Atheism is in the news these days. This is partly because of the storm whipped up by the books of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the ensuing debates and arguments that they caused and partly, I think, because people in general are today, as never before, questioning religion and supernatural beliefs.
This is turn is causing people to examine their own beliefs and to look for ways to describe them. If you have a religious belief, the situation is simple: you say “I am a Catholic” or you say “I am a Buddhist”, etc. But what do you say if you do not have a religious belief? In theory, nothing could be simpler: you don’t say anything. In reality, the situation is not so simple.
Why not? Well, because, strange as this may seem in this age of science and technology, religious belief is still taken as the default position. How often have you had to give personal information about yourself and been faced with the question “What is your religion?” Not “Do you have a religious belief?” but “What is your religion?” In other words, non-believers continually find themselves in the position of having to state their lack of belief in contradistinction to the supposition that they have a belief of some kind. Hence the need for a simple and straightforward label that means “I lack a belief in the supernatural”. I don’t think you can really escape this need.
Many terms have been used, some less successfully than others: “freethinker”, “rationalist”, “humanist”, “scientific naturalist”, etc. But the one that everyone knows, that tumbles off the tongue at the first hint of unbelief, is “atheist”.
So doesn’t that solve the problem – if you lack a belief in God or the supernatural, can’t you just say “I’m an atheist”? Well, yes, you can and most of us do that as a matter of routine. On the other hand, we also dislike the word. There are quite a few reasons why we dislike it, some subtle and some not so subtle.
Firstly, if I call myself an atheist, I am defining myself in terms of that which I deem not to exist. I have to postulate God in order to say I don’t believe in God. That is somewhat paradoxical. It is also rather negative, a bit like David Cameron renaming his Conservatives “Not the Labour Party”.
Secondly, to be atheist is not necessarily to disbelieve in the supernatural. Both the Jains and the Buddhists call themselves “atheist” but both have a very elaborate cosmology that includes gods, albeit not all-powerful creator gods. And what is “karma”, if not some sort of supernatural accounting mechanism? Moreover, believers in God A have traditionally called believers in God B atheists, meaning by that term “People who don’t believe in our god”.
Another objection to calling oneself an atheist, according to some people, is that if you do, then you also have to call yourself an afairyist, an aunicornist, an adragonist, an aSantaClausist, etc. and you would never make an end of it because whatever silly fantasy someone invented, you would have to have an “a- term” indicating that you don’t believe in it.
To be honest I don’t take that last criticism too seriously. This is because no one seriously thinks it is normal to believe in unicorns, dragons and the tooth-fairy, so you seldom find yourself in the necessity of defending your disbelief in them. When we come to God, however, the situation changes radically, for the reason stated, i.e. the widely held view that belief is usual. Unbelievers do therefore need to defend and define themselves on a daily basis.
So what is the answer – ditch “atheist” and use something else? This is an attractive idea but I think it fails because there is no other word that I know of that fills the bill. I could go through all the candidates, stating my objections to each, but this would be tedious. It is left as an exercise for the reader.
So, to repeat, what is the answer? I think the answer is to be as parsimonious as possible and not to use a term at all unless and until one has to. When that moment comes – and it will come, on a regular basis – we bite the bullet and we boldly say “I am an atheist”. I think the word is generally understood these days to mean “One who does not believe in God or religion”* so I think there is little risk of the self-claimed atheist being taken as a Buddhist, a Jina or an astrologer.
One reason why we should not be afraid to use the word is because religion and all manner of foolish and dangerous beliefs are enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment and I think it is very important that those who see through this nonsense make their position known so that waverers can see that there are alternatives, better and more intelligent alternatives. Personally, I think that supernaturalism is rearing up prior to a disastrous collapse which will leave it far weaker and far more vulnerable than before. But whether or not this turns out to be true, now, as never before, is it important to stand up and be counted as an atheist.
*This is where another problem raises its head. For reasons of convenience (I won’t be rude enough say “laziness”), Western philosophers have largely reduced to debate on religion and the supernatural to the question of whether God exists. Personally, I think this over-simplifies and even falsifies the subject.