“You’re a what?” It’s usually that, or a slightly suspicious, “Are you secretly a devil worshiper?” glance. But I’m not. I’m just an atheist –well, technically I’m an agnostic humanist (with some qualifiers) but that’s a bit of a mouthful when, inevitably, the topic of belief and society rears its head in the pub or at a dinner party.
I’ve learned a lot since starting to identify my atheism to others nearly four years ago, from how people of faith and those perpetually unsure will have quite varied reactions, to how my own expectations of fellow atheists have changed. Here’s what I’ve learned, listed in the hope that it gives some sense of kinship to those who want to talk more about their atheism, or a deeper sense of understanding for those looking for insight into what drives someone to identifying as an atheist.
1. People Don’t Understand What Atheism Means, and it’s Necessary to Keep Explaining It
I guarantee you are an atheist. If you are a Christian, you do not believe in the pagan gods. You are atheistic about them. If you are a pagan, you may not believe in the concept of Brahman (or you might, because religion is both enjoyably and frustratingly pliable). Atheism, though, simply means a lack of belief. We’re all atheists in some sense, just some of us more than others.
It is important to acknowledge, though, that, in recent years especially, atheism has picked up another meaning. Atheism is often now assumed to be evangelical, looking to convince others against religious belief and faith. While many atheists do see a need to talk about why they became or are atheists, it’s perfectly possible to be an atheist and not wish to debate it, so this widening of the meaning isn’t entirely accurate. This leads us neatly onto the next point.
2. It’s Important to be Identifiable; It’s a Choice Whether You’re Vocal
Religion announces itself without needing to be said. You are assumed to be religious (or at least “spiritual”) until stated otherwise. As a result, and to combat the insidious creep of religious privilege, it is important to be identifiable as an nonbeliever because it is through doing so that you combat the notion that religion is the default good in society.
So, for instance, identifying as an atheist or non religious on official forms wherever possible helps to hammer home the message to our governments and our judges that when they speak of faith in encompassing terms they are in fact excluding a significant and growing number of people.
Whether you then choose to be vocal about your non-belief is a personal choice, and one that every atheist needs to make.
3. Your Atheism Might be the Most Offensive Thing About You (And that’s Okay)
I wasn’t quite prepared for the level of vitriol that came as a result of talking about my atheism. People of a fundamental religious faith seem to have the most difficult job in processing it. In fact, the failure to believe is almost treated as blasphemy in itself, a putrid, rotting thing that can barely be tolerated. Maybe it is because religion is so fundamental to many people’s sense of self, atheism therefore must feel at some basic level that a person is, for want of a better term, soulless.
I’ve always thought, however, that if someone can hold up not believing in the supernatural as your one seismic flaw, it’s a backhanded criticism heavy on the compliment. Well it’s fine, the line of argument goes, so long as you don’t shove it down our throats. To this I say that I’ve yet to see a door-to-door atheist dropping off handy leaflets on the virtues of unbelief, but when that happens, I’ll know it’s time to reign it in. Until then, I’ll count the rest as public, civil discourse among friends.
4. You Will Hear “Atheism is a Religion” an Awful Lot
But it can’t be, can it? By its definition, it simply cannot be. What people really mean when they say this is that they are rather put out by the emerging evangelism among atheist groups, or they believe that atheists worship something — usually science. We’ll take that as an example because it’s as good as any: I have a great reverence for the scientific method, namely because it works. It may take a long time to get its answers, and because it relies on the human animal it can be led down some very dark turns, but all in all its Socratean processes are worthy of praise. Yet, I don’t worship it. It is not divine nor does it purport to be infallible. I can follow the research behind scientific conclusions and, with time and expertise, verify them for myself. These two are not the same, then, science and God. Not even close.
5. People May Think you Have Absolutely No Moral Code; Show Them Why That’s Liberating
This is probably the most often used statement when anyone talks about atheism. It seems that some people believe that atheists, without a religious moral code, are but a whim away from becoming crazed, child killing cannibals. Fortunately, not so far.
It’s easy, though, to see that because religion has so often been the area from which we receive moral instruction that the two have become intertwined, but religion doesn’t have a special hold on morality. Exercising your conscience and sense of empathy along with a rigorous application of logic is enough to answer most if not all moral questions, no matter how difficult.
What’s more, I personally find it thrilling to not have a moral code. It has meant that I have been forced to think harder, to read more widely, and absorb more than ever before. That’s why, for me, realizing my atheism has been incredibly enriching and why, no matter the occasional negatives, I have found the process of coming out and being open to discourse about my atheism very rewarding — after all, no system of thought or belief should ever be immune to criticism and we are made stronger by accepting that.
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