I’ll be perfectly honest: there are a good many atheists whom I like a great deal better than a good many theists, not just because they are more fun to be around, but because they are genuinely better human beings, in any number of ways. This has very little if anything to do with their disbelief–for the most part, they don’t mention it. The ones that make a big deal out of it aren’t really what I would consider a-theists; they are anti-theists. On the contrary, the profession of belief by many theists I find to have a grating manner, typically because it smacks of insincerity or a pushy, “I know better than thou” attitude.
But while we get along in the day-to-day, sometimes swimmingly, there are often moments (and seemingly more and more) wherein I see the fundamental difference of worldview which divorces the atheist perspective from my own: purpose.
Now I do not mean that I have a purpose and they do not. Frequently, I find myself questioning my purpose, seeking for it, trying to understand it–to the end that I sit idly and waste time pursuing nothing at all (what can I say? I’m a regular Hamlet)–while they go about accomplishing things.
What I really mean is the source of purpose. It goes hand-in-hand with atheism’s disbelief that the universe in and of itself, independent of ourselves or other intelligent creatures, has no meaning and can provide us with no meaning; that the only meaning it has, and therefore the only purpose it can give, is what we make of it ourselves. It is a clay to be molded by our hands.
Contrariwise, the theist, insofar as belief is held truly and with conviction, views oneself as subordinate to a purpose-pervaded universe crafted by an intelligence beyond ourselves, beyond our comprehension. The universe is no raw material, but a mystery to be investigated and a source of awe.
Many professed theists have done a quite terrible job of treating it this way, but that’s not really relevant to the point that I am making (if it were, I’d expound at length about how an overestimation of human worth in the cosmic scheme by intellectually dilapidated theists is likely responsible for the increase in Western atheism); namely that although the good theist must see him- or herself as responsible for one’s own actions and behavior no less (and possibly a good bit more, depending on secondary beliefs) than the atheist, the former holds oneself responsible primarily for how we react to circumstances beyond our control, rather than as one’s responsible for instituting control in the first place.
Obviously, in any concrete individual, the situation is more complex than that; beliefs always are, and tracing their individual psychogenesis is an endless series of rabbit holes. Nevertheless, I think this broad characterization is a fair assessment for the majority of theists and atheists alike, and, moreover, an important point which each ought to keep in mind for interacting with the other.