and many of those who profess to be "agnostic", is that I am slightly more intellectually courageous. Darwin himself claimed to be an agnostic (possibly because a friend of his coined the term), but it seems to me to be a very fancy word for "I don't know". And I agree; I don't claim to know either! But what many agnostics fail to consider, I think, is that in that sense, we don't "know" anything at all. Claiming to be an "agnostic" does little more than excuse one from the debate about God.
I see myself, effectively, as an agnostic with a backbone; aka, an atheist.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell was once asked how he would react if, upon dying, he came face to face with a God curious as to his lack of faith. "Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence", was his excellent reply. It's an ingenious retort to Pascal's wager; I'd like to think that, at this point in our history, God would have to understand this position. But of course, this might not always have seemed to be the case.
Again and again in our recent history, progress has parted the seas of the unknown to reveal religious dogma to be swimming naked. It is important to remember that there used to be apparently very good arguments against atheism, and that many of the brightest philosophers of the past would be appalled to find that they had been reduced to "you can't disprove" God - which they would rightly recognize a complete retreat from the realm of reason. Atheists don't need to disprove God; theists need to produce a shred of evidence of one, just like the proponents of any other theory would have to, in order to be taken seriously.
And in a way, God has been disproved - repeatedly. Those who see the historical ubiquity of religion among human cultures as some sort of point in it's favor, might recall that all of these cultures have in fact been proven dead wrong about the majority of things that they had invoked religion to explain. We now know that the sun is not borne across the sky in a chariot, and that humans were not created simultaneously with the rest of "creation", for example. Because these were theories that could be disproved, they were. Thus God, as the vast bulk of humanity has perceived it to be, has been definitively disproved. (Anyway the Bible, the Koran, and every other single religious text conspicuously failed to mention the New (or Old) world, gravity, DNA, or electricity.) It is only by having entirely forsaken the realm of reason that modern religious thought has continued to cling to some semblance of philosophical legitimacy. Claiming to be a "theist" nowadays does little more than excuse one from the debate about the true nature of reality.
Many modern people have responded to the sudden and unrelenting march of progress by compartmentalizing their world into two spheres: one which is discoverable by science; and another which they feel will forever remain beyond it's scope, a realm beyond reason. The veiw that "religious belief and science are not mutually exclusive" is an opinion I've heard expressed by theists and agnostics alike. We have seen interpretations of the Bible transformed, and "New Age" spiritualism has blossomed; philosophies that allow many people to live comfortably with the idea that religious faith, although unreasonable and inexplicable, is still relevant. They tend argue that the role of religion is not to explain our surroundings and to make predictions, but to help us live happier lives.
Let me be clear: I'm sure there are many happy theists out there. And I'm sure that there are many for whom religion has been a means by which they have improved their lives. But religion is clearly not a prerequisite for happiness. Otherwise, I would be unhappy - and I am not; nor do my religious friends appear any happier. But let's assume for the sake of argument that "finding" God does somehow make one happier - a lot happier; as happy as winning $15 million in the lottery would. Belief in God would be a great thing, right?
Unfortunately, the science is coming in on happiness, and to put it lightly, it doesn't look good for this point of view. Studies have shown that a year on, people who win the lottery are just as happy as those who have been paralyzed from the neck down for a year. I think the belief that religion makes you happier stems largely from a fundamental misunderstanding of what happiness actually is: we are all, it turns out, about as happy as the next chap in line, regardless of the beliefs, events, and material possessions encompassed by our lives.
In summary: because I veiw the existence of God as a scientific hypothesis which is more or less completely baseless, and because I remain wholly unconcinved that a departure from the realm of reason is in the better interests of myself and those around me, I am an atheist.