I consider myself fortunate, despite the numerous churches polluting our beautiful landscape, to be living in a largely secular part of the United States. Here in the greater Seattle area, it’s largely normal (and acceptable) to be an atheist. We often hear horror stories from atheists in the bible belt, where our kind are discriminated against simply because we don’t believe that fairy tales are true. Taking a step back and looking at the situation from a distance, I begin to see where the problem truly lies: it’s a simple misunderstanding of what an atheist is.
There are many labels we non-believers wear: heathen, heretic, infidel, apostate; all of which have a negative connotation. Religion, as a general rule of thumb, teaches its adherents to shun the non-believers. The scriptures even suggest such people should be killed, which doesn’t leave much room for the question of personal trustworthiness. The end-penalty for non-belief (among other sins) is eternal damnation in hell, where one will forever suffer at the hands of Lucifer, to be tortured and roasted in everlasting hellfire. The only thing this ideology really accomplishes is fanning the flames of ignorance, as is revealed in a recent study by Will M. Gervais which shows that our society as a whole trusts atheists even less than rapists. Many people are brought up with the misconception that there isn’t a basis for morality without God, so it stands to ‘reason’ that those who reject God must also refute morals and ethics. Or perhaps the dislike/distrust is coming from something much simpler, as many religious beliefs do prompt low self-esteem, and those afflicted with this ailment do often feel anger towards those ideas which contradict their own.
I was recently going through my Twitter timeline and stumbled upon a tweet proclaiming, “Atheists make me so angry!” I decided to ask this individual why and was told, “I don’t know, I guess because they don’t believe in anything. Not even science!” As an atheist, I have a deep passion for science and technology, so I had to correct her misguided viewpoint. I explained that we are people, just like everyone else: we have families, jobs and responsibilities. We are a part of our communities; we simply do not hold a belief in God. Her concept of atheism was a mislabeled definition of nihilism. She now has a better understanding – courtesy of a kind atheist who took the time to understand where she was coming from and debunk her misconception, rather than firing back with both barrels as is usually the case in the online world. She thanked me for clearing it up, and I hope this will stick with her in the future.
It is helpful to understand the definition of a word before forming an opinion on it, especially when the word is used to define other human beings and their worldview. Let’s look at a few definitions (taken from Dictionary.com):
1. the belief in one God as the creator and ruler of the universe,without rejection of revelation ( distinguished from deism).
2. belief in the existence of a god or gods.
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.
ni·hil·ism [nahy-uh-liz-uhm, nee-]
a. an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.
b. nothingness or nonexistence.
To simplify, a theist believes in God (or gods), an atheist does not believe in any gods, and a nihilist just doesn’t believe in anything at all. Nihilism sounds pretty crazy, I know; but they’re not out to destroy everything or ruin anyone’s day. It’s usually more or less just an attitude of, “If nothing matters, then why should we bother?” Typically since an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, a nihilist is also an atheist in the same sense that a vegan is also a vegetarian, just taken a step further. The word ‘atheist’ doesn’t mean devil-worshipper, hoodlum, ruffian, psychopath, lunatic, etc.; it just represents one distinct idea that we do not espouse.
Over the past few days, I have been discussing this with a colleague who happens to be a Christian. Where he comes from (Chennai) they do not call us atheists; instead they refer to us as rationalists. As such, he doesn’t have any preconceived ideas that we are evil people, but rather he recognizes that we rely on our own rational thought processes as opposed to accepting things on blind faith. He has suggested that we should look for another word to describe ourselves, something that focuses on what we do believe (the positive) rather than what we don’t (the negative). I gave his suggestion some consideration, but then came to the conclusion that this is only masking our atheism. We can call ourselves Humanists, Secularists, Rationalists… but it doesn’t change that we still reject the belief of God. Whatever we call ourselves, we are still atheists in the same way a Christian or a Muslim is a theist. Masking the problem is only sweeping it under the rug. We can shift the spotlight off of our godlessness and hope people will just dismiss it as a personal quirk; or we can embrace the word and help people overcome their fear of it.
We have people today who are working to prohibit scientific advances and theories because they do not understand them, or because it opposes their own personal beliefs. There are people who reject important facts such as global warming, with the idea that Earth is only a temporary proving ground for us humans (never mind the abundant animal species – Noah already saved them once!), and fossil fuels were put here by God for us to use without any worry of the consequences. This is why education is crucial; it removes blatant and morbid ignorance, the fear of the unknown, and is an important instrument in faith-reduction. As we make new scientific discoveries, we are able to explain things that remove the need for God: we now know that this planet we call home is revolving around the sun and that the moon is orbiting the Earth – these celestial bodies were not hung in the firmament by a creator like some sort of cosmological mobile above an infant’s crib. We know that lightning is an atmospheric electrical phenomenon, and not God striking down those who hath displeased Him. We know that bacteria are behind infections, and disease is not a punishment for our misdeeds (at least not every time). As we remove the need for God, we are threatening the lifestyles – and industries – of the deeply religious, and this invokes a desperation to try putting a stop to the advancement which is so clearly the mischief of devils… We must come out of the Dark Ages!
Each new discovery that science makes will take the last remaining concept of God from a believer whose faith is shaky and will continue to weaken the belief in the more devout (if they do not continue to reject scientific theory). As we continue to explain that which was previously unexplainable, atheism will continue to expand. This is why we must not be silent. We need people to have a realistic understanding of what it means to be an atheist, as there’s a very good chance they too will one day find themselves among our ranks. We need people to understand and accept scientific theories which are fortified with insurmountable evidence, rather than dismiss them as rubbish & poppycock simply because they clash with a beloved bedtime story. We need people to understand that the roots of their faith are grounded in our early ancestors seeking answers for things which were (at the time) lacking an explanation: why does the sun set in the western sky, why does the lightning flash before the thunder roars, why does the wind blow, and why do the ocean waves keep wrecking the coastal cities when the winds blow really hard? That’s a hurricane or a tsunami; it wasn’t the divine temper tantrum of a God who got pouty over two men who were intimate with each other in the privacy of their own home. These are silly superstitions that adults should be ashamed to carry, not proudly wear like a badge of honor.
In summary, we need to take the time to inform people of what it means to be an atheist. We can offer them a guiding hand in understanding that all humans are born with a basic compassion for other sentient beings, with an innate sense of morality that is cultivated and sculpted by our parents and our communities – we are not born cruel by nature; cruelty is fostered in a negative environment, or as an unfortunate side effect of mental illness. When everyone can accept that we are good without God, mankind can overcome these fears and take the human race to new and exciting places.