The concept of atheism is widely misunderstood. Even those who call themselves atheists often have different definitions of what atheism truly means. The following myths are commonly associated with atheism and atheists:
Atheists Deny the Possibility of a God or Gods
While there are some atheists who adamantly argue that the existence of a god or gods is not possible, the more general definition of atheism is simply "a lack of belief in a god or gods." The ideas may sound similar, but there is a big difference between saying "I don't believe in god" and "I know god does not exist."
If Sally tells Tom that she saw a unicorn in her backyard, and Tom does not believe her, it does not necessarily mean that the unicorn was not there. Tom simply needs corroborating evidence before he can believe Sally's claim. Without evidence, Tom can be reasonably sure that unicorns are not real.
Atheism is a Belief Structure or "Religion"
Theism is not a belief structure or religion by itself. When people identify themselves as theists, it tells you very little about their specific beliefs. However, if they say they are Christians, Muslims, Jews, Wiccans or Buddhists, they are telling you more about their beliefs. Each of these religions has a defined belief structure that is shared by anyone who identifies themselves as part of that group.
Atheism is not a belief structure or religion by itself either. When people identify themselves as atheists, all that they are telling you is that they do not believe in a god or gods. Beyond that, their personal beliefs may be vastly different. However, atheists who further identify themselves as Humanists, Communists, Existentialists or Objectivists are telling you something about their belief systems.
An Atheist's Goal is to Destroy Faith in Others
In general, atheists are uninterested in what other people choose to believe--as long as those beliefs do not impinge on the rights of nonbelievers. Many religions task followers with spreading their faith to others. Atheists have no such mission.
More often than not, religious debates are initiated by proselytizing believers. Some atheists may relish this chance to defend their non-belief. For others, it is just as uncomfortable as dashing a child's belief in Santa Claus.
Atheists Have Not Yet Learned About God or Religion
According to the "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey", atheists and agnostics are well informed when it comes to religion. A nationwide poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life from May 19 to June 6, 2010, surveyed 3,412 Americans.
The results? On average, respondents answered 16 out of 32 questions correctly. Atheists and agnostics averaged 20.9 correct answers. The average number of correct answers for specific religions were: Jews - 20.5; Mormons - 20.3; Protestants - 16; and Catholics -14.7.
Atheists Are Immoral and Have No Reason to Make Ethical Decisions
Despite the flawed notion that morality is intrinsically linked to religion, atheists continue to live ethical, crime-free lives with their morals firmly intact. In fact, the Global Peace Index for 2010 shows many predominantly atheist countries as also being the most peaceful.
Conversely, prisons are full of believers from many faiths and religious wars are common throughout history (including present day conflicts). Atheists may not believe that they will be judged in an afterlife, but there are many other reasons to make morally sound decisions.
Atheists Lead Meaningless Lives
In Joss Whedon's TV show Angel, there is moment when the titular character, the vampire with a soul, has an epiphany: "If there's no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters... then all that matters is what we do. 'Cause that's all there is. What we do. Now. Today." The realization is a wake-up call that renews his resolve to help as many people as he can every day.
This nicely sums up the views of many atheists. Instead of waiting for the reward of an afterlife, atheists find meaning in the world around them. Atheists continue to make positive contributions to society and realize their own full potential, despite their lack of belief in a supernatural being or beings. They want to make this world a good place, because they do not believe that there is another one to be found after death.
Atheists Worship Satan or Some Other "Enemy of God"
Just as atheists do not believe in a god or gods, they do not believe in Satan, the Antichrist or any other religious "enemy" of god. The idea is illogical and contradictory. If, for example, an atheist were to worship the Christian notion of the devil, then the devil would become his god and he would--by definition--no longer be an atheist.