Rieux (dr_rieux) wrote,

Atheism: A Primer for UUs

If theism is the belief in the existence of God, then a-theism ought to mean “not theism” or “without theism.” Actually, there is no notion of “denial” in the origin of the word, and the atheist who denies the existence of God is by far the rarest type of atheist--if he exists at all. Rather, the word atheism means to an atheist “lack of belief in the existence of a God or gods.” An atheist is one who does not have a belief in God, or who is without a belief in God.

- Gordon Stein, Encyclopedia of Unbelief [1]

The Crucial Point
The main purpose of this essay is to disabuse Unitarian Universalists, to the extent I’m capable of it, of a small number of widespread misconceptions regarding atheists and atheism.

As such (and recognizing that other related issues will stretch the length of this piece significantly), I need to make my central point up front. So here goes:
Under the conception held by an extremely broad consensus of self-declared atheists, “atheism” denotes the lack of belief in what we understand the word “god” to mean[2]--and not, exclusively, the affirmative belief that there is no God. Thus, under our self-definition, an “atheist” need not deny the existence of gods; she need only lack the belief that one or more of them exist.
There is much more to say on this and related topics, but that’s the fundamental lesson that an unhappily large number of Unitarian Universalists need to learn: we atheists generally understand ourselves as a category of people who lack a belief in gods. If atheism and atheists are topics that you intend to address in some forum (including--ahem--in a sermon), you very much need to know that.

But of course, the issues surrounding atheists’ consensus self-definition and the way it is understood (or not) by UUs are considerably more complicated than the definition itself--and so there’s plenty more to say.

“Who Says?”
You certainly don’t need to take my word for the point above. It is, in fact, frightfully easy to find atheist essays on the World Wide Web describing our consensus self-definition--and attempting to correct the widespread misconceptions mentioned above.

The most popular such Web guide to atheism is Mathew Murphy’s “An Introduction to Atheism,” originally created as the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) file for the Usenet group alt.atheism. “Introduction” is a beloved resource among atheists on the Internet, and one stumbles over citations to it nearly anywhere discussion of nonbelief can be found.

Another nicely comprehensive description of atheism and its related terminology can be found on my friend Austin Cline’s atheism.about.com site (which I think, incidentally, is the best one-person compendium of atheist philosophy and discussion anywhere on the Net). Wikipedia’s entry for “atheism” is well done, too. Were any of these three sites required reading for UUs wishing to make broad statements about the validity, value, etc. of atheism, I suspect we’d see a lot less misunderstanding.

You’re still leery? Not sure that the collected testimony of Mathew, Austin, Wikipedia and yours truly amounts to the kind of broad consensus I’m claiming?

Okay. Then here are a few other sites with atheists making exactly the same point that we are--i.e., that atheism requires only the lack of belief in gods:

01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40
41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60
61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70

(Please let me know if you find that any of these links have broken, as they are wont to do.)

Finally, the “lack of belief” understanding of “atheism” is not remotely a new concept. As atheist philosopher Michael Martin has documented, our consensus definition has been accepted by plenty of religious dissenters from centuries past--people like Baron d’Holbach (in 1770), Richard Carlile (1826), Charles Southwell (1842), Charles Bradlaugh (1876), and Anne Besant (1877). Suffice it to say that Mathew Murphy and alt.atheism were emphatically not the creators of the idea.

So I repeat: under the conception held by an extremely broad consensus of self-declared atheists, “atheism” denotes the lack of belief in gods and not, exclusively, the affirmative belief that there is no God. Thus, under our self-definition, an “atheist” need not deny the existence of gods; she need only lack the belief that one or more of them exist.[3]

The precise justifications we atheists provide for our broad understanding of our own category are extremely well (and repeatedly) treated in the documents linked above. A reader would be at least as well off examining Mathew’s or Austin’s accounts of the linguistic issues as she would be reading mine. Nonetheless, this being a full-service LiveJournal, I’ll take a shot.

First, the meaning of “atheism” flows straight from its etymology: the word comes from the Greek a-, “without,” and theos, “God.” The notable point is that a- is not anti-; “without” does not mean “against”! (Think of “asymmetrical,” “apolitical,” “amoral,” “atypical,” “asexual,” “amorphous,” “asymptomatic”.... Those terms aren’t about denial or refutation, they’re about absence. The same goes for a- theism.)

Second, limiting “atheism” to the affirmative belief that gods don’t exist leaves a very large number of us out in the definitional cold. Conventional wisdom holds that those of us who aren’t willing to state either “I believe god(s) exist(s)” or “I believe that no gods exist” are “agnostics”--but unfortunately, that’s just as mistaken as the widespread misconception about atheism.

Agnosticism has a much more recent vintage--and was created with considerably more specific intentions--than “atheism” or most other terms in this general area. British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley had a very particular idea in mind when he made that word up; as “An Introduction to Atheism” puts it:
[A]n agnostic is someone who believes that we do not know for sure whether God exists. Some agnostics believe that we can never know.
The key distinction here is between belief and knowledge (gnosis in Greek), which are importantly different issues on philosophical questions.
One significant consequence of this is that agnosticism/gnosticism (note the small “g”) and atheism/theism are entirely independent spectra. An atheist can be an agnostic or a gnostic. A theist can be either one as well; in my experience, lots of theists are agnostics (i.e., they’re people who believe that a god exists but also believe that that’s impossible to prove).

So for someone in my position--I don’t believe in gods, but I find the agnostic/gnostic issue too unclear to parse--a narrow definition of “atheism” makes me a nothing. Nevertheless, as noted, I lack belief in gods; I’m “without theism”; atheist.

There are in fact people who affirmatively believe that no god exists. These people are atheists (in the same sense that “all trees are plants”), because they too are “without theism”; but that affirmative belief is not a fundamental aspect of atheism (i.e., “not all plants are trees”). This subset of atheists, the ones who positively believe in the absence of god, are frequently called “strong” atheists; the rest of us are “weak” atheists. (Please note that those adjectives have nothing to do with fervency, aggressiveness, politeness, biceps, etc. And conventional wisdom among nonbelievers, for whatever it’s worth, holds that there are many “weak” atheists for every “strong” one.)

The distinction between “strong” and “weak” atheism—between a lack of belief in gods and a belief that there are no gods—is confusing to many people. Plenty of theists, and a few “strong” atheists, allege that a “lack of belief” on this question is impossible. To clarify the “weak” atheist position a bit, I frequently resort to that old Philosophy 101 standby, The Case of Caesar’s Teeth. Check it out if you’re interested (or confused).

“But My Dictionary Says....”
Many dictionaries do, indeed, focus on the conventional “denial” understanding of atheism and atheists. But I’d hope that anyone interested in discussing philosophy and theology would understand the pitfalls of allowing dictionary writers the absolute last word (so to speak) in deciding what our (ir)religious terminology means.

First, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that dictionaries reflect the conventional wisdom regarding nearly any word. Indeed, that’s a big part of their function: to report the way that words are actually used in the real world. And in that world, alas, people do use “atheism” to denote what is more accurately termed “‘strong’ atheism.”

Second, dictionaries are written by human beings with the same kinds of biases and flaws that all the rest of us have; as a result, they are no less prone to prejudice and objectionable omission than any other human endeavor is. Not incidentally, atheists have been a despised minority for a very long time. Socrates was put on trial for his life in part on the charge of atheism; Thomas Paine was left to rot in a French Revolutionary prison because the U.S. administration considered him (as Theodore Roosevelt memorably put it a century later) a “filthy little atheist”; we’ve been baited by garbage like “There are no atheists in foxholes” for centuries... and so on.

In modern times, things have improved somewhat for atheists--but far less so than is generally understood. For example, atheists are widely distrusted; studies consistently show that Americans are less willing to vote for an atheist for president than they are for a member of any other minority group pollsters care to suggest, including Muslims, African-Americans, and gays and lesbians. A University of Minnesota study provided some background for this attitude; as the lead researcher stated:
Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years.... It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common “core” of values that make them trustworthy--and in America, that “core” has historically been religious…. Americans believe they share more than rules and procedures with their fellow citizens--they share an understanding of right and wrong. Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.
The seriousness of anti-atheist prejudice is probably best illustrated by a UCLA law review article that found that atheist and religiously apathetic parents are routinely discriminated against in custody disputes. In short, those of us who do not believe in God are at real risk of having our children taken away from us merely because of a judge’s bigoted notions about who and what we are.

In light of all of the above evidence of serious societal prejudice against atheists, it should hardly be surprising that dictionary writers don’t give us a lot of love; even today, one prominent Web dictionary still lists “ungodliness” and “wickedness” in its primary definition of “atheism”! What gives?

All that said, though, there are in fact plenty of reference works that have picked up on the more accurate (and self-expressed) understandings of “atheism” and “atheist.” Sometimes dictionary readers just need to read a little more carefully.[4]

And again, I would hope that UUs, of all people, would understand that dictionaries don’t (and shouldn’t) get to define what the central terms of our (ir)religious lives mean to us. If everyone’s understandings of “God,” “religion” or other similar terms were required to be limited to what dictionaries say those words mean (examples: 1 2 3 4), an enormous proportion of liberal religion would be rendered meaningless, yes? That’s an authoritarianism that I think most of us would find rather distasteful. I submit that lots of UUs, and not just the atheists among us, defy dictionary conceptions on a regular basis.

“So What?”
So atheists generally understand themselves to be people without beliefs in gods. What difference, one might wonder, does that make? Why does anyone else need to respect that?

My hope is that tolerant people of whatever religious perspective--which certainly should include all UUs--will agree with me that minority groups have the right to self-definition. The idea that most any minority group is required to accept the characterization that an uncaring (if not hostile) majority thrusts upon them strikes me as enormously illiberal, not to mention oppressive.

Words like “Negro,” “Colored,” “Black,” “African-American,” “homosexual,” “gay,” “queer,” “Indian,” “Native American,” “handicapped,” “disabled” and so on, I hope we can agree, carry the meanings and background connotations that the minority groups denoted by them say they carry. (The same, only with more oomph, goes for words like “nigger,” “faggot,” “dyke,” “redskin,” “cripple,” etc.) The idea that any of these groups should be expected to knuckle under to a frequently ignorant conventional wisdom is, I think, repugnant.

Especially in light of recent evidence that atheists are more disapproved of in the U.S. than any of the minority groups mentioned above, it seems unavoidable to me that the definition of “atheism” that is broadly accepted by those of us who are actually in the minority group is the one that should carry the day.

Imagine that this discussion were about sexuality instead of atheism--and that a member of your UU congregation had expostulated broadly about how awful it would be for UUism to accept homosexuality as a valid part of the human experience, because homosexuality, “by definition,” is a mental illness that necessarily involves disgusting promiscuity and terrible disease. (Once upon a time, that was indeed the conventional wisdom regarding gays and lesbians, and you could have found plenty of reference books to support it.)

In that context, now, imagine that a gay member of your congregation replied that the whole “mental illness” claim was strikingly ignorant and then argued for a conception founded on healthy sexual orientation, etc. Would you dismiss him because his self-definition failed to reflect the (ignorant and hateful) conventional wisdom? I sincerely hope not.

For the same reasons, I contend that atheists’ consensus self-description must take precedence over conventional wisdom. The alternative is passive acceptance of the generally unthinking tyranny of the majority--and I don’t think we should be expected to give in in that way. People who don’t understand us (and frequently don’t respect or like us much, either) have no right to tell us what and who we are.

The substantial majority of self-declared atheists understand “atheism” to mean the absence of belief in anything one considers a “god,” not some dogmatic insistence that “god” is a crock. I submit that that’s what matters.

My people perish...
As I have written elsewhere on this site (and readers no doubt can surmise from this essay), I’m troubled by the degree of ignorance there is within Unitarian Universalism regarding nonbelief and nonbelievers.

Of course, it’s important to notice that ignorance in and of itself isn’t a moral failing. Everyone is unaware of all sorts of things about people and ideas we’ve had little to no contact with. Ignorance of that sort is, in fact, the default condition of human life; we can’t usually be blamed for not understanding things we’ve never encountered. (The remedy, of course, is to learn whatever we can about unfamiliar people and ideas. Hopefully, this LiveJournal and this post will aid in that.)

What’s aggravating, though, is when people who clearly have made little to no effort to understand where real-life atheists are coming from nevertheless see fit to make broad and critical public statements about atheism as if they did know all about us. Innocent, hands-off ignorance isn’t a problem, but attacks that are based upon ignorant misconceptions can be awfully troubling. If you’re going to criticize us, please learn what and who we are first.

The sense I have is that UU ministers have fallen into this particular trap--at least in public settings--more frequently than UU laypeople have. I’m not sure whether that’s because (1) our ministers understand atheism substantially more poorly than the UU laity does or (2) ministers are just thrust into a position where they have to make some kind of public pronouncement frequently enough that their areas of ignorance are more likely to be exposed.

Regardless, though, I have to wonder: what do they teach you guys in those seminaries, anyway? You’re preparing for a career of ministering to a laity that includes thousands upon thousands of people who don’t believe in God; didn’t anyone at Starr King or Meadville Lombard bother to tell you anything about the way that atheists see ourselves? (Is anyone there interested?) In my experience, UUism is flush with ministers who can quote Channing, Emerson and Tillich chapter and verse--but who couldn’t distinguish Dawkins from Harris from Ingersoll from good ol’ Madalyn to save their lives. For those of us who find a lot of value within the latter category of thinkers, that imbalance can be aggravating.

Well, hopefully posts like this one can help remedy some of the shortfall in understanding. I promise you, UU theists: you’ll have a lot more success getting us nonbelievers to listen to you if you spend some time familiarizing yourself with nonbelief--with our perspectives, our organizations, our arguments. If, on the other hand, you just dismiss atheism as the mere mirror image of cocksure religious fundamentalism, I fear there isn’t much hope for productive communication.

Of course I don’t expect, and I’m not demanding, that UUs broadly agree with atheists on nearly any of the philosophical issues that matter to us. Even our consensus definition is open to discussion (though I’d sure like to know what justifies dismissing our self-conception). I’m just asking for some basic literacy concerning who we are and what we do and don’t believe. If you get where we’re coming from and still respectfully disagree, that’s fine with me.

“Why Do You Care?”
Wrote one theist poster to an atheist discussion forum I frequented:
What I don’t understand is why you folks hang out here. Why do you spend so much time and energy on something that you don’t even believe exists?
There are, no doubt, as many answers to that question as there are “out” atheists. A few particular responses suggest themselves at the moment, though.

First, as UUs are well aware, religion (and especially the mainstream-to-conservative varieties thereof) is enormously relevant to the society we live in. The social and political manifestations of monotheism are difficult to avoid anywhere in the United States; in some parts of the country, it’s next to impossible. This stuff has too much of an impact on our lives to ignore.[5]

But even setting aside the fundamentalist incursion into our government and so on, to a whole lot of us, the ideas and arguments themselves matter enormously.

We nonbelievers press evidentiary objections to belief in gods in part because they have everything to do with how people decide what is true about the objective universe around us. If Thought Process X supports belief in God, would X also support the belief that global temperatures aren’t rising? That Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in 2003? That I’ll win millions if I spend this week’s paycheck on telephone psychics and Powerball tickets rather than on food for my family? Those questions (and innumerable other ones like them) really matter.

We press moral objections to prominent conceptions of gods because they have everything to do with how people decide what is acceptable and unacceptable. If Excuse Y removes God’s moral responsibility for disasters like 2004’s horrendous tsunami, would Y also let off human beings who cause or allow similar carnage? What effects do Y-ish doctrines like “God can forgive us our sins because of Christ’s crucifixion” have on human notions of right and wrong? Those questions (and innumerable other ones like them) really matter.[6]

Liberal believers sometimes seem all too confident that the kinds of concerns I’ve just detailed only apply to conservative forms of religion, and not to their own. Well, don’t be so sure, guys.

It’s true that many skeptical arguments find more purchase on schools of conservative theology--frequently because those schools are more concrete (and sometimes loonier) than liberal ones. In my experience, conservative believers are more apt than liberals to nail themselves down to clear doctrinal points that can be easily understood--and thus disputed.

But that doesn’t mean that liberal religion is immune from skeptical challenge. Are liberal appeals to things like “the transrational” good epistemology? Does the Problem of Evil evaporate just because God isn’t alleged to be sentient? Is widespread promotion of broad conceptions of “God” a good idea, on balance? And so on; I don’t pretend that there are easy or settled answers to these kinds of questions, but the questions are out there.

In sum, then, we atheists care because this stuff matters--a lot. The issues are emphatically not just some abstruse, pointless kind of navel-gazing. Human beliefs about gods say an enormous amount about, and have very significant effects upon, the way people deal with each other and with the natural universe around us. As long as that’s true, I suspect that there will always be atheists around to keep things lively.

Because surely religion (and irreligion) shouldn’t be boring, right?

1: Incidentally, I think Stein is clearly mistaken that atheists who affirmatively deny the existence of gods (by our common terminology, these are “‘strong’ atheists”) are so rare as to be potentially non-existent. “Strong” atheists, I assure you, do indeed exist.

2: And to preempt the UU theists who are partial (unfortunately, there are a slew of you) to the snide and pretentious “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in ‘Him’ either” sneer, let me assure you that we UU atheists are well aware that “God” means something different to many liberally religious people than it does to the billions of mainstream monotheists (and the millions of ordinary atheists) in the world. We know you have a different conception of “God,” folks. The fact that we call ourselves “atheists,” even in present company, is a fairly good indication that we don’t believe in those gods either. We could do without the arrogant “tell me” patronization.

Somehow I think the right comeback for that particular line comes from Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando), in The Wild Ones:
Girl: What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?

Johnny: Whaddya got?

3: I should certainly add that, as with pretty much every other matter there is to discuss and debate, self-declared atheists are not in fact unanimously behind the notion that “atheism” denotes the lack of god-belief, as opposed to the affirmative belief that there are no gods. Like the notion that gays and lesbians do not choose their sexual orientation, the broad conception of “atheism” enjoys overwhelming, but not absolute, support among people who have adopted the label for themselves.

4: And sometimes dictionary authors need to be clearer. For example, one word frequently used in definitions of “atheism” is “disbelief,” which is frequently defined as a “lack of belief” if you do the work of tracking it down. But “disbelief” is not exactly a word that makes this particular issue very clear; it’s too easily seen as “denial.” In the interest of clarity, I think “disbelief” needs to be chased out of our dictionary definition.

5: There is one kind of “impact” on nonbelievers’ lives that some prominent UUs seem to know all too well, given that it often seems to be their sole explanation for every one of our skeptical concerns: the pain and abuse that we’ve allegedly suffered at the hands of conservative religion. But the constant assumption that our objections are the result of battle scars rather than a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” can be seriously disheartening.

So please, UU theists, don’t presume that your skeptical neighbor has the perspectives she does because she’s been hurt by religion. A very large number of nonbelievers think that the skeptical conclusions we have come to are the result of serious thought and feeling--and not of, say, mean old preachers swinging Bibles at us. It can be really demeaning to hear one’s religious journey dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction to stupid (usually fundamentalist) theology.

Of course, there are UUs (and not just UU nonbelievers, of course) who have been hurt by the religions they were brought up in. They deserve respect and support. Even that past, though, doesn’t necessarily invalidate the specific criticisms of religious doctrine, holy books, etc., that the victims may have. To dismiss a person’s argument because of his or her personal characteristics is a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, and it’s mean besides.

6: And anyway, I think the philosophical issues surrounding gods’ (non-) existence are just very interesting. “Why do you care?” seems to me a question along the lines of “Why do you like baseball?” or “Why do you listen to opera?” The serious relevance issues aside, this kind of discussion is a worthwhile pursuit, I think. I do this because it’s meaningful to me.
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