Posted by Jeff on January 24, 2010
You know, there are few things more annoying than being accused – by someone I barely know – of being closed-minded and ‘militant’ just because they find out I’m an atheist. I’ve been called a fundamentalist. I’ve been asked why I want to convert people to atheism. Now, if I had demonstrated any of the behaviors indicative of these traits I’d understand, but these accusations are always made – 100% of the time – based solely on the information that I identify as atheist.
Here is one of the biggest reasons that atheists always seem so angry. Any discussion we have with a non-atheist over the topic at hand is always accompanied by the other party making baseless assumptions about our opinions and character because of a flawed notion of what the word ‘atheist’ even means. Even when we try to politely correct their mistake, most of the time we are matter-of-factly informed that we are wrong and don’t know what it means to be an atheist. To use a Southern expression, this really gets my goat!
I’ve been an atheist since I was 17 (that’s 15 years if you’re wondering) and have known quite a few other atheists throughout that time. Not once have I ever – ever - met anyone who fits this lampooned caricature of how most believers view the dreaded atheist. Apparently, in order to be an atheist, one must be ardently convinced that there is no God. An atheist – according to your typical christian – is as stubborn in their faith in ‘no god’ and as closed off to the possibility of listening to any rational discussion about it as any tongue-speaking, hand-waving fundamentalist! An atheist follows the teaching of Science as their religion and would follow the directions of the holy writ of Charles Darwin as blindly and unquestioningly as any Creation Museum tour group. And don’t let your children near an atheist! There is nothing an atheist loves more than to convert your children and turn them against you and God.
The worst part about this atheists-as-fantasy-villains view is that the people who hold it are completely unwilling to accept any different interpretations of what it means to be an atheist. The title of ‘atheist’ implies nothing more than a lack of belief in the existence of any deity. That’s it! Of the countless atheists I’ve known in my life the only thing that they have all had in common is that they do not accept the claims most religions make about the existence of an all-powerful or otherwise supernatural god. It’s also extremely important to recognize that there is a huge difference between not believing in God and believing there is no God. Believing that God does not exist is a positive belief. It’s an act of faith. Not believing in God is not a positive belief. It’s a rejection of a claim and nothing more. Most atheists accept that there may be a god, but they refuse to believe in its existence until they’ve seen evidence. Granted that finding this evidence is about as likely as finding evidence that leprechauns or unicorns exist but it is could still happen. Belief isn’t some black and white issue of with-us-or-agin-us like most believers seem to think. There could be a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside my apartment right now. It’s possible. Do I believe that it’s actually there? No. And since I don’t believe that it’s not worth my time to go outside in the cold to check without at least some evidence supporting the possibility of that bill being there. But, I also would not say to you that I know for certain that there isn’t a hundred-dollar bill outside. I don’t believe there is. But I also don’t believe there isn’t.
When I try to explain this to people, the most common response I receive is along the lines of “Well, you aren’t really an ATHEIST then. You’re an agnostic!” Upon getting over the wave of ire that arises when someone who doesn’t know me tries to tell me who and what I am based on their sunday-school definitions of atheism and agnosticism, I usually respond that they are right. I AM agnostic. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m also an atheist. The terms atheism and agnosticism are not mutually exclusive, as they each deal with something totally different.
‘Theism’ concerns belief, while ‘gnosticism’ concerns knowledge. As such, and atheist can either be agnostic or gnostic, as can a believer. A gnostic atheist is closer to the cartoonish view most religious folk have of atheists in general in that they hold a firm belief in the non-existence of God. These people are actually fairly rare among atheists as it’s a view which is generally considered every bit as irrational as religion itself. The agnostic atheist is more common. Like myself, this is a person who disbelieves the existence of God but does not put forth a positive statement about the non-existence of God. The agnostic atheist knows that it is impossible to prove a negative (go ahead and try. See if you can come up with incontrovertible proof that invisible dragons don’t exist!) and prefers to concern themself with reality rather than fantasy. While we remain open to the possibility of a god, we consider it so unlikely as to bot be worth our time to worry over.
So, a word of advice. If you are a believer talking to a non-believer, do NOT make assumptions about what that person’s views are. Ask them instead. And please, above all, and for the love of Thor, don’t try to tell them that they don’t believe what they say when they do explain their views to you! I’m an atheist, and have been using the same definition of the word for 15 years. Most members of the atheist ‘community’ use this definition (or one very similar) as well. Don’t YOU try to tell me that I don’t know what the word means because it doesn’t fit your hyperbolic strawman image of what an atheist should be. Doing so is one of the biggest reasons we atheists get so honery when talking to believer-types.