Call yourself an atheist?

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.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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13 Responses to Call yourself an atheist?

  1. baralbion says:

    A paradox here: ‘people in general are today, as never before, questioning religion and supernatural beliefs’ and ‘religion and all manner of foolish and dangerous beliefs are enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment’. But no reason why both can’t be true.

    In practice, I don’t normally find there’s a problem. I don’t parade my lack of belief and when I’m asked, ‘What is your religion?’ or similar questions I say ‘none’. I suppose another answer might be, ‘What’s it got to do with you?’ On Facebook I describe myself as ‘godless’. I realise that attracts some of the objections that ‘atheist’ does and that, derivationally, they mean the same thing. But the negative sense is perhaps more readily understood in the Germanic formulation than in the Greek one.

    Richard Dawkins would no doubt reprimand me for not parading my lack of belief. He would perhaps say that I should be fighting the good fight against the forces of darkness. He may be right.

  2. SilverTiger says:

    We talk about the “resurgence” of religious belief but I think we should perhaps rather talk about the new militancy of religions. 9/11 stirred things up and no mistake. Whatever the original cause, atheists and believers are now going at it hammer and tongs. When believers accuse the “New Atheists” of being aggressive, it is the pot calling the kettle black: the “New Believers” are every bit as aggressive, the difference being that they have certain groups of human beings in their sights.

    So yes, it is possible to have both a religious resurgence and a new determination among atheists to make their presence felt. Two faces of the same coin.

    Both believers and atheists display a whole spectrum of behaviour from passivity to aggression. We are all on the line somewhere. We may even rock back and forth according to how we feel on the day. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. We are not all called to be “the man”. Most of us need to get on with our lives as best we can and there is no shame in that.

    I don’t feel any need to go on campaign against religion per se but I do think that when there are clear injustices and corruption, we should speak out. The argument should always come first, in my opinion. As long as the argument is good, it doesn’t matter whether the arguer is an atheist or not.

  3. athinkingman says:

    I understand your unease with the word ‘atheist’ and found your articulation of the problems with it helpful.

    Personally, I am reasonably happy with the label, mainly because I think that given the dominant presence of religion in human culture throughout history, it is almost inevitable that, at the moment, a non-religious stance will be labelled and defined as against the dominant historical culture – hence ‘a-theism’.

    Although I am moderately accepting of ‘atheist’. I would prefer ‘rationalist’ for myself, though again, I can see that that term might be too presumptive for some atheists, and may also allow some believers in the divine under the umbrella. If humanity survives the future religious wars or the effects of climate change or any future catastrophic ‘acts of god’, and if the march of reason continues to wax and the world of faith wane, I would hope that at some stage any remaining believers could be called ‘a-rationalists’.

  4. SilverTiger says:

    Words inevitably change their meaning or their emphasis with social and political changes and I think “atheist” is these days generally accepted as meaning “someone who does not believe in God, religion or the supernatural”, so to that extent it is an acceptable label.

    As you say, words like “rationalist” (along with “humanist”) can be claimed by believers but these terms are also, I think, coming more and more to be associated with a non-religious context though there are people claiming to be “religious humanists”.

    A word I thought long and hard about was “freethinker” which again has an honourable tradition among non-believers but I suppose there is nothing to prevent someone who thinks freely from concluding that God exists.

    “Naturalist” (one who believes that all phenomena can be adequately described by reference only to the natural world) has other meanings unless accompanied by some adjective as in “scientific naturalist” – which introduces new possibilities of misunderstanding.

    One group has taken the word “Bright”, as a noun, to mean a person who does not believe in the supernatural. Perhaps this, or some other neologism, will eventually gain general acceptance among those of us currently stuck with the label “atheist”.

  5. Ted Marcus says:

    A more interesting absent term is one describing a person who has no horse in the race, who cares nothing about “religion,” “faith,” “belief,” or anything at all in that arena. That’s different from an “atheist,” who firmly believes that deities (at best) don’t exist or (at worst) are a pernicious delusions that should be consigned forthwith to Hell. It’s also different from an “agnostic,” who doesn’t know whether deities exist because such things are inherently unknowable (not that it stops the agnostic from arguing fervently for unknowability). The person who would wear such an as-yet-undefined label doesn’t know and doesn’t care about any of that because none of it matters.

    If I had the benefit of a proper liberal education, I would perhaps be able to coin a fancy Latin or Greek term suitable for impressing people with my erudition. Alas, I have no such benefit. “Indifferent to Religion” is verbose, but it would seem to fill the bill for now.

  6. SilverTiger says:

    You mean like there is no word meaning “I am not a train-spotter and couldn’t give a toss about train-spotting”? Yes, a lacuna indeed.

    Train-spotters are generally harmless folk who seek neither to coerce others nor to acquire portions of the taxpayer’s money for their own purposes. One can afford to ignore them. This is not the case with religious organizations and I think one does have to take notice of what they are up to.

    With that in mind, I suggest that there is an adjective to describe “one who abstains from all debate or consideration of religious affairs” and that it is “apathetic”.

    Of course, there is a Great Tradition of apathy in your country and mine and, as religious folk are always telling us, you simply must not interfere with tradition.

  7. John says:

    The response when asked if you are an athiest is “What is your definition of an athiest”. If the person you are speaking with is educated and at all within their wits might say “it means you don’t believe in God with the evidence at hand”. Well then the answer is yes, I am an athiest. But if the answer is “it means you don’t believe in God and that there could never be a God” or even “you hate God”, then the answer “I’m not your kind of athiest” “Give me the proof…any proof….and perhaps I may believe there is a God”.

    Good people do good things; bad people do bad things but it takes religion for good people to do really bad things.

  8. SilverTiger says:

    Your last point is true and we would do well to reflect on it.

    As for “What sort of atheist…?”, yes, there are many sorts and it is right that there should be. Atheism is not a creed and therefore does not dictate what all atheists should believe, say or do.

    It is not possible to prove a negative, however much we might wish to do so. I think that it is acceptable informal shorthand for atheists to speak among themselves as though God does not exist but that they should be a little more circumspect in formal discussion, admitting solely that there is no evidence of divine existence and therefore no reason to take it into account.

  9. Justin says:

    When I get asked “What religion are you?” my response depends on how I perceive the questioner’s intentions. If they’re just curious, I say “I’m not religious.” If they keep asking questions, or start proselityzing, then I’ll move on to the Atheist label and provide a more lengthy explanation.

    Also, if the option exists, I will check the label “Atheist” whenever I’m filling out forms, or answering polls, surveys, or questionnaires. If my responses are going to be extrapolated out to some percentage of the population as a whole, I think it’s important to have the non-religious minority represented.

  10. SilverTiger says:

    That sounds reasonable to me. I don’t believe in thrusting my own (lack of) beliefs in people’s faces unless there is a good reason to do so though I must admit is can be fun to confront believers on occasion.

    Your point about polls and surveys is well taken. It’s important to get accurate results and generally encouraging for us because the numbers of unbelievers are increasing year on year.

  11. Ted Marcus says:

    Train-spotters are indeed harmless folk, by and large (never mind that our Homeland Security officials and their British counterparts would probably now suspect them of terrorist intent just because they’re unusual). But I’d also propose that most religious believers are harmless folk. Like train-spotters, they “seek neither to coerce others nor to acquire portions of the taxpayer’s money for their own purposes.” Regrettably, a sufficient minority of religious believers do seek to coerce others and/or acquire money (from whatever source) that they tar the harmless majority with their bad reputation.

    You may have implicitly acknowledged that distinction by specifying “religious organizations.” Too many of them are organizations first and religious second, which means their leaders are prone to the corruption that tends to subsume whatever laudable purposes with which the organizations may have started. It’s important to distinguish between organizations (with leaders who use religion to acquire wealth and power) with individuals. It’s rather like the apocryphal story of the preacher who was kicked out of his pulpit because he believed in God. His congregation, it seems, only believed in Religion.

    I don’t believe religious belief is inherently pernicious. But I will certainly agree that too many people abuse that belief for purposes that are frequently contrary to their supposed religious tenets. Religion itself isn’t corrupt, but it has an unfortunate and distressing tendency to encourage people to become corrupt. Rather than denouncing religion, I think it preferable to denounce its corrruption.

  12. SilverTiger says:

    Your comment raises interesting points, Ted, that a lot of people would agree with. I cannot do justice to it in a comment and will therefore dedicate a post to it.

  13. Pingback: Harmless believers? « SilverTiger

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