But wait, says a hypothetical reader, don’t you call yourself a pantheist? And sometimes a Buddhist? And an Ariadnite? Don’t you believe that there are deep mysteries and weird things going on in the universe, beyond what science knows? Isn’t consciousness itself a profound mystery to you? And haven’t you said that you aren’t 100% certain of anything? Shouldn’t you be at most an agnostic?
And yeah, except for that last question there, those are all very true of me.
But none of that prevents me from being an atheist.
Specifically, I am an atheist because I do not believe that there is a God, where a God is an omniscient omnipotent being, existing prior to and outside of the universe, who has opinions or preferences or plans about what should happen in the universe, and who serves as the basis for morality.
(If by “God” you mean instead “an entity that is significantly more advanced technologically or morally than humanity”, or “an entity that caused there to be life on Earth”, or “a ham sandwich”, then none of this applies. Also, we are speaking different dialects of English, and mine is by far the most common one.)
I will go a little beyond that, and say that not only do I not believe there is a God in that sense, I also believe that there is not a God in that sense.
So I’m an atheist even if “don’t believe” isn’t enough for you, and you insist on “believe that not”. :)
On the hypothetical reader’s questions:
- I’m a pantheist in that I think the universe (as broadly construed as possible) is worthy of worship. But that involves no omniscient omnipotent thing outside of or other than the universe.
- I’m a Buddhist to some extent or other, but relevantly for this discussion Buddhism’s attitude toward deities outside of the universe is basically “don’t waste your time worrying about it”, so again there’s no conflict between Buddhism and atheism.
- I’m an Ariadnite in that my worship of the universe (as broadly construed as possible) involves images of this lady in a white gown, swords and balls of string, and so on; but that is all metaphor, not truth-claims, and in any case the Goddess is not something other than the universe.
- On deep mysteries, sure. Being an atheist doesn’t mean thinking that our current scientific knowledge is correct and/or complete. Same thing on consciousness. This was driven home to me recently by this very good piece and even some words in this by Sam Harris (with whom I only occasionally agree).
- I’m not 100% sure of anything (even this!). But being an atheist doesn’t require being 100% sure that there is no God; at most it requires believing that there is no God (and really I think just not believing that there is a God will do).
On Agnosticism, we get into edge cases.
When asked “Do you believe that there is a God?”, someone who says “Yes” is a theist.
When asked “Do you believe that there is no God”, someone who says “Yes” is an atheist.
Someone who says, “well, I really don’t know” to both questions is an agnostic.
But what if someone says “No” to both questions? I would count that person as an atheist, since they don’t believe that there is a God. But if you’d rather call them an agnostic (since they also don’t believe that there isn’t a God), that’s okay with me.
I’m an atheist either way. :)
And of course I could be wrong. I could be wrong about any belief of mine; as I think I’ve said before, anyone who thinks that some particular belief of theirs couldn’t possibly turn out to be wrong just isn’t using their imagination hard enough. But that doesn’t stop me from being an atheist.
I’m bothering to say this pretty much because of the Bacon Moose post, and because of a certain frustration I have with intelligent people, who I am pretty sure believe the same way that I do, who don’t identify as atheists.
I’d like more people to identify as atheists, because every time someone says they aren’t an atheist, 99% of the people who hear it assume that they are Christian or (theistic) Jewish or something, and that just bolsters the “atheists are weird and rare” feeling, even if what the person really meant was that while they don’t believe there is a god, they have some (generally rather contorted) reason for not identifying as atheist.
When I posted a link to the Bacon Moose posting on Facebook, in fact, I had two friends comment that (although they don’t believe there is a god in the relevant sense), they aren’t atheists. One said she is not an atheist because (if I understand her right) she just doesn’t think the question is all that important, and doesn’t want therefore to bother having a label relating to it. The other said (if I understand him right) that he’s not an atheist because if you change the meaning of the word it wouldn’t apply to him: say if you define “atheist” as “someone who is 100% certain there is no god”, or if you define “god” as “whatever caused there to be life on Earth”.
Needless to say, I didn’t find either of these arguments very compelling. :)
I suspect that, buried deep in the back of most of our minds, there is this ancient inculcated meme that atheists are icky, or grim, or narrow, or closed-minded, and that really one should not identify as one in polite company.
That is a meme I’d love to see wither away.
So here I am! :)