The Problem with ‘Atheism’

There are many problems with the atheist label. The main reason rests merely in inefficiency: that for the sake of a decent dialogue, conversation or communication, the label is almost completely unhelpful. Why premise yourself on what you are not? We need to indicate that against the weight the corpses of deceased deities and the beating heart of a loving one, religious people are more atheists than believers. Purely based on numbers, they are more non-believers in deities than believers. After all, today’s monotheists have confined themselves to a singular deity. This idea of course indicates how unhelpful the label is.

I, for example, also do not believe in fairies, goblins, the Loch Ness Monster, and so on. Must we begin creating labels by negating each non-existent entity? I am an afairiest, an a-goblinist, an anessiest. The list would be ridiculously long and unhelpful. The point being: why stop at an arbitrary god the current climate of society happens to worship?

Julian Baggini, in his excellent Very Short Introduction to Atheism, conjures up a scenario in which the world is plagued by a majority who desperately believes ‘Nessie’ the Loch Ness Monster exists. Finding wide-eyed hatred and fervour, those who do not believe in Nessie are labelled ‘Anessiests’. Now, being a minority, the label is used by the majority who are Nessiest. Of course, these Nessiests do not believe in Atlantis, the Tokoloshe, and Alien Abductions; and once again, even against the weight of these other superstitions, they are more non-adherents than adherents to a particular superstition. (This, given the fact they do not believe in Atlantis, et al, which will not be true of all of them.)

Atheism is negative. Perhaps due to my own lack of intellect, I am struggling to understand what dictionaries mean when proclaiming: ‘the belief there is no x’ or ‘believing there is no y.’ How do you believe in a thing’s non-existence? What does that mean? Perhaps being philosophically inclined, I am greatly exasperated by attempts to clarify this concept; but none that I have seen, and again perhaps simply due to my lack of intellect or sources, have managed to show me what this means.

There is nothing special about Yahweh. He is one more in a long list of conjured up deities made by people no one today has met. Atheists are equal opportunity non-believers: we are not picking on a particular religion or deity. We don’t believe in any of them. And, considering the sheer volume of deified corpses littering the intellectual landscape, monotheists are very close to us even though they proclaim one of these corpses actually resurrected itself or is alive and well and wants to see women dead for being on Facebook. The idea of both groups being clearly aligned comes to ahead when cults or stranger religions (they are all strange, though) erect themselves; then monotheists will be on the frontline calling bullshit on Scientology, proclaiming Wahhabism is not Islam, etc. We critics of religion, secularists, ‘atheists’, anti-religionists would do the same. But we do not discriminate: we will pick on any religion, including those opposing Scientology as not Christian or Wahhabism as not Islam.

If communication is to be feasible both sides must do away with the atheist label, as much as possible. There is nothing shameful or embarrassing about atheism – indeed, it is intellectually honest in most instances. The main problem remains how unhelpful it is: why stop at gods? Why stop at fairies? If religious people are going to peg us with what we do not believe, they must be prepared with a near-infinite amount of pegs. And why just us? Why not label themselves by what they do not believe in? They must be fair: if they insist on labelling us according to what we do not believe, they must do the same for themselves.

This also gives the lie to so-called genocidal atheistic regimes: Muslims do not believe in Jesus’ divinity, Stalin did not believe in Jesus’ divinity. Therefore, disbelief in Jesus’ divinity leads to massacre and slaughter. Christians do not believe the Quran is the word of god, Pol Pot did not believe the Quran is the word of god, therefore disbelief in the Quran leads to massacre and slaughter. Why is this not making Christians or Muslims worried? Do they not see how disregarding the sacred tenets of other faiths has direct consequences in which people will die, be slaughtered, and so on? Christians should surely realise that their disbelief in Muhammad’s miracles will lead to gas-chambers and mass slaughter. Muslims must embrace Jesus’  divinity or be prepared to see the massive deaths of innocent people.

To communicate more effectively, let us judge each other by what we proclaim. There are no central tenets to atheism or non-belief, just as there are no tenets to not believing in the Loch Ness Monster. For this reason there is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist, just as there cannot be a fundamentalist non-astrologer, afairiest, agoblinist, etc. For this reason, I can only speak for all atheists by proclaiming we disbelieve in deities. To no other extent can I proclaim what they then believe in: some might by Marxists, democrats, Conservatives, liberals, pro or anti-abortion, for and against suicide, etc. Then we begin on stable ground, focused on the current road these people travel rather than the many they do not.

I can only speak for myself by saying that I believe in the tenets often referred to as Enlightenment values, so beautifully expressed in the works of Hume, Voltaire, Diderot,  Jefferson, and Adams – to name a few. This means doing the best we can, for who we can, with what we can; shadowed by premises of alleviating suffering and promoting an individual’s autonomy to pursue happiness as she sees fit. Equality, liberty, justice, protection, and so on are all things worth defending and pursuing. (One would be hard-pressed to link Stalinism and the alleviation of suffering and promotion of freedom.) What critics must do is find an example where such tenets are not worth pursuing, where the alleviation of suffering is to be avoided, where equality and justice and freedom are to be denied.

We can begin a conversation then, on these grounds. It is not only more effective a criticism against me, but would also be beneficial to me. I do not want to spend my life pursuing these goals when at their core they are found to be antithetical to preventing suffering and promoting autonomy. Critics should be shadowed mentors, hidden guides, who through their rough censure lead us on to those paths we do not walk on, those paths we do not give names to; agoblinist, ahumanist, atheist. Until then, the label atheist will not help me nor any religious apologist. Indeed, they would be doing themselves and the conversation a favour by clearing the ground of these negatively-focused terms, to find some bedrock from which our views are spun and which we do pursue.

UPDATE: I knew Sam Harris had spoken at AAI ’07 about this topic, on similar grounds. However, I had no idea he had also titled his talk, then subsequent On Faith piece, ‘The Problem of Atheism’.  My apologies, I did not know. At least my ‘atheism’ is in quotation marks – though I doubt that makes a difference.


6 thoughts on “The Problem with ‘Atheism’

  1. Brilliant post!

    It just says everything i have been thinking about the word “atheism”. There is nothing in common between atheists besides NOT believing in something. “Atheism” cannot be considered a movement, or a set of philosophy ideas. It just doesn’t define anything! Tell me what’s common between non-astrologers??

  2. To #2: They’re not astrologers. If I had to pick one of two candidates for a position in our IT department with nothing to go on other than one was a non-astrologer and the other wasn’t, I’d go for the non-astrologer in a heartbeat. We non-astrologers may not have a lot in common, but what we do have is not trivial.

  3. @Harvey: Whilst I like your point, I think you’re missing Carla’s and my point. If you wanted to have, as part of your job application, a box marked ‘astrologer’ or ‘non-astrologer’, then obviously that would make sense in applying for your job. And once again, this also applies, mutatis mutandis, to atheists because we can probably guess that most atheists would not support banning books criticising religious influence in public spending, etc. But it depends on the context.

    You correctly picked up on the subtlety involved, which I thank you for, but overall, my point is non-theism says nothing further. And it doesn’t. What if your non-astrologer turned out to be completely incompetent, whilst the astrologer won a Nobel prize? (It’s unlikely, but there are Nobel laureate scientists who are believers, which seems almost as silly). You would not use the astrologer status as the end result of deciding between them (I’d hope you’d look at the qualifications).

    For example, we can’t guarantee that all non-theists would support stem-cell research or abortion because their might be Wiccans or druids who do.

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