After leaving Christianity, I spent several years connecting with other religious communities. One such was the Unitarian Universalists. Known for their inclusion, I was in the midst of a conversation with a long-standing member who was adamant about not being against anything, only promoting the assertion that all religions seek to address essentially similar ideas. I won’t belabor whether that statement is accurate, as the central issue was more concerned with being opposed to being against anything. When I brought up that being for free inquiry and free expression and the individual right to determine one’s own moral system, logically infers being against the opposite, i.e. moral dogmatism, authoritarian dictates and rigid hierarchical systems, I was looked at with a look that can only be described as dumbfounded.
Innumerable articles have been written about what may euphemistically be referred to as the ‘soul of atheism.’ There are the bewildering rantings against the so-called “New Atheists,” often based on a poor or deliberately mistaken understanding of what is stated and an emphasis on the mantra that such “New Atheists” are angry all the time. It would seem that after so long remaining silent, the mere act of finally speaking out must be construed as being angry. Frankly this says far more about the inherent felt superiority of the religious majority. When those in power want a minority to stay quiet, caricaturing their actions is an effective way to remove them from discussion rather than deal with their criticism.
Regardless of the false generalizations, even within atheist communities there are those who wring their hands over their public perception, indicating a degree of care about how their actions effect others that has largely been historically absent from the religious communities most interested in villifying them. This concern brings light to the half-truth that atheism is merely an absence of belief in a god, not worth using as an identifier. I say half-truth because while the absence is certainly a legitimate definition, it is the fact that so many use the term as a social identifier which shows the term as meaning more than a mere definitional structure. That there exists a call for “coming out” as atheist or secularist merely offers further support.
People like labels and the identities that provide individual inclusion in groups. They serve as social communicative short-hand, providing a means of holding various values and their role in life without having to necessarily articulate each and every one. Doing this saves a great deal of time in dialogue, even as it does a profound disservice to fully understanding another person. Removing labels is patently absurd, our brains won’t let us get away with not having social boundaries. What is of enormous importance is having a public discussion as to just what a label means and then being willing to discuss how such works when confronted with an individual using it. Not doing so is the road to bigotry, whereas engaging in such a way is the path to diminishing the effects of bias.
Atheism stands in direct contrary distinction from theism. The latter is hardly helpful in itself since the number of gods in existence is about as numerous as the number of believers, certainly when it comes to how each theistic notion interacts in their lives. For the sake of clarity, theism can largely be broken into declarations of a supernatural or non-supernatural type. This isn’t to say there aren’t cross-overs and naturalistic apologists for religious claims love utilizing natural events as supportive of the supernatural, particularly when any such event is even tentatively not open to their personal understanding. Indeed, it is this latter point that goes to the heart of the supernatural distinction, whether or not experience is, not necessarily immediate, open to understanding through human rationality and inquiry. Once the supernatural enters any discussion, the assumption is immediately that of a lack in such ability, hence the solipsistic need to use the term “faith” to support supernatural claims.
I use solipsism here because faith in this way is completely unneeded if there is no supernatural and is automatically used once one posits the existence of such. The two concepts exist in a snake-eating-its-tail circularity that would be beautifully coherent if it wasn’t so demonstrably false. Faith enters where reason fails to support, it allows for false claims of apprehension for the inherently undefinable. This is why supernatural traditions use faith unequivocally to support completely different and contradictory notions between them. Whatever may be said for the underlying psychological needs being supported by religious ideologies, declaring Shiva to be the same as Allah or either to be the same as Jesus and the Christian Trinity, is to jettison any legitimate claim for the usage of logic. The definitions offered for any and others beside are quite different, though the means for substantiating them is the same: through the usage of the a-rationality of faith.
There we come to the crux of what atheism stands for. Religious notions of god that are utterly natural are of little concern because at some level, though this level may be rather deeply buried under mounds of queer notions concerning metaphysics, the ideas being proposed are publicly knowable and open to discovery through no particularly special paths of knowledge. Such is not the case with the supernatural gods. No amount of studious inquiry, no degree of rational discussion, will lead to an understanding of a supernatural claim. This is why religious traditions use faith and, not without severe social consequence, why the notion of being a “select” or “chosen” few is prevalent in their ideologies. The ideas being promoted are not open to public discourse, not without first assuming the validity of the very notions to be discussed. That such groups often label intellectuals and academics as “elitist” is certainly one of the great ironies of our time.
As an atheist, I don’t merely stand for the absence of a god, I support the presence of all those things which make a supernatural god incoherent and dangerous. This means living in and supporting the exploration of a world that is accessible through human rationality, embodied in experience and lived in as a species through social connections. The nature of who I am through metaphysical inquiry determines the epistemic or knowledge paths of my potential inquiry, resulting in a broad system of ethical appraisal. This means an unabashed, quantifiably rational and publicly discussable, belief in the materiality of all existence, scientific rational inquiry for the pursuit of increased understanding and an ethics based on the integral nature of our material and social existence.
There are of course numerous nuances to these positive statements and all of them are open to constant appraisal and organic consideration through no special revelation. The mere fact of being human is all it takes to walk the path of rational inquiry. I am not separate, as an atheist, from anyone else, not when it comes to the baseline ability to broaden my understanding of life and my place within it. I leave separation and its ego-laden loneliness to the supernatural theist. Generative dialogue is the realm of the atheist, where we come in our collective desire to seek out the frontiers of the human experience and push back the boundaries of our current understanding. Atheism is more than a lack in god, it is the removal of faith and the vocal passionate support of an existence that is able and worth being explored by all.
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