Part Five: Atheism Reassessed
We must not ignore atheism at this time, especially at this time. It is easy to become overwhelmed by God and questions about his existence when you're tackling this issue, because there's so much more literature, history, and living human beings walking around on this Earth with God on their minds rather than Godlessness.
Now is as good a time as any for me to stress something very fundamental about the nature of atheism. The word atheism denotes nothing but a rejection of a belief and a concept. That is often why the word atheism is so problematic, because it is merely one belief, not a set of beliefs. If someone tells me that they are Christian, I can access my knowledge of many Christian beliefs because Christianity is almost a complete belief system. If someone tells me that they believe in God, that is, that they are a theist, this is only one belief and not a set of beliefs.
Yet we are still able to assume more things about theism than atheism. Why? Theism is a positive belief. I don't mean positive in the sense of being optimistic, but in that it posits something. When someone says, "I am a theist," they are positing or asserting a belief in the existence of God. The point is that this positive belief cues us off to the belief in the existence of something. Atheism is a negative belief (and again, not for any pessimism) because it does not posit that something exists, but that something does not exist. Whereas theism posits the thesis that God exists, the atheism denies the thesis. Atheism as a term says less and commits to less conceptually and linguistically than theism does.
To illustrate my point, imagine what it would be like if we were all religiously labeled not by what we believed in, but by what we did not believe in. "What religion are you?" my friend would ask me, and I would have to reply, "I am an atheist, non- positivist, non-transcendentalist, non-Hindu, non-blah blah blah..." We'd spend all day expounding an indefinite list of all the rejections we hold of every important intellectual school of thought. Does that sound silly? It ought to.
I want to emphasize emphatically that atheism is not a religion. Atheism is the belief in the rejection of a belief in God. Humanism is much more like a religion because it has a more complete belief-system, and one of the main beliefs in its set is atheism. Atheism alone is not nearly enough to complete one's religion. Atheism must act as one of many beliefs to flesh out a complete religious framework for an individual, and it does not necessarily define one's religion in and of itself.
So why call oneself an atheist at all? It's hard to say why, though I admit that I do not feel wholly comfortable declaring myself an atheist. Atheism is a term of default; atheism is the box you check when you believe in none of the above. Atheism is what you call yourself to cut off any appeal to prayer or an afterlife. Someone who is an atheist and only an atheist is either failing to identify the other beliefs in their moral code, or is living a religiously two-dimensional life. You cannot say to yourself, "I am an atheist" and simply leave it at that. You tell others that you're an atheist, but to yourself you speak of more.
One reason why you might tell others this is because there really isn't a formal religion to which you subscribe. Maybe you delve into many schools of thoughts. I know I do. And like many people, I refrain from creating a new name for my personal religion, even if a million souls concurred whole-heartedly with me. It's not because I think labels are bad; actually, titles for schools of thought are helpful landmarks, not detriments, because they are supposed to clarify intellectual positions. But I admit that I only get confused when I hear some strange, obscure, and unknown new "ism." I refuse to be the inventor of another new one.
There are more names for more branches of theism than I think I will ever be able to even hear about in my lifetime; it truly is amazing. Atheists simply have less names to call themselves, so why not stick to a general title like "atheism?" If someone asks me what religion I subscribe to, they seem satisfied by my response of "atheism." As long as I know my own personal truth, there is no pressing need I can see that convinces me to change. What really needs to change are people's conceptions of what an atheist is, and it is here where we intersect again with where we left off with theism. When last I spoke of theism, I wanted to discard those theories or explanations that didn't really get to the heart of the matter. Let's do the same to atheism.
The proofs against the existence of God were not satisfactory. The first two were too speculative and assumed something about God and reality that really none of us are entitled to assume. But what about the last argument about the burden of proof? I did not really refute it, nor did I really even attempt to diffuse it very much. The reason why is because that particular proof epitomizes how logic and religion can be two separate pursuits. The burden of proof argument is very convincing in a logical sense, but it truly misses the point about God and religious belief on a human level.
Are we to convert people on this argument? First of all, this approach works beautifully as a rhetorical device, but does it really address all of the effects of, not reasons for, God and religion? There is something to it that cuts off the conversation before it even begins. "I'll refute you the moment you prove your position solidly," says this arguer to a theist. But what is the atheist to do in the meantime? Do they wait by the telephone and suspend their judgement? They may have to wait a long time. Where is their religion supposed to go while they wait?
The argument tries to argue against God, and it has succeeded by stepping back and enforcing a sort of conceptual etiquette ("proposer goes first"). But it hasn't disproved anything at all; it merely dismisses the whole issue of God, at least for the time being. That's a powerful maneuver and an arguably justified one. I've seen many people as atheists wield this proof alone to shut and seal the case of God. But the burden of proof argument hasn't really done anything at all for us on the human level. Even if it were right, it would probably not hurt the theistic view very much nor would it change theists' minds. But professors and intellectuals all over the world have shared at least a similar view about God; that it is almost not something worthy of discussion, it so far gone and nonsensical. These atheists are able to live with a belief that God does not exist, but why do they really believe in atheism? It must have more to it than rhetorical strength, I will assert, because strong rhetoric and logic may be very important, but to accept a religious belief as a world-view and basis for one's moral code takes more than just rhetoric. You've got to really be able to live with it regularly and happily.
This is what atheism has suffered from: it has been living in the shadow of theism, having spent too much time refuting and tearing down theism instead of building itself up. Logically speaking, the word "atheism" is a negative term. Many atheists seem to be Godless, so far, by default of any good theory for God. It seems as if these kinds of atheists have been Godless because God didn't work well enough... and then that's it. But that's obviously not it. Atheism holds more import to it than just a default term. Living a Godless life carries incredible implications, not just refutations of theistic arguments. If the implications of atheism were horrendous for someone, but this person remained an atheist because theism has such poor metaphysical support, I would tell this person that they are probably making a big mistake.
Why do we really subscribe to a religion? Because of what it does for us, because of the way it makes us feel, the way it seems to match our view of the world, and that convictive effect it has on our lives. God has a monumental effect on theists' lives, as does Godlessness for atheists. There should be no passivity, as I will later elaborate upon in my discussion of agnosticism. Atheism has generally been lacking positive reasons for being Godless. Atheists have generally talked about what's wrong with the Bible and God and to other things relating to theism. But they need to develop a stronger approach for atheism, not against God.
Perhaps I can elaborate my point better like this: two political candidates run for the same office. You must vote for one, and you clearly cannot vote for both. Your motives for voting for one candidate over another may be one or more of the following four: 1) you don't really care so you stay with the party you're most accustomed to; 2) you don't like one of the candidates, so you vote for the other one as a vote against the first one; 3) you vote for someone because you really like them; or 4) you just don't vote at all.
Many people, to whom religion is not a pressing issue for whatever reason, vote the first way. They stick with their family tradition and continue to abide by it. "Why not? If it's not broken, don't fix it," they might say. Many atheists have traditionally voted the second way. They are voting for Godlessness against the other candidate, theism. That seems obvious, but I assert that such a move is potentially weaker than it ought to be. A decision like this is too important a thing to have to vote about this way, because it promotes mudslinging and negative campaigning. That's what a lot of theists and atheists have done, and they really don't make their world-views very attractive because of it.
The way atheists ought to vote, if they can, is the third way. That is the sort of ad campaign strategy I am going to try to use for a good portion of this work, an approach that tries to show that being Godless has more advantages and less disadvantages than people seem to think. The candidate for God is powerful and convincing, but I'm going to let him stand. Rather I will try to appeal to you to see what is so good about there being no God. Those who vote the fourth way probably aren't reading this book at all. If they are, then I will try to encourage them that coming to some sort of decision about God and religion is extremely valuable for one's everyday actions and spiritual well-being.
Though people may take offense to what I will argue, I am never going to try to degrade or debase theism. I know and love many intelligent and caring people who believe in God and they know what they are doing; I try not to harass them. But I also know that there are people like me who are better off in this world without a God, and I hope these people will find the greatest value in what I will say. I am going to raise questions and shed some doubt about God, but these criticisms will not be malicious. They will be honest questions that should concern theists and atheists alike.