Apr 18 2012

Why I am an atheist – Sid Schwab

Here’s a confession: I find myself resisting describing myself as an atheist, and I wonder why that is. Since I can’t claim certainty, I suppose I could use the rubbery rubric of agnosticism. But right or wrong, I can’t believe there are gods (and there have been times when I’d have liked to). So why the reticence? Maybe it’s fear of reprisal; it is, after all, an untidy time for people like me, whose offense is only looking at the world with clear eyes, neither willing nor able to go beyond reality and the observable; the constitutional inability to make a leap of faith, even as our country seems unstoppably heading toward theocracy. But I think it’s something different.

As I’ve thought about it, it seems that atheism ought to be the default assumption, for anyone. Certain things ought to go without saying. One should not have to describe oneself, for example, as a mathist. Or a gravitist. (Yes, I realize the analogy is sort of a semantic contradiction, but you get the picture.) I believe the grass grows; I believe in chlorophyll. I (sort of) understand radioactive decay, and I understand (to a degree) its relation to measuring the age of the earth. I know (mostly) why planes fly and I don’t need to claim an angel holds them up; I don’t think the earth rides on the back of a turtle, and it seems reasonable that anyone would assume that about me. Nor does the fact that I don’t know everything lead me to fill in the blanks with imaginary answers. I can wait. Belief in the demonstrable ought to be the default baseline for anyone, and it shouldn’t need a particular label.

Okay, maybe “realist.”

Or “normal.”

It’s when you begin to come up with magical explanations (ones, I must point out, that other believers in other magic will decry ferociously and consider false magic, capital blasphemy, compared to their version of it, with no sense of irony whatever), that it seems labels should be applied. I think of those judges who sentence people to wearing a sign after they stole something. People who didn’t steal anything don’t need a sign saying so. Not believing in gods oughtn’t need particularizing any more than breathing does. I do breathe; I admit it. But it’d be strange to identify me as a breather, wouldn’t it?

A world-view ought to start with reality. Reality is enough. Reality is, for one thing, real. Realists shouldn’t need to explain it, or to have (loaded) labels applied. Nor, for that matter, should they feel the need to brag about it, or get in the faces of others. Why should the world need a movement that announces its commitment to reality?

Except for the fact that any realist can’t help being shocked, worried, and appalled at the direction we’re headed in the US, as magical thinking has become the basis for a major political party; as intelligence, the quest for knowledge, are considered elitist and abhorrent, actively and proudly mocked and scorned. In that party, belief in god seems to have become synonymous with rejection of science, with denialism, with economic amnesia. It needn’t be thus; it wasn’t always so. But those who wonder why there are suddenly a few highly outspoken and, as some have called them, “militant” atheists out there need only look at today’s Republican party, its teabaggers, its “values voters” for the answer. Scary, hateful, regressive, aggressively ill-informed people.

There’s where labels belong, seems to me.

Sid Schwab
United States


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  1. 1

    Hear hear! Excellent, Sid!

  2. 2
    Thomas Lawson

    Loved it, Dr. Sid. Especially the bit about having to wear a sign without committing a crime.

  3. 3
    Loud - warm smiles do not make you welcome here

    Beautifully written, thank you.

  4. 4

    I guess if one is a rational materialist, it follows that one has no use for supernatural explanations and is therefore best called an atheist.

  5. 5

    As I’ve thought about it, it seems that atheism ought to be the default assumption, for anyone.

    Yes yes yes yes yes!

    I’ve read and learned from all the essays in this series, but I think this one most closely expresses my own views.

    Religious belief is always taught. It is never innate. It is false and contrived and irrational.

    Atheism is the default value.

    As Sid said so cogently:

    A world-view ought to start with reality. Reality is enough. Reality is, for one thing, real.

  6. 6

    Great to see an entry from one of my other favorite bloggers. As always, clearly written, well crafted, and well reasoned.

    So well put:
    “Belief in the demonstrable ought to be the default baseline for anyone, and it shouldn’t need a particular label.”

  7. 7

    Thank you! Well said Sid!

  8. 8

    I really like this one. I also feel that it *shouldn’t* be necessary to label ourselves atheists. It’s only that magical thinking and woo have become so prevalent that it’s become a necessity to remind people about reality.

  9. 9

    Nicely done.

    @Quodlibet and some others: Unfortunately Atheism is not the default position of the human mind. Cognitive neuroscience has identified many biases and heuristics our brains employ (like pareidolia, confirmation and hindsight bias) that make us very susceptible to superstition and religious thought. It’s only training in epistemic rationality that gives us a defense against woo. This is why the teaching of critical thinking and scientific observation and analysis are so vital to leaving religion and woo behind.

    It’ll be very nice, however, when atheism is the social norm and deprogramming a child doesn’t involve social stigma and leaving family beliefs behind.

  10. 10

    Well said. This is one of my favorite of the series.

  11. 11

    I appreciate these comments greatly. I’m in a little corner of the blogosphere with a readership that rounds off to zero compared to PZ (which is, of course, entirely appropriate.) I respect his readership as much as I respect him, so these words mean a lot. Thanks.

  12. 12

    I couldn’t agree more. I always thought why I am labelled as ‘atheist’ but not as ‘a-toothfairy-ist’, if neither god nor tooth fairies are real. Why the special distinction? Beautifully written! Thanks!

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