As far as my very personal experience goes, being an atheist means accepting the reality that surrounds us for what it is, with its breathtaking beauty and complexity, and yet acknowledging that it is a finite one. It means living under no illusion of a further reality, wholly different, incomprehensible and infinite, in which all of the questions, doubts and sorrows that trouble us in this life will find meaningful answers in the presence of an omnipotent guiding entity - or a pantheon of them.
That, however, is incorrect. If asked, most atheists will probably tell you that there was no single point in time at which they chose to become atheists. Becoming an atheist is usually a long process, consisting of the progressive accumulation of knowledge and experiences that lead one to increasingly doubt the validity of supernatural and religious claims. Eventually, you just realise that you have been an atheist for a while already, and that all you can do is acknowledge that fact. It's not a matter of choice, it's merely a matter of being honest with oneself.
Of course there are statistically significant tendencies within the atheist community, so much so that it's possible to attempt generalisations that can apply to a large number of atheists. Here's a summary of what your average atheist does or does not believe in:
- God(s): big no-no. We may like mythology and fantasy novels as much as the next guy, but they're just nice stories.
- Evolution: it works, bitches! That fact aside, a certain percentage of believers sees nothing in the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection that inherently conflicts with the notion of a deity. Just ask Francis Collins. I personally fail to see how Dr Collins can call himself a Christian, rather than simply a Deist, but that is just me.
- Beauty: despite popular belief, an atheist is perfectly capable of seeing beauty in the world. Maybe more so than a believer in divine creation. In a sense the universe is all the more mystifying and fascinating if you don't see it as the work of an almighty entity.
- Afterlife: no good. Not in a classical sense, at any rate. Death is the end of consciousness. Forget green fields, banquets with the gods, young blond boys with wings and fluffy clouds or dozens of virgins awaiting your arrival.
- Right and wrong: big fat yes. Many believers enjoy depicting atheists as deeply immoral, amoral, unethical individuals, incapable of doing what is right. Needless to say, most atheists are quite decent people, ready to do what is right because it is right, rather than because it is demanded of them.
- Reincarnation: only in the sense that our bodies decay and feed a new cycle of life.
- Karma: I'm going to go with no on this one. There's no doubt that actions have consequences, but these are not commensurate or in any sense a higher justice at work. If that were the case, this world would be in much better shape.
- Angels, ghosts, demons, fairies, leprechauns, dragons, unicorns: You can probably guess.
- Emotions: atheists are capable of the same range of complex human emotions believers are capable of. Love, hate, anger, happiness, sadness, frustration, confusion, compassion, empathy, the whole deal.
- Responsibility: we don't get to blame our failures and our mistakes on a divine master plan. We're forced to own up to them.
- Accountability: it is often said that atheism is merely an attempt to escape accountability. On the contrary, we hold ourselves accountable in the most inescapable of ways, before our peers and our loved ones.
As for science, it demands no faith. Faith itself is an insult to the human ability to ask questions and find answers by investigating the universe around us.
This particular claim is quite closely related to the perhaps more disturbing confession, made by a surprising number of believers, that without their god they would have nothing keeping them from going around killing people. That's obviously not true - or at least I hope so, for humanity's sake - but it makes for a decent rhetorical device, so they will use it.
Is a godless life really pointless? As I see it, the underlying assumption would be that the only possible purpose of human life is to do the bidding of the particular god(s) one happens to believe in. I can hardly imagine anything more appalling than holding self-inflicted servitude in such high regard.
Truth is that life's value is not lessened by relinquishing metaphysical belief. A life lived without the crutch of belief is simply what we make of it, its value determined by our actions and their consequences. If we strive to live a life worth remembering, if we aim to leave this planet a better place than it was when we chanced upon it, then our life will be as purposeful as it could possibly be.
How can an atheist possibly discern right and wrong? Really, much the same way most half-decent believers do. They have been taught to or they have learnt to. As a civilisation, despite the many cultural differences, we share many of the same common ethical principles, even though we love to pretend otherwise. We tacitly agree to be bound by social contracts that, for the most part, have a lot in common with each other. As simplistic as it may sound, whoever does good deeds - whether believer or not - does so because they're good deeds. As much as believers would hate to admit it, whenever they help an old lady cross the road or carry heavy bags, they do so without much thinking of the theological implications of their action. Nor will they pull over to assist the victims of a car crash only after considering whether that's what their prophets or god(s) would want them to do. They would simply do it because it's the decent thing to do, just as atheists would. It's as if moral and ethical behaviour - once acquired - were applied almost unconsciously by most of us, and the reason for that is that we, as a civilisation, have come to deem "ethical" all those behaviours that maximise social cohesion.
What about crime and criminals then, you may ask. Well, for one, the fact that most atheists and believers can agree on the fact that crime does exist and is wrong is a strong indication that belief in a deity is not a requirement for complex moral judgement. Crime, and generally unethical behaviour, can be explained in several ways, not necessarily mutually exclusive. There's no denying that humans, as animals, are instinctive creatures. Communal living has required the suppression of many of our primordial instincts for the sake of coexistence, but they have not disappeared. Hunger, territorial instinct, the urge to be respected, reproductive drive and all the accessory behaviours that might help maximise reproductive odds - e.g. the hoarding of resources as a display of power - are all very much alive in all of us and have only but adapted to the urban environments we have evolved to live in. They can explain crime in most of its instances, from rape to financial fraud. It's important to note, however, that belief in god(s) has always failed to correlate with lower rates of criminal, unethical and anti-social behaviour. The reason is that faith is essentially self-referential and fails to provide a rational explanation for the "wrongness" of wrong. If anything, religious ideology will always lend itself to justifying the most hideous actions. In order to keep primordial instincts at bay, rational explanations as to why ethical behaviour is the most beneficial option for the individual and for society as a whole need to be internalised. Education is key in doing that.