Understanding Atheism

AtheismI’ve decided to expand on my previous post entitled, “Atheism vs Agnosticism” where I explored the different ways of thinking about atheism. The reason for this is because since writing that post, I’ve further explored what atheism means to others and have done a lot of reading on the subject. Some of the books I’ve read are: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Letter to a Christian Nation, and An Atheist Manifesto by Sam Harris – all of which I highly recommend. In addition to these books, I’ve come across a wealth of information on various websites and especially YouTube.

As my original post talked about, there are a number of ways to define the terms ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’. My exploration of these terms were on a more passive level, that is to say I didn’t apply an active component to the definitions; the words were simply defined as what they mean separate from how they’re used. I’d say that most atheists, like myself, use a strict definition where ‘a-theist’ means, “not theist” (just as ‘atypical’ means “not typical”), and opposed to “a disbelief in a god” (since this would indicate a type of belief itself). I tend to like this definition for its simplicity. However, I’ve noticed that most theists (meaning ‘religious believers’) tend to view the term as having much more intent behind the term, such as “against religion”, “god hater”, or “anarchist” (the last two making absolutely no relevant sense). There are many atheists out there who either don’t subscribe to the label (though fit my definition) or don’t actively oppose religion at all, while others are in active opposition to specific theistic beliefs or all of theism. It’s important to remember that atheism is not an ideology, nor is it a religion unto itself as some people like to think.

As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. It is terrible that we all die and lose everything we love; it is doubly terrible that so many human beings suffer needlessly while alive.

Needless to say, a rational argument against religious faith is not an argument for the blind embrace of atheism as a dogma. The problem that the atheist exposes is none other than the problem of dogma itself—of which every religion has more than its fair share. There is no society in recorded history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

Only the atheist has observed what should now be obvious to every thinking human being: If we want to uproot the causes of religious violence we must uproot the false certainties of religion.

Atheism is nothing more than a commitment to the most basic standard of intellectual honesty: One’s convictions should be proportional to one’s evidence. Pretending to be certain when one isn’t—indeed, pretending to be certain about propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable—is both an intellectual and a moral failing. Only the atheist has realized this. The atheist is simply a person who has perceived the lies of religion and refused to make them his own.

– Sam Harris, An Atheist Manifesto

Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely soley upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically…

– Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

For those of us who are actively in opposition to religion, and all kinds of supernatural theistic beliefs, we have a couple other terms from which to chose. The ‘new atheist’ is said to be one who believes “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises” (Hooper, Simon. “The rise of the New Atheists”), while Christopher Hitchens (who is regarded as one of the leading ‘new atheists’) has promoted the term, ‘anti-theist’ as being a more appropriate term. He writes: “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.” (Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001). I tend to like the term ‘anti-theist’ for this purpose, as it makes it very clear as to the position one has when assuming that label.

Now that we’ve established some grounded definitions of ‘atheist’, ‘new atheist’, and ‘anti-theist’, I’ll now share with you the words of Sam Harris (another leading new atheist) from a speech he gave where he criticized the very use of the term ‘atheist’:

Given the absence of evidence for God, and the stupidity and suffering that still thrives under the mantle of religion, declaring oneself an “atheist” would seem the only appropriate response. And it is the stance that many of us have proudly and publicly adopted. Tonight, I’d like to try to make the case, that our use of this label is a mistake—and a mistake of some consequence.

…I think that “atheist” is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people “non-astrologers.” All we need are words like “reason” and “evidence” and “common sense” and “bullshit” to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of “atheist,” it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I’m not saying that meetings like this aren’t important. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the “new atheists” or “militant atheists” has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm’s length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

– Sam Harris, speech given at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007

When I first came across Harris’ speech, I was taken back. I hadn’t considered that the very label I was so quick to adopt, could very well be the label that warns theists not to listen to what I have to say. I’ve already experienced this since announcing my resignation from the LDS Church. Even before that, I had seen my own TBM brother-in-law quickly dismiss what a friend of mine said during a Facebook debate, simply because he identified himself as atheist. So while I whole-heartedly agree with Harris, I can’t seem to let go of the label. Maybe this is because society, in general, depends on labels to function. How would I possibly find like-minded atheists if the term didn’t exist for me to type into Google? Without labels, we cannot congregate, as we wouldn’t have a way of identifying the type of group we’re trying to gather.

It’s this negative association with terms like ‘atheist’ that has caused a growing movement to ‘take back’ the word, and attempt to clear up any misunderstandings of the term by proudly ‘coming out’ as atheist. (This is akin to the movement in the non-heterosexual world to reclaim the term ‘queer’ as being a positive label for those who identify with its new connotations). Many social media sites have people deeming today (August 6, 2011), “Proud to be an Atheist Day” – which leaves me wondering if I should dawn the scarlet ‘A’ and stand proudly among fellow atheists, or should I break from the label and simply praise rationality, logic, and reason as a means to enlightenment? Richard Dawkins takes a somewhat opposing view from that of Sam Harris on this matter:

Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about. On the contrary, it is something to be proud of, standing tall to face the far horizon, for atheism nearly always indicates a healthy independence of mind and, indeed, a healthy mind. There are many people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are atheists, but dare not admit it to their families or even, in some cases, to themselves. Partly this is because the very word ‘atheist’ has been assiduously built up as a terrible and frightening label.

Indeed, organizing atheists has been compared to herding cats, because they tend to think independently and will not conform to authority. But a good first step would be to build up a critical mass of this willing to ‘come out’, thereby encouraging others to do so. Even if they can’t be herded, cats in sufficient numbers can make a lot of noise and they cannot be ignored.

– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

I see Dawkins’ view on atheistic pride as being a useful tool for encouraging others to live openly without a god, and to help dispel the stigma associated with the label. And because of that, I don’t think I’ll be giving up the label of ‘atheist’ just yet. Though, I do foresee a future where I won’t be promoting myself with that label, at which time Harris’ “under the radar” philosophy may very well work for me.


Posted on 2011-08-06, in Atheism, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hello would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using? I’m planning to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a tough time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique. P.S My apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

    • I’m using WordPress.com. After I did some research on the other platforms, this one seemed to offer everything I needed while giving room to grow (if I want to try my hand at website design). WordPress’s features are great, and I’ve had no regrets.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I recently came to your blog through a mutual friend and am enjoying your writings. I appreciate the experience of reading some comment or another and thinking how perfectly you’ve expressed my own thoughts.

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