What is an Atheist?

In this lesson, students learn about episodes of anti-atheist discrimination; and they develop ways to educate others about respecting nonreligious, as well as religious, diversity.
Grade Level


Activities meet the following objectives:

  • learn what atheism is
  • learn that atheists have been the targets of discrimination
  • respond constructively to people who have been targets of discrimination
Essential Questions
  • What is atheism?
  • What kinds of discrimination have atheists experienced?
  • How can students promote respect for diverse religious believers and non- believers?
  • Fact Sheet Handout 
  • Groups Who Are Sometimes Treated Unfairly Handout 


atheist |āthē ist| (noun) someone who does not believe in God or a universal spirit

agnostic |agˈnästik| (noun) someone who says that knowledge of God’s existence is unknown or unknowable

secular humanist |sekyələrˌ(h)yoōməˈnist| (noun) someone who does not believe in God, but who has a belief system characterized by reason, ethics, and justice

deist |dēˈist| (noun) someone who believes that the world was created and set in motion by a supernatural agent which then does not take an active role or moral interest in humanity

free thinker |frē ˈthing kər| (noun) someone who believes in the right to freedom of thought, and strives to build opinions on the basis of facts and logical principles, while rejecting dogma, religion, scripture, tradition, or experience


1. (Note: read out loud points from the Fact Sheet.) Listen to this information about a group of people who are sometimes treated unfairly by others who don’t agree with what they think. What are some groups you have learned about who are treated unfairly because of who they are or what they think? (Note: Fill these in on a chart that looks like the one on Groups Who Are Sometimes Treated Unfairly.)

2. Now use the chart to think about patterns on your list. The chart includes some categories by which groups define themselves. For example, if you said that sometimes Muslims are treated unfairly, you can put a check in the column labeled “Religion,” because Muslims are a group defined by their religion. Read your list and see what characteristics define the different groups you have identified.

3. Now think back to the people your teacher read about—the ones who were treated unfairly. Those people are atheists. (Note: Write atheist where students can see the word.) An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God or a universal spirit. On your chart you noted that sometimes people are mistreated because of their religion. In this case, people are mistreated because they aren’t part of a religion. Add atheists to your list.

4. Talk with a partner or group about what you have learned that you didn't know before, or any similarities/differences in the list you have made. 

Extension Activity


Political cartoons present an opinion about a topic or a person in the news. To help you think about this cartoon, start by listening to the song “Imagine.” Then look at the images in this cartoon and read the words. How does the woman in the cartoon feel when she hears “Imagine” on the radio? How does she respond to the first three lines of the song? Then how does her response change when the subject is religion? Given what you’ve learned in this lesson, why do you think she responds differently? What comment is the cartoonist making?

Reprinted with permission. Teachers may purchase individual cartoons for other lesson plans atPoliticalCartoons.com.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More