On Atheism: Part One*
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.