(Image by Terry Border)
The term atheist strikes many different emotional chords which usually depend on a person’s own feelings towards the existence of deities (all across the scale from the major religions to simple deism and even agnostics). I want to convey what it actually means to be an atheist, and the unfortunate misconceptions that people tend to have towards the subject of atheism.
So, let’s start off with what atheism is. There is only one thing that makes someone an atheist, and that is the lack of belief in the existence of deities. Aside from this relatively simple criteria, atheists are free to think and do as they wish (though atheism is no free pass to anarchy!). This is a very liberating position in which to be.
It’s true that as a consequence of not believing in the existence of god (or gods, but from this point on I will specify god as a singular entity as not to continually repeat myself) there are likely and logical conclusions that the majority of atheists will share. Agreeing or disagreeing with other atheists does not make one a bigger/better or lesser atheist, however. You can’t sort-of believe in a god, anything greater than 0 (the number of gods one believes in) is not atheism. People also confuse atheism with secularism (separation of church and state) or humanism, which is a non-religious belief system. Atheism needn’t be confused with either as many religious people are secularists, seeing the benefit of a church/state separation and atheists needn’t adhere to any particular belief system.
“But why aren’t you agnostic?” - One of the more common attacks on atheists is that we’re sure that there is no god, how arrogant! We’re all atheists with regards to Zeus, Poseidon, Neptune or any of the numerable gods that are no longer considered in our current discourse. The only difference between atheists and monotheists is that we have gone one god further. Theists (and I would urge, agnostics) only need to understand why they themselves do not believe in any number of other gods to realise why we don’t believe in theirs. Which position holds greater arrogance - the one that doesn’t believe the universe was created by a deity with only our benefit in mind, or the one that does? We also don’t make or have materials to make claims about physics, chemistry or biology that not even the greatest scientists currently know.
And yet, people who criticise religion are often claimed to be little more than disrespectful bullies. This is usually a last resort from a theist or religious apologist. Similar low-blows include claiming that atheism is just another religion or that there are fundamental atheists, it’s funny to consider that such desperation is little more than saying you’re just as bad as we are! However, atheism is not a religion (how could it be? Consider whether not collecting stamps is a hobby, for example) nor a belief system or a way to live ones life, and if there are atheist fundamentalists this is a case for fundamentalism being wrong, not atheism. When criticising religion I believe it is important to recognise a couple of things: Criticise the idea, not the individual – ignorance is not a crime and neither is stupidity, we are all ignorant and stupid with regards to many subjects and every single person is capable of being the victim of delusion. We can only hope that people are honest enough to look at evidence and come to a realistic conclusion when better reasons appear to believe something (in other words; ignorance is redeemable, but choosing to remain ignorant is indefensible). Secondly, one has to realise that when criticising religion, all people are doing is delivering rational critique, ridicule and satire in the same manner that everybody else does when it comes to every other topic available to us, and hope that people have the requisite mental capacity to deal with that as they would in those other topics (this to me, is nothing but a mark of respect). People who scream about intolerance and lack of respect must recognise hypocrisy whenever they use these tools elsewhere.
(Images from the Hubble Telescope)
I’ve heard that atheists see no wonder or mystery in the world by reducing everything to a material/mechanical level – Science may tell us how things work or what things are, but this does not take away any beauty in reality. Stars and galaxies are no less awe inspiring just because the god of Abraham didn’t click his fingers and make them. The flora and fauna on this planet are no less miraculous having ultimately evolved from a common single-cell organism billions of years ago. There is beauty and awe for all to see in every direction, past and present. Flying horses and burning bushes cannot hold a candle to the images we are treated to of space (see images above). Atheists can be spiritual, have spiritual experiences and appreciate the numinous - these words need not be linked with the supernatural.
Consider the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc - often cited as criticisms towards atheistic or secular societies. The problem with these monstrous dictators of the 20th century were not that they were the opposite of religion, they were too much like a religion! Any form of totalitarianism is a very, very bad thing indeed (as well as dogmatism/fundamentalism, these are the greatest crimes of which the human mind is capable). It’s also worth noting that wherever there is fascism in history, the catholic church doesn’t tend to be very far behind. It has been said elsewhere, but no society has ever suffered for being too reasonable.
Thankfully the notion that atheists have no sense of morality has long been quashed but it does crop up from time to time. There is no genuine moral action that a person of faith could undertake (because of their faith) that a non-believer could not. However, there are numerous immoral actions that religious people have undertaken because of their doctrine. Do people who make these claims on morality think that they themselves would be raping and pillaging were they to stop believing? This line of reckoning strikes me as having little confidence in their own moral compass. The golden rule, and versions of it, has been in many cultures throughout history much earlier than many appear to give it credit. We have great evolutionary reasons for our innate sense of right and wrong.
My own path to atheism? I suppose I can’t remember a time where I did truly believe in a deity, I don’t remember a eureka moment where I suddenly decided that religion couldn’t possibly be true, or that any of the numerous gods were simply man-made. I remember at primary school, dreading that we had to waste our time in communal prayer at assembly every day (basically forcing all the children in the school into a single room to utter the lords prayer among other bible stories), perhaps this early attempt by society to unjustifiably force worship down our throats was the beginning of my critical thinking (in which case I should be grateful?), but how many were lost to this seduction? Skipping ahead a few years into my first few days of secondary school, our first lesson in Religious Education (compulsory in schools, which I don’t disagree with, but it should be taught purely in a historical and cultural context. The King James Bible in particular is a fine work of literature with which one must be familiar to appreciate the English language at all) and our homework was to draw god. I failed to complete this task as the teacher said it was due for not the next lesson but the lesson after, yet called for the work in the next lesson and was angry when I said I hadn’t done it (not my fault!). Since the rest of the class had already completed the work, my god page remained blank, with hindsight this seems the best possible answer in any case. I don’t even remember ever hearing the word atheist until I heard Captain Sensible mention The God Delusion with praise at a Damned Gig back in 2006 (I got the book as a present the next year), perhaps we shouldn’t even have a word for atheism, we don’t feel compelled to describe ourselves as non-racist, for example. I’m happy to call myself an atheist given the current zeitgeist, but who knows if culture will change in the future. For the most part, I would argue today that it’s generally considered that most people have a religious belief unless otherwise specified, therefore it feels necessary to have such a label for those that don’t believe. Personally, I can hope for a time in the future where the roles could be reversed - through means of rational inquiry and critical thinking.
There is nothing wrong with having the humility to admit ignorance to things we don’t know, indeed it is a necessary position in all topics until compelling evidence arises (this is the reason why most atheists have come to their conclusion about god - a lack of evidence) and to accept change when yet better evidence becomes available. Let’s be realistic about our ignorance and not give in to the temptation to give credence to fanciful ideas and mere wish thinking, even if a religion may help someone behave kindly, there are surely better reasons, and reasons where one doesn’t have to cherry pick and ignore numerous acts of cruelty. One should be able to take influence from their religion (if they have one) the same way that one can take influence from anywhere. Claiming that holy books are the word of god is an unjustifiable and immoral position, and is one of intellectual dishonesty we can ill afford. Who knows, one particular religion may be right, but let’s not fool ourselves in the face of the evidence we currently have and the great lengths our species has gone to achieve it.