I describe myself as an atheist but every time I do so it is with a slight sense of irritation. This has caused me to look around for another more suitable word. So far the search has been unsuccessful.
The reason for my lack of success is that every term I have considered – humanist, scientific realist, philosophical naturalist, secularist, etc. – comes with its own baggage of beliefs and meanings that I don’t necessarily subscribe to.
What I was looking for was a term that was positive, that is one that describes me on my own terms, not in opposition to someone else’s beliefs. This is what irritates me about the term “atheist” which is, after all, the opposite of “theist”, a believer in the existence of a god or gods.
Another deficiency of the term “atheist” is that it doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of religious belief. Traditionally, people have been called atheists, not because they disbelieved in the existence of gods but because they disbelieved in the gods worshipped by those who were calling them atheists. They might well have worshipped gods of their own. Moreover, there are self-styled “atheist” religions such as Buddhism that are still religions for all that.
On Sunday I finally realized what the source of my irritation was and I have Richard Dawkins to thank for it, albeit indirectly.
I read in the Wikipedia entry on Richard Dawkins that he is a member of the Brights movement and so I looked them up. The Brights seem to define themselves as people who have a naturalistic view of the world, that is a view that makes no reference to the supernatural. Such a definition is active rather than reactive: on the face of it, just what I was looking for.
As I read the site, however, my enthusiasm waned. It seems rather twee to call people like themselves “brights” (and “Brights” with a capital ‘B’ if registered members) and religious believers “supers” (short for “supernaturalists”) but I thought maybe I could put up with it, despite my dislike of belonging to (and thus being owned by) movements and associations, but in the end I decided not to join.
For one thing, “bright” seems an infelicitous term. It has overtones of illuminated or shiny things but also of high intelligence: when we call someone “bright” we mean he is clever and capable. People might draw the conclusion that Brights consider themselves intelligent and religious believers stupid. That would be unfortunate, I think, and likely to conflict with the group’s aims of getting on with everybody, believers included.
But it did at least make me realize what had been bothering me about all these terms, such as “atheism”, that I had been considering for myself. In a nutshell it is this: why do I have to call myself anything?
When I was a kid, the thing you wore on your wrist to keep track of time was simply called “a watch”. Everyone knew what that was. Then along came the timepiece with numbers and no hands called a “digital watch”. So now the good old ordinary “watch” had to acquire a new name and be called an “analogue watch”. But even now, it only makes sense to call it an analogue watch when we need to distinguish it from other sorts of watches.
In the same way, it only makes sense to call myself an atheist when I need to distinguish myself from religious believers. Inevitably, I will then be defining myself in terms of, or in opposition to, other people’s beliefs. That may be uncomfortable but it is unavoidable. Left to my own devices, I don’t need a label. I am myself, my own definition, and that suffices.
Calling myself an atheist, necessary as it may be in certain circumstances, limits me rather than defines me because I am far more than “just another atheist”. That is true of any label, of course, something that those who take pride in defining themselves by their profession, political affiliation, religious faith, etc. might care to reflect on.
So it seems I am stuck with being an atheist but only when necessary. The rest of the time I am just myself, a common or garden SilverTiger who needs no label because no label captures the essence of the whole person.