Editor's note: My awesome cohabiting partner B asked if I could post a somewhat rough draft of some thoughts he has had on atheism. So here you are, a guest post by B! ~Abandoning Eden
I’ll be honest: as someone who does not believe in gods, I find the idea of calling atheism a faith rather offensive. It is not that it offends my sensibilities; it is that the statement stings deeply at the roots of what I have viewed atheism to be for my whole adult life. Atheism has always implied a vastly different emotional meaning to me than of a simple, dogmatic assertion that there simply is not, and could not be, gods. This stereotypical stance is a faith in a theory that is impossible to support beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, atheism means something different to me, perhaps a warped interpretation that is far from the original intent or definition.
Growing up in a religious home and being forced to attend church and Catholic private school have imbued upon me perhaps an equally warped view of faith. As far as I can tell, the hallmark of a religion is ritual, and nothing more. Ethics and morality, while closely associated with religion in the Post-Axial Age, are independent entities absorbed by religion (previously the domain of philosophers and legislators). Ritual is the only thing that all religions share, from Neolithic shamanism to Scientology.
Religion is also primarily a group activity; while an individual can (and often may) pray alone, there is a community aspect to every religion. In Pre-Axial Age and formalized state religions, the community may be a predefined tribe, nation or race, while many Post-Axial religions, especially in the Modern age, often involve some degree of choice when it comes to the community in which a believer aspires to join.
Atheism lacks both ritual and community. It is undeniable that atheism carries with it no inherent superstition (which is not to say an atheist is necessarily devoid of ritual or superstition). However, some may be quick to point out the existence of such “atheist” communities as American Atheists, the lobbying group responsible for removing prayer from public schools. I could argue at great length that a lobbying group isn’t comparable to a church congregation because they are fighting for the rights of all American citizens to be free of imposed religion (as their fight benefits not only atheists, but frankly all non-Judeo-Christians). However, this is unnecessary.
To put it in the perspective a person of the Judeo-Christian background can relate to, to accuse atheism of being a faith or religion is tantamount to calling Christianity (or Judaism or Islam or all religions, for that matter) violent. No one can deny that some people who are religious are violent, and no one can deny that much violence has occurred in the name of religion. However (to stick with the simplicity of an exclusively Christian metaphor), Jesus did not preach violence. It is not in the nature of Christianity to be violent, it is merely a consequence that humans are often violent and many people in history have been religious. I cannot define the Christian community for them any more than they can define me.
To put it another way: suppose you asked me what my favorite sport was. If I said, “I don’t like sports,” you would not then be correct in assuming I’m a couch potato, or even out of shape. To claim that an atheist is someone who has faith in something is jumping to an enormously egregious conclusion given very little information.
Everyone has their own definition of atheism, it would seem. After September 11th, conservative commentator and TV personality Ben Stein was quoted as saying the actions of the terrorists were “atheistic.” It’s rather sad that a man who was once on a TV show where he challenged all comers to a test of knowledge would so erroneously and ironically use such an adjective for the events of 9/11. Mr. Stein can no more decide for himself that these Islamic Fundamentalists were somehow atheistic than he can decide that atheism is somehow linked to barbaric acts of violence (especially those carried out in the name of faith). Even though it is clearly not indicative of an “atheistic” act, it is also only Muslim in its overtly stated cause and purpose. While this essay is not going to argue the philosophical and theological importance, impact, or intention of jihad, it is fair to say that the actions of terrorists do not define the entire Muslim faith.
I’ve said a lot about what atheism isn’t, and this is no accident. To be frank, there is no definition of atheism. While Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. are all clearly defined religions which contain a multitude of sects, subsects, local ministries and all manner of division, there is still a cohesion that is undeniable. Within any given religion (and even between Judaism, Christianity and Islam), there is more in common than there is dividing. This is far from the case with atheism because atheism is, at its very core, a rejection of the collectivist mindset. It has less to do with the existence of god as it does an individual’s decision to seek independent ideology.
Atheism is not a label identifying a group of people as sharing something in common. Among those calling themselves atheists are many who some would be quick to judge as “agnostic.” Perhaps this is the proper technical term for someone like myself. I do not claim to know there aren’t any gods, although I have been in an airplane so I am fairly certain there aren’t any bearded supreme beings lounging in the clouds. In fact, I cannot deny with certainty the existence of an unfathomable and undetectable being or place beyond our perception of Earth, the Solar System, or even the entire Universe. However, I will not simply accept the validity of every claim. If I am to accept the existence of god as plausible, I must also accept the possibility of the Loch Ness monster, Big Foot/Sasquatch, alien abduction, and the invisible pink unicorn (a deity so amazing, it can be both pink AND invisible at the same time).
The issue comes down to the concept of “burden of proof.” If the burden of proof lies on me to disprove all claims, I should no doubt spend my entire life frustratingly arguing with members of the Flat Earth Society (a real group) about the shape of our planet. This is not how logic has ever worked; one cannot claim X and determine that it can (or worse, must) be true unless X is disproven beyond any doubt. What’s more, I am not defined as a non-Xist simply because I don’t care that someone thought up X. All sound-minded atheists admit there may be a god, but that the probability of the existence of god is infinitesimal; this does not make them an agnostic.
Someone claiming to be an atheist does not want to be called an agnostic. Perhaps it is merely semantics, but the title agnostic carries with it a bitter taste of uncertainty. While all things are technically uncertain, once the probability of something becomes roughly equal to that of the probability of a wormhole spontaneously opening and pulling me into an unknown dimension, it ceases to be a valid concept for most (if only from a practical standpoint).
Agnosticism is also, rightly or wrongly, associated with apathy. Those who do not think or care about the existence of gods are often apt to self-title themselves agnostics [although most just claim the religion of their parents, who got it from their parents, who got it from their parents, until it’s been several generations since the entire bloodline stopped and thought]. While it is granted that several great minds have settled on agnosticism (including Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha), I believe it is up to each person to define him or herself, and only him or herself. A Christian may judge others or hold grudges without forgiveness despite the nature of their self-applied faith label. Therefore, an atheist may remain an atheist while still denouncing the certainty of some, let’s call them Atheists with a capital “A.”