Atheism Has a Bad Name

One of the more interesting suggestions made by one of the “new atheists” over the last 5 years or so, is that the term “atheist” should be jettisoned from the sceptic’s lexicon. Sam Harris’ contention is that “atheism” and “atheist” have received such a bad press – especially in the U.S. that non-believing people who otherwise would use this term to describe themselves, shy away from doing so because of its negative connotations.

As Harris, and many others, have said, we don’t seem to need a term like “a-Zeus-ist” or “a-fairy-ist” to describe a person who doesn’t believe in Zeus or in fairies. So why do we need this term with respect to a person who doesn’t believe in “theism”?

In fact, many otherwise ordinary soft core believers – the kind of people who say “Well I don’t go to church, but I believe in a higher power” – many of these are not “theists” in the normal sense either. Which I guess makes them “atheists” in the literal sense.

They as much as admit that they don’t believe in the kind of religion promoted by most churches: a personal god (specifically Yahweh or Allah) who is intimately concerned with the details of our day-to-day lives, and who runs the Universe “according to his will” (i.e., fairly arbitrarily).

What is “atheism”?
Most people who are content to call themselves “atheists” do so because they want to shed the inherent supernaturalism associated with religion. In short, they don’t buy this “faith” thing. For many modern atheists, “faith” is the willingness of well-meaning, often sincere people to believe in things for which there is no evidence.

In case you’ve never heard Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and many others, they say this over and over: “Show me the evidence.” For theism, they claim, there simply is none.

In other words, they are usually rational humanists (or empiricists) who believe that our knowledge of things comes from direct testable experience in the natural world, and not from things like infallible books, the pronouncements of allegedly inspired popes or gurus, from deeply felt intuitions, or even bolts of lightning in the night.

Is atheism just another religious belief system?

Religious people are fond of saying that atheists have a kind of faith of their own. They usually think this is pretty clever and shows that the entire atheist program is self-contradictory. Atheism, in other words is just another kind of religious belief.

Leave it to true believers to interpret everything through the lense of “faith”. But this is simply wrong. Atheists reject “faith” as a basis for knowledge. Most are not naive enough to think that actual human experience or science is infallible. They simply believe that experience, rationality and science are all that we have. There are no magic infallible answers printed on golden plates or in holy books.

Belligerent atheism

It seems to me that many people think atheists are generally arrogant. And therein lies the general disdain for the term. How could anyone presume to deny the existence of an all-knowing, all-seeing power behind the cosmos? Isn’t it the height of arrogance to simply reject the heart-felt beliefs of billions of people?

What if the atheists are wrong? Wouldn’t it be smarter to hedge our bets?

I think this is the very problem that Harris is getting at by suggesting we drop the term “atheist”. Because, judging from the declining numbers of church goers in the world, fewer and fewer people feel confident enough to say “I believe”, and act on it.

In fact I would be surprised if most zealous religious believers didn’t agree. In my years spent as an earnest (and fairly zealous) Christian I was taught that lukewarm commitment to the beliefs of the church was an affront to the faith. It was like trying to have your cake and eat it too – pay lip service to the faith, and essentialy ignore it in day to day activities.

Well, it could be that what Sam Harris is getting at is that any sort of belligerent (overly zealous, disrespectful) position with repect to religious beliefs is bad news, and leads to friction and misunderstanding between people – even between people who we otherwise are inclined to agree with.

Makes sense to me.


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