Issues with the term "atheist", and what I believe

I occasionally find myself in conversation with religious people (not necessarily Mormons) in various settings; on the train, having lunch with a colleague, or somewhere online. Quite often, in a sincere effort to quickly understand my position, they’ll ask me: “What do you believe?”.

It is paradoxically both a very difficult and very easy question to answer. Labels have important functions as cognitive shortcuts. For instance, if someone self-identifies as a believing Mormon, we can reasonably assume that they believe in certain specific propositions: They are monotheists. They are Restorationist Christians. They take the Book of Mormon to be literal and translated by Joseph Smith, and so on. This one statement “I am a believing Mormon” allows us to take a huge shortcut in understanding a person’s general beliefs.

So, most often, in order to just continue the conversation without getting bogged down in too many details, I’ll respond “I’m an atheist”.

The reason I respond in this way is to quickly communicate one central, important concept: I don’t believe in the God YOU believe in. Unfortunately, it seems “atheist” is the only title that does that very effectively, but as a label it also has certain inherent problems, as well as problems with regards to my worldview, which I want to discuss in this article briefly.

Inherent Problem: Negative Label

Imagine if someone were to ask you “what kind of work do you do?” and you respond by saying “Well, I DON’T play golf, and I’m NOT a plumber”.

???

But this is exactly what asserting one’s atheism is like. It’ a negative label. It’s not a statement of belief, it’s a statement of disbelief. It actually doesn’t answer the question, at the same time it’s so efficient at clearly articulating disbelief in huge realms of religious propositions.

I believe Sam Harris articulated this thought (though I can’t find this quote, so don’t take this as definitely from him) something to the effect of:

“If mankind would stop making up gods for me to believe in then I could stop asserting that I’m an atheist — (that I don’t believe in them)”

So this is the first problem with this label. It is a negative label, categorising oneself by something one is NOT. This is also not a good way to build personal identity.

My problem: Inaccuracy, lack of nuance about how I feel about the concept of God

The next problem with the term “atheist” is a personal one, in that it’s not a 100% accurate label to categorise how I actually feel about the idea of God.

My views of God can be easily summarised in a few logical and (personal) historical statements:

  1. I never believed in a vast majority of the many thousands of gods that mankind has believed in (see Dawkins quote at the start of the article)
  2. The only God I ever believed in was the God as defined by Mormonism.
  3. Through a course of events and discoveries I realised I could no longer believe in that God and maintain intellectual integrity.
  4. That left me with no active belief in God.

However:

  1. I actually remain agnostic as to the question of whether a God of some kind exists.
  2. I don’t know and I’m quite certain no-one does know whether a God of some kind exists.
  3. I just know the God as defined by LDS Mormonism doesn’t exist (I’m most confident in this disbelief, even more confident than I am that Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant God doesn’t exist — because I can better trace the origin of the LDS God idea), and I have good reason to believe that the other Gods concocted by mankind are not real.
  4. My most honest feelings on the possibility of God’s existence are articulated in the story The Ant God, which simply describes / reasons how if any creator type being exists then we’d very likely be completely incapable of understanding such a being. We’d be to it as ants are to us. It’d be to us like we are to ants.

What I actually believe

But the biggest problem of the term “atheist” is that in implementing this shortcut for people it skips around all of the much more interesting and diverse landscape of what I do believe in terms of my spirituality — which is so much that there’s not possibly enough space here to a great level of detail.

However, here are some quick highlights:

I believe in Principles

Principles are mental models of reality that generalise patterns into coherent statements that can be known, understood, and applied to the benefit of me and those around me.

Much of my life (including my spirituality) revolves around coming to a greater and deeper understanding of principles and finding better ways to apply them.

The understanding and application of principles is used by me widely in my life; from business, to personal relationships, to the pursuit of happiness, to hobbies, and so on.

To a great extent principles constitute the centre of my life.

I believe in Morals

I believe a moral framework can coherently emerge from the use of reason. I believe we can be moral of our own accord without the need for extrinsic motivation; “just because”.

I believe in the Goodness of People

I believe human beings are intrinsically good and have an innate desire to promote happiness for themselves and those around them.

I believe in Reason

I believe reason and rational argument paired with evidence are the primary tools we have with which to refine our models of reality.

I believe in the potent combination of implementing: 1) Critical thinking and 2) Nuance to understanding and modelling reality.

I believe in Love

I believe one of the things that makes humans most unique is our capacity to love one another. I believe in the powers of empathy and love to solve problems and reveal the good nature of people.

The above is just what’s “off the top of my head”. I’m sure if I wrote about it there would be a bunch more to say.

Conclusion: What labels apply?

We stated off talking about the label “Atheist” and the problems with it. So now that the above has been discussed, what labels could I more constructively use for mental shortcuts?

Probably the following labels approximate my viewpoints:

  • Agnostic (with respect to the God question) but certainly “like an atheist” (“I don’t believe in YOUR God”)
  • Materialist / Physicalist
  • Secular Humanist

But probably most importantly of all, there’s a big sign in front of my worldview that says “Open for Discussion”  — it is an evolving, changing worldview as it is continually reviewed in light of increasing knowledge. Just saying “atheist” I think is underselling the viewpoint.

Shawn 22-10-2016

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