Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On Atheism: Part One*

A while back I promised that I was going to start writing a series of posts explaining a few things about atheism. Or, at least, about my atheism. I named several topics I was planning to cover including why it is important to me to be an atheist, why it is important for me to talk about it, and why being an atheist makes me happy. Today's post is, quite obviously, the first in that promised series.

Now, as a beginning, we need to handle some definitions. Particularly, we need to understand what we mean by "atheist." It is unfortunately the case that many people have some pretty bizarre ideas about what an atheist is. In my experience, it is commonly thought that atheists are people who don't believe in anything- essentially nihilists who dress in black and read bad poetry in coffee houses. Some are, it's true, but by and large the majority of atheists do not resemble this. Atheists can and do have beliefs and it's important that we get the absurd stereotypes out of our heads.

To understand what atheists are we first need to introduce a distinction betweek "weak" and "strong" atheism. In each of these two cases the person in question does not believe in any god, but there is a distinction between them. A weak atheist simply fails to believe in god. Put another way, they recognize a lack of evidence in favor of a divine being and so fail to believe in one. The strong atheist, in contrast, disbelieves. Put another way, the strong atheist asserts that there is no god, while the weak atheist simply fails to actively believe in a god. This is a subtle distinction made even more murky by the sloppiness of the English language. Consider, for a moment, the statement "I don't like her." This literally means, "I do not like her." Does that necessarily mean you dislike her? No, not necessarily; it just means you do not actively like the person in question. You could feel negatively or, indeed, you could feel indifferent. In either case, the original comment is true- you do not like her. While linguistically we often take the statement "I don't like her" to mean that the speaker harbors negative feeling, this reduces us to a binary that may not be accurate. So, we have three options in interpersonal feeling: liking, neutrality, and animosity. Likewise, a theist believes in a god, a weak atheist fails to believe in god, and a strong atheist disbelieves in god. Most often when people think of atheists they imagine the strong type but, in my experience, the weak type is numerically more prevalent. Having worked through this discussion, however, I should point out that technically agnostics, who believe it's impossible to say one way or the other, would qualify as weak atheists. Is this my little effort to claim lots of people as atheists? Nah, it's not. Mostly when I talk about atheists, I mean the strong kind, but it's important to know that the other sort exist.

The second distinction we have to introduce is between idealism, dualism, and materialism.** These are three ways of categorizing philosophical views of the world. The idealist believes that all things are spirit and that the material world is essentially an illusion. Arguably, Mahayana Buddhism is an idealistic philosophy. The dualist believes that there exists both a distinctly spiritual and a distinctly material existence that are both real and valid. Christianity, thus, is a dualistic philosophy as it includes both a real existence for the body and a real existence for an immaterial soul. Finally, the materialist believes that only the physical exists and there is no immaterial soul or distinctly spiritual realm/forces. This is, in effect, the "what you see is what you get" approach to understanding the world. Believe it or not, any of these three categories can include atheists. You can believe in an immaterial soul without believing in a god, for example. Alternatively, you can believe that the material is the extent of what exists. Most often, atheists are assumed to be materialists*** but this is not automatically the case.

So, given these two type of categorizations, where do I fall? Well, I am a strong materialist atheist. Thus I assert that there is no god and that the material world around us is the extent of existence. I do not believe in an immaterial soul or any sort of spiritual energy or force. I believe that when I die I will cease to exist and, indeed, that when anyone dies they cease to exist. When I am sad or afraid I do not pray or ask for help from a higher power. I am, thus, what most people probably think of when they think atheist (except for the nihilism/coffee house/crappy wardrobe thing) but I am not by any means an example of the most common kind of atheist. In fact, I think strong materialist atheists are relatively rare, but we're the most fun at parties.

With the preliminaries taken care of, we're now ready to get to our first question: why is it important to me to be an atheist?

This one, actually, is a really easy question to answer. The first thing, though, is you have to ask yourself a question: can you just choose to believe something at will? Now, I'm serious: can you choose to believe that the world is flat? How about that 2+2=4? Can you just choose to believe that there is one true god and his name is Vishnu? Odds are, your answer is no. You probably do believe some or all of those things, but you can't just turn your belief on or off like a light. Instead, you come to believe something and will probably continue to believe it until you are convinced otherwise. So, you want to stop thinking of my atheism as something I just chose to do one day. I did not decide one day to piss off my parents by becoming an atheist. Certainly, people may do something like that from time to time but it's not genuine belief any more than putting a nativity scene in your front yard makes you a devout Christian. Rather, over time I came to be an atheist and only realized it after the fact. My belief in atheism came first, my assumption of the label came second. I am an atheist because that's what I believe. I believe it because it makes sense to me intellectually and emotionally.**** I could reel off all of the reasons, logical and emotional, for this belief but what is the point? I'm not interested in converting you- only in explaining some aspects of what it's like for me to be an atheist.

The second part of this question, however, really stems from Wicked Anomie's comment to my original post expressing interest in why atheists assume such a stigmatized identity. This is a different question because I could believe, as I do, in strong materialist atheism, but yet hide that belief. I could be a closet atheist, more or less, who goes to church and sits in the pew but privately thinks it is all hooey. So why don't I do that?

Well, for two reasons: respect for myself and respect for others. In the first case, the simple reality is that I have a strong appreciation for honesty and directness. I am not a theist. I do not believe in any god and claiming otherwise is nothing more or less than lying. I do not want to live with constant, unavoidable dishonesty. I do not want to have to hide who and what I am. So, whether it produces stigma or not, in order to be honest with myself and others I must claim the atheist identity. This does not, of course, mean that I have to scream it at everyone I meet, but it does mean that if it comes up I can't run or hide from it.

In the second case, however, claiming my identity as an atheist is a matter of respect for others. I do, indeed, have friends who are deeply religious. My occasional co-blogger Slag, for example, is a wonderful example of the potential positive effects of Christian faith. If there is anyone who might stand a chance of converting me, it would be him. I have nothing but the deepest respect and fondness for the guy. So how might he feel if he knew that I was sitting in his congregation, following along with the service, and all the time believing that the whole thing was just a bunch of superstitious nonsense? I rather expect that, forgiving as he is, he probably wouldn't appreciate it very much. You see, if I pretend to be something other than what I am, I don't just fail to be honest with myself, but I end up mocking the deeply held beliefs of others. I disagree with religious belief, but I respect the right of others to follow their own conscience. And in order for me to demand respect for my views, I must first be willing to offer respect to others. By claiming my identity I at least show respect for those with whom I disagree.

So that, in a nutshell, is why it's important for me to claim the identity "atheist." Hopefully this seems like a let-down, as though I failed to reveal any secrets. That's good because we atheists have no secrets. There's no secret handshake or deep secret pain. We're just people who believe certain things and want to live peacefully, and respectfully, with others.*****

And hopefully my next post on the subject will be equally disappointing.


* How's that for a pretentious title?

** Alas, I will not do full justice to there categories, but I'll do my best.

*** Particularly by the gnomes over on Conservapedia.

**** This may seem like a cop-out but I've decided to save the discussion of what atheism means to me emotionally until we get to the question about "Why being an atheist makes me happy."

***** With the probable exception of Dick Dawkins.

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5 Comments:

Blogger Anomie said...

This is a well-written post!

I think the distinction between weak and strong atheists helps elucidate my original question regarding why one would take on such a stigmatize identity.

I can see how a strong atheist would be a "closet atheist," perhaps even denying part of their self, by not taking on the identity. But what about weak atheists?

They're not automatically on either pole of Theist or Atheist. It seems like there's some polarization going on.

But then, religion is a contentious area, so it's only natural for there to be polarization.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 9:23:00 PM  
Blogger kristina b said...

Hi! I just found this blog. I've seen it before, I think, but I'm getting sucked in at the moment. That is probably related to the heap of reading, grading, and other work sitting on my desk giving me the hairy eyeball.

Anyway.

First off, I actually want to thank you, Drek, for expressing a few things that I've found difficult to articulate for myself. I used to be a weak atheist, but over the last year or so a variety of things have moved me into the strong, materialist atheist category.

I understand whole-heartedly what you are saying about respecting others by being honest. For example, when I sit at the dinner table with my Catholic in-laws who sometimes pray before meals, it seems like it would be the worst kind of insult to mouth the prayer (which I would have to actually learn for the occasion!). No way.

I would like to add another reason why one might actively adopt a stigmatized identity, though. (This is a totally non-empirical, anecdotal suggestion, of course.) I for one sometimes do it in order to leak atheism into mainstream culture and help de-stigmatize it. So, for example, there are some situations where I could say nothing and preserve everyone's peaceful definition of the situation, or I could admit the truth, which is that I don't believe in a god. So, yeah, sometimes I admit the truth if I feel like it's not going to turn into an argument. My hope in these situations is that at least one party will walk away feeling like it's a teensy bit more normal for some one to casually mention being an atheist.

I guess I'm revealing my inclination to be an atheism activist in my own little way. I not only do not believe in a god, but I think that in many important instances throughout human history, theism has lead people to do very bad things to each other. While I am not the type to grab a bullhorn and stand on the street corner promoting my belief system as Christians sometimes do in my neighborhood (no, really), I will risk my "good self" to put it out there on the off chance that some one who hears it will suddenly realize for the first time in their lives that there are other options besides the one they've been raised with.

Saturday, February 02, 2008 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For Theism


Hello, I've read your argument and I'd like to put forth my own Counter-argument. What is the web if not a place for a discussion? So I will begin:

The most basic need for Man is to reconnect to his Creator. To try and understand and bond the temporary with the eternal. My argument, and my rejection of your statements, is meant to lay out some fundamental axioms of my own
interpretations of this need.

God is Love
Man must have faith that a loving God exists in order to bridge the gap between the temporary and the eternal. I don't believe that God created the universe, and us, to love and protect
just to ignore us.

Weak vs. Strong?
You mention this conflict quite a bit. Weak vs. Strong? Might makes right? This makes right and wrong?

That's like saying Hitler had some army - so it was cool for him to conquer people that didn't have an army. Thatis Fascism< No matter how you frame a slaughter - it will always be fascism. You are applying the law of the jungle to
spirituality.

How can the sick ethos of a child rapist (weak vs. strong) apply to your frustrated attempts to understand a universal super being? It's not "only natural" for humans to take advantage of one another - it's wrong. Really wrong.

God is Moral
The fundamental wrongness of say, running over elderly women in your bitchin' Mustang - is something that no man or father had to teach us.
Ever. You know it is wrong - so, how?

It seems that God has wired us up in such a way that we understand all these things at the moment of conception. His Laws are in our bird brains from day one. We are taught, in our hearts, that hatred is wrong by our Creator - naturally, genetically and perpetually.

How can an Atom understand an Amoeba?
If, in this example, Man is an atom and God is an amoeba, how can we (as a single celled organism) be able to ask the right questions let alone to find any larger cosmic answers? We sense His
movements in our lives with a limited capability of seeing the waters of time and space that surround us.

Agnosticism is the refuge of an unworthy vessel.
God hasn't spoke to you as a torched bush or handed you any stone tablets lately, huh? Get over it.

Perhaps, He has been even more active in your life than your realize or dare to admit? In the book of Job, Elihu, a friend to Job during his trials, says to him, "God speaks once, twice, even three times to us - although we hear him not."

Bunnyists and Santaists (yes as in Claus)
Why is it that when a middle aged man glues on a fake beard and hops into a chewed up bright red suit no one shakes their head? Why do they shake their heads when some mentions Christ or the prophets? Why is it that egg bearing rabbits are more welcome to us than the Beatitudes or
the Sermon on the Mount? Why is the Information Ageso full of useless information? I have no use for this. I do have a use for wisdom.

Jesus was an Uncool Terrorist
Even at the most skeptical point of view you and I can admit this: Two thousand or so years ago, a profound and brilliant dude walked in a dark world.

Butchery and barbarity was the way of the world he lived in. Savage cults and terrible slaughters defined the ancient world. He was a poor man from poor people who lived in an occupied backwater city at the edge of an empire. His life and his peoples lives where defined by poverty, punishment and backbreaking toil for their oppressors. And do you know what this uncool weirdo said?

I am the Prince of Peace.

So the Strong folks - the Romans and the Pharisees, didn't like that very much. How could they? This was a dangerous concept
to their authority. Interesting to note here that the word fascism comes from a Latin word "fasces" - basically a big ass nightstick that roman centurions would use to beat the snot out of the locals at this time.

Now. After this "dangerous" renegade was betrayed he went to his horrible death. And no one forgot him. In fact, men and women followed his example of spiritual strength and faith for many hundreds of years. They built hospitals and formed orders just to take care of the "weak" because some uncool terrorist asked them to.

The most emotionally resounding work of our civilization is based on faith. And not the faith that a light bulb will turn on when you flip a switch or that your car will start when you turn a metal key. I mean Faith in humanity. Faith that we as a species will overcome our fear and doubt and disease to be something better than an animal.

That faith is rewarded with Love. Love that comes from one source and one source only - God. The love of our fathers, our brothers, our friends and wives begins and ends with God.


Thank you very much for the opportunity to present another view.


Bob Bag of Doughnuts
gmedia@iconnectii.com

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 7:00:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Bob: Thanks, I suppose, for your comments. There was too much there for me to respond to in comments so I tackled your essay in a separate post.

Friday, February 15, 2008 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger jason said...

Sorry for the late comment, but I just found your great post. It was very clear and informative. You were able to present your stance without being negative to others who do not share your beliefs.

I would like to add my view in regards to not participating in/with religious acts or services. I am a weak atheist, but was raised a catholic and attended catholic schools up until college.

My family are devout catholics who say grace, attend mass, etc... I am the only person out of my large family (~50 people) who is not catholic. I no longer attend mass regularly but still have go for events such as weddings and funerals. My friends and mother know about my stance on religion but no one else, including my father, knows. It is always a bit awkward during prayer or mass.

I do not receive communion, but I still mouth everything when the time comes. You feel that it would disrespect others to participate and I feel that if I didn't participate, then I would offend my close family as a result. In my case, I create less of a disruption by participating and appease others by doing something that I don't believe in. It just depends on your situation for this area.

You see, atheist can still have feelings and are not evil dissidents. Hope that this is an informative addition to your post and aids the reader's understanding.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008 10:04:00 PM  

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