I would like to start off this post by distinguishing between three terms: atheism, non-religion, and agnosticism. Atheism typically means a position of active denial of the existence of God; non-religion is a position of passive denial, of disinterest; agnosticism is a position whereby you say that it is impossible to know either way.
I often see agnosticism being misused as a euphemism for atheism; people say they’re agnostic when they really mean that they’re atheists – but they want to appear more open-minded and fair than “close-minded” atheism might be. Agnosticism is seen as being a bit “nicer”. I think that’s a load of rubbish. If you are an atheist then at least have the courage to stand up and say it. If you’re non-religious then say so. If you simply don’t know, then fair enough – in fact, I would expect most teenagers or young adults to have this position! Agnosticism, on the other hand, is the position where you think that it’s impossible to ever know enough to decide either way. If you think that the evidence points quite clearly towards God not existing, you’re not agnostic – you’re an atheist. So just say it!
To be fair though, atheism is a term that is laden with baggage. Perhaps it might be more correct to use the term “materialist” or “naturalist” instead of using the term “atheist”, because in our common use of the word those terms are closer to what we actually mean to say. Atheism is merely the belief that there is no God, yet when someone calls him/herself an atheist there is generally an awful lot more implied than just that. In this post I want to examine some of that baggage. (I think the kind of atheism I am mostly focusing on here is what is called “New Atheism”, i.e. atheism that is actively dedicated to opposing religion.)
What is the difference between atheism and non-belief anyway? I think we use the term atheism to describe someone who has moved away from a simple “I don’t really believe in God and I don’t really care” stance to a stance that is active in its opposition to God. “Atheism” is not a religion, but I think that it can mark the point where a negative position (i.e. a lack of belief: “I don’t believe in God”) starts to become a positive position (i.e. a belief: “I believe that there is no God”).
One example of religious affectations that “atheism” begins to take on is preaching. Type “atheism” into any search engine and you’ll see what I mean! In contrast to non-religion then, atheism is a position which informs the way that a person lives. There is a contrast, I think, between someone who would ignore the box for “religion” on a form and someone who would write “atheism” instead. In this sense then, “new atheism” might rightly be described as being akin to religious faith in some ways. I find that mildly ironic.
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with atheism playing an active and informative role in a person’s life. Indeed, atheism can be a very positive thing (many atheists I know, for example, are deeply involved with charity work). You might say that religion is often an “opiate for the people”; belief in eternal justice can encourage acceptance of injustice here and now. Atheism, in contrast – since it typically involves a specific denial of such things as eternal justice or an afterlife – can have a truly wonderful calling to make a difference right here, right now. There won’t be any God to make it better. This – the calling to make a real difference in peoples’ lives – is, in my opinion, one of the most positive aspects of moral living that atheism can help bring to the fore.
However, on the flip side, atheism can have a few very nasty side effects. Active atheism (and “New Atheism” particularly) tends to be an extremely arrogant position. This is the case where an atheist believes that anyone of religious faith is stupid, deluded, and ultimately inferior to the much more intelligent and enlightened atheist. This position can be seen quite clearly in the preaching of Richard Dawkins’, particularly when he applies the nickname “brights” to atheists.
This intellectual arrogance is not a defining element of atheism. Yet I see it becoming increasingly common in young atheists – and even non-religious people – today. I think this is a great shame, as it achieves nothing but to drive a further wedge between believers and non-believers. And it’s also, well, arrogant(!) – which is something I hope nobody would want to be. Arrogance like this is always a bad thing, regardless of whether you are religious or not. It is a mark of a lack of understanding and respect. It’s a pity that so many young atheists today are falling into the same sort of behavior that pushed many people away from religion in the first place.
I think it is fair to say that few atheists have ever been people of mature religious faith (so no, being brought up in a religious way when you were a little kid doesn’t count); most atheists I know have been so since they were 11 years old. The problem with this is that it’s quite hard to understand someone’s worldview if you have never really shared it (it’s not impossible, but it’s pretty difficult). [Side Note: I didn’t really believe in God from about the ages of 11 to 15, and while this does not provide me with anything close to a mature understanding of atheism, it does give me at least a basic of understanding of what it’s like to see the world as someone who doesn’t believe in God. Atheism, if you leave out all the baggage, is a pretty straightforward position, so my short experience of it might, to that extent, be good enough. I hope so anyway!] I suppose that understanding a religious perspective can be a lot to ask of someone who has been an atheist for most of their life (I can see how challenging it could be – I really can!), but I think that it is a fair request nonetheless.
In my view, the vast majority of worldviews have a lot of good in them. Yes, I believe that mature Christian faith is the best one, and I will try to teach people my values if they want to listen because of this. I don’t think there’s any harm in that. There’s a big difference between saying that one position is better and saying that one position is stupid; I would expect most people to believe that their personal worldview is the best and I don’t see anything intolerant or arrogant about that. Affirming your own position does not necessitate completely denying someone else’s.
Real respect is recognizing and acknowledging the good values in each worldview, regardless of your own beliefs. I don’t see that in popular culture today. A lot of people I’ve talked to think they’re being tolerant and respectful when their position on religion is actually that “you’re free to believe in something stupid if you want to”. That’s not respect at all – it’s contemptuous indifference. I would much rather be told, “I think that 20% of what you believe is wrong – but 80% of it is right. And while I will happily debate the 20% with you, I think that the 80% is wonderful.” That 20% could cover some very important stuff, but at least you can see that a lot of what that person believes is good. I don’t want to under-emphasize our differences here, but I want to counteract the overemphasis that I tend to see placed on them.
I’m something of an optimist when it comes to people, and I believe that they always have several reasons – and usually several good reasons at that – for believing what they do. If you are completely incapable of seeing any reason for justifying someone else’s beliefs, the problem, in all likelihood, rests not with those beliefs but with you. (Well, unless they’re clinically insane)! They might not be the most philosophical or intellectual reasons but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be good ones. And a lot of people aren’t going to be interested in these extremely abstract arguments anyway! This is probably especially true of religion because religion, for most believers, is so much more than just abstract intellectual arguments. I suppose another form of arrogance is to accept only strictly intellectual reasons as worthwhile (I myself am often guilty of this!) – but that’s another very limited way of looking at things.
So, to sum up, I would present this question to people who look scathingly at other peoples’ beliefs (this is obviously particularly directed at “new atheists” – but it will probably apply to most of the rest of us as well!): if you think that peoples’ beliefs are purely the result of stupidity and ignorance, are you really being fair and honest in your judgement?
[In case anyone is still unclear as to where I would stand on this question: my answer is a very firm “no!” 😛]
[P.S. I’d like to dedicate this post to my friend Dave, who keeps telling me that I should be more opinionated in these kind of articles! I’m getting there slowly 😛 He’s also an atheist so I suppose this will be doubly relevant haha. Watch out for those anti-religious preachers man, watch out for those preachers.]