A few days ago, I learned that March 23rd is Atheist Day. I'll be honest, I had no idea we had one but, "hey ho", someone has decided we do. That means I ought to write something about it and, naturally, it ought to be about atheism. I've written articles about what atheism is and why I am an atheist so I plumped for, "What do I think atheism is (on a personal level)?", "What does atheism mean to me?" and "What do I think an atheist should be?" Sadly, that's somewhat more complicated. Richard Carrier (1996) defined an atheist as a person who does not believe that any gods exist (Carrier, 1996) but an atheist can be further defined as one who does not accept current theistic claims which is pretty much where I stand.
What Do I Think Atheism Is (On A Personal Level)In literal terms, an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in claimed gods rather than someone who actively states that there are no gods. As stated in my article, "What Is Atheism?" (May 2015), atheism is an umbrella term that covers "any individual who cannot say 'I believe in a deity, god/gods or religion' and, on that basis, can clearly be seen to include "agnosticism". My personal suspicion is that agnostics, although sharing identical beliefs to atheists, would rather not be associated with the more aggressive seeming label I am happy to identify as. There is little evidence to support the idea of atheist aggression and it's easy to believe that religions have historically promoted the idea that atheists are angry and morally bankrupt to further their own aims. Clearly, atheism denotes someone who denies claims of deity and, equally clearly, carries no philosophical value; it is therefore nothing more than a label. In the interest of balance, theism (in its widest sense) is also a label and probably carries little philosophical value; it is the adoption of a specific religious belief that changes that.
What Does Atheism Mean To Me?Although it goes beyond the strict definition of atheism, I believe that atheism also opposes other concepts typically associated with religions in the sense that they can be seen to have a number of standard characteristics which atheists rarely, if ever, do. For example, in "What Is Atheism?" (May 2015) I make it clear that religions always require a belief in the non-demonstrable (gods, goddesses or other minor deity), prayer or worship along with places for it, holy books and scriptures, religious authorities such as priests or rabbis, supernatural beliefs, acceptance of miracles and, of course, some form of afterlife. This is one reason I reject the oft claimed idea that Buddhists are atheists; even though they don't claim a literal creator/interventionist god, their religion does feature belief in supernatural entities that have godlike abilities. Neither literal definition of theism or atheism specify an uber god so, to my mind, that clearly means Buddhism cannot be atheistic. I have, or rather had until the untimely death of our oldest, three brothers and we were all brought up to be Catholic, something that has greatly influenced us, me in particular. Fortunately for all of us, our parents believed in good education and strived to educate us and, as a result of reading science fiction and my resultant drift toward science, I became an agnostic. Despite that, my Catholic (and, by extension, that of Christianity and other religions) upbringing dogged me, affecting (I now believe) my mental health. I used to have nightmares of dying in fire inside a spaceship after I left the Catholic "fold" and those only stopped when I finally came to terms with being an atheist. I have heard and read many stories of ex-Catholics (and, again, other religions), of the appalling treatment they endured and it is, of course, debatable as to whether religion has been a force for good for some people; the only thing I can say for sure is that it was not one for me. None of my brothers grew up to be religious although it is clear that, of all of us, I am the one that feels the greatest antagonism towards "The Church" which suggests that Catholicism was "hell bent" ("hell bent"? Get it?) on demonstrating the utter stupidity of its core tenets. All of us are, at least by any definition I would accept, atheist although I'll freely admit that I am the only one who would actually define himself as such. Gaining a degree in Applied Biology, along with a good understanding of the scientific method and its practitioners, observable & reproducible science became part of my being, my soul if you will. Working in IT support for a pharmaceutical company, as the internet became the big thing, a friend pointed me towards a forum rife with American creationists debating science and religion, where I learned the true nature of religious fundamentalism. The forum drove home the nature of the creation science religious movement, that they were highly organised, well-funded and dangerous to our accepted freedoms. Ironically, it was this that finally forced me to the realisation that I wasn't an agnostic and turned me into a hard-line & very militant atheist.
What Do I Think An Atheist Should Be?For over thirty years now, I have waxed and waned in this fight and time and time again my concerns have proven well-founded. While most people are not literally stupid, en masse and particularly when driven by religion they often act as if they are; September 11th 2001, ISIS, the Balkans, Trump & QAnon, Brexit and our own clown of a leader, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, stand in adequate testimony to that. "Atheism", despite the efforts of various religions to brand us as something we are not, is simply a label, and carries no philosophy. But what should an atheist be? What do I think it should be? That's a more complicated question and I say that with regret because I've "met" a fair number of atheists online and not all of them are quite as clever as they think they are; I mean, for god's sake, some of them think Apples are cool and that Steve Jobs was an upstanding dude! Surely anyone can appreciate that in that kind of belief only madness lies. In my opinion atheism, if it had any philosophical value, should be about the rational outlook. It should be about appreciation, empathy, objective open-mindedness and tolerance:
- Appreciation: We should be able to appreciate the scientific and social realities of the world as it exists in reality. Scientific in that we are seriously screwing up the planet we live on and that all other concerns pale almost to insignificance before it. The other concerns, more often social than scientific, shouldn't be belittled but without a world we can live on we might as well give everything else a pass. We need to keep in mind that we are aggressive animals with brains and that sometimes we actually use them, we do the very same thing every other animal does except we do it with tanks, guns, planes and bombs. The world is a place of truly massive differentials in wealth, poverty being the clear result of centuries of oppression by the wealthy, and the division seems to be growing. Such disparities are, in my opinion, pushing us closer to global catastrophe and the current war in Ukraine is just one example of how wealth pushes people to extremes (and I don't just mean Putin). Most people, regardless of their personal beliefs, are pretty decent and it is only a few of them (sometimes people en masse) that really fuck things up especially the wealthy that seem to regard the rest of us as some kind of resource, a crop to be harvested or a market to be exploited as and when they want.
- Empathy: No one is an island. For any of us (society or individual) to gain, someone, somewhere, some society has to lose. It sounds corny but I think we could all benefit if we adopted the mantra, "it's about hope, not hate".
- Open-Mindedness: We need to realise that being open-minded is not about treating every stupid claim as if it were reasonable, that open-mindedness requires a reasoned and rational approach including observation, evidence, hypothesis, verification and logic. In short, true open-mindedness requires science or at least a similar rational approach.
- Tolerance: While there will never be a society where actions don't have consequences, we need to be tolerant of the views of others wherever possible by which I mean where it doesn't materially harm others. If someone believes in a god without evidence that's fine right up until the point where they try to hurt others or tell them that belief is real. However, there appear to be those who think that tolerance means allowing for every kind of view but it should be obvious that in a truly tolerant society there is one thing we cannot tolerate and that is intolerance.
ConclusionI don't believe in anything without validatable evidence or at least a reasonable fit to those things we do understand; any other view is either irrational or premature. I believe belief in deity to be the ultimate comfort blanket, a caging of the mind and of our freedoms. I know that I am not objectively free but the laws I accept & adhere to are, at least, understandable within a given society and generally exist to provide a framework within which we can all live our lives in relative freedom & safety. I believe and try to act as if the world would be a better place if everyone living on it had a decent standard of living meaning that only who want to boost their own status and wealth at the expense of others would be miserable. In my considered opinion, those who claim there are definitively no gods are wrong (as are those who claim there are) but, in their defence, at least they don't seem to use such beliefs to commit atrocities. Despite the fanciful arguments of many agnostics, I fail to see a difference, moment to moment, between the position of most atheists in that what they actually reject are the claims that there are extant deity. I am proud to label myself an atheist because of the above, because of the way I think about the universe I observe around me. Although I might one day embrace some aspect of religion, I suspect it would, at the very least, mean neutralising the rational thought processes that I am capable of using, something I consider highly unlikely.