Atheism, Agnosticism and Teenage Rebellion
Is the Word “Atheist” Too Strong?
In the comments for my most recent post on Atheism, Core Values and Religion, a daughter’s mother and I engaged in what I consider to be an interesting exchange on the use of the labels “agnostic” and “atheism.” I am not sure that we have it settled yet, so I wanted to do a completely new post to explain why I refer to myself as an atheist. While I accept that I hold philosophical positions in common with other non-religious people, I have a sincere reason for choosing to label myself as an atheist.
I really need to be clear that as an atheist, I don’t pretend to “know” that there are no supernatural entities. I agree with those who label themselves as agnostics that there is no way to ever know the unknowable with an absolute degree of 100% certainty. I think that those atheists who claim to know that there is no such thing as a supernatural realm are overstating their case by tiny degrees. There is no absolute knowledge of anything, a position that even naturalists accept, and if faced with the prospect of trying to understand that which can not be known there is no way to investigate to find objective knowledge.
Atheists and agnostics, or general doubters of the prevailing cultural religions have struggled for centuries to find the correct label for themselves to carry. A few self-labels that come to my mind:
- Freethinker. Unconfined by the dogma of religion, they see themselves as rational and skeptical and willing to look at their preconceived notions from a critical standpoint, to find if they are justified in continuing to hold those positions. I consider myself a freethinker.
- Secular Humanist. A philosophical position allied with atheism. Most secular humanists are atheists, and most atheists are secular humanists. I am also a secular humanist, because I believe that as humans we can solve problems without appealing to supernatural actors.
- Rationalist. Rationalists think of themselves as those who approach all of their questions by collecting and weighing evidence and, through critical analysis, come to the only valid conclusions possible. I discount pure rationalism, because we have presuppositions of which we aren’t always aware, and even when we are aware of them, we don’t know how to correct for them. No agent of thought can be purely rational, and I would argue that even processors in computers are not able to be purely rational because they are directed by human programmers and designers. Spock, the agent of rationality created by Gene Roddenberry, admitted as much even for himself and was subject to the whims of his own biology every seven years.
- Naturalist. Naturalists are rationalists who accept the concept of human imperfection.
- Bright. A serious misstep and misguided label coined and conceived by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Essentially rationalists who just want to emphasize that they are smarter than everyone else. It’s one label I refuse to apply to myself.
- Agnostic. Don’t know, can’t know and won’t claim to know about the existence of an overriding supernatural presence in the universe. Logically correct in that, but often people use the term so they are less offensive to the religious. My problem with the label is that in not being “offensive” to the religious, it gives them the impression that we are still open to proselytizing by the religious because we “just haven’t heard the good news in the right way.” I am also an agnostic, because I refuse to claim that anyone can know either way. I just know that human descriptions of the attributes of the unknowable are either worthless for using in my approach to life, or inconsequential. Anything “out there” in the deistic sense doesn’t affect me in the least. So if “it” is there, it’s fun to speculate about its apophaticness, but that’s all it is and it doesn’t make me a believer.
Atheist. Like agnostic, there are scalar degrees of non-belief that people will assign to themselves. Often the discussion of atheism in a post on a site visited by atheists, theists, agnostics will include people declaring where they fit on the scale from “weak to strong.” There are weak atheists, weak agnostics, strong atheists and strong agnostics. I think that they are separate, parallel scales and not a single continuum. I am an atheist. And I wear the label proudly.
Two years ago, I was visiting my dad when his health was stronger. I turned on the radio broadcast of Atheists Talk, streamed through the KTNF website. Dad had been a lapsed Catholic for several years but had decided following a heart attack that he better put in a chip in the game of Pascal’s Wager and start going to Mass again. He had never been an atheist, to be sure, nor had he ever told me that he was at any point an agnostic. He just hadn’t been going to Mass.
As I was listening to the show, I asked him what he thought about the fact that I am an atheist and belong to the Minnesota Atheists. He smiled and said, “I think it is a phase.” I reminded him that I was in my late forties and hardly in the throes of teen rebellion. He just laughed and went back to reading his paper. That was all the time that he wanted to devote to it, because he doesn’t feel the need to try to “win me back” for Christ. He seemed to think that when my time came and my health started to fail, I would come to the realization that I have been wrong to deny God and Salvation. I am the fifth of seven kids, and three of the preceding four of my siblings are also atheists or agnostics. The shock value for me to declare myself an atheist to him and to my late mother had worn off before I had the chance to use it.
Now, suppose I had told my dad I was a “capital A” agnostic? That I was hemming and hawing on my belief so as not to seem too arrogant? It may have given him an opening to invite me to Mass with him, to catch up on my Confessions and Act of Contritions. Not that I am opposed to having religious discussions with him, of course, but I think he would have taken a more pressure-laden approach as he tried to nudge me back to the arms of the Church. The effort on his part would have been similar to teaching a pig to fly. It would have served merely to annoy the pig.
There is a reason that I use the word “atheist” to describe myself, among all the other labels of disbelief and religious doubt.
In the early 1980s, ideological labeling was shifting in U.S. politics. Liberalism, which had once been a respectable label, was being attacked in order to build the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan had won his election as a solid conservative and with no concessions to moderate his views. He tapped into a blue-collar sensibility that liberalism had been hijacked by socialists and elitists, and by gosh, it was time to put some power back into the hands of the guys and gals who carried lunch buckets to work rather than attache cases full of doctoral theses. He brought back morning to an America which had seen our intellectual and humanitarian president as being weak against commies and imams.
The ushering in of the Reagan era gave succor to the liberal bashers who had for years been marginalized. Liberals didn’t want to be called liberals any more. There were accusations of treason and anti-familyism leveled against liberals, because we had this odd notion that women and gays should have the same rights of self-determination as straight men. There were accusations that liberals wanted to get rid of the Godly heritage of ‘Merica (to be fair, I did want to get rid of that) and that we were thus tools of Satan whether wittingly or no. The word liberal was soon the insult that destroyed political campaigns. A liberal in the mid-Eighties had as much chance getting elected to public office as an atheist does today. So, liberals started calling themselves progressives.
Not me. I have never given up the word “liberal” because of what the conservatives want to blame us for doing to their America. In fact, I decided that I would be even more emphatic about calling myself a liberal. It was akin to being country when country wasn’t cool. I hadn’t changed my political orientation because of the Reagan era, so I sure in hell wasn’t going to relabel myself to seem less offensive to the people I would meet. I am a liberal; conservative disparagement be damned. I should also admit that at least one factor in my refusal to give up the word “liberal” is in large part rebellion. It is a word that should not be so vilified, so I am not going to play along with that game. I don’t want to let other people, many of whom I just don’t like but others with whom I merely disagree, pick my label for me.
This also leads to my choice to use the term “atheist” to describe myself. I am not worried that people think it is a negative. It is a negative. I don’t follow nor do I believe in any gods. It’s that simple. The beliefs that I do hold in addition to my lack of belief in supernatural actors are largely positive statements, but they are built from a presupposition that I have no reason to accept the idea that the universe has a dualistic supernatural/natural…um, nature. There may be unreachable, unknowable entities, but I am not going to waste too much time thinking about it.
I am aware that people have negative impressions of atheists, that it is a choice of word that can lead people to dislike me or claim that I am being fundamentalist or arrogant. I hold that the atheist position is just as honorable as any other position that anyone else has in regard to religion and theology and that it can’t be made more palatable by atheists shying from the word. So I tell people when they ask me, “I am an atheist.”
I am also an agnostic, but most importantly I am an atheist. People tend to like me for some odd reason, and I don’t scare them away when they meet me. So, if atheism is going to become acceptable in our society, then we had better own up to it and not let other groups dictate to us what we should and shouldn’t call ourselves. We can’t let people who don’t understand atheism get away with a smugly satisfying claim that we are just as fundamentalist as Christians. The word “atheist” isn’t too strong. It’s accurate.
Digital Cuttlefish has written a great poem that helps explain who we are as atheists. Look around you. I am sure that you know one or two and I am also sure that they haven’t stolen your Bibles to be used as toilet paper.
This entry was posted on Sunday, January 24th, 2010 at 11:33 am and is filed under Mike Haubrich. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.