14 June 2009

Why I Am Not An Atheist

When I was a kid, I never really thought much about the existence or non-existence of supernatural things: gods, ghosts, aliens, etc. I wasn't skeptical, but I wasn't exactly a believer, either. My family wasn't overly religious; after my parents were divorced, my mom would occasionally try to find a church that she was comfortable going to, and would drag us kids along. But she would eventually find something about the church she didn't like, and we'd go back to sleeping in on Sundays. When I was a senior in high school, and Mom was into churchgoing again, it finally sunk in that I just couldn't believe in a god.

Ironically, it was while I was going through confirmation classes at the local Congregational church. The Congregationalists are pretty liberal as far as belief in God goes, but the pastor of this church leaned towards the fire-and-brimstone type of preaching. He insisted to the confirmation class that we had to believe that the six days it took for God to create the heavens and the earth were literally six days. That's when the alarm bell went off in my head, and I knew that this God thing just wasn't for me.

Back then, I don't think I had even heard the word "atheist." I certainly didn't identify myself as one until I met Mrs. A.S., who introduced me to skepticism, secular humanism, and atheism, and I learned that there were lots of people out there that subscribed to one flavor of those beliefs or another.

I think I found it easier to relate to the "skeptics" than to the "atheists." To be clear, my worldview is atheistic as well as skeptical. I just found that those people who took on the label "atheists" tended to be too strident; they were always complaining about how oppressed they were, and how much better the world would be if everyone would just abandon their religious beliefs. Still, if asked about religion, I would refer to myself as an atheist, mainly because it is a convenient label for non-belief. Most people don't know what "skeptic" means (other than in the sense of being a doubter), or what a "secular humanist" is, and they think that "agnostic" just means that you're on the fence about it. After a recent experience with a local atheists group, however, I don't think I'll be calling myself an atheist at all any more.

Mrs. A.S. and I discovered the group a couple of months ago. It had been in existence for a while, and according to their page on Meetup, they would meet once or twice a month for social get-togethers over dinner or breakfast. We had only had a chance to socialize with like-minded people once a year or so at conferences like TAM, so this sounded like a good way to meet some people in the area and perhaps make some friends that we could see more often.

What a nightmare! I'll save the grisly details for future posts, but suffice it to say that we encountered some atheists of the strident variety, almost religiously so. In addition, a few of them were into social and political activism, and wanted to do something. It didn't seem to matter what that something was, whether the rest of us thought it was a good idea or not, or whether it would have a positive or negative effect on the local community's perception of atheists. The particular something they latched onto was at best just plain lame, and at worst could have turned out to be hugely embarrassing to us and hurtful to others — something that Mrs. A.S. and I would have been ashamed to be associated with. We, along with a few others in the group, tried to get them to reconsider, but it was hopeless. My head is still bleeding from banging it against that brick wall.

So I think I'll stick with "skeptic." And if someone asks me what religion I belong to, I'll just say, "none."

[Edited to correct a typo.]

1 comment:

  1. Interesting, but this presents a practical problem. If we retreat from using a particular label for ourselves because someone else who uses the same label happens to be irrational, we'll always be letting tiny, unrepresentative minorities define every social group. (And I mean "every," because there's a few in every barrel.)

    And if we retreat to calling ourselves something else, like skeptic, it's only a matter of time before the media report on a prominent skeptic who blew his pension on expensive astrology readings, and that label then becomes "tainted."

    No doubt, the atheist label has baggage, but exemplifying moral atheism to those around you does more to define the atheist label than the actions of other (misguided) members, whose actions others may hear about briefly and then soon forget.

    I sometimes use the secular humanist label for myself. Most don't know what it means, but if they're curious I tell them, and it's a short explanation of how I try to have morals without religion.

    But otherwise I go with atheist. In an age where the horrors of religion are great and numerous (look at the recent report on the extent of sex abuse in the Catholic church), I want to make it "damn" clear which side I stand on.