Problems with Atheism

written by John Waddington

It seems to me that the various individuals – Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, et al. who have written books, appeared on talk shows, presented comments on the internet (youtube for instance) all describe quite clearly what they are against but not so much what they are for. Mostly they are against the Christian variations that are prevalent in the USA. They take great delight in drawing attention to the inconsistencies and barbarisms in the bible, and the limitations and errors found in it compared to our present knowledge.

The word “atheist” is often used to refer to these individuals and others of like opinion. It is a negative word, a word describing what we do not believe. This leaves us open to the charge “those who don’t believe in something (God usually) will believe in anything”, with the implication that we are wrong, misguided, with no moral foundation, easily swayed by any number of smooth-talking charlatans. This isn’t so but we do need a positive word to describe our position. There are several words (ethical, moral, humanistic, righteous, upright, principled, etc.) which fit somewhat, but all have limitations or broader meanings that render them unsuitable.

It is hard to talk or write about anything remotely connected to religion, or even about anything at all without the word “belief” entering in. Along with the narrow definition of acceptance of something without evidence of its truth, there is a much wider common use of belief in conversation as acceptance without considering the evidence at all. If I am asked what I believe, especially if we are in a pub I will probably reply “I believe I’ll have another beer” which gets me around the problem of describing in long and boring detail what I accept as true and why and how. If I am pressed I will describe what I accept as true and why and how, and perhaps express some opinions on the political situation in long and boring detail, by which conclusion I will need another beer. And so will everyone else. But it is difficult to avoid the word when what one considers true is being discussed.

We all wish to belong to a group. That is part of our genetics. And with it comes a set of morals, necessary for belonging to a group. Which group we try to belong to depends on our environment, which in North America is Christian. The Christian religious leaders over the last couple of thousand years have done a masterful job of convincing us that their religion alone has developed ethics and moral ideals without which we are lost from our humanness. The other religions in the world have done the same with their followers. Which shows to me that these ethics and moral ideals are inherent in us and we don’t need the religious trappings that have enslaved so many of us. But our group does need a positive identity, and the word atheist isn’t it. Any ideas anyone?