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Atheism: No, It's Not Just About a Lack of Belief in God or Gods
What I Don't Mean
I don't mean that atheists are arguing a positive. When you're arguing against God, you're arguing the null. It's up to the theist to show that God exists; the ball is in their court.
I'm also not disputing the fact that the primary thing atheists have in common is that they don't believe in God. This is the common denominator in atheism, although I think it may be more complicated than the way it may first appear.
Furthermore, I'm not arguing that all atheists live in predominantly religious environments -- I use this scenario largely because such environments provide the clearest examples of what is being stated.
Neither am I arguing that all atheists are in communities, or that all atheists live in predominantly religious culture, or that atheism is necessarily a major part of the way you think of yourself as a human being. No, not all atheists are in communities; yes, some atheists obviously live in predominantly nonreligious cultures (and yes, this article is primarily focused on atheists who live in predominantly religious cultures); and yes, some atheists are more apathetic than others.
“Some people think there’s only one thing to say about atheism. This has been the oddest reaction that I got from people when I said that I was writing [Atheism for Dummies], this kind of snarky response from atheists and believers alike who said, ‘Well, that’ll be the skinniest book on the shelf. It just has to say “Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.”’ Well, that’s a definition, for crying out loud. That’s what you would get in a dictionary. I daresay there’s more about atheism than that. It’s as if I were going to write a book about the Grand Canyon and I were to say ‘The Grand Canyon is a big hole in Arizona.’”
– Dale McGowan, Executive Director of the Foundation Beyond Belief
TL; DR -- What I DO Mean
Basically, I'm saying that insisting atheism is JUST about a disbelief or lack of belief in God or gods is simplistic. Much in the same way that saying books are JUST about "bound collections of pages: collections of printed or manuscript pages sewn or glued together along one side and bound between rigid boards or flexible covers" is simplistic (especially in a community of book readers trying to discuss books). When I say "about," I am using the dictionary definition of "in connection with or relating to." Atheism does, indeed, connect to more than merely a lack of belief in God -- it is also about how that lack of belief in God manifests itself, especially in a hostile culture (which I know not everyone is in). I'm saying it helps to be honest about that if we are going to understand atheism as individuals and as a community, and that the mantra "atheism is JUST about a lack of belief in God or gods" often stifles this understanding.
I'm also saying that defending atheism requires understanding that, for many, atheism is inextricably bound and, thus, fundamentally connected to or "about" other parts of their identity. It's not JUST about lack of belief in God or gods, but about what, exactly, it means for them to have a lack of belief in God or gods, given their background, experience, and environment. I'm arguing that if we are going to understand atheism -- not just on the surface, but its machinery and how it "works" in a culture -- we need to expand our focus beyond merely stating that it's JUST about lack of belief in God.
That's really all I'm saying. So if you're good with what I've said up to this point, you can stop reading. The rest is just breaking it down further, providing an example for additional clarity/application, and answering anticipated objections.
Anticipated Objections and Responses
2. "I object to your use of the word 'lack' -- it makes it sound like theism is some kind of vitamin."
I used the phrase because it was the most recognized by atheists. I agree that theism is not healthy, and "lack" isn't meant to suggest otherwise.
3. "You focus too much on Christianity."
I use Christianity where I need a specific example that, it seems, applies to other religions. Not because I think Atheism is ONLY defined as being in opposition to Christianity, as opposed to all religions with a God or gods.
4. "This focuses too much on predominantly religious environments -- I don't live in a predominantly religious environment, so for me it's no big deal."
I'd argue that this environment connects to your atheism. The fact that you have freedom in your environment is a part of your atheism that you should recognize and acknowledge, because not all people have that -- which leads to their atheism being expressed in quite different ways.
5. "We shouldn't change the definition of atheism."
I'm not changing it so much as I'm trying to show how some of the restrictions we place on atheism impair our understanding of what atheism is about. Atheism is not just about the one-sentence dictionary definition, but it's also about how it affects people's lives and how people express it. This is not a redefinition so much as an urge to expand an unjustified tunnel vision.
6. "Almost everybody sees atheism as completely separate from issues like race, gender, class, etc."
See links in this post. Look at internet conversations debating atheism between atheists. Spend some time on Dusty Smith's FB page or the comments on Sikivu Hutchinson's blog or Greta Christina's blog, or even take a look at one of Thunderf00t's rants on the importance of rational thought in atheism. For many atheism is inextricably bound with their marginalized identities, because it is a necessary condition of expressing these marginalized identities while retaining one's self-worth. If you realize this, you can understand atheism a bit better.
Breaking It Down
When you leave a religion in a culture that overwhelmingly favors that religion, you have to orient yourself in relation to that religious culture. You may not believe in God and Jesus being the Messiah and the rest, for example (yes, I know Christianity isn't the only religion; this is just an example) but many of those who make decisions about how you will be perceived and treated by culture around you will claim to. As a result, many in religious countries have to figure out how to be an atheist in ways that do well in managing the perception others have of them and, by extension, the perception they have of themselves.
- In Atheists We Distrust - Scientific American (2012)
"Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America.... Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia recently published a set of studies looking at why atheists are so disliked. His conclusion: It comes down to trust."
In other words, being an atheist in a predominantly religious culture often involves adjusting your identity in ways that keep religious individuals, at the very least, off your back and, at the most, respectful of you. It requires trying to figure out how to be trusted in a culture in which atheists may normally be less trusted than rapists, of showing you love people in a culture that sees “true love” as something only God can provide, of being treated with respect in a culture that sees atheists as objects of scorn or pity. And so on.
"The first step, then, in understanding Atheism is to disregard all the lies and propaganda that religion has spread against it. Atheism is more than just the knowledge that gods do not exist, and that religion is either a mistake or a fraud. Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature."
It requires owning your atheism, putting it on, and figuring out its implications for you in living in the world. And the hard truth is that this is harder for some than others. It is usually, for example, easier for a white male to be an atheist in the Bible Belt than it is for a black lesbian to be an atheist in the Bible Belt. Atheism is not just about lack of belief in Gods or gods -- it's also about how your position affects that lack of belief and its expression. Insisting it isn't seems, at the least, ignorant and, at the most, fairly cruel.
Because one of the demographics most vocal and affected by such restrictive finger-wagging are transgender women, I'd like to discuss them as an example (yes, I know that they are a minority in atheism -- that's the point). Here's the scenario: A person who is born with a penis doesn’t really read the Bible intensely as they grow up, but the person hears that Christianity states that this person is a boy, although the person feels she is a woman. Because she can't fit in the box Christianity has assigned her, she eventually researches Christianity and leaves, very vocally, for rational and subjective reasons that are inextricably intertwined -- and defines herself in opposition to this God by being an atheist. (See the story below for a real example of this experience)
- Why atheists should care about transgender issues| Faitheist (2014)
"We also must consciously make our atheist communities fully inclusive and welcoming to transgender people....In-person meetups can often feel exclusive and clique-y and, among atheists, often heterosexual white-male dominated."
But, can she express this kind of atheism? Atheists, in response to her attempts to do so, often insist that atheism is JUST about a lack of belief in God or gods -- so her voice as a transgender individual, while it is directly and inseparably related to her atheistic stance, is diminished, often, as not part of atheism. And the forced silence itself is a kind of noise -- as are, oftentimes, the outright insults. Because atheists identify with one reason people become atheists, like evolution (most of the time) and ignore another, like being transgender (much of the time). We may deny it, but being honest about the real life, on the ground experience of atheism seems to bring this reality out. And the truth, it seems, is that many people are afraid and don't want their atheism "contaminated" with transgender "issues." But this person is part of the makeup of atheism, and her transgender self is as much a part of the face of atheism as yours, and her struggles with being transgender are as much a part of atheism as your struggles with being intellectually honest.
“An atheist believes that a hospital
should be built instead of a church.
An atheist believes that deed must
be done instead of prayer said.
An atheist strives for involvement in life
and not escape into death.
He wants disease conquered,
poverty vanished, war eliminated.”
― Madalyn Murray O'Hair
“For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can't readily accept the God formula, the big answers don't remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”
In addition, it's important to note that rejecting God or gods means rejecting God's or gods' authority in a culture that often strives to enforce this authority -- using both who hold to the religion and those who don't. So, in a real way, the transgender woman of our example who rejects the Christian God's authority over her gender is exercising her atheism when rejecting continued attempts to force that authority in a predominantly Christian culture. And if the other atheists dismiss her struggle as "not atheism" when it is a strongly integrated, fundamental feature of her atheism...we are missing out on a more complete definition of what atheism is, and thereby allowing her continued oppression.
Furthermore, this transgender woman may have to contend, not only with Christians, but also with everyone who has brought into gender roles that have been molded by Christianity’s impact on culture. You see? And a lot of those people will tell her that she’s not really a woman, that she should “man up,” and say all sorts of things that hurt her feelings and her choices. And those things may often be, in this culture, directly related to gender roles that are ultimately enforced by the concept of a God having authority over who has the right to identify with which gender.
How does this person defend herself? This person’s gender choice is directly related to her atheism -- and she is told that this is her problem, and that gender doesn't have anything to do with atheism at all, and that she can just forget about support. And many atheists, it seems, have a tendency to perpetuate the lines of gender drawn by religious culture, so long as it doesn't attack their own sense of worth.
- Agnostic Atheist, But Not Interested In White Supremacist Atheism (2013)
"I’m interested in how [a restrictive definition of atheism] connects to a greater ideology that is anti-oppression... Without this, atheism is simply nothing at best or can become a White supremacist tool to facilitate oppression at worst"
This scenario is very common among people marginalized by race, gender and class -- people who often become atheists in a predominantly religious culture as a result, largely, of not being able or willing to fit in the box that religious culture falsely tried to put them in. Dismissing their plight as "not part of atheism" seems at the least ignorant and at the most disingenuous.
One objection to this reasoning is that the people who leave religion because of the oppressive authority of the its God or gods didn't leave religion, because the right reasons to leave religion are based on reason, not sentiment. I have two responses to this, one that you won’t like, and one that you might. First, if atheism is REALLY just about a lack of belief in God or gods, what does reason have to do with it? What gives reason a better claim to atheism than emotional rejection of the authority of a God or gods, especially if both are actually, in reality part of atheistic stances in atheism?
If you haven’t stopped reading by now, it’s possible you’ve thought of a couple reasons why reason has a stronger claim to atheistic thinking. Which brings me to my next point: Atheism, for you, is more than not believing in God or gods. Atheism, for you, is being rational regarding your position.
What I’m saying is that it’s OK to say so. It’s OK to say that you’re an atheist because you want to be rational as opposed to rely on faith. And, I think, it’s OK to say that you’re an atheist because you want freedom from the oppressive authority of God or gods that is perpetuated by societal norms. It's OK to admit that lack of belief is a product of forces that are inseparable from that lack of belief.
Dale McGowan, Executive Director of the Foundation Beyond Belief
So, is this a semantic word game? No. I’m objecting to the claim that atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in God (while openly admitting that it may well be the only thing we have common), for an important reason: If you want to get to know atheism a better, you have to open yourself up to a wide spectrum of atheists who came to a lack of belief in God for a wide variety of reasons that fundamentally form their atheism. You can’t just say, “Atheism is a lack of belief in God, nothing more” and expect people to toe the line when, for many atheists, atheism is also the day-to-day rejection of the authority of God and gods that contributes and informs that lack of belief.
Seeing atheism as more than just a lack of belief in God, but as a stance formed and developed by one’s orientation to a culture ruled by (a) propped-up God or gods, can clarify atheism significantly. It can show why the MRAs and the SJAs who do not believe in God are so fundamentally opposed to each other, and it can also show why coldly rationalistic atheists butt heads with more emotive humanistic atheists. It can also help the atheist who comes into an atheist group realize that atheism is formed by and translates into a lot of different identities, or a lot of different ways people orient themselves to the face they see in the mirror and to their surrounding culture.
What it may also do, at the same time, is splinter atheism. But this splintering may be overdue, as atheists have very different goals. At times, we may join forces; at times we may not. Discerning those times will require honesty and possibly more diverse definitions of atheism; “lack of belief in God or gods” extinguishes definitions of atheism that, it seems, people may need in order to navigate culture.
When we become honest about atheism being about several different fundamental orientations that may not be completely reconcilable, we can begin better understanding why and how our fellow atheists reject religion and live as non-religious individuals. Instead of dismissing prominent features of these rejections as being "outside" of atheism, we can see these features as part of a construction of atheism in ways that allow us to strategically build a more open, honest, community. In addition to strengthening those within communities of atheists, such honesty can also lead to a more thorough understanding of what “atheism” means and how it functions in culture that can actually help us not only deconstruct God, but also pinpoint ways religious culture hurts atheists. In short, it seems that the healthiest way to embrace harmony in atheist communities is to be cognizant of the way atheists' experiences make them who they are, instead of using a restrictive definition to ignore the inseparable connection many atheist stances have to cultural hardships that are due to oppressive religious influences.