It soon became obvious that anything approaching a comprehensive and authoritative "Atheism 101" was beyond the scope of this community; so in response to this interest, the decision was made to create an "Atheist Roundtable", expressing the personal perspectives of several self-identified atheist members of the community.
TBAT posted the following call for submissions:
Since there are many takes on atheism and much controversy among atheists TBAT is asking for members of our community who wish to take part in the atheism 101 to begin the process by submitting an essay (500 words or less) entitled "what being an atheist means to me." Explanations of why you don't agree with the arguments for religion and/or find religion problematic are welcome, but please try to stay on the right side of the line between direct and rude. Please also put some focus on the positive aspects of atheism and how you find meaning in an atheist life.
...and received more than a dozen submissions. Editing and coordination among so many authors proved more difficult than anticipated, and by the time the piece began to come into shape, the publication of another piece on atheism led not only to an influx of malicious and destructive trolls, but also to months of serious and passionate controversy that very nearly destroyed this community.
In the aftermath, TBAT made the decision to delay the publication of the Atheism Roundtable. Whether that decision was a wise one or not, opinions differ; but what is done is done, and we hope that the community will welcome the publication of this long-delayed but still-relevant (and wonderfully diverse) collection of essays.
Note: We ask that commenters on this post focus on the essays published, and refrain from bringing up old controversies and past grievances. Entries have been listed in alphabetical order according to the name/Internet handle of their author.
C. Adam Scott: Aside from being surrounded by a very pro-theism culture, what atheism means to me wouldn’t be all that much. It would be similar to describing my fashion sense as not-disco-oriented. Imagine people making snap judgments about your family life just because you don't wear bellbottoms.
In terms of morality, atheism means I have to answer some questions. What is good and what is evil? What categorizes an action in one or the other? What should I do?
Growing up going to a Methodist Church, answers were handed to me before I could even comprehend the questions. As an atheist, I might never have any absolute answers and absolute answers may be inherently impossible.
Starting with these questions means that I am free to entertain more thoughts. “Worship, itself, is immoral and harmful to all, no matter the object of worship.” That is one of my personal beliefs. And, it’s one that the childhood Christian me would be barred from based on its opposition to worshipping God.
I’m also allowed to, as many atheists before and since have done, think ill of God. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam thinking ill of God is, in some cases, the only unforgivable sin. A liberal Christian once told me that she didn’t believe that God had done anything wrong in the book of Job, but that, if he did, he would have good reason. What, to me, is unacceptable categorically must become acceptable to anyone who believes that all that God does must be, by definition, good.
Because atheists, in general, are all on our own with these questions, we come to all sorts of conclusions. I’ll disagree with Sam Harris that objective morality is even possible. I know two staunchly Libertarian atheists who believe that any social safety net, from Social Security to Food Stamps to Medicare and Medicaid, are all immoral. In college, I had another atheist friend who would argue against allowing homosexuals in the army. And that’s just a fraction of the list of disagreements I can have respectfully believing the other side is acting intelligently and in good conscience.
Atheists, as well as not being worse than the rest, aren’t any better. The World Church of the Creator, for instance, worships only racial purity. They don’t believe in any gods. By the way, if you want to know something really creepy, its founder went to my same college.The similarities among the majority of atheists are few, but significant enough. We’re the ones most likely to straightforwardly oppose religion as a concept as well as the dominant religions of our cultures.
But, what atheism means most to me, in terms of morality, is that I live in a culture that most often assumes I have none.
Froborr: I’m not an atheist because something is wrong with religion. I’m an atheist because I don’t believe in gods. Never have, and never felt like I was missing anything. They’re just not for me, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with other people believing in them.
I am agnostic toward the existence of gods in the sense that I don’t believe, as the term is usually defined, “Gods exist,” is actually a positive claim* or an empirical statement.** There can be no evidence one way or the other (or, more accurately, which way any potential piece of evidence counts is entirely up to personal preference), and thus I am equally right or wrong whichever I believe. (To be right is to believe in accordance with all evidence, including future evidence; to be wrong is to believe in opposition to all evidence; neither is possible here.) Personally, I prefer not to believe in gods, so that’s the way I go.
But there is more to (my) atheism than not believing in gods. There’s also disbelief in all non-empirical supernatural phenomena (afterlives, souls, and so forth) and skepticism about positive claims (instances of magical thinking, pseudoscience, and science). Many atheists derogatorily refer to everything in both categories (except science) as “woo”; on the rare occasion I use the term, I confine it to pseudoscience (for example, homeopathy or the Myers-Briggs personality test) and magical thinking. "Woo" is a very negative, dismissive term, so I try to confine it to ideas (not persons) that actually deserve to be dismissed.
I reject the premise of the question “Does your life have meaning?” because it’s missing two vital words at the end: “Does your life have meaning to you?” Nothing has intrinsic meaning; meaning is in the mind of the beholder. My loved ones have meaning to me. Trying to be a better person has meaning to me. Trying to make the world a better place, starting with my tiny corner of it, has meaning to me. My hobbies and entertainments, the works of art I appreciate, all these things have meaning to me. The beauty of nature and my love for my city have meaning for me. My life is brimming with meaning, and I fail to understand why someone would think I need more.
*That is, a claim about the properties of a material object or phenomenon.
**That is, something that can be tested by empirical observation. Probably the same thing as a positive claim, but I’m not sure that’s proven or provable.
Giles: Being an atheist is not about what I believe, but about how I come to believe it.
Our feelings and emotions – such as spiritual feelings, or compassion and empathy for others – are important for making decisions. But I don’t believe that they directly reveal truths about the world. We can only find the truth the hard way – by observing, researching and trying to find consistent theories about the world.
Equally, I try not to define my identity in terms of factual beliefs. If I did, and if those beliefs turned out to be factually false, then it would lead me to either deny the truth or be devastated by it. I’d rather just be able to change my mind and carry on (although this has still been difficult for me in the past).
For me, there is a strong separation between my factual beliefs and my values. I believe that the universe runs according to mathematical laws, and that people are nothing more or less than collections of atoms. But this doesn’t stop me from caring about them as people. Facts may not be part of my identity, but values are, and I try to let them guide the important decisions in my life.
Some might consider aspects of my worldview to be a religion – in particular the rigid approach I take towards deciding what I accept as fact and what I don’t, together with some of my beliefs (a bunch of transhumanist stuff which I won’t go into here). I don’t have a problem with that classification. For me, "religion" isn’t a dirty word.
The things religion has been blamed for – wars, human rights violations, poor critical thinking – occur in secular contexts too, so I don’t think it makes sense to attack religion as the cause. If I wanted to influence the opinions or actions of a believer, I would rather seek to draw upon the moral code and other wisdom contained within their religion, than try to tear that religion down.
Atheists can still satisfy their desire to find meaning and purpose in life. For me, one purpose is to try to understand the universe – not as a collection of isolated facts, but as a complete, complex system. Another purpose becomes obvious whenever I look at the news. The world is beautiful, but so much goes on here that would be unacceptable under any reasonable moral system. I consider it part of my purpose to try and put right as much of that as I can.
J. Enigma: To me, atheism is more than just giving up on deities. For me, being an atheist also means that I am a skeptic and a humanist. My philosophies are intricately interwoven with my atheism: while others may be different, I could not imagine being one without having the other two. I feel the need to stress it, because the three are not mutually inclusive for all atheists, and because all three define me rather sharply.
For me, being an atheist lends a firm belief of being in command of one's destiny. Without deities, without a creator, without an afterlife or an eternity, I become responsible for my own actions; there won’t be a deity at the end of the road to punish or reward me. I have to take responsibility for everything I do here, without threat of punishment or promise of reward. I am the creator of my own destiny, the writer of my own purpose in life/reason for existence.
Atheism has given me a strong sense of social justice and respect towards my fellow humans – because they’ve only got one shot here, too, and I have no right, nor does anyone else, to take from them that only shot they have – linking me forever with humanism. I believe humanity is a worthwhile group to put faith in, and that the future is a worthwhile thing to invest faith into, so I do. I believe that if we put our faith in humans, eventually we end up doing the right thing.
There’s also the rationalism behind it. Every puzzle is waiting to be solved; every void is a new chance to uncover knowledge hidden within. Atheistic skepticism is an ideal that I aspire to; I attempt to approach things with an open mind removed from as many perceptions as possible, and keep in mind all of the evidence for or against a position. My epistemology defines my worldview; I am motivated by concrete and objective facts to make my decisions. As such, being proven wrong is not a very large paradigm shift in my world.
I am not an atheist because I saw something wrong with religion, or because I was exposed to a bad religion (I grew up in an irreligious environment). I am not an atheist as a reaction to religion; religion played almost no role in my becoming an atheist. It was my own use of logic and drive to not accept the unknown remaining that way that led me to my atheism, skepticism, and humanism. I am not one out of spite. I am one out of curiosity.
Leum: I don't really like to talk about being an atheist as such. As a negative label, it denotes very little about me—simply that I lack theistic beliefs. It says nothing about a skeptical outlook on life, nothing about the joy of living, nothing about the potential for humans to better themselves as individuals and as a society. The term “secular humanist” is probably more applicable, so I'm going to talk about that. I've outlined what are, to me, the three basic tenets of secular humanism as I see them above, but they deserve more than a cursory examination.
A skeptical approach to life: I believe in basing your understanding of the objective universe based on empirical, rather than personal, evidence. This is where the atheism comes from. But it's also where my rejection of the soul, of magic, of alternative medicine, and of conservative ideology comes from. I hold that we shouldn't believe in things because they serve a positive function in our lives, but because we have evidence for them.
The joy of living: I believe that being alive is good, that it is something to be cherished. We express this goodness through art, but also through daily living, by partaking in the good things the world has to offer, and by preserving those good things so future generations can also have them. I believe we have a duty both as individuals and as a society to ensure that those who do not experience joy from being alive be given the opportunity to do so. I reject the idea that life is nothing but dukha (a Buddhist term generally translated incorrectly as “suffering”) or that we should live in hope of a better life beyond this one. We should focus on making this life the best it can be for ourselves and for others.
Betterment of self and society: I do not believe humans are depraved, but that we have flaws, and I believe we can overcome these flaws. Perhaps not perfectly, but to a great extent. I believe that through knowledge and empathy we can become better people, and that we can improve society as well. I reject doctrines such as original sin.
A Slacktivite: I think the most important thing for me about atheism isn't that it makes me particularly happy, or that I find other ways to fill some answer-seeking, religion-shaped hole in myself. The important thing to me is that I lack that hole in the first place. I tend to describe myself as a-religious rather than atheist, in part because I suppose I'm open to gods existing if I could be convinced of them, but I don't see it mattering very much to my day-to-day life. In my childhood, I was creeped out and disturbed by the (very tame) rituals of my reform Jewish temple; as an adult, I'm not even into secular rituals like graduations. My community needs are better-served by interacting with people who have the same interests, rather than the same beliefs. I feel my morals are just fine, built on common sense and treating other people well. There's just nothing that any organized religion I've seen has to offer that I'm interested in taking.
I can't actually answer the question of how atheism enhances my life, because I don't feel that it does. All it means is that I'm not religious. I can't say that I "find meaning in an atheist life", because I don't think life has a lot of exterior meaning. It just is. Someday it will end, and in all likelihood I won't remember any of it after my consciousness isn't there to do the remembering. It's not a thought that makes me sad, and it's not a thought that's comforting. Atheism just is. Why does life need to have meanings and explanations beyond that?
A different Slacktivite: I identify as a Catholic atheist. For me, it is impossible to separate the two. I am an atheist who is sympathetic to the Catholicism of my culture; I am a cultural Catholic who does not believe in God.
My family has been Catholic for several generations. Where I live, non-Catholics tend to link the faith to class and language privilege because of its colonial associations, although it is also linked to the charity work of the early religious sisters and brothers who set up schools for the poor. (In fact, the majority of my relatives, all the way to my grandparents, were educated at such schools.) However, there is little detailed understanding of the religion proper. Until I was ten, I did not know the word Protestant, even though I studied in a Catholic convent school, because the word for Protestant was "Christian". When people asked about my religion, they would ask if I was "Christian or Catholic", and I was taught to answer that I was Catholic, not Christian. Government and other forms, which require religion to be specified, often distinguish between "Christian" and "Catholic" as well. Catholicism is hazily thought of as a religion with a polytheist mystic bent – which is not inherently treated as negative– and I am frequently described by other people as someone who believes in "Jesus and Mother Mary". Although I am mostly accustomed to the novelty of Catholicism in the cultural landscape, I do feel frustrated because Catholics do form a significant minority (10%) in my homeland. Catholicism does tend to be Other-ised as the province of people who are considered by the ethnic majority to be racially Other, like Eurasians and Filipinos, even though I am neither.
I started to move away from Catholicism when I was about fourteen, mostly because I was discovering feminist politics and exploring my queer identity. After identifying as first a Deist and then an agnostic, I went through a spell of strong atheism (also called "hard", "explicit", or "positive" atheism, because it expressly affirms that no gods exist, as opposed to merely failing to believe in gods). After a while, though, I decided that this section of the community, which tended to be dominated by hardliners like Richard Dawkins, had less good faith and rather a lot of spite. I could not in good conscience identify with a movement that failed to respect the importance of religious belief and practice – which are already two very different things – in cultures like my own. The same sense of post-colonialism that drew me away from mainstream feminism drew me away from mainstream atheism as well, because they are movements heavily dominated by a perspective that is culturally and politically alien to me – that is saturated with the vestiges of imperialism. Because my body and my mind are read as coloured, and because of the values with which I have been saturated, I still feel the effects of this cultural imperialism, and the sense of being an unwelcome outsider in mainstream atheism rankled.
To me, being an atheist is simple – it’s about not believing in god/s. There are a large number of people here who call themselves "freethinkers". It is quite divorced from the philosophical sense of the word but is nonetheless recognised by the government and community as a valid religious identity. Freethinkers often come from a Buddhist or Taoist family background, are widely accepted in this milieu, and practise a form of reverent indifference towards religion. I don’t use the word "freethinker" because my Catholic roots have given me a completely different perspective on faith and culture, and I don’t intend to appropriate the term, but my disbelief takes the same form. (Roses by any other name, and all that.) Some days, I reject god/s; some days I feel Deist still, like a free-willed person in a universe where the maker/s have gone on a terminal lunch break. But my atheist identity remains integral to me. It is the knowledge that, whether or not they exist, I do not want them in my life, because I believe in myself; and if they exist, and they are the god I was raised with, they would be a proud parent because of what I have done for myself. I cannot in good faith believe in a deity whose representatives tell me I am improperly queer, improperly a rape survivor, but I can and do believe every day in a certain kind of wonder in the universe that may or may not come from a different aspect of that deity and that deity’s loving Mother.
My identity is complex because my experiences with both atheism and Catholicism are so closely intertwined, and my culture bleeds through into the way I frame them all. To me, there is little difference between both forms of my religion and faith. From one, I take a sense of individuality; from another, a sense of community; from both, a respect for dignity and devotion to justice. Of course, this is not a very common or commonly acceptable worldview, but I cling to it, because it’s who I am.
Slow Learner: Billions of years passed before my birth; billions of years will pass after my death; and I could easily not have been born at all.
Does this make my life meaningless or worthless? No, no more than it is not worth going to see a play because it will end. My life is contingent, not required as part of the course of the universe, but that makes my very existence a most wonderful opportunity.
I used to call myself a Christian, because my parents are, and it was part of the cultural backdrop (Anglican Church specifically). I'm not sure I ever believed it, though I have always rather enjoyed some of the hymns. However, it wasn't until I was about thirteen that I began seriously asking myself whether or not I believed, and the immediate trigger was my parents asking whether I wanted to be confirmed. The more I thought about it, and the more questions I asked, the more I realized the concept of God meant nothing to me. It quite literally does not compute. The way I'm wired, I don't think it is possible for me to believe in God without seeing Zir personally, and even then my first thought would be to doubt my sanity.
As such conventional Christianity is clearly a non-starter for me, but I did spend a while wondering whether I could take much from this Jesus bloke. And I...wasn't especially impressed. The Golden Rule, while nice, had been stated earlier. "Love thy neighbor" is a useful principle, but again hardly earth-shattering. And there remained teachings in the New Testament and Acts, especially about slavery and the place of women, that made me deeply uncomfortable.
So that left me with a need to explore and discover what my principles and values were, and what they were based on. And here, a couple of Christians were very helpful, along with another atheist. In rambling, long-running conversations in the school library we sometimes explored, sometimes railed against each others' ideas. Over several years we each founded our thinking much more firmly as the weak foundations were struck away. We never reached agreement, and that taught me one more lesson I needed - that intelligent, educated, well-meaning people can fundamentally disagree.
Some of the things I was told horrified me; such as R's assertion that zie would do anything God demanded; anything at all, no matter how immoral; or when J said that God had commanded His people to destroy the Canaanites. And these were the things which brought me to realize that a rigid moral code based on a revelation could be dangerous on two grounds. Rigidity can affect anyone’s morality, and the key symptom is putting principles before people. I am very wary of people who do this, whether they do it as Christians, communists, neo-liberals or anything else.
The other problem I see is that a moral code based on revelation can be quite impenetrable to anyone working from a different basis. In a multi-faith society, public policy must be based on secular reasoning – it is the only one accessible to all members of society.
My life is my own. I try to do right because it is right, not because it is written. And my greatest hope is to pass to my children a better world than I was born into, in some small way.
ZMiles: Q1: What does it mean to me that I am an atheist?
For me, the answer to this question is based on the answer to a somewhat similar question:
Q2: Why am I an atheist, or, alternately, why do I not believe in God?
A2: My short answer to the above echoes Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace, when asked why he did not write about God in his book describing the universe, stated: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”
The longer answer is this:
I am training to be an engineer, and so have become familiar with the scientific method. Scientific principles about electricity, and about silicon, and about plastic, were all needed to design this computer that I’m writing this post on. And this scientific method, which expertly describes the interactions of all kinds of forces, hasn’t found even a hint of evidence for any kind of supernatural force, God or otherwise. No scientifically-measured phenomena in existence requires, or even indicates, the existence of a supernatural force. Therefore, I provisionally accept the conclusion that no such force exists.
But why assume that science is correct? I assume this because science works. Each and every tool, device, and material that we have today was designed on the basis of scientific principles, whether those be the modern experiments that we have today or the simple trial-and-error of eons ago; and if these methods were bad or useless, the devices would not work. Ovens work based on principles of heat convection; the existence of millions of working ovens demonstrates our understanding of convection is accurate. Even the earliest ovens were designed through the trial-and-error processes that were the prototypes for modern science, and their working validates such processes. Similarly, pencils work based on properties of graphite; if we did not understand graphite correctly, pencils would not work.
Science works – all day, every day, anywhere and everywhere. So I find it far, far more likely than not that it works when discussing religion.
A1: To me, being an atheist means that I accept the above conclusions, and live my life like they are true. It means that, rather than accepting and utilizing the bounties developed by science, but rejecting it in my private thoughts, I accept that science works everywhere. It means that I accept that there is no scientific evidence for god, anymore than there is for the existence of magic, and that, just as I therefore conclude that there is no magic, I conclude that there is no god.
And, as Dr. Myers has written, it can mean (and does, to me) additional qualities as well. For me, being an atheist means that I am also a skeptic who tries to consider critically all important claims (not just religious ones). It means that I acknowledge scientific realities about global warming, pollution, etc., and can promote policies based on science rather than emotion. It means that I do not reject ideas out of hand for being "sacrilegious" or "blasphemous", but rather I consider their effects on actual humans and on the world, and promote or reject them based on that consideration. Religious people, of course, may also support these ideals for a variety of reasons, but my atheism is why I support them.
In short, it means accepting that which the evidence indicates is true, in all areas of my life. And that is what I believe in.
--Co-authored by C. Adam Scott, Froborr, Giles, J. Enigma, Leum, A Slacktivite, A different Slacktivite, Slow Learner and ZMiles
The Slacktiverse is a community blog. Content reflects the individual opinions of the contributors. We welcome disagreement in the comment threads, and invite anyone who wishes to present an alternative interpretation of a situation to write and submit a post.