How we move forward as atheists in the 21st century.Posted: 02.25.11 | |
Hello, my fellow atheists,
We all have to admit, it’s a pretty good time to be an atheist, comparatively; superstition has loosened its hold on people sufficiently that we can stand and be counted as non-believers without too much fear of reprisal. Even though we still can’t really have a good debate about theism vs. non-theism with most people, great scientists like Einstein, Hawking, Newton, Carl Sagan, et. al., have paved the way for true scientific discussion about the origins of our universe. For the first time in history, we find ourselves not only with solid ground to stand on, but gaining on the summit that religion has previously held with brute force. We may still be one of the most hated minorities in America, but that’s in America–there are other places where the majority of people in that country are non-theists. We are becoming grudgingly acceptable.
I think it is time to stop and re-evaluate the way in which we will move forward from here–because, friends, it’s disheartening to see people become embroiled in the same old arguments with theists over and over again. It’s the philosophical equivalent of running up to a brick wall and expecting to go through it but bouncing off every time. It’s disheartening to see our energies wasted, not only on arguments with believers, but even arguments with each other about the nature of atheism! One thing that makes me cringe every time I read it is the statement, “There is no atheist community.” You’re joking, right? Atheism is not a religion, sure, but ah, I have to tell you guys who think there is no atheist community–the definition of community is as follows: “a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.” As atheists, we are quite different from the rest of our largely theist country, and we have something pretty major in common–lack of belief in any sort of deity. That makes us a community. Also, denotation of community aside, atheists talk to each other. Atheists seek each other out on the internet and have fleshly gatherings in local areas. I have made atheist friends on Twitter and via my blog that are only connected to me by virtue of the fact that we have this common quality. We are a community; we’re just not a religion. And as a community, I think we should take the time to think about how we will go on from here.
Definition of terms
One of the things that we bicker back and forth about, not only amongst ourselves but with theists, is the definition of “atheist”–also, the definition of “agnostic.” Some claim that there are no true atheists, that we are all agnostic. I think that, in order to quell these meaningless arguments, we should make clear our definition of terms–I’m using dictionary definitions here, derived from the original roots of the words, so if you would like to argue about how I am defining these words, please write to the ancient Greeks instead.
atheist – from the Greek for “without God,” “godless.” An atheist is anybody who does not believe that an kind of deity exists. Note that this does not necessarily mean an atheist is a person who knows for certain that deities do not exist.
agnostic - from the Greek agnost, agnotos, meaning unknown or incapable of being known. Agnostic can define both theist and atheist, as you can be a person who believes that there is a deity but thinks that it is impossible to know anything about it, or you can be a person who doesn’t believe that a deity exists, but also believes that it is impossible to know for certain. Myself, I am an agnostic atheist–while I do not think it is likely that there is a deity, and while I think it is even less likely that any of our Earth religions would be correct as to the true nature of any potential deity, I don’t believe it is possible to know for certain either way.
Please also note, regarding agnosticism, that if you are sure that “something” exists and you don’t know what, you are an agnostic theist, not just “agnostic.”
theist – a person who believes in a supreme creator and–here’s where it can get tricky–does not reject the possibility of revelation. Revelation in this sense means that we are granted the knowledge of this deity–like when the god of the Old Testament revealed himself to Moses, for example. This is in contrast to a deist, who believes in a deity based solely on the natural order of things, but doesn’t think that this particular deity has revealed itself to us. (An agnostic theist would basically be a deist.)
gnostic – the opposite of agnostic, meaning that one ascribes to the belief that the nature of the existence of God is knowable (and generally coupled with the idea that they know the nature of the existence of God). A gnostic theist not only believes that a deity exists, but that the deity is knowable. A gnostic atheist believes that not only do deities not exist, but we can certainly know that they do not exist. Gnostic with a capital G also refers to early sects of Christianity who claimed to have superior knowledge of spiritual truths, and that these hidden and higher meanings behind religious texts would lead to enlightenment.
I believe that proper definition and use of these terms will help not only to communicate better our beliefs and reduce confusion, but also we will encounter fewer opportunities to be baited by theists into pointless arguments when we can point to a clear definition and say, “You are incorrect if you say that there are no atheists. Please refer to this definition.”
Speaking of quelling arguments
I think that the time has passed for us to be engaging in non-constructive arguments with theists. Obviously, just like in members of a religious community, there will be individuals that still want to engage theists in arguments about semantics and such; I think that, on the whole, we should step away from pointless debate until we figure out what our goals for engaging theists truly are.
We will never, ever convince them. 
We are not going to convince theists that they are wrong. Period. Not going to happen. We can show them all the evidence in the world–we can show them evidence that Biblical events didn’t happen, we can show them evidence of the creation of the universe, it does not matter. It does not matter because religious belief is an irrational belief, and you can’t fight an irrational belief with reason. Knowing what we now know about the universe, about psychology, about history, about anything, it’s totally irrational to believe that tomes which are thousands of years old contain the absolute truth about existence. That’s why we can’t argue with theists and expect to win; when one is defending an irrational belief, one will use irrational arguments. One will do any- and everything to protect an irrational belief if it is being attacked from the outside.
If you have not always been an atheist, think about how you became an atheist. Many atheists have said it was through education. I myself began questioning the reality of God when I was taking science classes in high school. Nobody came up to me and directly challenged my belief in God; through education, I began to think about it on my own. You may have a similar story; I think what most of our stories probably have in common is that we had to come to the conclusion by ourselves if we were theists before. Full-frontal attack–or even, as some have said, attack through ridicule–is not necessarily the way that we want to go. Because, quite frankly, is our goal truly to convince all theists that there is no supreme being? Is that what we really, really want?
It’s not what I really, really want.
Sure, it would be great to live in a world where we all are on the same page when it comes to belief. And it would be fantastic to slough the more superstitious, backward, inhumane beliefs to which some religions ascribe. I think the latter is a goal that can actually be reached to some degree, through patience and education; after all, there are many Christians in America who are not anti-gay, despite the Bible laying down some pretty harsh judgments about homosexuals. But the fundamental nature of belief will preclude any attempts to completely eradicate religion for a long time, I think. Even if we were somehow able to break down specific religions, I believe that most believers would still be agnostic theists. Thinking about the origins of the universe, as I wrote in a previous blog, is an exercise in having your mind totally blown. Even physicists can’t quite wrap their brains around it. Physicists can’t even satisfactorily explain how gravity came to be, much less where the matter in the Big Bang originated, what happened before the Big Bang, and was there ever a point where there was truly nothingness? Nobody knows. Some people believe that something supernatural must have caused it. I don’t think that in itself is a completely irrational belief, especially for people who aren’t physicists or scientists. The universe had to come from something, somewhere–to believe that a deity put it into motion, not so crazy. To believe that a holy book written thousands of years ago by people who could barely read and write holds the ultimate truth to the universe, much crazier. My point is, if we’re trying to completely eradicate belief, I think we’re heading in the wrong direction.
So where do we go?
I believe that we need to clarify our focus and work together as a group to achieve our goals. For me, personally, being an American atheist, these are some of the things that I would like to see happen, and why:
- complete separation of religion and state; concession that our basic laws should be written for non-theists, and that theists can choose to uphold any additional religious law on their own. This would include allowing homosexuals to marry, but not forcing all churches to perform the ceremony. This is completely inclusive but not intrusive; one would only have to engage in a homosexual marriage if they wanted to do so. Abortion is another law that is inclusive but not intrusive; theists who have moral objections to abortions don’t have to have one. For those of us who recognize that the potential for life is not the same thing as viable life; for those of us who do not recognize the existence of a soul; for those of us who believe that, in some cases, abortion is more humane than birthing, there is no legal reason to impede our options or to consider abortion “murder” until the baby is near or at viability. (If you are a theist and you find this abominable, you should know that I feel the exact same way about your obsession with taking over my reproductive rights. We’re both Americans, and your religious beliefs do not trump my secular beliefs because we have no official religion.)
- complete separation of religion and education in public schools; concession that information taught in our schools should not be determined by any religious concerns since we not only are not all religious, but we are not all the same religion–after all, there are private religious schools and also the option of home schooling if a person is truly concerned that science classes may corrupt their children. As a nod to people who do not want their children to learn about evolution, I believe that, in districts where this is a concern, an alternate science class could be offered that still does not teach “intelligent design” or other non-scientific theory but that fulfills the required science credits–an Earth science class, or something. (Just an FYI to anybody who thinks that this is an outrage, I didn’t learn about evolutionary theory until AP Biology, which was completely voluntary and not required to graduate; basic Biology did not cover evolutionary theory. It is entirely possible for kids not to be taught evolutionary theory in high school if they or their parents don’t want them to take it, and we don’t even have to have a section on the ludicrous “intelligent design” to counter it.)
- freedom of scientific study in regards to topics which are only controversial because of religious reasons. I have said before that testing on embryos, for example, is only controversial because theists believe that a baby has a soul from the moment of conception. As an atheist, I don’t believe that a baby has a soul at all, or that any of us have souls, and thus, I don’t consider an embryo a “baby” until it is a viable life. As a rational person, I don’t believe that my genetic material is sacred, and if I could donate a few of my eggs to help save a person who has Parkinson’s through stem cell research, I would gladly do it–I’m not going to use more than a couple of the large amount of eggs that I have in my ovaries, so why not? (Now, this probably sounds sickeningly cold-hearted to people, so I’m going to clarify: if I found out today that my husband, whom I love and cherish, had impregnated me, and there was a little clump of cells inside of me that was destined to grow into a baby, I would protect that little clump of cells to the death. But I recognize that the little clump of cells in my body is more special to me because it was created with love and it will grow into our baby. I still wouldn’t think that it had a soul. And I wouldn’t find an embryo created from my donated genetic material nearly as special. It just isn’t the same if it is made in a lab. I flush unfertilized eggs out of me every month and that is not sacred; it’s a natural process–why not let someone else get some good from that?)
- clearer definitions and practices in laws regarding religious displays on public property, et cetera. Quite frankly, I’m not really concerned if a public park puts up a nativity scene at Christmas. I really don’t think it should be something that we get all in a huff about. I do think that it should be inclusive rather than exclusive–if a Jewish group requests representation in the same park, I believe that it should be honored, or an Islamic group, et cetera. This would tone down some of the feverish “They’re trying to destroy Christmas!!!1!” rhetoric while not showing favoritism to any one religion. I also think that, in the case of a public park, groups should have to request and sponsor their holiday decorations with a little plaque that says “Sponsored by blah blah blah” so that there is no confusion that it is not a government display; I don’t think our tax dollars should be put toward the building of a manger, or a menorah, or any other religious symbol–even a Festivus pole.
The common theme in most of these desires is that, as atheists, I believe that our primary concern is to be left alone and not be forced to ascribe to a moral code that we don’t recognize as being legitimate. And, if we could get that, I would be more than happy to leave theists alone. I’d even help them build their holiday mangers, if we could just have that widespread consensus that religion is optional and, therefore, should not in any way be enforced by our government, through laws, through education, or in any way.
Spending our energy trying to disprove religion, shame theists, or bicker about semantics is really keeping us from achieving what I consider to be better goals–ensuring that we have equality under the law in practice and that we are not subject to the superstitious beliefs to which many theists subscribe. If we can band together and represent a positive force, rather than a divisive or negative force, we may well someday achieve some of the loftier dreams that we have–but we can, for certain, help make America a better place for atheists in the future. Considering we reproduce a lot less than theists, we may always be the minority, but we don’t have to allow them to marginalize us.
What do you want for American atheists? If you’re not American, what is it like to be an atheist in your country? Leave your thoughts and comments below. (Note: I don’t care if you’re a theist and you want to comment, but all participants will have rational, respectful discourse on my blog or you will not be allowed to comment, and I will rudely edit your comments as I see fit. You have been notified.)
 For more information about why I fully believe this statement to be true, despite fierce arguments to the contrary, please see this post.