Friday, July 6, 2012

What Atheism Is And Is Not

My friends and family know I'm an atheist.  I've been out for a long time.  I haven't spoken about it for awhile, but recent events in my personal life have prompted me to reiterate what the word "atheism" means, and what it does not.

Atheists have exactly one thing in common: they all reject the claims of theists regarding deities.  That's it.  They may have arrived at that point from many paths; some rejected the religion of their families because they read the sacred texts and found them inconsistent with reality.  Some came to it through philosophy, either rejecting the claims of theists for lack of evidence or positing that the gods theists claim to exist cannot because the attributes assigned to them are inconsistent with the way the world works.  Some just came to it on gut feeling alone.  Whatever the reason, aside from this one commonality, atheists are diverse as any other group of people. 

Some people can't give up on the idea that atheism is much more than a rejection of the claims of theists.  They define atheists in all sorts of ways from the outside looking in, going by what their preachers say, what their friends say, what holy books say, or what their few confrontations with the more vocal atheists taught them--often in cyberspace.  I want to touch on a few of the characteristics people have assigned to me and atheists in general.

 The one statement I used to hear the most is that I worship money.  I don't worship anything, but I definitely don't worship money.  I think the origination of this idea comes from the observation of Ayn Rand followers, but those who believe in her philosophy of "enlightened" self-interest are not in the majority of atheists I have met.  I put "enlightened" in quotes because I don't think her philosophy demonstrates an enlightened worldview, but my disagreements with Ayn Rand aren't the subject of this discussion.  I will go into that in a later article, perhaps.  Suffice it to say, money is not a god replacement, at least for me, and not for several other atheists I know.  Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has the goal to become wealthy.  Some of us just want to live well, and want others to do so, as well--but again, I am not speaking for all atheists.  Nobody does.

The next most common thing I've heard is that I am my own god--that I worship myself.  Hardly!  While I have been known from time to time to have a huge ego, I know that I'm little more than a microbe on spec of dust circling a bright point with other specs of dust and gas on the edge of a grouping of a couple hundred billion points of light, many with their own orbiting specs of dust.  My place and role in the universe is minuscule, and I stand in awe of the vastness, beauty, and harshness of the universe.  Once again, I don't speak for all atheists, but I haven't met a single one who says that we are gods ourselves.  

Next comes something that I have heard recently: that atheists have an agenda.  Really?  A unifying agenda for all atheists?  Sign me up, because if there's something that can rally all of us, it must be really good.  In a couple decades of interacting with individual atheists and various atheist groups, I have not found one agenda to rule them all (apologies for the cheap Lord of the Rings reference).  Even separation of state and church doesn't unify us all; I have heard some atheists muse that if the government supported religion, what happened in Europe would happen here: the urgency for conversion would disappear, and churches would suffer from empty pew syndrome to a greater degree every year, until religion becomes something old traditionalists do.  Some remnants--probably Christmas--would remain, simply because people like the traditions, but it would be what it really has become here: a commercial holiday with its original meaning lost. In any case, there is no agenda I can think of that every atheist rallies behind.  Taxing churches?  Sure, a lot of atheists are for it, but every atheist?  No.   I've heard several opine that if we taxed churches, it would give them even more leverage in politics.  Converting people?  I don't know about you, but I haven't had a couple atheists knocking on my door lately.  I know several who have written books to this end, but those are individual atheists, each with their own personal agenda--not a single one speaks for us all.  Besides, people can pick up books or leave them; nobody is forcing anyone to read.  Indeed, reading seems to be discouraged by some people these days. 

A fourth idea that non-atheists project onto us involves the worship of science or that evolution is our religion.  I didn't become an atheist because I learned about evolution--I was an atheist for several years before I had a real understanding of how evolution works and why it is inevitable.  I became an atheist because after rejecting Catholicism, I looked around for something else to believe.  I found Christianity lacking; the Bible was inconsistent with reality and was not a practical guide for life in the modern day.  I looked into Buddhism, Jainism, paganism (which takes on many forms and means different things to different people--it's a terribly inadequate label), and all sorts of other religions, and found them all lacking because they had one thing in common: they all required faith in something without demanding evidence.  I just don't see faith as an inherent value.  To accept something without requiring some sort of evidence to me made no sense.  Besides, it was the behavior of people I respected (or didn't, depending on how they behaved).  Telling me that you believe something doesn't show me what sort of person you are.  In any case, my rejection of faith did not make me turn to a worship of science; I think science is great, and that it gives us the best method of understanding of the universe than any others available, but I don't worship it.  I'm not sure what that worship would entail, anyway.  

I could touch on many other things people have said about atheists--that we're hedonists, Satanists (?), liars (hey, the Bible says so!), children or young adults going through a rebellious phase (mine has lasted around 20 years--no end in sight), and people who became angry with some god or another for whatever reason.  I could probably write a book on the subject if I wanted, but I will address last the one that perplexes me the most: that atheists are people without morals.  My values derive from empathy--from my ability to put myself in the situations of others.  As such, altruism is one of my deepest values.  I have wanted to help people all of my life.  I have this constant urge to want to fix things so everyone can live in peace--but I don't know how it's possible, given that not everyone wants the same thing.  My personal feelings aside, I think if we didn't have religion at all, our values would come from our ability to put each other in one another's shoes.  Or maybe they'd come from the necessity of cooperation to continue our survival. Whatever the reasons, I find it hard to imagine needing faith that eternal rewards or punishments await me in the afterlife to be good to other people.  I realize that not all religious thought includes such rewards and punishments, but those that don't offer me no alternative sources for values.  



Anonymous said...

IMHO As much as people say they want peace they sure do seem to spend a lot of time fighting. Scarcity of resources, greed or any other reason someone can think of, war is at that the very core of being human. It seems to me that it's part of the dualistic nature of our existence that you can't have good without bad or peace without war.

Anonymous said...

why label yourself at all; why do you have to be an atheist? some atheist like some christians are extremist but for the most part a person doesn't know what a fellow is or isn't; i don't know if many of my friends and associates are believers or not and it doesn't really matter. for me it is simple science fails at the big bang and something had to start it.

Greg Reich said...

War certainly does seem to be an integral part of our history. I don't like it and don't think it's necessary, but do I think it will go away in my lifetime? No, not really. I disagree with the necessity of duality, though. We don't have to do things that harm other people because there are those who do nothing but help. It seems to me that you're suggesting that people will be compelled to go one way or the other because there has to be a balance or something. I think reason can win out eventually. Call me an optimist, but I think that eventually, our priorities could change from accumulation and hoarding of resources by a few to accumulation and sharing of knowledge by all.

Greg Reich said...

There was a comment that seems to have been deleted, but I received it in email. It had a message that needs to be addressed. The person asked, "why label yourself at all; why do you have to be an atheist? some atheist like some christians are extremist but for the most part a person doesn't know what a fellow is or isn't; i don't know if many of my friends and associates are believers or not and it doesn't really matter. for me it is simple science fails at the big bang and something had to start it."

First of all, labels are useful, and I'd like the atheist label to lose its negative connotations. Even when speaking with some of the most open-minded people I know, I get negative comments about atheists that I know to be untrue. Most of these people confront atheists online. People online say things they'd never say to anyone's face, and you're not confronting your everyday atheist when you go into a chat room and speak with someone who is not using his or her real name. In any case, I want people to know where I stand on religion when we have discussions about religion. I don't talk about it at work, and it's not a normal topic of discussion in social setting, either, but when it is brought up, I'm not afraid to say that I don't accept the evidence anyone has presented for their gods. To me, gods are like unicorns, leprechauns, fairies, vampires, and every other mythical creature or person out there: the only "evidence" for their existence is in literature.

Anyone who believes atheists are extremists like fundamentalist Christians needs to know two things: one, there are extremists in every single group, but I'm not sure how one can be extremely atheistic. Two, you haven't hung out with many atheists, because the vast majority I've met have been reasonable and relatively mild-mannered. Not all of them, mind you, but if they were all "extremists", whatever that means, I'd never hang around them.

Finally, science is currently trying to figure out what happened at the big bang. Just because science doesn't know something doesn't mean that they can't know--but I'm not going to fill in the gaps in human knowledge with something that raises more questions. "Something had to start it all" does not necessitate the need for an intelligent designer. Something has to be eternal, though--why not the universe, or the multiverse, or some all-encompassing thing we haven't though of yet?