Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The atheist's fight for survival: Can't let them define us out of existence

I can't believe that 'A' week has come back around so quickly. It seems like just the other day that I was tentatively putting my little 'A' on my facebook profile to tell the world that I no longer believe. There were many other events that went along with that which you can read about here. One year later and things have changed quite a bit. Definitely, I am more settled in my own skin but there are still times where there are remnants of guilt that I feel for speaking up against a worldview I once readily embraced. However, with every passing day things get easier.

I have to say that as much as I had anxiety when I made the decision to 'out' myself last year, I have never for one moment regretted it. I had put myself out in the open having heard many different stories of difficulties, particularly with close friends and family members. I braced myself for what I imagined would have been an onslaught of emails, messages and phone calls from friends, families and acquaintances of people expressing shock, horror, disappointment or dismay. I had practiced in front of the mirror, how I would react to the different types of responses, what I would say and how I would say it. Incredibly, no such responses ever came. No one telling me the friendship is over, no one even telling me I am going to hell. The most widespread response has been 'no response.'

It's strange, I wasn't really prepared for the silence. It's eerie, rather unsettling, because you are not quite sure what it means. Maybe, they don't care. Perhaps they are too shocked to talk. They might even agree but are too afraid to be seen doing that. Who knows? I sometimes wish they would just come right out and say something. It is interesting to me that those theists who have been engaging with me are in the main, people who I have met recently. Those for whom, I  have always been an atheist. They disagree of course but are happy to challenge and that is what I want. That is one of the big differences between living based on faith and living based on evidence. When you post something for God, you don't do it with any intention of starting a debate or discussion. You are quite happy if people just read and move on without comment. A 'click' of the 'like' button or an 'Amen' along the way and you are happy. As an evidence based person you put things up hoping that it will spark interest and you want comments, particularly dissenting comments. You want  people to disagree with you. That is how you know whether your views and arguments are sound and you help others who are on the opposite side see flaws in their argument (at least that's what's supposed to happen). However, I think our culture in the Caribbean takes over and people feel they don't want to 'rock the boat.' It's a pity.

When I look back at it, I feel as if I should have known this would happen. I blame my lack of foresight  on  spending too much time listening to religious discussions. When you immerse yourself in these, it's easy to think that everybody out there is keen to represent their beliefs and show why they think as they do. However, in reality the type of theist who will call in to 'Atheist Experience' or go out and study William Lane Craig style apologetics is rare. It's a bit of a shame. I had done all my background research, listened to online debates  with all types of theists; from the raging fundamentalists, to the mildest of agnostics. I was ready for the cosmological, ontological, teleological and other 'logical' arguments that I was sure I would have to be handling. It was like I completely over prepared for my exam. Staying up all night to study for something and then getting a super basic 15 minute multiple choice quiz in the morning. If I could understand not having a 'big deal' response here in Canada, the Caribbean was supposed to be so different, but not really. Perhaps I wasn't in Barbados long enough but the people I talked to about it, apart from this big exception here, haven't had much to say. When you think about it, it is somewhat strange. You have people strong in their convictions about their Lord and saviour, adamant that following him is crucial to the salvation of every individual on the planet. You tell them that you think they are fundamentally mistaken in this belief and that none of this stuff is true and their reply is the equivalent of, "Whatever."

When considering my  family, I have to pay special tribute to my parents. My mother in particular has come around remarkably since I first told her I was an atheist and I wrote this. While I was in Barbados I got a lot of time to explain to her how my beliefs had changed and why I made the switch. She was happy to engage in discussions and has actually now become one of my biggest fans on this blog. Dad has also enjoyed the writing  and thinks my approach to religion is healthy and is happy that I don't come across as too angry. I am glad to hear that, I want that theists can read what I write here without fear. Dad and I  share a lot in terms of our skepticism of religion, even though he remains very involved in the church. We had some very long into the night debates while I was in Barbados which I wish I had taped and could share to a wider audience. Dad tries to keep me to high standards, never afraid to point out the occasional grammatical error that may crop up in my writing here and their. I suppose dads will always be dads. I always promise him I will aim to do better with every effort and as he always tells me, when I write he is more in my corner than against me.

An atheist to us is not an atheist to them

Perhaps more than anything during the last year, I have learnt that there is quite a difference between how people define the word 'atheist.' Those who identify as agnostics I find especially interesting. Often when I get down to the nitty gritty of what they and I believe or disbelieve there is little difference if any at all. It has become quite clear to me that there is a major difference between what an atheist thinks an atheist is and what people who are not atheists think an atheist is. Essentially, it seems we atheists are defining our word in a way that nobody else in the world does.

"How can you be so sure?"
" I don't see how you can know that there isn't a God, so I call myself an agnostic."
" I can't become an atheist like you, the universe is too vast for me not to hold on to the slight possibility that there might be a God."

The first few times I got these types of  responses, I just treated them as one of those textbook atheist 'strawman' fallacies. I simply explained the usual; atheism is not a position of certainty it is just a lack of belief due to insufficient evidence, I am an agnostic as well, bla-bla-bla. I never thought it was anything major pointing this out. After all, any definition in a dictionary would tell you this. Not only that, but it is trivial to point out that  everyday in life we say that we 'know' something when in fact we don't have absolute certainty. I say that my car is parked in my garage now, because I left it there. But I really don't know that, it could have been towed, stolen or moved without my knowledge. Still, in spite of all this I don't think that people draw the parallel from this analogy  to how we define  'atheist.' They will nod and give us an " Oh I see what you mean," then go on their merry way.

You see, I don't think it matters what we say and how we explain it and how many dictionaries we show them. Theists have determined their own definition of what an atheist is and they will go with that. I have found people who have told me they are not atheists because they have no problem with religion and think that we all should be able to believe what we like and no one should be forcing belief on others. Again this is a curious response, atheism has nothing to do with attitude to religion.  I have said on numerous occasions, I still have a great fondness for many of the cultural artefacts relating to religion. The music, the art, the poetry and architecture, I still have an appreciation for those things. I find people still sometimes don't get this. They will go to great lengths to point out churches to me, hoping to rile me up. It's as if  they expect steam will start coming out of  my ears from the sight of a spire on a  tower or a cross on top off a roof. They are so disappointed when I say, " Yes, I see it and it's very beautiful."

It is clear that we have a long way to go to make atheism palatable and there are many things that need to be addressed. The first one is  this definition issue. I have heard lots of people in the secular/atheist movement claim that too much time is spent quibbling over names and what people choose to call themselves. Why do we have to make such a big deal about calling ourselves atheists? I think it is very important that we do, we have to claim the term and  more than that, define it on our own terms. It strikes me that we as atheists can become complacent in this definition game. Once the official dictionary term is in agreement with how we look at it, we feel that the battle is won, the evidence is on our side and we are on intellectually solid ground. No! Usage is what ultimately determines what words mean. Psychiatrists cringe, when people talk about schizophrenics in terms of people with a split personality. The medical books will say something quite different. It doesn't matter, meanings of words depend on  how people use them. That's why the ' just a theory' argument works so well against evolution when creationists are speaking to lay audiences. Doesn't matter what textbooks might say, it's the definition in the mind that matters. Definitions of the word 'atheist' are no different. In the minds of much of  the general public, an atheist is someone who is certain that no Gods exist.

Sometimes it is fine to let words, meanings and usages evolve naturally, but we have to be careful. In the case of atheism, I see a clear strategy at play in defining atheists as persons who are certain about the non existence of God. That categorisation virtually makes every atheist not REALLY an atheist. And that's the whole point, to wipe atheists off the map, not by some kind of coup or military operation but on a technicality, simply by defining  us out of existence. It is a subtle ploy but very effective. So successful, that even many in the secular world play into it. Non believers will regularly reject the atheist title because they are accepting the theist's definition of the word. This confusion of definitions even within our ranks creates a wedge between us, and theists often pick up our fragments that break off. It's the old adage of divide and conquer.We need to push against this, explain not only what the word means to us and what the dictionary meaning us but why the definition that they commonly use marginalises us and therefore why our definition is better. Their belief is that if they find a way to make the group called  'Atheists' an empty set, they can create the illusion that there really is no one that  believes there is no God. It creates the impression that we are all just different shades of theists with some more agnostic than others. We have to show them that to ask for certainty in order to justify the statement ' I don't believe' in a God context is an unfair double standard.  The bar is miles lower than that  for all other non beliefs in the universe. There is a song popular in Caribbean churches called " Cast your burden onto Jesus, for he cares for you." Jesus apparently cares so much that he performed a miracle on the rules of logic on behalf of his followers. He has made it permissible for believers to cast their burdens of proof unto atheists. We can't let them do it.

Not surprisingly, the faithful smile when we talk about putting away the demonic 'atheist' label and identify ourselves as humanists, freethinkers, secularists, brights, rationalists, skeptics or some other nebulous title. This is great, they would always support that.Their message is that you are free to not believe in God just as long as you don't tell us that. This allows the people in the faith world to continue living in their bubbles, convincing themselves that there is no opposing worldview. Once they can keep atheism as a fringe movement,  with the perception that we are a few angry voices yelling on the church step spitting on little old ladies as they walk in the door, their job is done.

Of course, what we hear also is that it is the word 'atheist' that is the problem. It's a harsh word that grates on the ear. It brings thoughts of communism, socialism and massacres by Hitler and Stalin. Even if we have the best intentions in our use of the word, better  for the sake of strategy to avoid it. This is an argument that I take seriously. From a personal perspective I like the word and find it empowering, however I recognise the importance of employing strategies that work and if atheist is a boulder in the road towards a secular world, I am all for tossing the 'A' word aside. This week in the US a bus ad was rejected as 'too controversial' for simply having the word " Atheists"on it. Still, I am not convinced that it is the word  itself that is the problem.

The problem I believe is the " I don't believe in God." Any word that means that is going to be rejected by the religious. So, it doesn't matter if we drop 'atheist' tomorrow and start calling ourselves 'pineapples' to show we don't believe in God. In a few years time, it would be almost impossible to get a picture of the tropical fruit on to the side of  a bus without  the vehicle being vandalised. The truth is that when people want us to change the word they mean they want a new word with a different definition. They want that there be no word in the english language that means ' a person who doesn't believe in gods.'   If  that happens, the God opposition  movement will disappear from the public square, there will be nothing left to hold the Almighty at bay. With no weapon of resistance against faith, we will be rendered impotent in the theistic battle and the Holy train will continue to steam-roll us.

If we want to have any chance of achieving the utopia of a world where people need to justify their beliefs, attitudes and decisions with evidence, logic and reasoning we have to keep fighting. Fighting for the survival of our group and OUR word.  People have told me that this is not necessary. God and evidence based living can coexist and reason can flow from faith. Some even argue that reason could not exist unless a God made it. Sorry, I can't see it. How can a foundational unchangeable belief in an entity which has no evidence to justify it give rise to a society where the need for evidence to justify ones position is at the core of all decision making? The house that results is bound to collapse on itself sooner or later.

So,  that's why I will continue to support efforts like 'A' Week. For me this year it's not an individual desire to 'come out'  to society, it's a desire to get a specific societal outcome. One where religion gets to be challenged rationally  like everything else. It seems fitting this year that 'A' Week will morph right into the Reason Rally in Washington DC on March 24th. It's almost like belonging to a church, going through Advent waiting for the big Christmas morning or reflecting during Lent in anticipation of that glorious Easter morn.

It makes me chuckle, I am right in the thick of it again. It's so great to know that this time reason is the reason for the season.


  1. Wonderful. I've also had these definition debates. I've always been bewildered why such a debate even exists, but you assessed it well here. I would start using the word more often.

    On the other hand, I do feel the word is limited because it only says what we are not. Atheism is not a philosophy like Christianity or Islam. Therefore, two atheists can have, in theory, wildly different views about other things.

    I'm new to this though (lol) so I'll work my way up to clarity. I'm sure your blog would help.

  2. Interesting thoughts — I agree. For some reason there seems to be a certain brand of believer that simply cannot stand even the thought that someone out there might truly and totally reject their belief in whatever their chosen higher power is.

    I find the old "Russell's Teapot" or "Flying Spaghetti Monster" or other such analogies often help to explain to people what atheism really is. Sometimes just explaining to them that they're atheists, too, with respect to deities of religions other than their own does the trick. Most people, when given such examples, have a better understanding of where I'm coming from. For people who still don't grasp the concept, I suspect there may be no hope.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. Thanks guys, for these responses. Kwame, you are right, atheism is not a philosophy, therefore atheists can have wildly different views about other things. To me that is no problem. We identify ourselves as atheists first and then we can go on to label ourselves with other things that define what we DO believe in. Humanism, secularism, socialism, capitalism, skepticism etc. I don't see the word 'atheist' as limited anymore than I see the words 'male' or 'female' as limited because they only define one aspect of our being. I don't think that we should expect one word to define every aspect of who we are.

    It is indeed weird that atheism is a definition of what we are not. In an ideal world such a term would not be necessary. Its existence reflects the unique position of 'God' in the world. Belief in God is seen in our societies as the default position even though there is no evidence available or even required to support it.

    For everything else, no evidence means no belief, so no need for a word meaning non belief in those things. Therefore we have no a-fairyists, aBigFootists, aSantaists etc. But God is so powerful you actually have to go out of your way and adopt a special word in order to show you don't believe in him, lol.

    7ofswords, as you suggest, I have used FSM and Russel's Teapot,as well as Invisible Pink Unicorn, Dragon in the basement, Santa Claus etc. Sometimes that helps, but often theists will just argue with you that their God is totally different from these imaginary beings, because their God is real and NOT imaginary.

    I know the reasoning is totally circular but that's just how their thinking goes.