(Randomly shared in our local Australian Mormon Stories support group on 09-11-2017)
Here are some thoughts about the term “atheist” — being thrown out into the ether. Please feel free to engage / comment. It goes without saying, everything below is just my opinion… hopefully this long essay is enjoyable and helpful. (Some of these thoughts are a result of recent conversations in this group, but really, the opinions below are well-developed in my mind and existed way before the recent conversations.)
“Atheist” is a poor and should be an unnecessary label — for multiple reasons. However, it is a shortcut that can be useful and is often used “in desperation” / “in exasperation” when living in an environment where a select few particular brands of theism just happen to be the dominant, local narratives. — It’s a quick way to say to someone “I don’t believe in the God you believe in”.
“Atheist” simply means “non-theist”, or someone who does not believe in any form of a God that is “theist” (interventionist). By definition, it is a negative label, which is unhelpful (perhaps even “unhealthy”) and also a helpful thing to “rally to”.
Imagine you had a conversation with Tiger Woods. You ask him what he does. He says “I’m a non-soccer player”. Has that communicated anything useful about him? No. Are there “non-soccer player” conventions? (Probably Not)
When a man self-identifies his gender, does he go around saying he is a “non-women”? (Probably Not)
When a black person self-identifies his race, does he go around saying he is “non-Asian”? (Probably Not)
The reality is, as well expressed by Richard Dawkins: “An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”
It’s instructive to look up a list of deities worshipped by mankind, and to realise that, from a “negative label” point of view the difference between an atheist and a Christian is not significant — both agree that 99.9% of the gods that humanity has ever worshipped don’t exist — their only disagreement is on the latest version of God that happened to be around at the time of their respective births and local environments.
Just the list of categories of deities is long: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_deities
Then the list of one category (for example, gods of death) is equally long: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_death_deities
(Why is it that we waste absolutely not time fretting whether Hades is real or the Greek underworld is the real afterlife? Perhaps it’s purely a matter of where and when we were born, and the ideas available in our backyard. We are all (as far as I am aware) “A-Hades-ists”)
Personally I don’t like identifying myself as an “atheist”, because by doing so I am orienting the articulation of my identity to the worldview of a religious believer — in a sense, appealing to, or yielding to the egocentricity of religious ideas. To draw another analogy to explain this point, imagine identifying myself as a “non-liker of Donald Trump” (as opposed to a “liker of Donald Trump”) — by taking on such a label, I am acknowledging, suggesting or granting that the world “revolves around Donald Trump” an that people are identified “in relation to their feelings about Donald Trump”, but in reality it does not — the world is not divided into “likers of Donald Trump” and “non-likers of Donald Trump” (this is WAY too single-dimensional) — identifying myself that way simultaneously drags me back into that viewpoint, and rallies me behind a banner which shouldn’t need to exist.
This is partially why I am uninterested in “atheist conventions” or even atheism broadly. I think identity politics of all flavours is generally unhelpful (the positive alternative being “idea politics” — rallying around specific ideas or positive agendas) — and in this case, rallying behind “atheism” as a banner is really rallying around nothing at all! (and, as explained above, by doing so we are playing into the worldview of religious believers in any case). (Of course, there is a wider picture of “push-back” against religion to consider, which is more complex).
It’s far more helpful to gain a positive identity. For me, that would be “secularist”, “spiritual”, “curious”, “open-minded”, “philosophical materialist”, etc.
I think “atheism” is, in context, a “pit-stop” on the way out of religious belief. It makes sense to stop over there, realise that the god you worshipped (Yahweh, Mohammed, etc.) is no different from Hades or Hathor, and brood on that realisation for a while. But eventually, it makes sense to migrate on to greater things.