The Infidel's Guide to Atheism
Are there really atheists in this world? Or are they, like pink unicorns, just figments of our imagination? Is "atheism" a meaningful word outside the theist camp? If I believe in the Great Turtle and you don't, does that make you an aturtlist? What if you have never even heard of Turtlism? No matter, to a devout turtlist you could only be regarded as an aturtlist. But are you? Do you introduce yourself to others as, "Hi, I'm Charles, and I'm a militant aturtlist?" Is there not innumerable -isms you don't believe in? An infinite number of a---ists you could be? What if you felt really, really strongly that there was NO TURTLE on whose back the Earth rode? What if you had devoted your life to strident denial of the Great Turtle such that your obituary reads: "Charles Dawkins, noted aturtlist, died Friday..?" What would the world then know about you other than that you didn't believe in the Great Turtle? Obviously the word "atheist" is meaningful to theists and atheists alike, but what could the term possibly mean to anyone not in the theist camp? Are atheists really "in the theist camp?" Are they not but the other side of the same coin? How could they not be?
So, let's see, meaningless to apply the term to others, more so to apply it to oneself....humm....take it away, Sam:
Sam Harris speaking at the Beyond Belief 2007 Conference, Enlightenment 2.0
Why I Am Not an Atheist
By Charles Dawkins, Militant Non-atheist
The Roman Emperor Julian, along with other cultured pagans, decried the impiety of the atheists of his day: their desecration and looting of ancient shrines, their strident blasphemies, their barbarous fanaticism; they were a "polluted set, contaminated and enmeshed in error." For Julian, the gods "symbolized an ineffable spiritual reality." He sought a grand synthesis of "the fervor of Oriental religions, the dignity of Greek philosophy, the beauty of Greek poetry, the piety of Roman ceremony, and the stoicism of Roman patriotism." His lofty vision, the very core values of civilization itself, was implacably opposed by the atheists, yet he refrained from persecuting them, and instead issued, in 362 AD, an edict of religious tolerance that was extended to include even the atheists (causing them to complain because he "denied them the glory of martyrdom.") 1
Writing to his prelates, Julian might as well have been writing to us when he confessed, "If Hellenism is not yet making the progress which we have a right to expect, it is we, its devotees, who are to blame.... Are we refusing to face the fact that Atheism owes its success above all to its philanthropy towards strangers... and to its parade of a high puritanical morality?... Do not let us allow hostile competitors to outdo us in our own strong points while we give way to a slackness and indifference which are not merely a disgrace to our religion but a downright betrayal of it." 1
So who were the despised "Atheists" Julian found so painful to tolerate? He was referring to the Christians who rejected the entire pantheon of gods to inexplicably insist on the exclusive, literal existence of a Hebrew tribal deity that was also a man and a ghost. Julian "the Apostate" may have hoped that by tolerating all forms of "-ism" that the atheists would soon destroy themselves, since he knew "that there are no wild beasts so hostile to mankind as are the Christians to one another." But Julian, the last pagan emperor, died in battle at the age of 32 after a brief three-year reign. Thereafter Christianity, previously decreed to be the one true imperial religion by Constantine, retook power, and civilization as Julian the Helenist knew it came to an end―welcome to the Age of Faith (AKA the Dark Ages).
Christians, both then and now, doubtless must find having the term "atheist" applied to them to be the absurdity of all absurdities. Yet if it is absurd for polytheists to call Christians "Atheists," is it any less absurd that monotheists regard everyone who does not believe in their One True God to be de facto atheists? Is it any less absurd to call Buddha or Laozi an atheist? Does it mean anything at all for a theist to call someone an atheist apart from the trivial meaning of not-a-theist? As with Julian's use of the term, calling anyone an atheist is absurd since it tells us absolutely nothing about what the alleged atheist does stand for, believe in, or teach.
There is, however, an even deeper absurdity that arises when someone calls themselves an atheist. Whenever someone tells me they are an atheist, I find myself struggling to grasp just what they could possibly mean, and as the years go by, I never know quite what worldview is being referenced. I get the no-god part, but that's all.
It is at least possible to understand why a theist might think it meaningful to call someone an atheist. Monotheists live in a theist "universe of discourse." They recognize that there are other theists who, while they may fall short of having correct views about the One True God, nevertheless live in the same universe as they do. Then off on the fringe of awareness are those "others" who live somewhere outside the world they know and love. What these others actually believe, how they live, even whether they live or die, is of no matter. It is enough that there is a name for such heathens, a nice Greek name meaning "godless" or, loosely translated, "not one of us." Theists need the word atheist to apply to those outside their scheme of things, but why would someone outside of theism apply the term to themselves?
What I eventually figured out is that self-proclaimed atheists still have one toe in the theist camp. After all, with the possible exception of an Evangelical revival meeting, the word God will seldom be heard used more often than at a gathering of committed atheists. Atheists are products of a theistic culture. They are former theists all, or the descendants of theists, who soaked up the tenants of theism as children, and later, for whatever reason, whether intellectual honestly or sheer perversity (or both), came to reject the whole notion of God.
Well, atheists like to think they have rejected Yahweh, Son, and Holy Ghost, but have they? Would it be truer to say they are involved in an ongoing process of rejecting God, a sort of self-help endeavor to extricate themselves from the theistic memes of their upbringing? Why else would atheists discuss endlessly the basis for their disbelief? Why do some band together, as do the believers, if not to bolster one another in their godlessness? Why the innumerable hours spent chipping away at theism―the delight in pointing out the folly of being a fool for Christ's sake? What could explain the insatiable appetite for all the books, films, articles, and now Web sites in support of atheism? Surely someone who was outside the theist universe would take at most an anthropological or historical interest in theism, would spend no time at all on questions of God's existence or nonexistence, and would never commit the absurdity of defining their point of view in terms of a rejection of someone else's view.
So now, when someone tells me they are an atheist, I smile knowingly and through a sort of mental slight of mind, I replace the word "atheist" with "recovering theist." Yes, there are indeed no atheists in this world, but only recovering theists. So, what would fully recovered theists call themselves? There are a number of possibilities, but "atheist" would not be one of them.
To better understand the problem with atheism as a personal creed, imagine that the physicist Murray Gell-Mann goes on vacation to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Through incredible good fortune Murray finds himself seated in a longhouse where the island's most eloquent pundits have gathered to debate matters of the greatest import. Murray, who fortunately speaks all of the tribal languages, is fascinated by the subtle turns of argument, the intellectual gymnastics, and nimble logic that the attendees bring to bear in making their cases. Murray, however, has no interest in participating in the discussion. Apart from etymological offerings and the occasional helpful correction of a speaker's pronunciation, Murray is happy to be only an observer.
What momentous concerns are the natives so intent on resolving? Well, of course, it is none other than the question of whether the Great Turtle, on whose back the Earth rides, is green or brown. That the Great Turtle must be either green or brown had been decided millennia before, and the supporting arguments for each side refined over the centuries. Helpful attempts to reconcile the two camps by suggesting that the Great Turtle could be mottled both green and brown had been scorned by both sides, and the few heretics who opined that the Great Turtle was blue or red had soon found themselves decorating the walls of the longhouse.
Those fewer still who actually questioned the existence of the Great Turtle, however, were merely laughed at for the imbeciles or madmen they so obviously must be. After all, as the merest child can reason, one has only to look about and ask, "Is the Earth falling into the Great Abyss?" Manifestly not, then on just whose back does the aturtlist think the Earth rides? The Great Slug? There are some inanities no rational turtlogian can be expected to entertain.
Murray was enjoying the great debate right up to the point when it suddenly stopped, all eyes turned towards him, and one of the priests said, "Sir, oh visitor from a far country, what say you? Is the Great Turtle green or brown?" Momentarily nonplussed, Murray considers his position. That the Great Turtle of whatever color might actually exist had never crossed his mind, of course, but to say so would require that he explain on whose back he thinks the Earth does ride. Identifying himself as a "physicist" would be meaningless, and calling himself an "aturtlist," a synonym for village mischief-maker, would be absurdly misleading, nor could he plead that he is agnostic with respect to the existence of the Great Turtle. What to do? It would seem unlikely that a lecture on Newtonian mechanics would be well received. Could the fine distinction between a "nonturtlist" and an "aturtlist" be successfully made? Would there be any point in mentioning that in the far country there are no turtlists, no aturtlists?
In less time than it takes for a quantum leap, Murray realizes what his only possible answer can be. Calmly, with the poise of a meditating Buddha, Murray smiles serenely and steadfastly maintains a noble silence. Mildly disappointed in their possibly idiotic visitor's inability to express himself, the great debate resumed.
But what if in ancient times Turtlism had spread so that now there were billions of Turtlists, among which several hundred millions were militant, fanatical true believers who felt compelled to struggle unto death (their own or others') until the absolute truth of Turtlism was universally imposed on all, until a Turtlist boot was stomping in the humanist face forever? Would it not then be meaningful, even imperative, to stand up and forcefully declare oneself to be an aturtlist if only by way of stating one's opposition? Perhaps, but then why not be forthright and call oneself an antiturtlist instead?
But wait, is it Turtlism or theism per se that we must declare our eternal hostility against, or is it any tyranny over the mind of man in whatever form it takes that we must oppose? If there are enemies of the open society who cannot be tolerated, should we not be clear as to who the would-be tyrants are? Should we regard all theists as enemies?
We do not tolerate the growth of cancer in our bodies nor allow infectious diseases to merely run their course, but bring to bear every resource at our disposal, that does not do more harm than good, to contain or eliminate the threat. Not all tumors are malignant, nor all viruses deadly. Indeed, the more attenuated forms may be beneficial in inoculating the host against the fatal forms.
So too, perhaps, with the virus of faith or other conclusion-driven beliefs. We must identify those that are a threat to life (as we would live it) from those that are merely disagreeable. Is there a marker that would allow us to make a diagnosis? Fortunately there is a litmus test for sanity: ask the believer one question, "Could you be wrong?"
They may not answer, they may lie or dissemble, but no matter. Let them but speak and the enemies of mind will bark out humorless certitudes. The simple ability to acknowledge error is humanizing; the utter inability to consider the possibility that one might be wrong is a sure mark of insanity and the root of all evil. Of course, before entering the fray, first let us often put the same question to ourselves―the enemy we seek may be us.
The child who believes in a literal Santa is deceived and only deluded in so far as absolute certainty is persistently expressed, which is almost never the case. The adult who persists in believing in Santa Claus "as a symbol of an ineffable spirit of Christmas" is not insane, is not an enemy. Likewise theists who can acknowledge that their image of God may not be the one immutably true conception of ultimate reality are fundamentally one of us. Yes, we should smile, embrace such attenuated theists and other believers as comrades, brothers, for they have made the one concession that leads to enlightenment. They are ourselves in embryo whose capacity for inquiry merely needs nurturing.
If one can be wrong, one allows for doubt, and so becomes capable of inquiry. If one doesn't have all the answers, one can acknowledge that others may have some insights―one becomes capable of listening and learning; one becomes tolerant of diversity, accepting of uncertainty, valuing freedom of inquiry, and embracing the open society. If, however, one knows only that we chosen ones have the Truth, then we will be in conflict with all who fail to accept our Truth, we will listen only to refute, we will have nothing to learn, and peace will come to this world only when all accept the One Truth, when all heretics and infidels are no more. True believers, whether of a religious or political bent, cannot integrate into a free society, much as a metastasizing cancer cannot be integrated into a healthy body. Sadly, some atheists have taken on the mantel of true believer, certain in their disbelief, unable to rest until theism is no more.
Before calling oneself an atheist, consider that most theists, along with other religious people on this planet, are not pathological true believers. That there is indeed guilt by relatedness, in that moderates take half-heartedly what their cousins take to its logical and fatal end, is a cross they must bear. But we may well hope that in time our believing brethren, those still capable of doubt, will be virus free, but a frontal assault alone is probably not the cure.
While a Voltaire, Mencken, or Dawkins may be needed to roust believers from their dogmatic complacency, they are like the horns of the bull―only a few are needed. They are the proverbial bad cops; but for every bad cop a good cop is needed, or rather a thousand good cops, to welcome into dialog all who would consider the possibility that they might be wrong. This is the common ground, of doubt and inquiry, on which to build a free and viable society.
We would do well to consider that most of the world's religious traditions, from vision quests to the Bodhi tree, have conceived religion to be a personal quest and not a creed, and so allow for, even insist on, individual freedom of inquiry. It is in the JudeoChristianIslamic tradition that religious inquiry took a wrong turn and came to a dead-end with its false conception of religion as creed instead of quest. Yet even here many, indeed at present most, have resisted the call to fanaticism that dogmatic faith in the certitude of one's creed requires.
Our enemies are fewer than we may suppose, yet if secularism is not yet making the progress which we have a right to expect, perhaps it is we, its devotees, who are to blame. Let us stop waving the red herring of atheism, cultivate our secular gardens, and never tire of entreating others to do the same by allowing reason and evidence to determine our alterable conclusions, thereby eschewing the way of the believers whose immutable conclusions determine what their sham reasoning shall be. For this, we must first free ourselves from any compulsion with respect to believing or not believing in anything, starting, if need be, with God. The fruit of this endeavor, however, lies outside theism and atheism alike.
1. The quotes are from a still excellent humanist guide to history: Herbert J. Muller. 1952. The Uses of the Past: Profiles of former societies. New York: Oxford University Press: 189-191
PS: Since I wanted to give those most likely to disagree a chance to do so, I took a number of copies of the above to a local atheist meeting and passed them out, asking for the favor of a critique. The next month I returned and to move things along I readily confessed to certain rhetorical excesses, such as stating that "all" atheists were former theists, neglecting thereby the possibility that some might be children of the children of atheists.
The main concern, it turned out, was whether I intended to be offensive or not (the original title being "Why Atheism is Absurd"). I assured everyone that my intent was not to insult (by suggesting that some may have once been theists), but to give some account of why I am uncomfortable applying the term "atheist" to myself. A few stated they liked the term just fine with the implication that if it wasn't to my taste, then too bad. The focus then drifted off to topics of usual concern.
I was disappointed but not surprised that not a single point that I had made was addressed. A Dawkins, Dennett, or Harris can nail 95 reasons for thinking organized religion is a sham on any believer's door, but will likely not expect a reasoned response to a single one of them. Instead, the believers will focus on the shocking, unmitigated rudeness of it all, and claims along the lines of, "but...but you're a fundamentalist too...," will be made. Sadly, the difference between the committed disbeliever and the committed believer is (insert drum roll) absolutely none whatever.
I once had a Christian friend, who had spent a fair amount of time getting to know me, tell me that I was the most profoundly godless person he had ever met. Theists may disagree about what's on the (God) page, atheists deny everything on the page, but I, it seemed to him, was off on some other page entirely. Thus he could feel a closer kinship to a God-denier than to me who had apparently never seriously considered the question. I confess a fondness for the comedian who, on being asked if he knew God, looked puzzled and said, "God? God who? What's his last name?"
I suppose what I want to say to atheists (sorry Richard—I love you anyway) is, "Okay, THERE IS NO GOD; get over it for Christ's sake." I prefer the position taken by Paul Kurtz (I love you too) who neglects to call himself an atheist because he'd rather be known for those views he does hold rather than for those he doesn't. Yes, the non-existence of god will cease to seem strange once we get use to it, then (hallelujah!) we can move on to trying to better understand ourselves and the sort of universe we live in.
Another position worth considering is that of Laplace who, while explaining the workings of the solar system to Napoleon, was asked where God fit into his account. Through what could only have been divine inspiration, Laplace reputedly said, "Sire, I have no need for that hypothesis." That is my position exactly. As of this moment, I have no need for that hypothesis. None whatsoever, nor am I ‘agnostic' about whether I might need that hypothesis—I really just don't need it. But!, maybe tomorrow someone will point out why I do need it. If their reasoning and evidence is compelling, then I'll say, "Gee, looks like I really do need that hypothesis, how about that." What remains the same is that all assertions remain provisional, and the possibility that any could be wrong is a given. Had I spent the last 20 years calling myself an atheist, with a large "A" tattooed on my forehead, would there be the slightest chance in hell that I could change my mind?
Inquiring minds must be capable of change. Believing minds, however, are incapable of entertaining any cherished assertion as a hypothesis. Jesus can't sort of, maybe have died for your sins. Certitude is ever required, and if a leap of faith is the only way to get there, then a leap it is.
I want to go even further and argue against self-identifying with any point of view, with any "-ism." I took an online assessment test that, after answering a lot of questions of a religious/philosophical nature, told you how much you had in common with various groups. If I recall, I have about 2% in common with Jehovah's Witnesses while 100% of my answers were in agreement with the views of secular humanists. Does that mean I'm a secular humanist? Well, if I'm talking to a Christian, and they're struggling to figure out where I belong in their scheme of things, I might, just because I'm a nice guy, suggest that they "think secular humanist" because I know that's where I'm going to end up eventually. But when I'm alone, in the privacy of my own mind, I would never think to call myself anything of the sort.
Calling yourself anything is unnecessary, you gain nothing, so why do it? If someone says, "I think secular humanists have it all wrong," then I like being able to calmly say, "Really, I sometimes consider the same possibility, tell me why you think so." Human (tribal) nature seems to be such that once you psychologically identify with a group, then you are at high risk of becoming part of that Borg collective.
You can email me: infidel2u[at]gmail.com