I have a lot of questions – hear me out.
“Atheist” means having a lack of belief in a god or gods. It’s a pretty simple, cut-and-dry definition. So no gods – but what about other beliefs? The possibilities are truly endless but I feel like maybe there are some unwritten rules. Can we truly believe in anything as long as it isn’t god?
What if I said I believed in spirits or souls? Would you have something to say about it? I don’t by the way, but could that belief still be a possibility for an atheist?
I have published several posts about spirituality as well as the paranormal. The posts and comments have really helped me explore my own beliefs and values.
I wrote about spirituality after discussing the topic with my therapist. It seemed like many people could agree that you can be an atheist and also spiritual. I found the comments to be thought-provoking and it made me wonder what really defines an atheist. Is there a culture that goes beyond that basic definition?
As I’ve said in other posts, I am absolutely fascinated with the paranormal although I recognize there is very little evidence to back up the existence of ghosts, bigfoot, aliens, etc. But I still think there’s something to it – probably not what people think. Hopefully one day there will be an explanation for all of these things and I hope I’m around to see it.
But if I did believe in aliens, would that make me a bad atheist? When you’re an atheist, does everything have to have evidence?
Is faith a thing?
Do you believe in destiny? How about karma? Do you ever think things are “meant to be”? Have you found your soulmate? Do you wish people good luck?
What keeps atheists from believing in these things?
Our culture may go beyond beliefs, like how many atheist Republicans are there? That’s still a possibility, right?
How do you view religion? Do you fight it or let it be? Discuss it or avoid it? I tend to avoid it but that’s just because I’m from a conservative area. It’s easy to feel ostracized here so I let it be even when I’m screaming on the inside.
I could probably ask these same questions about any social issue.
Could an atheist culture contribute to stereotypes and misconceptions? Have you seen that at all?
So we don’t believe in a god or gods, but is there anything else that defines an atheist? Is there an atheist culture and is that good or bad?
John Morales says
One problematic thing that came with ‘new atheism’, IMO, is that it led many people to conflate atheism with skepticism because that was generally its basis.
Seems to me you’re in that kind of mindset on the basis of the questions you pose. But one can be a skeptic without being an atheist (that is, one holds that there is good reason to believe in god(s)), and one can be an atheist without being a skeptic.
“So we don’t believe in a god or gods, but is there anything else that defines an atheist? Is there an atheist culture and is that good or bad?”
There’s a school of thought which holds that it should lead to being humanist, since obviously for an atheist concepts such as morality aren’t ordained by deities.
In short: welcome to 2010! Here’s the recap of the last decade plus of movement atheism: the New Atheist movement (so-titled not by us, but by the angry Christians who wanted to separate us from the “Old Atheists” who kept quiet and in the closet) died precisely because some of us started to ask this very question regarding what other beliefs we should or shouldn’t be committed to for moral or intellectual reasons. The conservative atheists said “no, it means lack of belief in god alone!” and then promptly joined alt-right communities and allied with the Christians themselves—now they even support Christian domination because they really hate LGBT+ people. All of this “conservative dark web” faux-intellectualism with people like Harris and Pinker and Peterson and Shapiro were birthed directly from the movement of conservative atheism breaking off. The liberal half then just kind of faded away and dissolved into existing social justice movements.
In the US at least there is a strong connection between atheism and skepticism in general. Most people who are atheists are also skeptics and most skeptics are atheists. The two are not the same thing and it is possible to be one without the other.
The question of an atheist that believes in aliens can be complex. At one end you have groups like Raelism that have a religion based on UFOs. At the other end you have looked at the numbers and feel that it is unlikely we are the only sentient race but there is no reason to think any aliens have visited the earth. As a person moves along that spectrum at some point they are a bad atheist because they are effectively following a religion with gods without using those words.
For me, I simply choose to do without the metaphysical. Save for poetic license, I see no reason to add that tenuous layer.
Admittedly however, being human and naturally trying make sense of things, there are parts of my life, were it possible, I’d be only too glad to ascribe to a narrative made with me in mind (a ten year string of uncanny coincidences for one). The temptation exists, but since I do not believe I can know that, i.e., destiny, for a fact, why then trouble myself?
Again, it’s simpler for me to just restrict myself to living life by itself.
Why hurt my head trying to figure out the mechanics of the preternatural?
I think a lot of this is getting into the difference between preestablished ideas and what people actually think.
If I had to guess I’d say a lot of people would assume atheism is defined by how popular atheists talk about it. They certainly don’t represent me, many of them are quite happy to air repugnant views and claim they’re part of atheism. The “Dear Muslima” conversation comes to mind because I’m pretty sure Dawkins still hasn’t the slightest clue what he did wrong there. Anti-muslim ideas seem to be fairly common actually. I have no idea why. Like our blog host Ashes, I grew up and have lived most of my life in the midwestern US. I’ve met muslims but I’ve never so much as had one be rude to me. Self-professed christians though? Oh yeah, some of them have been really damned obnoxious. So if I didn’t automatically dismiss them as a bunch of poseurs with poor ideas, I’d have some very pointed questions for the anti-muslim atheists out there.
My personal brand of atheism is humanism. You might be forgiven for thinking this is a pretty rational viewpoint but it actually does involve some degree of faith. Even if that faith can be expressed as a kind of optimism, a type of faith we mostly don’t criticize in the same way as religious faith. But I do believe that since we only have so much time here we might as well try to make the best of it for ourselves and other people. There’s a kind of vulnerability there where you try to help others and open yourself up to the possibility that they’ll take advantage of you. So as much as I agree with it in principle I can’t pretend you can just put the effort in and it will always work. That’s where the faith comes in, you just hope it does because trying to improve the world is better than the alternative.
I don’t think atheism needs purity tests to decipher how rational everyone is. None of us would be atheists then because we all believe in something even if it doesn’t have the sort of sketchy history many religious or supernatural concepts do. I don’t think you can narrow it down to only religious beliefs either because religion is quite broad. As you try to narrow it down eventually you would end up defining it as beliefs from a particular time period or held by at least a certain amount of people. I think it would be quite hard to justify that as anything but an arbitrary limit. So that’s why I’m including belief in an optimistic future or belief in friends and family for instance.
I know there has been some attempt at making defined types of atheism. I can call myself a humanist because of that. These aren’t the only spots where people are with their belief or lack of belief though. You can identify with a label without supporting everything about it. If you want to hold onto a little belief in the supernatural then I think that’s just fine. I don’t believe in it the same way but I’d be curious what real world things cause people to feel like they’re interacting with the supernatural.
One last thing, Ashes asks a lot of questions on this blog so I tend to put thought into how I answer them. I might give a different answer if some of this came up in casual conversation because I wouldn’t be thinking too deeply about it. I’d answer based on whether it fit easily into generic atheism.
A Hermit says
I highly recommend Andre Comte de Sponville’s “Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” in which he explores a lot of these very questions:
There may be atheist culture that influences our beliefs, but “defining” or “an” would seem overstatements.
There seems to be at least four distinct atheist cultures/traditions in the US, with demarcation fuzzy as there’s a lot of cross-influence.
Stephen Uitti says
There are clearly more atheist Democrats than Republicans. However, the two parties aren’t much different if you look at the actual bills, etc. If they were different, then when, for example, the Democrats have both houses of Congress and the Presidency, you’d think they’d repeal all the awful stuff and make things better. They don’t. An example: “No Child Left Behind” was discovered to be based on a fraudulent pilot project. Did Obama repeal it? No. He did make changes to it, but we’re still stuck with this incredibly toxic bit of educational policy. The thing is, there are other parties. And there are progressive parties. And there are more Atheists than Evangelicals, and there are more Independents than Democrats and Republicans combined. If we don’t start voting our interests, we’ll never get our interests. Atheists may lean towards better policies because they are better educated, but it’s not by that much, and the education we have is awful.