There’s a lot of confusion as to what an atheist is, even for people who call themselves atheists. I used to think of atheism as a specialty area of skepticism, and now I have realized that in the same way that I do not have to identify myself as an a-unicornist or a-bigfootist, that I also don’t have to identify myself as something that I am not.
Atheism is the moment when you reject religion. There might be stages of atheism, where you reject a particular religion or similar grouping of religions building to all religions or maybe you just don’t accept any part or all of all religions outright.
But, it’s the moment, not a lifetime position or part of your identity. It’ s the moment.
Telling people you’re not a believer – because that what atheism is in sum total – no belief – is like coming out and telling people that you are gay. But gay is part of what makes you you.
So, rather an identify as something that is absent from me, I am a naturalist. I believe in nature and nature is wonderful and scary all on it’s own, without adding supernatural under or over or throughout it. I am a naturalist and that makes anyone who thinks there’s something other than nature: supernaturalists.
In this way, there is no difference between people who accept religion without evidence or ghosts or big foot/yeti or anything where there is no reason to accept a positive claim – and proof is required by those who make the claim. (note: that there is no god is not a claim, as there is nothing and no thing being asserted, it is a refutation statement, arrived at by balance of probability and the flaw in Pascal’s Wager, a once great math mind reduced to drunken despair and clinging to the last hope: 50/50)
Now, I continue to use atheist to ensure a degree of common reference for discussion purposes, but I am not an atheist – I am a naturalist.
People who want to accept claims that are outside of nature is fine for them, but if they want others to accept their unnatural claims, then bring on the evidence because I have changed the rules of engagement by changing the context of accepting the unnatural claims and defining myself as outside of that – to making the context nature and reality – which makes sense, because claims outside of nature and reality should have the harder position to defend and not be the context for the discussion.
With all the news about closed polygamous communities and the debates over marriage being religious or secular and who gets to be married and how many spouses can they have, the issue seems to come down to a simple question of which society prevails?
A secular democratic society, where the individuals are the social unit of consequence, and thus are entrusted to make whatever life decisions will allow them to have the freedom to take liberties with whatever makes their life happy while not imposing restrictions or limitations of any one else’s enjoyment of the same secular society.
Or do we allow whatever is the dominant religion to decide for all of us, regardless of individual beliefs?
When we want to know what the danger and social harms that have been wrought by religion and allowing religious leaders to assume the role of King over all who serve, we need only to look back to the 1970s and Jonestown.
Worse, that we haven’t changed since then.
There’s warfare in the middle east, religious extremism on the rise, economic strife, global unrest and constant claims by one religious group or another of the coming ending of the world.
We need to ensure public education not only provides the basic education of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, but also to ensure that ever citizen understand their citizenship rights, responsibilities and entitlements – partly to ensure that children have access to legal protective services if need be, but also so that they become socially capable functional people.
At a minimum, able to understand the basic scientific method, critical thinking, and capable to navigate what’s private sovereignty vs public interest.
A tall order, which will not be possible when religious sensibilities are coddled to the point that having a religion is deemed the norm.
Magical thinking is not the basis for understanding or being in the universe. Worse, fighting over magical thinking, oppressing, discriminating and slaughtering people over the details or variations of magical thinking should be thought of as obscene.
Anything that is actually moral, cannot claim a moral as more important than living and breathing people.
- “God is, or He is not”
- A Game is being played… where heads or tails will turn up.
- According to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.
- You must wager. It is not optional.
- Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.
- Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. (…) There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.
Pensées, part III, note 233
The point of Pascal’s wager is to hedge ones afterlife bet, and that means picking the safest option – to Pascal, that meant at least acting as if you believed in god. Which was sound advice in a time when not doing so was heresy and a death sentence.
The problem with people who pose the wager as if some kind of cosmic gotcha, is that they think their god is the safest bet, otherwise, they wouldn’t be worshiping it. Never mind what that means about their individual faith, but the wager is a false choice and crafted as if there are only the two options: yes god, no god.
Believers who feel compelled to believe because they believe that believing doesn’t cause harm and gives them an afterlife advantage haven’t considered that there’s far more options than their particular god. There’s been 10’s of thousands of gods spread over a large number of distinct religions and compounded by the number of sects that each religion invariable splits into as well as considering all religions that are no longer practiced or will be practiced.
So it’s something of a shock to modern believers to learn that atheists who don’t see a difference between future, current and historical religions, and who view all religions as equally invalid choices given that they all have the same no evidence whatsoever to recommend them above any other. Moreover, the wager is a false dilemma as the choice is not between god and no god, but no god and any number of gods.
On the balance, rather than risk betting on any particular god and very gravely risking finding yourself in an unanticipated negative afterlife or being reborn to try again because there is an actual god and it’s not one that was worshiped either during your lifetime or in the geographic region you were born and raised in – for if gods exist and have anything in common, it’s jealous insecurity about being ignored in favour of other gods – so then not believing in any god, but living to the best of your ability would be the safest manner to not give offense if there happens to be a god, because behaviour and not worship should matter more to any deity that’s worth worshiping.
Living well and without god-worship, if there is a god, at least keeps you in good stead for the life you lived, rather than living well and worshiping a false idol, which is going to be something of a stumbling block to be explained and taken into account in any assessment of you.
By taking the god option in the wager, you also risk angering any god by false belief – worshiping merely to obtain afterlife reward and avoid afterlife punishment is hardly flattering to the god in question, and any god that existed, would surely be able to see through such self-serving conduct and could hardly reward such greed with the same reward given to people who believe because they actually believe and are motive by the threats of punishment and promise of reward for good behaviour.
Actually, maybe there’s not really a difference, so much as the degree of motivating fear and self-interest between the two.
This is actually something of a pet peeve for me when dealing with believers – that they are unable to understand that just because they are motivated by or find compelling threats of hell and promises of heaven (or whatever the given religion’s afterlife promises/threats are) they cannot comprehend that atheists are not compelled or motivated by threats or promises that are lacking in force.
If you do not believe there’s a god, then any threat or promise that stems from said god is not going to induce spine tingling terror or joy. Ultimatums that are issued without tangible proof are simply not compelling and generally, the natural inclination of response to any ultimatum, is to pick the option the issuer of said ultimatum sees as least desirable just to point out to them that they are rarely willing to make good on their ultimatum threat. And, if they are, then you are generally better off without them in your life. Ditto for deities.
Mind you, in all my school years of observing dozens of so called class clowns, the one and only time anyone ever took the “go to the principal” vs “settle down” option, was myself in high school when presented with the option of putting my umbrella on the sideline to play soccer in the rain or the dread go see the principal. My companion in crime immediately cast her umbrella aside, while I cheerfully headed off the field. The principal’s attempt to reason with me – ‘you can’t really safely play soccer with an umbrella’ was more than easily defeated with my reply that common sense dictates to not play outside in the rain at all. It was an interesting experience for this goody-two shoes policy wonk to spend the balance of the hour in the “bad boy” chairs outside the administrative office just to see the shocked look on teacher and other student’s faces.
I realized at an early age that the cost of standing up for oneself – or what was right – paid off in unexpected ways, and that common sense really isn’t that common. Worse, that more often than not, authority’s only concern is perpetuating itself, rather than being harnessed for any general or specific social good; so I have learned that authority can only be trusted and relied upon only as far as its own self-interest: consolidating wealth and power to an elite class of power wielders who demand respect, but never command it. Respect being earned and not bestowed – and serving self-interest, does not merit respect.
Respect is often confused with worship that is unearned and undeserved and worst of all, uncritical. This is why religionists demand special consideration of their beliefs and person, and they demand “respect” for their views, when they are really expecting worship – especially from non-believers. Really, if atheists were inclined or capable of uncritically viewing religion, then we’d be believers.
But, not being motivated by afterlife ultimatums or uncritically examining claims doesn’t leave a lot of common ground between believers and non-believers. But there’s a purpose for non-believers to engage with believers and that is to debunk their misconceptions.
The foremost one being that we’re not believers because we haven’t understood or been exposed to their religion – although what kind of a bubble they think we could exist in to have not been exposed is unclear. Most atheists were believers at some point, usually childhood and teens, sometimes into adulthood. The reality is that the average atheists knows more about the different religions and about any specific religion more than the average theists knows about their own – and theists tend to be unschooled about faiths that are not their own, except to demonize them as false while not being willing to apply the same degree of critical thinking to their own faith.
Besides the opportunity to explain basic science to theists – because too many simply don’t know or believe the creationist’s creative interpretation and their tarting up religion in sciencey language – the most important myth to debunk for believers is that the basis of morality is not divine.
There are many systems of morality and none of them require divinity, that human morals are human values – and everyone has morals, just not always the same ones or on the same basis. That morals are relative and not absolute, they are often circumstance dependent and require balancing many factors. The flimsiest basis for morals is the divine model, because determining actions on the basis of punishment or reward just means following the orders of the biggest bully who’s only the biggest bully until some bigger bully comes along.
Making good choices based on the information available is the best anyone can hope to do, and good choices are often complex and not based on a simple obtain reward/avoid punishment model. Since in the short term, lying, withholding, covering up, being dishonest are the actions that lead to immediate punishment avoidance if not obtaining an undeserved reward. And, if done well enough, there’s no long term downside if the deception remains undetected.
More than that, merely avoiding punishment and reward seeking behavior has no nobility or strength of character as motivating factors – and these are their own reward. It takes courage to stand alone, to inspire others to stand with you for a cause or purpose that’s bigger than immediate gratification.
Knowing you’re capable of doing the right thing, without material gain or reward, is its own reward: earned self-respect.
This doesn’t mean risking your life to save other people, although it might, it just means not bending to peer pressure or being a bystander, but by being authentic and a participating contributor in the world.
It’s Norma Rae holding up the hand letter “union” sign and the machinists, one by one, turning off the machines and conveying to management that fair wages and treatment should be the norm, not the exception.
It is being the change you want to see in the world, it is understanding the should of things and acting as if it is.
It means your actions are as your word and holding yourself to a higher standard, despite the costs, is what being a hero or martyr or authentic regular person is all about.
It is not living small, worshiping ultimatum issuing deities for whom there is no evidence or rational by which to accept there’s force or merit to said ultimatum or deity, and living small wishing for reward and avoiding punishment with the unfounded promise that you are part of a grand plan that you are not privy to.
Especially not when there’s a clear alternative that you can live as an active participant in an actual grander plan of your own design and ability to bring about in the world. If you are going to believe in anything uncritically, then believe in yourself.