In one recent discussion, a good lady, Dogly, said this about me:

“It is just that Madhukar seems to be trying to find a common set of beliefs or opinions among us all. I'm trying to convince him that that is impossible.”

Earlier, she had hardly participated in the several discussions posted by me but seems to have observed me from distance, because her observation is accurate.

My reply was obvious:

“I do not, cannot and will not deny that I would be very happy to evolve some commonalities in atheist character,”

I feel most annoyed when an atheist says that ‘atheism is nothing more and nothing less than not believing in god.’ I also find some opposition to me when I say that atheism is an ideal. This may be a result of a fear that calling atheism an ideal will turn it into an ideology, which, indeed, is to be feared! However, there is some difference between an ideal and ideology. To me, atheism is an ideal that every intellectual should try to achieve. Attaining this ideal would be the best proof of an intellectual’s intellectualism. This is supported by the result of a recent discussion that finally seems to have established that atheism is based on knowledge and not on ignorence.

Likewise, I strongly believe that there should be something like an “Atheist Identity” that should distinguish an atheist from the rest of the people, by his character. The religious faithful often try to say that being an atheist is being immoral. Why should anyone try to attach such labels to us? Why should it not be obvious to others that being an atheist gives some good attributes to one’s personality?

Aren’t there enough good qualities that all atheists can posses and that can be attributed to atheism? Whatever be the answer, it will not deter me from finding such a common character.

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Replies to This Discussion

Madhukar,

I've been thinking about this as of late myself. It is a bit frustrating that there's not more commonality amongst atheists in the way that there is for theists. I think this is why we tend to rally around characters like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, because they seem to be the "ideal" atheists, people who at least appear to have the clearest sense of what it is to be an atheist. after all, what does it really mean to not believe in god? What does that look like, and what does it mean for your everyday life? Theists have the advantage here with thousands of years to establish their core identities. When you identify as a "Christian," it comes with a certain set of assumptions -- that you believe in a god who takes care of you, who listens to your prayers, has a plan for your life and a place for you when you die (provided, of course, that you said the right prayers, had the right parts of your body hacked off, and that you had sex with the right (one) person your whole life).

In that sense, atheism is negative. It is defined against theism just as masculinity is increasingly being defined against the feminine (i.e., masculinity is anything that isn't feminine), and it also comes pre-loaded with a bit of a PR problem thanks to the Cold War. It was during the 1950s that America was defined as a "Christian nation," to differentiate it from those godless atheists in the U.S.S.R. In a way, atheism is still perceived as godless and immoral, and even anti-American, as if going to church were a cultural institution like baseball, apple pie and Aunt Bee.

The other problem with atheism is that it's much harder to "convert" (or rather, "de-convert") people than it is with theism. With theism you're basically sold a bill of goods: Here's what you get if you believe in god (e.g., comfort, love, security). And it's an attractive bill of goods. Who doesn't want to have a Sky Daddy taking care of them? But atheism? "There's no one minding the store. Nothing happens to you when you die." Not a very thrilling sales pitch, is it? That's not to say that we don't have things to offer; like the ability to truly think for yourself, to form your own opinions instead of having them handed down to you from a 2,000 year-old book.

Most of us weren't "converted" to atheism. We were either born into secular families or came to atheism after years of trying to make our theist beliefs work, or just lost interest. But it tends to be a very lonely pursuit compared to theism. We largely worked out our beliefs for ourselves. We studied and read, and came the conclusions that we did based on the lack of evidence that we saw. "Remarkable claims require remarkable evidence," as Carl Sagan wrote. Atheists are as diverse a crowd of thinkers as the Church is diverse in denominations.

But you're unlikely to convince your garden variety Christian that there isn't a god because of how deeply ingrained belief in god is for most people. You attack their cherished beliefs and you attack the very way a person views the world, their sense of security, their sense of peace. Granted, those things may be illusory, but if you attack their god without giving them an attractive alternative, the only thing you'll engender is resentment out of fear.

And frankly, it isn't easy being an atheist and it really does take a special kind of person to go as far as to say that they think we're alone in the universe. It's not an easy thing to say when you really consider the ramifications of that statement. It's not that we're special or smarter than anyone else. It's that we're that committed to finding out the true nature of reality, looking for that man behind the curtain.

Wow, this is getting long so I'll wrap this up. As Susan Jacoby wrote on her blog, "American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious." Part of it is that the theists have the high ground with the majority, and for every atheist that pipes up, it seems that ten theists appear to attempt to quell the rebellion. This is the conversation that I want to have: How can we be better evangelists for freethought, and move the discussion onto our own turf rather than let the theists tell us when and where?

How can we make atheism truly positive?

David Philip Norris

I want to thank you for starting the discussion with a thoughtful response. There are a few points to take note of in your reply.

I have been thinking about this as of late myself. It is a bit frustrating that there's not more commonality amongst atheists in the way that there is for theists.

I understand your frustration well because I am on the same wavelength, although after having found someone with a similar viewpoint, I do not feel frustrated. I of course agrre withyou when you too see the need for a commonality. Most atheists reject the idea for such a comonality. Recently, one friend here said that atheists are like unruly cats that can't be herded. Perhaps, this too could be a reason to seek commonality.

 

In that sense, atheism is negative. It is defined against theism just as masculinity is increasingly being defined against the feminineIn that sense, atheism is negative. It is defined against theism just as masculinity is increasingly being defined against the feminine.

When we say that atheism means saying there is no god, it appears to a negative sentence. Truely speaking atheism is not negative becaue it means not believing in something that does not exist. This is a factual position and is not an effort to make atheism look positive.

 

atheism is still perceived as godless and immoral,

Yes, this is one example I have given in my post. People should be able to automatically say something positive about atheists, not such negative things. This has made me feel tye need to define some positive things as attributes of atheism. 

as Carl Sagan wrote. Atheists are as diverse a crowd of thinkers as the Church is diverse in denominations.

Church can develop in to diverse and multiple denominations because religion is imagination and imagination can take many forms. That is not true of atheism, which is based on pure facts. Makes it more easier to evolve some commonality.

This is the conversation that I want to have: How can we be better evangelists for freethought, and move the discussion onto our own turf rather than let the theists tell us when and where?

As things stand, it is really easy for the believers to push us and they are doing it.

Well, actually, atheism is not necessarily based on facts, per se. Again, atheism is merely non-belief in gods. One could simply choose not to believe in god, with no evidence whatsoever to support the position. What many people do is associate atheism with science, and with the scientific method. Many atheists are scientists, but not all scientists are atheists. Because of the prominence of people like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris (who loathes the term "atheist"), many people now assume that atheism is neo-atheism, which is the view that "religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises." This is the antireligion movement. But this is not atheism.

A quick word about positive and negative. I do not mean positive in the "good, affirmative, or constructive" sense, but rather in the sense of "consisting in or characterized by the presence or possession of features or qualities rather than their absence." Atheism is negative in the sense that it is "characterized by the absence rather than the presence of distinguishing features." Atheism has none. We must look elsewhere to construct our personal beliefs and values.

Unlike Christians and other theists who have creeds and doctrines to shape their beliefs, non-theists have to make their own. It's the DIY of worldviews. Every atheist's atheism is going to look different, depending on what brought them to that non-belief, as well as what has replaced it (i.e., humanism, psychological monism, materialism, objectivism, etc). Many atheists also find commonality and community in such things as volunteerism and activism for different secular causes.

John,

That is true. And I try to identify more as a humanist than as an atheist because atheist by itself doesn't really mean anything. The word translates to non-theist. It tells you nothing about me aside from what you bring to that construct of "atheist." While I don't believe in a deity, or at least see no reason to, I'd rather define myself in the positive and be for something rather than be defined in the absence of something.

However, I do think that it could be helpful to have atheists mobilized as a political presence in instances where fundamentalist Christians are trying to literally take over.

But the overall problem is that atheism lacks coherent cultural definition (aside from a dictionary definition), and the religious majority status quo seeks to keep it that way. The trouble that I've found is that even when you try to explain your beliefs and values (e.g., humanism, materialism, monism), they keep bringing it back to your beliefs about a deity: "But you can't believe in right or wrong without god! Without an absolute morality, anything goes! What's to stop me from just killing you right now if I don't think it's wrong?" (This is a conversation I end up in more often than I'd like.) You end up defined as an atheist whether you want to be or not!

Some of it too is the sad lack of education among the general populace about atheism, or even just about religion and philosophy as a whole.

I prefer to use the simple label of atheism and have the discussion.  Morality can be backed up with Evolution.  We're a pack species.

Evolution explains our moral sense far better than the bullshit Christian answer ... something to the effect of "God wrote his laws on everyone's heart."  Really?  What about sociopaths?  They lack that otherwise-inherent sense of morality.  They represent that genetic throwback to our pre-social ancestors which has managed to survive within our mostly-moral species.  Hell, in some cases, being a sociopath can help lead someone into a leadership position within their clan/society, giving a breeding advantage to the male of the species, as long as most of the rest of the species remains moral.

David Philip Norris

It is not my purpose to form a group. My purpose is to acquire some specific identity so that as soon as someone is identified as an atheist, others will automatically attribute some good qualities with him. I am presently in discussion with a strong creationist. The first question he has raised is about morality. Obviously he intends to show some relation between atheism and morality. My thinking is that if some good qualities, directly or indirectly related to atheism, are recognised to be associated with atheism, then some questions like this will not be asked. My purpose is something like this. Just for example, an atheist could be automatically recognised to be a humanist.

It is not my purpose to form a group. My purpose is to acquire some specific identity so that as soon as someone is identified as an atheist, others will automatically attribute some good qualities with him.

Then you'll be misrepresenting atheism.  Any association you're trying to make between atheism and those good qualities will be artificial and false.

 

I am presently in discussion with a strong creationist. The first question he has raised is about morality. Obviously he intends to show some relation between atheism and morality. My thinking is that if some good qualities, directly or indirectly related to atheism, are recognised to be associated with atheism, then some questions like this will not be asked. My purpose is something like this.

Then the proper response is that atheism has neither a positive nor negative moral aspect.  Atheism is amoral.

The approach you should take is to demonstrate the superior morality of secular humanism.

John D

This is not hard MK - Just go to a dictionary like Webster which I have quoted below.

Definition of ATHEISM

1
2
a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
 
John, I do not think that I have asked for the definition. This is not at all in my subject.

But you're talking about adding additional baggage to the existing definition of atheism.

John D

There are many other words to describe your philosophy.

What philosophy? I haven't proposed or stated any philosophy. That is not my intention.

 

You are the one lumping all kinds of extra shit on the meaning of the word atheist.

 

Having some goood attributes can not be described as shit, even if we do not agree. A disagreement dose not make an opposite view into a shit. If the opposing view is bad , the wrong or bad in my view may be explained.

Why is it so important to find a common character?  All you seem to be doing is trying to find a true atheist.  I have posted to you a couple of times about the no true Scotsman fallacy.  I stopped because it is obvious you have no desire to read something which disagrees with you.  If you had read it you would understand the folly of what you are trying to do.

I feel most annoyed when an atheist says that ‘atheism is nothing more and nothing less than not believing in god.’ I also find some opposition to me when I say that atheism is an ideal.

Because that's all that there is to atheism.  If you want positive traits, you have to add another label ... humanism, for example.

There are many characteristics which are consistentwith atheism, but not directly caused by atheism.  Most atheists are socially liberal, because the only real arguments for most of social conservatism are fundamental-religious in nature.  Almost all atheists are pro-choice, pro-homosexual rights, and pro-separation-of-church-and-state.  That isn't directly tied to atheism itself, and you can't exclude someone from atheism for not sharing those stances.

You can even have atheists who are ghost-believing, homeopathy-practicing, new-age energy and crystals, astrology-following nutjobs.  In my opinion, you're a shitty atheist, if you're not also a skeptic, but you can be an atheist for bad reasons.

I'm sorry if it annoys you (actually, I'm not, but whatever), but you're completely wrong here.

 

Likewise, I strongly believe that there should be something like an “Atheist Identity” that should distinguish an atheist from the rest of the people, by his character.

Doesn't matter how much you believe there should be something like that.  Part of being an atheist should be accepting things as they are, not how you want them to be.

 

The religious faithful often try to say that being an atheist is being immoral. Why should anyone try to attach such labels to us?

Yes, and that's what the new atheism movement is all about.  It's a public education campaign to change public perceptions about atheism and make it easier for people to deconvert from religion and come out of the closet.

 

Why should it not be obvious to others that being an atheist gives some good attributes to one’s personality?

Because being an atheist does no such thing.

 

Aren’t there enough good qualities that all atheists can posses and that can be attributed to atheism?

There are no good qualities that are possessed by all atheists.  Most, yes.  All, no.

And those can't be attributed to atheism, anyway.

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