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If you have visited this site before or are maybe following Is it OK to Think? on Facebook, you might be surprised that being an Atheist is only the third thing I identify myself with – after acknowledging that I am a straight, white and privileged male and a feminist, “atheist” label comes third. Well, these posts are not ranked in the order of importance, they are simply a chronology of my thoughts about myself or a chronology of thinking about myself in terms of labels and definitions. It's not what I prefer to do, but I do like to know where I stand.
So, let’s talk just for a moment about what being an atheist actually means. If you have had a fortune or a misfortune to wander into a theist-atheist debate, you might have noticed that various groups tend to have very different ideas what an atheist actually is and what she believes or doesn’t believe. So, even giving a simple definition is not that easy. I can quote some of the dictionaries, which is what many atheists do in order to settle this question. So, here’s a definition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
“Definition of atheist
: a person who does not believe in the existence of a god or any gods: one who subscribes to or advocates atheism”
You might say – well, that’s it then. It’s simply a lack of belief in god. But, not so fast. While this is how most atheists would probably describe themselves, that is by no means an answer that encompasses every possible position on the non-belief spectrum. Let’s take another definition:
“atheism - noun
1. the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.”
Well, that does seem a bit different. Lack of belief means that one simply does not believe.
Q: Do you believe in God?
A: No. I do not have evidence or enough reasons to hold that belief.
The belief that there is no God would mean that you think that positive reasons and evidence exist to disprove the existence of God.
Q: Do you believe in God?
A: No. God doesn’t exist.
So, two dictionaries give us two different definitions of atheism which mean two similar things yet are different. No belief is not a belief. It’s a subtle difference, but it exists. So, I would say it is important for every person to be precise about what they mean when they use their words in order to avoid misunderstandings. Discussions are good. Linking to a dictionary is obviously less useful as you might misrepresent your beliefs. As many atheists will freely acknowledge, there are two basic types of atheism - positive and negative. Contrary to the name, positively does not mean promoting atheism or being a positive person and negative the opposite of that.
Negative atheism is also called weak or soft atheism. That means weak atheists take a weaker approach to the existence of God – we are not convinced by the theist arguments or claims of miracles and as a result of that, we do not believe that there is a God. The “soft” part is clearly visible here and is what kind of differentiates weak and strong atheism – weak atheism stops right here and does not take another step of saying that there are no gods. The only difference between soft and strong atheist is that a strong atheist will explicitly state that no deities exist. That would, in turn, mean that they have arguments that can potentially if successful disprove the very possibility of a god. What this practically means is that every positive atheist is also a negative atheist as well – because a belief that no gods exist entails the view that you’re not convinced about the existence of god and as a result lack belief.
By now you might have realized that two dictionaries quoted above kind of do talk about negative and positive atheism. The Merriam-Webster definition is close to what you would call negative atheism, while the definition from Dictionary.com is close to what you would call positive atheism. Sure, both are atheism, but this just goes to show you how sometimes a single word is not enough to define us and we need to be very careful when discussing our ideas lest we risk giving permission to people to put us in a box. And that is not only the case with atheism. It’s also the case with feminism, desire for social justice etc.
I am personally not prepared to call myself a positive or strong atheist. In my current state of knowledge – that is not to say my mind will not ever change – I do not believe that the case for strong atheism is as powerful as some think it is. I do believe that even the logical problem of evil has some life left in it, let alone evidentiary problem of evil – and I do believe that the problem of evil makes a case of a certain type of god very improbable – one that cares about what happens to us, who sometimes takes an active approach seems indeed not possible. But that is not to say that the problem of evil dispatches with the so-called god of the philosophers – an idea of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent etc. entity. And while that remains a possibility it’s hard to argue a case for strong atheism.
That is not to say that there are philosophers out there who have tried and are convinced that they are successful. Take for example “The Non-Existence of God” book by Nicholas Everitt, which I have not stopped recommending to everyone who is interested in going beyond the superficial arguments of the “New Atheists”. I find the arguments in Everitt’s book very convincing as well, but I am not prepared to go as far as to say that I am positive that those arguments are successful to show no gods exist and that I can provide a successful argument to this effect. I simply do not know enough about philosophy yet to be able to make that claim. I continue to learn.
Now when we have established that, let’s continue. Immediately after having established what kind of an atheist I am, I feel the need to explain what my atheism does not entail.
If we’re going to be philosophical and strict about it, atheism, in general, does not entail or imply anything other than either a lack of belief in gods or a belief that no gods exist – depending on what kind of an atheist you are. But of course, the real world does not function like that. Atheism does carry some connotations with it, even if it shouldn’t. Being an atheist does not mean that you are pro-choice, but I am. It does not mean that you are a feminist, but I am. It does not mean that you are a humanist, but I am. It does not mean you should be egalitarian, but I am. It does not mean you love Star Trek, but I do.
Additional: Rejecting the ideas of alt-right
Now if this was a few years ago I could stop right here but nowadays I also must distance myself from some of the kooky and even outright shitty and wrong ideas some atheists do have. If you do not believe me, try and spend some time in the comment section of some large atheism Facebook pages or internet forums which do not mind giving those ideas a platform just so that they could have more page likes or more traffic which leads to ads and revenue.
Sure, some of them operate under the principle of free speech and really believe that those ideas will be disproven or dismissed by other members, but real life does not really work that way. Non-moderation policies simply lead to polarizations and normal members leaving not wanting to deal with people defending Nazism, racialism or sexism. So, unfortunately, online atheism does get associated with those ideas. Not because atheism leads to alt-right, but because many alt-righters or at least alt-right sympathizers come to the atheist forums where they are given an audience to spew nonsense to which in turn leads to novice atheists and atheist women to keep to themselves.
Again, that is not to say that atheism = alt-right or even that atheism -> alt-right. Atheism is simply about belief in deities. That’s it. It does not seem to follow that atheism is the first step or anything of the sort. Yet as a member of some atheist and atheist meme groups on Facebook I have seen my share of race realism discussions, “build the wall” chants etc. So, it seems that a lot of people are indeed both atheists and alt-right at the same time. Sexism seems rampant as well. We should be curious about why is that the case. I am curious about that and I plan to explore this because I feel that the liberal humanist philosophy and the democratic/progressive ideas seem to flow naturally from a lack of belief. Obviously for many that aren’t the case. Now it could be that they were racists and sexists long before atheism and I believe that to be the case. More research is clearly needed.
But I digress. We’ll continue that analysis another time when I have gathered more data and read more articles about it.
Oh, yeah. I also do not believe in “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” philosophy that some atheists seem to adhere to. The alt-right does hate Islam, for example, so they seem like natural allies to some atheists because they have a common enemy – Islam. Myself, I would rather hang out with a religious person who does not buy into unproven sexist or racist crap than with an atheist who is all too happy to claim to be pro-science, but who also uses weak and fishy scientific studies if they are against people they don’t like – usually minorities, LGBT groups or women.
So - being an atheist does not mean being an alt-righter and I am not. Being an atheist does not mean being a so-called “race-realist” and I am not. Being an atheist does not imply being a sexist asshole and I am not. Sorry if this all sounds like virtue signalling, that is not what I mean to do. I am simply trying to explain what values I believe in and trying to protect the face of atheism from bad first impressions of the undecided.
Long story short – I do not like labels as they often serve to put people into boxes where you don’t have to deal with them and can continue your merry way. But also, unlike some prominent scientific figures, I do not want to go out of my way to struggle hard to not define things I believe in. That to me seems a bit dishonest, even if it enables them to project an appearance of neutrality. I feel it is much more honest to define what you are and what you believe in or not believe in, so we can have an honest discourse.