It strikes me that the word “Atheist” is indeed a rather odd word, because it is used to describe people who do not believe in something quite specific – the reality of a god or gods. There are of course various flavours, for example there is “Implicit and explicit” atheism to differentiate between those who have not consciously rejected belief, and those who have. There is also “Positive/Strong and Negative/weak” Atheism to distinguish between an affirmation that gods do not exist, and a simple agnostic position.
What makes it even odder are the popular myths that often pop up in discussions. Let’s take a quick look at a couple of these.
“Atheism is a Belief”
Really!! … it is common argument presented by believers, I’ve listened to both Muslims and Christians play this card. Now what makes that surprising is that the flaw in this argument is well-known, and yet like a game of whack-a-mole it keeps popping up. Often the presentation is some variation of … “You can’t prove there is no god, so for you that is just a belief“. It is at this point that most of us face-palm because this is indeed a truly daft claim. The global standard, universally accepted by almost all, is that the burden of proof for any claim rests with those making the claim.
Let me illustrate that for you. If I asserted that invisible pink leprechaun’s created the entire universe yesterday, including you and me with all our historical memories, then you would quite rightly scoff and dismiss the claim. Can I then seriously assert that your sceptical stance is simply a belief? Then again on a far more practical level, if non-belief is indeed a belief, I can only suppose that not playing football is a sport and not pulling the weeds in the flower bed outside is gardening. Oh and least you wonder, those leprechauns are indeed truly magical because they can be invisible and yet retain their pinkness at the same time.
“Atheism is a World-view”
This stance is of course a rejection of the bleeding obvious, but then doing so has been within the remit of belief since the dawn of time, so is perhaps not such a great surprise. Disbelief in a god is just that, a rejection of daft claims due to the complete lack of evidence. That is the entire scope, it says nothing about anything else, no texts on what to believe, no guidance on morality, no rules, no priests, and no laws. This means we are indeed a rather diverse bunch and will often find we have nothing in common except a lack of belief.
“There are no Atheists, they secretly believe and are just angry at God”
This might sound bizarre, but there are folks out there who truly do take this stance, and if curious why, well apparently because the bible tells them this. As for those fracking pixies who dance in the bottom of my garden every night, if I tell you that they don’t exist, well you can ignore that, I’m simply ticked off about them trampling all over my flower bed every night.
What is of course interesting is that the word “atheist” appears to carry a lot of emotional baggage in many theistic minds. For example, one friend, who just happens to be both a non-believer and also gay, tells me that the degree of flack from friends and family when he came out as “Atheist” far exceeded his experience of coming out as gay. Sadly many others have similar tales of enduring outrage and exclusion at the hands of their “loving” Christian friends. Not all are like that, there are also many decent honourable and tolerant individuals who abhor such hostile rhetoric.
One can perhaps speculate why it is like this. Perhaps the belief that only believers can be good has conjured up images of non-believers as folks who have abandoned the concept of “goodness” are off to join bands of atheists who roam the countryside raping and pillaging. What of course really happens is that those who think like this end up becoming the deployers of misery and exclusion, and so an irrational belief has morphed some decent humans into complete pricks.
As a quick aside, least you wonder, most humans with or without belief, are capable of working out what is and is not moral. In fact, having a book of rules can often get in the way. As an example, consider slavery. We all (I truly hope) know it is wrong and as a culture have moved way beyond it. OK, so how do you know it is wrong, can you point at just one verse in the bible that tells you slavery is wrong? If you do choose to lean upon the bible as your only source for morality then you would quickly find yourself in deep ethical trouble, for that is a book that openly endorses slavery as a rather good idea, and that includes the New Testament, not just the old.
So with all this baggage that the word “atheist” carries, I tried a little experiment the other day. In a Facebook group run by some Muslims to debunk “Atheism” (if you are familiar with it, it is the one where they have a rule against reason and logic and is called – ATHEISM DEBUNKED BY MUSLIMEEN). Upon arrival in a thread, I announced myself as a “Skeptic”. The reaction was quite different, a lot more positive, and the dialogue moved beyond the usual tit-for-tat cheap shots. I was saying nothing different, and in fact atheism is simply the application of scientific skepticism to religious claims, yet by wearing a different badge the normal hostility had evaporated.
So yes, the word “Atheist” is indeed a truly odd word, but perhaps this is only because of the oddness of living on a planet packed with flocks of folks willing to believe stuff that has no evidence at all.