Friday, May 9, 2008

What Does Atheism Lack?

I've been thinking about the way in which some are caught up with the idea that atheism truly represents the lack of something. Namely, the lack of a belief in gods. Yes, this is semantically accurate and it also gives us interesting fringe benefits of being able to count chickens, cats, rocks, and paper clips as fellow atheists. Sounds silly? Well, that's exactly what we end up with when we stick to the formal definition of atheism. There really isn't much more point in saying that newborn humans are atheists than it is to say that kittens are, too. Neither of these creatures is a rational actor capable of making a formal decision on the subject of deities.

If you look at the theistic position in a purely semantic way, you would say it does indeed posess something because of the professed presence of a divine being in the universe. And if we were to compare the two positions merely at the level of semantics, we may conclude that the theist possesses a trait that the atheist lacks. This may sound like splitting hairs, but I think there are enormous implications here. For one, Pascal's Wager is made possible directly as an outflow of the semantics of these two terms. But when we look at the words a little more realistically, we see that there are no gods, so there is nothing substantive to actually be had in theism.

Atheists know that what theists really have is a highly specialized ability to lie to themselves. And nothing more. What theists "have" then, is the lack of something - virtue. In reality, atheism is not the lack of a belief - it is the presence of a type of virtue which theism lacks. Don't get me wrong - theists may possess many different types of virtues, all of which are completely unrelated to and unsupported by their theistic belief. But one virtue that no theist may ever possess is the virtue of reason. There are other qualities that atheism possesses as well - honesty, freedom of conscience, and at least in our modern religiously intolerant world - bravery.

So even though the semantics imply that atheists are the ones who lack of something, if you explore what that something is a little deeper, it turns out that it is really theism that lacks substantive qualities while atheism lacks nothing of substance. This is why Pascal's Wager is such a deceitful sleight of hand. To say that the theist gives up nothing is a lie driven by nothing more than semantics. In reality, to take up the theistic position is to give up many, many things. Pascal's Wager supposes that the freedom to think for oneself, the ability to be honest, the ability to admit when one is wrong and correct one's actions, are all to be counted as worthless. When we atheists look at the harm done to the human species by theistic belief, we have to remind ourselves that it is a direct result of these profoundly important traits which theism disregards as if they were worthless.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. I'm positive that if atheists were in charge of making up words, we would have called ourselves the reasoned or the rational while the theists would be called the unreasoned. Even more to the point, atheists would have invented some other word that very accurately conveys the possession of reason when dealing specifically with the subject of theism. The word would convey this idea semantically, while theists would be forced to accept another word that in no uncertain terms conveys the fact that they lack some specific quality that atheists possess.

But sadly, it has been theists who have held all the power throughout the millenia. In fact, "atheist" was from very early times used as a slur against enemies and outsiders, whether or not those enemies actually believed in a deity. Atheists, real life atheists who actually do reject the notion of deities, were forced to adopt the label because that is how theists had already framed the debate. We don't call ourselves a-unicornians just because some folks believe in unicorns. We call those people fools, instead. We don't call ourselves a-ufo-abductionists because some peoplebelieve in that, either. Again, we call them fools. It is only religion that has earned the special privilege of having those who reject imaginary creatures define themselves in terms of the imaginary creatures that someone else has created. And so we wear our atheism like a scarlet letter, with a sense of proud defiance and also a deep sadness about the society we live in. But at no time should we have to accept that it is atheists themselves who lack anything at all.

1 comment:

Techskeptic said...

Just a couple of thoughts. I believe that the foundation of your post is the very reason why brights got started.

Its a word that gets rid of the atheists tie to the lack of some imaginary daddy. Its a little controversial, but I am for it.

Second, atheists most definitely do believe in something.

We believe that human beings are responsible for our own greatness (and our own horror) and unguided nature (or shall I say physics) is responsible for everything else. We believe these things because tangible, repeatable evidence gets us there.