Tuesday, September 18, 2012

One-track atheism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines atheist as "a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods". The word is derived from the Greek a- 'without' + theos 'god'. Calling yourself an atheist tells you no more than that; it doesn't tell you that an atheist is intelligent or that he or she has positive values; it doesn't tell you what his or her attitude towards religion or religious people might be. Yet there appears to be a common misconception among some atheists (mainly online) that it tells you all of these things, and more, so now there are arguments about the right sort of atheism and an assumption that atheism and anti-theism are necessarily the same thing, and that if you are an atheist, you're automatically anti-religion.

For these reasons, and others, I've been disinclined to describe myself as an atheist for some time. Using the word risks attracting all sorts of daft ideas about what I may or may not think or believe, or disbelieve. That's the trouble with labels; people will insist on using them as a basis for false assumptions.

The most irritating atheists are those who seem obsessed by religion, especially Islam. They're blinkered. They don't seem able to interpret what's happening around the world, particularly in the Middle East, except in relation to religion or religions. It bores me to death. For these one-track atheists, all religion is bad, and because it is, people with a religious faith are the source of all our problems. They're not interested in understanding religion in its historical, social and economic contexts. They reduce the conflicts in the Middle East to Muslim V Muslim, or Christian, or Jew. They see all Muslims as one homogeneous mass, who all think alike and have the same values. They think that if only religion was banned, everything would be all right, forgetting (if they ever knew) that totalitarian states have tried that, and it didn't work.

So please excuse me if I don't describe myself as an atheist, though I'm certainly not religious. If anyone imagines that I subscribe to some sort of atheist world view, you can forget it. Religion is irrelevant to my life; it interests me, but not enough to want to know why people keep on about spirituality or mysticism, which are such vague notions as to be meaningless.

Many atheists give the impression that they think they're cleverer than people with a religious faith, simply because they don't have one. They're not, and the more obsessive and strident they are, the less clever they seem.

If I had to use any labels, they might be secularist, free-thinker and all-round awkward sod. Leave me out of any atheist movements. My brain works perfectly well as it is; independently.

My advice to one-track atheists? Shut up, and read history, geography, sociology, politics, and learn more about how religions developed, and why. As for religious people; there are many reasons why they're religious, and many ways to be religious. If you dismiss them all without understanding any of that, you're as ignorant as the most fundamentalist religionist; in other words, you're as bad as they are.

There's so much more to life, don't you think?


dlindenii said...

Great blog post! I couldn't have expressed my own feelings on this subject better than you did.

Margaret Nelson said...

Thank you.