What's Atheism Got To Do With It? Why Automatically Tagging Philosophy To Atheism Is A Bad Idea.

"So, you're an atheist. What does that mean other than you think you are a gift to the world?"

"How can you call yourself an atheist and support abortion?"

"Atheist men tend to be misogynists."

"Where do you get the right to determine what is right or not? You're an atheist!"

Any of these sound familiar when someone cannot accept or understand your lack of belief? The examples above are the most common arguments/insults/comments I receive when my atheism is brought into the spotlight.

Now, a decade ago, I would have gone into lengthy explanations on how their reasoning was just downright ridiculous. And it is. I would spend the longest time on the morals argument, pointing out the flaws within their own religion's logic and morals, trying to prove that they didn't exactly have the moral high ground. The other three are really just spiteful ad hominem, and I could let those roll off.

There was one problem though with how I handled these encounters....

Instead of arguing about how their reasoning was just oh so wrong, I should have been demonstrating that their reasoning is totally misplaced, and then how wrong it is. Morals, sexual equality, abortion, and such, really are not anything to do with atheism to begin with, but many folks (even atheists) do not realize this, or just assume it is part and parcel with the movement. I've met a number of atheists who have completely discounted me, and told me I didn't truly understand what I believed, all because I didn't view human life as the most sacred thing on the planet. Yeah, let that sink in for a moment.

Atheism, on its own, is fairly straight forward.

noun: atheism
disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.

As you can see, there isn't even the slightest intimation that one is automatically some type of humanist superstar, rocket scientist, or materialistic thinker, in the definition. Nor is there any claim of knowledge, but just no belief. Now, most aren't aware there is a subtle difference between atheism as a personal identifier, and atheism as a philosophy, of which there are numerous branches. This lack of realization is largely attributed to the works of the New Atheism and Atheism Plus.

First, let's understand the two main movements that are influencing the understanding of atheism today by taking a look at the first movement, New Atheism.

"New Atheism is a social and political movement in favour of atheism and secularism promoted by a collection of modern atheist writers who have advocated the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises."[1] There is uncertainty about how much influence the movement has had on religious demographics, but the increase in atheist groups, student societies, publications and public appearances has coincided with the non-religious being the largest growing demographic, closely followed by Islam and evangelicalism in the US and UK.[2]

New Atheism lends itself to and often overlaps with secular humanism and anti theism, particularly in its criticism of the indoctrination of children and the perpetuation of ideologies. (via Wiki)"

New Atheism is a large dose of vinegar down the public throat, and is often what gets atheists a negative view in general as being argumentative and angry, as well as on a mission to deconvert the world and destroy deities. These guys are all about stepping on toes without apology, and their divisive world view isn't helping the general impression of what lack of belief is all about. There are subtle claims of knowledge in the movement that is undermining what the definition of atheism is.

Then you have the Atheism Plus crowd, and similar off shoots like Free Thinkers, whom I have more a beef with than the New Atheists.

"Atheism Plus (also rendered Atheism+) was a movement proposed in 2012 by blogger Jen McCreight. Its original definition was rather nebulous, but in general it is intended to be a subset of the atheism movement that attempts to unite atheists who wish to use their shared atheist identity as a basis for addressing political and social issues and engaging in related activism. Its scope is intended to go beyond the question of (non-)belief to address additional issues, including but not limited to critical thinking, skepticism, social justice, feminism, anti-racism, and combating homophobia and transphobia. In other words, a place for some of the more liberal (in the American meaning of the word) atheists who are sick of being lumped together with people whose ideals they don't share. (via RationalWiki)"

This movement automatically brings set views on social philosophies into the mix. A division of sorts that sets them apart from your everyday non believer. And as some critics have noted, there is little wiggle room to deviate from the set foundation of views the movement has put forward, dissenters being harassed and exiled until they leave, sometimes still suffering harassment after long gone.

In general, this type of added on philosophy, while giving the impression of unification against social injustices, brings an even larger pool of "us vs. them" mentality, including amongst its own members. Feminism is always a hot topic, and not everyone has the same degree of consensus on the subject. The same with racism, and even critical thinking has different standards! This type of tagging of social philosophies onto atheism promotes further divides amongst the many different populations not just outside of atheism itself, but amongst the atheist population in general.

Atheism has nothing to do with being a bigot or not. Nor any say in just how much critical thinking you want to apply to that infomercial you watched for an hour at three this morning. Atheism most certainly has nothing to do with proving believers are wrong, or if abortion is moral. In fact, atheism has NOTHING to do with morality whatsoever. In fact, there are no implied social requirements for being an atheist. That is a key liberating feature about being embracing the classification to begin with.

No implied social or philosophical views whatsoever. No conformity is necessary other than simply no belief in deities.

Everyday, there are new polls coming out from various media outlets like PEW or Gallup, that show an increase in no religious identification, but these ever-increasing numbers seems to not be enough for those who insert philosophical elements into atheism. There is a sanctimonious atmosphere to the atheism of today's century where those who lack belief, much like their theist counterparts, have a desire to set themselves above the rest somehow, especially amongst their own; an arrogant need for self-justification to society that non belief is best, especially if it is done under certain pretenses or guidelines.

Conform or be shunned. I see this being echoed on both parts of the chasm, leaving many like myself, alone and cleaning up the social messes of others.

Again, humans are pushing each other apart, despite the common ground they are discovering everyday that could unite them closer under one umbrella of humanity. These divisive facts are what the religious like to point out as cracks in the facade of atheism; the foundation of disbelief that cannot be supported. Adding secularism, free thought, or humanism automatically into the classification is exactly the factor that is eroding atheism's foundation.

To save the face of atheism, it is time we start to make a differentiation between atheism and philosophy. Leave it as just a simple classification. Much like calling someone a theist. We cannot automatically assign attributes to that term other than belief in a deity/driving force. Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, and so on, are what define the beliefs, not the classification.

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Comment by Barbara Livingston on November 6, 2014 at 1:20pm

Ah, Bertold thanks for the affirmation - it's nice knowing my "card" won't be revoked. I've made a note of Laird's book. 

Comment by Bertold Brautigan on November 6, 2014 at 12:42pm

Well, some may disagree, but as far as I'm concerned, none of that will cause your atheist card to be revoked. Charlton Laird, author of a great little book titled The Miracle of Language, noted that

Human minds, at least human minds that are good for much, like to play.

Comment by Michael Penn on November 6, 2014 at 12:36pm

I agree. Ask one of them to give you a pot of gold.  :)

Comment by Barbara Livingston on November 6, 2014 at 12:35pm

I have Irish ancestry and I refuse to give up fairies and leprechauns ... or chocolate ... or letting my little dog sleep on my bed!  (';')  There has to be some silly and fun aspects to life. 

Comment by Bertold Brautigan on November 6, 2014 at 12:27pm

@Barbara - I totally agree with you that there is absolutely NOTHING atheists should "fit into" beyond not believing that supernatural deities exist. The more atheists start saying things like we should have a unified voice, the more they start sounding like fundamentalists to me.

Comment by Michael Penn on November 6, 2014 at 11:58am

I agree with you totally, Barbara, but as humans we will all be different in our beliefs. I, for one, can no longer believe in anything supernatural after becoming atheist. I've studied it all and any of the supernatural belief systems take you in a big circle until you arrive at your starting point. What that means is that there are also no fairies, ghosts, abdominal snowmen, (my joke) or anything else supernatural with no supported evidence.

My problem with this is that I can no longer enjoy a good horror film or a lot of sci fi. The good part is that absolutely nothing "supernatural" is bothering me, interfering with me, or trying to send me any kind of message.  :)

Comment by Barbara Livingston on November 6, 2014 at 11:20am

I'm also not new at 68.  However, I am "new to atheism" or I suppose it is more the case of finally admitting to myself that I no longer believe in mythical dieties. When I finally did admit this I was quick in wanting to affiliate with a particular group as I did when in the religious community and so chose the Humanists as they seemed the most moderate, less confrontational, etc., and I didn't want to be in a agressive/angry environment. I wanted to be able to participate in group activities with people who believe similar to me. 

Funny thing happened along the way to atheisim - I learned it is no different than any other part of life.  No two people seem to believe the same way about any particular topic. I too read Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and others. I joined a Humanist group for dinner meetings.  I joined Atheistnexus.org where there is a myriad of thoughts and opinons. The amazing thing, for me at least, is that over the past few months I have yet to meet anyone who believes exactly as I do.  

However, humans being what we are, and all having opinions we love to share no matter where we go or which group we join, we will all be subjected to those who think differently than us. I've learned I'm not a powerful critical thinker as many atheists appear to be, but, I'm learning how to express my feelings to the christian evangelicals who live in my world without being defensive or argumentative.

I believe you were so right in stating: "No implied social or philosophical views whatsoever. No conformity is necessary other than simply no belief in deities."   

That is exactly what I hope to keep in mind in the future.  I definitely don't want to have to defend or argue which type of atheist I am.  I've had over 60 years of trying to fit into christianity, mormonism, and judaism and not succeeding at any of them.  I surely don't want to have to worry about whether I'm fitting into a particular part of atheism.  

Comment by Bluegrass Skeptic on August 8, 2014 at 4:30am

Bingo, Jay.

It has been hard enough trying to get the religious to understand that there are not any pre defined philosophies inherent to atheism, but now we have atheists starting to do just that and making it twice as difficult to make it clear it just ain't so. I find it is easier to have a productive discussion about my personal philosophies when I first establish my atheism has nothing to do with it.

Comment by jay H on August 7, 2014 at 6:41pm

Your point, as I see it is that atheism is just one component of a person. There is no automatic set of other political or social beliefs that atheist automatically have.

I agree with that. I know of atheists who are opposed to abortion (except for medical necessity). I myself am somewhat bugged by the implicit assumption that I need to fit some lefty liberal mold (I favor a very minimalist government with maximum personal freedom and responsibility for ones own life). Both the left and the right in the US talk the vocabulary of freedom, but neither camp actually backs it with actions. Instead they double speak their laws into coercing people to behave the way they prefer.

But that's not my atheism. Atheism is simply the non belief in mythical deities. And we all need to keep that in mind.

Comment by Michael Penn on August 7, 2014 at 4:11pm

So long a life. Hey, there's a child inside here trying to get out. I do mostly the same things now that I always did.

Back to being atheist. You have to consider that theists want religion in our politics and our public schools. This would make them more secure in having a hold on things. Right now in our information age free thought is spreading like wild fire. Theists know that if they are able to indoctrinate our school children early enough they are  likely to remain theists.

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