Can I Be Called An Atheist?

Julia

From: “Julia”
To: “Positive Atheism”
Sent: December 27, 2001
Subject: Can I be called an Atheist?

Hello, my name is Julia and I am thirteen years old. I have always been interested in religion and usually define myself as a secular agnostic. I am agnostic but recognize the fact that there is much more evidence against a god(s) than for one (them). I almost always side with atheists in arguments against Christians. I do not believe in a god(s); therefore it is the lack of belief which is atheism. But I have always thought that “true atheists” are those who are very smart (educated in higher science and math, know a lot about the Bible, usually more than Christians themselves, etc.) and, well, very passionate I guess you could say. I usually correct people who say they are atheist but really don’t know what they believe and have never really given it much thought. In your opinion (and what you feel to be the popular thoughts on the matter), are there “true atheists” and other people who claim to be atheist but who really aren’t? Would it be appropriate for me to call myself an atheist since I have no beliefs in a higher power(s)?

  

From: “Positive Atheism”
To: “Julia”
Subject: Can I be called an Atheist?
Date: January 04, 2002

I do not believe in a god(s); therefore it is the lack of belief which is atheism. But I have always thought that “true atheists” are those who are very smart (educated in higher science and math, know a lot about the Bible, usually more than Christians themselves, etc.) and, well, very passionate I guess you could say.

Well, you’re a much better writer than most people who’ve written to us, does that count?

The fact that you’re even thinking about the definition for the word atheist, that you’re wondering where (and whether) you fit into this particular picture, puts you among a rare and exquisite (recherché) minority among atheists. I don’t know who it is you’re thinking of when you describe the “true” atheist, that is, the atheist more worthy of the moniker than yourself, but I’d love to meet a few like that — if they exist.

  

The Definition (Among Many) That We Prefer

Here is my opinion, which is shared by many who have written about atheism: If you asked the vast majority of “true atheists,” “Are you an atheist?” they would probably feel somewhat offended and tell you, “No, I am not an atheist.” This is because most of the people who lack a god-belief (atheists) rarely if ever even think about the subject at all. They don’t even know enough about atheism to understand what the word atheist actually means, or has meant to the various different kinds of people who have used the word over the centuries. Rather, they tend to go along with what our antagonists (mostly the Christians) have said about atheism. Often I will explain to someone what an atheist really is, and they’ll go, “Okay, I guess that’s me! I guess I’m an atheist, if you put it that way!” But far from being passionate, most atheists don’t really give a rat about religion — or atheism, for that matter.

Several definitions for the word atheist have been floating around for the past several hundred to several thousand years. The one we use here at PAM is the one that has been favored by atheistic writers and philosophers since the Age of Enlightenment, that is, since it stopped being a capital crime to defend any religious position besides Christianity. The definition we use basically says, “An atheist is anybody who lacks a god-belief,” or, “An atheist is somebody who is without theism, anybody who is not a theist.” In this sense, everybody is either a theist (they have a god-belief) or they are not a theist. If they are not a theist, they are an atheist. Within this bigger category of “atheism” there are several varieties, such as the “strong” atheist (asserts that no gods exist), the “weak” atheist (simply lacks a god-belief: perhaps having never heard a convincing argument or perhaps never having heard of gods at all), and the atheistic agnostic (does not know if there are any such things as gods, perhaps insisting that nobody can know whether gods exist: with no god-belief, this agnostic is also an atheist).

We use this definition here at PAM because it is the easiest to deal with and because it is (in our opinion) the most accurate when you examine the word itself. It also has a stronger historical precedent than other ways of looking at it, particularly when you compare the writings of atheistic philosophers and writers, to see what they said about the meaning of the word.

  

‘Atheism’ as Popularized by the Roman Catholic Church

A very popular definition competes fiercely with the atheism’s traditional self-definition, namely, the one made popular by the Roman Catholic Church (and other religions). This one is also favored by certain agnostics. To describe the intensity with which this definition is favored in some circles as “fierce competition” is an understatement, to say the least: the Roman Catholic viewpoint has succeeded in usurping all others in many circles.

This definition limits atheists to those who say that no gods exist. This one forces us to come up with other words to describe the bigger category of “those who lack a god-belief.” The Roman Catholics like this other definition because it seems much easier to refute, and they want their Seminarians to think that atheism is an easily refuted position. It is not all that easy to refute, as you have seen in your discussions, but it seems very easy at first glance, if you do not apply yourself to the problem.

So, while I respect every atheist for what kind of atheist she or he chooses to be (“strong” or “weak”), I would very much like to see the “big picture” of atheism as a whole seen as “lacking a go-belief” rather than limiting it to “asserting that no gods exist.” Individuals who assert that no gods exist have my utmost respect, as do those who simply lack a god-belief. But I think when people ask, “What is atheism?” (speaking in general terms), the best answer to give is “Atheism is the absence of theism, or the lack of a god-belief.” This would include the “strong” atheists as well as the “weak” atheists.

I try to make this easier to understand in the “Introduction to Activistic Atheism” (although perhaps I simply make it more difficult — I don’t know). George H. Smith, in his article, “Defining Atheism,” gives the definitive argument for calling atheism (as a whole) the absence of a go-belief rather than requiring it to mean asserting that no gods exist.

Another web site that seems to prefer this way of seeing the bigger picture of atheism is about.com’s atheism forum, run by Austin Cline. I have noticed an increase in popularity of this viewpoint over the past i’ve or six years, particularly among younger folks. It did lose favor during the mid-twentieth century, and perhaps that generation is watching a new generation with some new ideas (and, hopefully, a few oldies but goodies) take the helm.

One thing that’s good about seeing it this way, you won’t have to wonder whether or not you’re an atheist. Instead, you can look back through time, rest upon hundreds of years of atheistic history, thumb your nose at the Roman Catholic Church, and proudly announce,

  

I am an atheist: I have no god-belief and I am not a theist; thus, I am an atheist. I do not need to prove that gods do not exist, because any person who says that gods do exist is obligated to bring forth the evidence and the strong arguments. If they do not make a convincing case that gods exist, then I am not obligated to believe their god-claims.

If someone doesn’t like that, you can be nice about it and show them Smith’s article. Or, you don’t have to be nice at all. You can just laugh at them, if you want! I don’t care!

Another definition that I reject still takes up space in the Merriam-Webster’s line of dictionaries: “Wickedness.” That’s right, atheism used to mean “wickedness,” back when people (even atheists) thought that religion was the only way to keep the masses in line. The reasoning was this: We, the sophisticated, educated, and socially powerful, do not need religion for ourselves, but if the common people did not have religion, this world would be pandemonium: worse than bedlam. Even the Founders of the United States, who proved to the world and for all of history that we humans can govern ourselves, would talk this way when they took off their hats and had a few brews. John Adams was one who believed this way, as did George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (although Jefferson came the closest of them all to rejecting this now thoroughly refuted notion).

In fact, I’m sure you’ve heard the quotation of John Adams when he said, “This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!!!” He said this, to be sure, but this is not what he meant: he was describing what he felt like saying, not what he actually believed. Here’s the entire paragraph, and you’ll see that in it, he is expressing this very sentiment that today has been proven utterly false:

  
Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!!!” But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.

Adams was “on the point of breaking out” — he keeps having a powerful urge to say this — but he always backs off, admitting that to say this, even to himself, would be fanatical. These are not the well-reasoned thoughts of John Adams, but rather a compulsive thought that he kept suppressing.

Ah, but it was the grand experiment of these very men, Jefferson, Paine, Adams, Washington, Franklin, and many others, wherein they established a nation not with its authority derived from someone’s notion of God but with its authority to govern given to it by the consent of the governed: “We, The People.” Ours was the first godless constitution of modern times, the first known godless constitution ever. Nowhere is any deity even mentioned in our Constitution.

Nowhere.

This is quite different from the “In God We Trust” lies we keep hearing about these days!

Today we can see that John Adams’s compulsive thought was more realistic than he allowed himself to admit. It is readily admitted as common knowledge that atheists and agnostics and skeptics and Mormons and Unitarians and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Roman Catholics and Episcopalians and non-Denominationalists and Moonies are all pretty much the same when it comes to morals and the kind of behavior that is common to all humans and not specific to any religion. Regardless of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof), we all do a pretty good job at doing what we think is right and refraining from doing what we think is wrong.

  

When It’s Best to Stay in the Closet

Now, there are times when it is probably best not to disclose your atheism. If you join the military, it is probably best not to declare yourself an atheist, as that will go on your dog-tags. What if you got captured by the Taliban and right there on your dog-tag was the word “Atheist”?

We have a great tug-of-war of a Forum discussion that pits our desire to uphold our atheistic values (to be true to ourselves) against our natural desire to get along in a theistic world. This discussion is called “Moving Beyond Just A Polite Response?” and it got rather heavy in several places. You might want to check it out and perhaps even contribute to the discussion.

Being an antibigotry activist does not provide you with a shield of some sort to protect you against bigotry. In a magical Walt Disney world, it would; but this is reality, 2001. The work I do (if it accomplishes anything at all) perhaps might eventually lower the overall scope, frequency, or degree of bigoted expression over an the long haul. But I live in 2001, a reality that is currently being developed via what we had left over from the year 2000, which was developed from 1999, etc. Any progress we see is likely to be slow, with occasional spurts of growth here and there.

  

Not Where You Are, But How You Got There

The bottom line, to me, is not what you call yourself or even what you are (atheist, theist, whatever). You’ll get my respect if you’ve thought about your position regardless of what your position happens to be. If you can describe to me the steps you took to arrive at your current position, if you can tell me what it would take to get you to renounce your position, those are marks of a true philosopher.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
     people with no reason to believe