I’ve been having a long conversation in the comments of another wordpress blogger recently. I was perusing the religion section of wordpress and ran across this post. The comments are where it gets interesting. If you are interested in such conversations, I urge you to take a look. Much of the following will reference that discussion, although you will be able to follow without reading it).
During the conversation, which touches on skepticism and the definition of ‘atheist,’ the blogger jackhudson said that “there is no such thing as a ‘mere atheist’,” and I was forced to agree. Actually, I quite enthusiastically agreed, as I had never made such a claim that such a creature existed (see the comments there for the details, if you like). But I immediately liked the term and it gave me a little insight into the nature of our disagreement. It also reminded me of a discussion within the atheist community some time back.
Remember that now infamous PZ post about “dictionary atheists” with which many atheists, including myself disagreed? Well, I do believe that the definition of “atheist” is still merely the lack of belief in any gods, but I also agree with PZ’s larger point which, ironically, is basically the point that jackhudson is making in the comments I have made reference to in this post. Ironic because the post is about PZ Myers being wrong about something. Well, it’s a little ironic.
In other words, PZ Myers was right to say that we, as atheists, are not atheists because we lack a belief in gods. At the time he wrote that post, I disagreed by arguing, as did many pothers, that being an atheist was nothing more than this lack of belief in gods. But as I came to understand it, PZ had a larger view in mind, one which jackhudson is also making; none of us are merely lacking belief in gods. We have other things we do believe in and those things inform our worldview and tell us about how we are atheists.
Even if the definition of atheism is, in fact, the lack of belief in any gods we are so much more than that. It’s a nuanced point, and I think worthy of further exploration.
Finding your inner atheist
People come to find that they are atheists in a number of ways. As they do so, they carry all sorts of beliefs, assumptions, and worldviews (all of which may change, of course). But an essential moment for people who consider their beliefs is when they first realize that they no longer (or never did) believe in a god.
Some of these just of shrug their shoulders and go on with their life. Others experience a great emotional relief, anxiety, or even anger upon realizing this. I imagine that some people even repress this and go on as if they do still believe. The reaction is dependent upon many personal factors which are relevant to a person’s worldview, but are not really relevant to the term ‘atheist’ per se. That is, if they accept that title as part of their identity, that title merely tells others what they do not believe (gods), but nothing about what they do believe in.
Other labels and titles can do that, in most cases. Sometimes new labels have to be invented. But no information about what one believes can be gleaned, necessarily, from “I’m an atheist” by itself.
So, I think that PZ’s objection is more about the existence of “mere atheists” rather than “dictionary atheists” (although I’m sure he is still annoyed with people reminding everyone of this definition, as his post indicates). Having heard him talk about this issue a few times however, I don’t think he disagrees that atheism, per se, is merely this “dictionary” use, only that this lack of belief does not tell you anything anything about what is important.
And while I think it is still important to clarify one’s philosophical opinion (I am a philosophically-minded person, after all), I think that PZ is largely correct. I will continue to explain the definition when the clarification is warranted, but I think that this is becoming a secondary consideration for me. It is a bit of a transition I have been noticing for a little while; a bit of atheist maturing, perhaps.
At this point, my concern is to not argue what the definition of atheism is so much as to answer the question that Matt Dillahunty has become known to ask (What do you believe, and why do you believe it?) for my own skeptical views. That is, I am more interested in explaining my views rather than labeling them and having arguemnts which are purely about those labels.
It is true that I don’t believe in any gods. It is still true that to claim that no gods exist is beyond my epistemic powers. It is also true that in some cases (like with the Christian god) I do believe that ‘God’ is not real. But I think the fundamental point is to show that a skeptical position is where to start, and that I simply do not see reason to believe in people’s religious ideas.
My motivation for all of this is not derived from being an atheist, but rather from being a skeptic who cares about having beliefs which are true. My being an atheist is not my motivation for writing this blog, being active in godless communities, etc. My motivation is what I do believe.
I do believe that the truth matters. I do believe it’s important to want to have reasons for what we believe. I do believe that skepticism is the best methodology for finding what is true. I do believe that having a good level of certainty about truth is possible. I do believe that people can educate themselves towards freeing themselves from delusions of all kinds, including faith. I do believe that the efforts of the skeptical community are helping our culture move away from religious commitments, even if more slowly than many of us would like.
So no, I’m not a mere atheist, and I don’t think any person is. To be a person is to have beliefs, even if only tentatively, and nobody is defined by a simple lack of a belief.
But I still believe that identifying openly as a person who does lack that belief, in this cultural context, is important for the ongoing cultural conversation. I do think there will be a time when identifying as an atheist will no longer have a use (it will still be true, but only useful in the way that identifying as an a-Santa-ist is now).
We are not there yet.