Almost every day, I get a pugnacious email or a tweet saying something like this:
Atheism is the lack of belief in the existence of gods. Period.
It’s been that way for about three years now, ever since I gave a talk in Montreal in which, in a brief aside (at about the 18’30” mark), I decried the dogmatic dumbness of “Dictionary Atheists”, a talk I followed up with a post in which I explained why dictionary atheism is wrong.
I had made the mistake, you see, of pointing out that atheism is more than just disbelief. I suppose I could have mentioned that a painting is more than pigment on canvas, families are more than just small groups of people, and that people are more than ambulatory arrangements of carbon compounds, but let’s not go crazy here — it was heretical enough that I expected atheists to do more with reason and rationality than simply deny god. How dare I confront people with history and context, and meaning and consequences, when all they wanted was a simple statement that made them better than other people?
I was actually surprised and disappointed at the volley of denunciations that followed that post, and like I say, almost every day I get reminders from indignant atheists who insist that their ideas are meaningless and inconsequential, and must be interpreted in the narrowest way. Sadly, another kind of email I get (with lower frequency, fortunately) comes from people who are growing disenchanted with atheism, precisely because so many dogmatists refuse to apply reason to their lives and everyone’s lives, while demanding that they be acknowledged as “True” Atheists, that is, Dictionary Atheists.
Dictionary Atheists disbelieve in gods and dislike religion, but that’s it. The fact that the universe is an uncaring place, that we’re products of chance and necessity rather than benevolence, that we only have each other to help ourselves through this life…none of that matters. So when you say that reason demands equality, when rationality dictates community, when justice ought to be part of the godless agenda, they reflexively throw out that dictionary definition to deny any expectation that there ought to be more to atheism than cussing out gods. They’re intellectual cowards who run away from the full implications of living in a godless universe.
So I get despairing letters from people who once saw atheism as a shining promise, and now see it as a refuge for the same old haters, the same old deniers, the same old reactionaries trying to use their received wisdom as a too to silence new voices and new ideas. And sometimes I feel a little despair, too.
But I haven’t given up. I still think atheism is the best path to comprehending our world and making it better — better in all ways, not just scientific and technological, but also socially. The atheist movement is not in the hands of dictionary atheists, and it’s not growing by recruiting more narrow-minded deniers; it’s growing by helping people realize that it’s something more and something beautiful.
There are also still plenty of people who appreciate the depth of freethought, and are willing to discuss its roots and meaning. And one of my favorites is Susan Jacoby, who really gets it.
This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
It’s not just speaking that we need to do: we need to find common cause in human concerns. And rejecting religion just isn’t that great a concern — it’s a side-effect, not a goal, of realizing how the world works, as a great natural, material process. You lack belief in the existence of gods? That’s nice, you’ve taken your first tiny baby step. Now what does that mean for human affairs? What will you do next? When will you stride forward and do something that matters with your new freedom?
Freedom is the word, after all. Many of us have noted that rejecting god and religion is a liberating act. But now that you’re free, you should do something, and being an atheist means we are enabled to do more.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
Today’s atheists would do well to emulate some of the great 19th-century American freethinkers, who insisted that reason and emotion were not opposed but complementary.
There’s the step the Dictionary Atheists don’t want to take — that once you’ve thrown off your shackles you’re now obligated to do something worthwhile with your life, because now all of our lives shine as something greater and more valuable and more important. That with freedom comes responsibility.
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.
But not as clergy, as privileged people set apart from others by a special paternalistic relationship. How about as a community of equals? What if every atheist, rather than some particular special subset of atheists, were to acknowledge their part in building a better society?
Maybe then this movement could change the world.
(By the way, Jacoby has a new book, The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought which I’ve ordered. She has always been a brilliant contributor to atheism.)