Is the TV on?
There is a new study being reported in the Huffington Post : “New Study Suggests U.S. Has A Lot Of ‘Closet’ Atheists” “Atheists may have been drastically undercounted because of reluctance to honestly answer poll questions.” I lived through the closeted years of the early gay rights movement so I have some thoughts on the matter.
This study uses an oddly cumbersome series of unrelated questions to derive a conclusion because they don’t trust people to directly acknowledge atheism with a yes or a no. For example, “I’ve been to the South Pole” is one such statement that requires respondents to answer true or false. By asking a series of these types of questions they attempt to deduce whether the person is an atheist.
“I prefer wieners to tacos” T or F would have done little to reveal my closeted gay status back in the sixties. Visiting a frozen pole apparently indicates more about a relationship with god than long hot tubes of steaming meat relate to sex! Cold poles and hot dogs, science can be such a mystery! All joking aside the study sounds intriguing and viable to me, but then again I’m an artist.
The problem with so many of these ‘do you believe in god’ studies is that they are merely asking which channel you like best on the Godbox. They begin with the assumption that there is a THEO-TV. The assumptions continue: THEO-TV is turned on, has electricity, can provide viable theological programing, has multiple options, each option makes enough quasi-reasonable or fantastical statements to develop a following of viewers. The Catholic channel doesn’t like being next to the Voodoo channel; the Hindus want a separate channel for all 330 million of their deities although negotiations are trying to keep the number down to 33.
Some of these studies provide a questionnaire asking you to check the box next to your religion. If they include a listing for atheist it is offensive to some on both sides because atheism is not a religion per se. The computer won’t let you go on to the next question until you check a box so freethinkers are stuck choosing either ‘Atheist’ or ‘Other’; both choices force you to choose a channel/religion on the Godbox. You’re going to be pigeon-holed into some mystery/faith system one way or another.
We all know individuals who really want a god-based flow of information/mystery/comfort to sooth their sin-sick souls: The Balm of Gilead only $25.95+S&H. Oddly enough, to those folks anyway, many people survive perfectly well without Godbox thank you very much. We exist in a world where the common assumption is: everyone has a Godbox, and everyone will select one or more of the channels on it. The assumption is so strong that even our computers are programed to accept no variation from this premise.
The basic flaw here is, however, that the question of god’s existence or nonexistence has nothing to do with the programing or channels on the Godbox. Non-theists don’t even consider it an option. As furniture, a Godbox serves no purpose. There is no reason to buy one, plug it in, or turn it on, much less choose one channel over any other channel. Answers aren’t found in a box.
For atheists and non-theists there is a great deal of pressure to conform to the Godbox lifestyle. It is an omnipresent element of culture. Our money declares it, and public gatherings begin and end with ceremonial homage to it. No wonder people lie on questionnaires, the contexts of our culture forces them to! Just look at the change in our pockets.
Scientists trying to calculate the number of atheists who exist must also dispense with the word “atheist.” It has a built in prejudice. In the early gay rights movement the hot research topic was, “What makes someone gay?” Progress wasn’t made until the question got turned around to ask, “What makes someone straight?” That leads to, “What factors influence sexual expression?” We still don’t have a count on the number of gays, but we do have new understandings hundreds of variations of sexual expression and a vast body of knowledge.
Any questions about how many atheists there are must be based upon this contextual frame:
1. The first premise should be that humans are born non-theists; religion is not genetic but it is often geographic.
2. People separate themselves from the natural non-theist state by becoming theists – supernaturalist believers of the many subsets of religions. (this group owns a Godbox)
3. Some of the set of religionists may eventually choose to rebel against or reject religion and so become atheists. (They still have Godboxes tuned to the atheist channel.)
So, basically, you can’t be an atheist until you have a supernatural/mystery belief to react against. When researchers go looking for the number of atheists who exist in a place they often ignore the original set of humans for whom the construct of god has no relevance. There is no word to describe those who have never fallen sway to a mystery-based fantasy. “A” means “against or without,” “theist” means “god or the concept of a god,” atheist means ‘against god’. How would that original group of humans respond to a statement so far removed from the context of their lives? They can’t be atheist because “theist” means nothing to them: “against nothing” is a non-sequitur.
I like to use the word ‘non-theist’ to describe my position. It exists in common usage for the same purpose as atheist – to show an opposing perspective of a god (and pretentious followers). “Non-” means ‘not’ in Latin. A nonbeliever does not maintain a particular belief but a non-theist does not even address belief by simply stating that: the phenomenon called “god” does not exist.
Non-theists declare there is not a god.
Atheists declare themselves to be against something that exists or has the potential to exist. If god did not exist opposing it would be senseless. So, logically, the word would be pointless.
[ Note: this was the first in a series of discussions about religion, art and morality. It is rather lengthy so I have not posted much else while I compile this diatribe.]