Ever since coming out as an atheist, I’ve noticed a few recurring questions about my unbelief. I thought I would offer a few clarifications so I can refer people to this article when the questions come up again.
What is the difference between atheism and non-theism?
I usually call myself a non-theist, and this is deliberate. I feel like there is such a stigma surrounding the word “atheist” that I can destabilize that bias by using a slightly different term. In essence, though, nontheism and atheism mean the exact same thing: “no god.”
So you believe there is no God?
No. I cannot prove that something does not exist, and God very well may be out there somewhere in the cosmos. Instead, I am not convinced by the evidence presented to me for the existence of a god. my position is not that no gods exist, which would require its own set of proofs, but rather that I am unconvinced by the case for god. In other words, I am an atheist (no God), and not an anti-theist (there is no God.)
While many people see atheists and skeptics as close-minded killjoys, robbing others of the expansive mystery of the universe, I see true skepticism and my own atheism as the exact opposite. I am willing to believe anything, no matter how extraordinary — I just want evidence and sound reasoning to back it up. I’d argue that the theories and discoveries of physics are more extraordinary than any God any human mind could conjure up (black holes? Dark matter? The theory of relativity?) The difference is that I have evidence for these extraordinary claims, but I have yet to find compelling evidence for God.
I love mystery, I love the big questions, and I love getting lost in spooky, confusing, or existential questions and stories. To quote the X-files, I want to believe. But I have to temper my enthusiasm for the paranormal and strange with sound skepticism. If I don’t have good evidence for something, then why should I believe it?
So it sounds like you are an agnostic and not an atheist.
I’m both. Agnosticism has to do with what you *know* (gnosis having to do with knowledge) whereas atheism has to do with what you *believe*. Knowledge and belief are not always in lockstep. I want my beliefs to correspond as much as possible with what I know, and therefore not knowing there is a God (agnosticism) results in not believing in a God (atheism.)
So you believe the material world is all there is?
No. Just as I can’t say “I believe there is no God,” I also can’t say, “I believe the material world is all that exists.” I can’t conceive of a non-material world, and I can’t begin to comprehend what the supernatural is (how is anything “above” nature?) But I also can’t rule it out.
Rather, my materialism is rooted in humility. I accept that all we have to work with to observe, understand, and test the world around us is the material world. If there is a supernatural world, we are limited to testing it through physical means. I am, therefore, a Methodological Materialist, accepting that I am limited to only working with material stuff to understand the cosmos, not a Philosophical Materialist, who believes that the material world is all there is.
Do you think religious/spiritual people are stupid?
Absolutely not. Some of the smartest, kindest, and most interesting people I know are theists and/or supernaturalists. I think that religion and supernatural belief are long standing features of human existence, and I’m unimpressed by claims that all religion and supernaturalism will someday be eradicated for good.
Not only do I not think that supernaturalists are stupid, I am infinitely more concerned with right behavior over right belief. I’m far more concerned with how you conduct yourself as a just and humble human being than I am with your religious beliefs. I believe we must work together to create a better world, and as such it is my responsibility to see past differing beliefs and to a common cause. I am only concerned with religious belief when it compels you to exact harm against yourself, others, or the natural world. Otherwise, I don’t really care what you believe.
Many atheists will probably see this as a form of doormat atheism, but I don’t care. It’s not in my temperament to fight, and while I have enormous respect for those who do, I’m not interested in debating God with anyone. I don’t have the energy for that. I want more friends, not fewer.
This is just a preliminary list of clarifications. If you have any additional questions please let me know, and I might write a follow up post.
Many of the ideas in this post are not original. I’ve gotten most of them from online atheist Matt Dillahunty, who has helped me clarify a great number of my thoughts. I strongly recommend his youtube channel.
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