Since my Christian deconstruction I’ve started to try on various labels for size. Among these labels have been: post-Christian, nontheistic Christian, esoteric Christian, nontheist, Satanist, and, of course, atheist.
(Some annoying hippie in the back will, at this point, ask “why do you have to have a label, man? Why can’t you just be yourself?” Suffice it to say, I like identities, and I am pro-label. That other people are less comfortable with that is fine.)
Of all these various labels I’ve tried, the one that has caused me the most exasperation is “atheist.” I personally think the term is quite simple: “no God.” It doesn’t say anything about what someone believes. It doesn’t indicate their ethics, worldview, politics, or even their religion (there are atheist Christians, hindus, buddhists, etc.) It is simply an indicator that something is absent. Hence, I think atheism is best understood as a vast umbrella term.
However, as I’ve experimented with the word, I’ve found myself frustrated. The word feels corrupted from two sides: the bloviating douchebaggery of certain prominent atheists, and a successful campaign of anti-atheist propaganda from theists, who seem bent on reducing the term to its most ugly and simplistic state. It takes a lot to piss me off, but the amount of bullshit I get regarding my identification of atheism puts me severely off my tea. The following is a list, in no particular order, of all the things that piss me off about identifying as an atheist.
Apologists come out of the woodwork to debate me.
I’m not a debater. In fact, I’d rather you just fist me than debate me about God and try your “gotcha” theological tactics on me, which you clearly learned from some online seminar on how to debate atheists. The moment I mention anything about my disbelief in God, all sorts of people challenge me to duels, or try to prod me. It borders on the obsessive with these people.
Which leads me to a confounding question: Why the obsession with atheism? Some theists act as if atheism is an existential threat to humanity. The reality is that a very small percentage of the American population identifies as atheist. And, not only are we a minority, but we are a fairly put-upon minority, regularly seen as less trustworthy than the rest of the population. Atheists are less likely to be seen as leaders, honest, or virtuous.
Now that I technically am an atheist, I’m simply baffled by this paradoxical loathing: people don’t trust us, and see us as some sort of existential threat, while we are a tiny minority. Even among the “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) atheists are a minority. There’s all sorts of fascinating psychology in there, but it’s mostly just annoying. People approach me with bizarre manifestations of their loathing: strangers message me on social media telling me that they hate physicalism and atheism. At least buy me a drink first.
People assume that I lack a sense of transcendence, wonder, and awe.
This assumption presents itself in 3 ways:
First, that I believe everything is reducible to their component parts, thereby rendering joy, beauty, love, compassion, self-sacrifice, and consciousness unreal and meaningless. I tend to think of these phenomena as emergent qualities generated by material stuff. This assumption used to give me chills: it meant that what was “really real” about the cosmos was just dead matter, and that the essence of consciousness was an immaterial hologram. I now see this as a cognitive distortion. Just because a galaxy is made up of stars, in turn made up of molecules, made up of smaller entities still, does not make the galaxy less of a galaxy. All levels of complexity and emergence are equally real, even if they are contingent. So too with consciousness. Just because my consciousness, by some unfathomable route, might be generated by my brain following the laws of physics, that does not render my consciousness “less real.” So too with all the experiences that give our lives meaning: love, self-sacrifice, compassion, and union with others. These things are not unreal because there is no ultimate Being up there who created them.
Second, that I lack a sense of wonder, or mystery. People think, weirdly, that I must never look up at the sky in awe of existence. In fact, I do so more now than I ever did as a Christian. For whatever reason, supernaturalists often think that it is the atheists who are proudly close minded, shut off from the vast mysteries and possibilities of the world. But that is assigning a character trait to what is a broad a complicated label. Like Christians, there are atheists who can’t be bothered by the deepest mysteries of existence. But there are also many who can, and I happen to be one of them. The overwhelming immediacy and inexplicability of reality hits me at the oddest moments: when I’m driving, when I’m reading, when I’m in the shower, when I’m seeing the stars and realizing that I’m looking hundreds of billions of years into the past. The universe is inexplicable and I suspect that it always will be, no matter how much the scalpel of science reveals the deepest layers of existence. My physicalism does not render that experience meaningless.
Third, that I have no concept of the mystical. I’m a yogi, and I often experience ego-shattering union with something larger than myself. I practice altered states of consciousness through ritual, meditation, and dreaming. I still have a sense of the transcendent: of something so awesome, so beautiful, so all-encompassing that words fail to describe it. Many people call this experience “the divine.” And I’m content to keep using that word, as it seems to be the only word that expresses its immensity for me. I’ve had visions, raptures, and hallucinations. I think that I’m prone to mystical experience on a biological level, wired in such a way to easily experience altered states of consciousness.
I’m just not convinced anymore that these transcendent experiences correlate to anything outside my own mind. I don’t know what reality they point to. But that doesn’t change the fact that they give my life a sense of meaning, fulfillment, and joy. I believe in safe, mindful recreational mysticism. Why settle for stupid false binaries? One can be an atheist mystic, and I know that to be true, because I am one.
(Some atheists might balk at this, saying that anything remotely resembling woo and mysticism is dangerous, and a slippery slope into supernaturalism. It might be, and I don’t care. As long as ritual and “mysticism” is non-theistic and self-aware, I think it can be incredibly rewarding.)
People miscalculate my level of certainty.
The word “atheist” has become synonymous with the word “anti-theist,” but there is a difference between believing God does not exist, and not believing in God. I’m the latter, and not the former. Atheism is an umbrella term which encapsulates this spectrum.
Believing God does not exist requires it’s own set of proofs which I personally feel have not yet been met (though I do think what proofs antitheism does have are stronger than theism.) Instead, I withhold belief in God because I don’t think God has met his burden of proof. I think it is contrary to reason to believe in God, but reasonable and true are not synonymous. It might be true that God exists, and I am open to that possibility, I just want good reason to believe in Him.
So too with my other assumptions about reality. When I say I think consciousness is an emergent property of matter following the laws of physics, that doesn’t mean I’m closed to other potential models of mind and cosmos. I do think that some variety of physicalism is the most likely reality. But, my track record in life is that I’ve been wrong more than I’ve been right, so I hold onto my theories of reality loosely. All theories of the world are incomplete, and all models are meant to be destroyed or upgraded to bigger, better formulations. I’m just working with what seems like the best model, to me, right now.
I’m also aware (people like to pretend I’m not) of the confounding philosophical problems materialism presents us with: the hard problem of consciousness, why qualia? etc. I’m compelled by the problems of consciousness, and I’m also compelled by materialism. That isn’t a contradiction, that’s just (if I may paradoxically toot my own horn) humility.
Perhaps consciousness is a feature of the cosmos, and not an emergent phenomenon. Perhaps we live in a gigantic simulation. Perhaps we all exist as a hologram on the event horizon of a black hole. Perhaps I’m wrong about this whole God thing and God does exist after all. Surprising as these possibilities would be to me, I’m open to all of them, because I think being surprised is the way our understanding of the world progresses. Being open to something is not the same thing as believing in that thing.
When people hear me say all this, they often respond with, “how so very refreshing to see such humility in an atheist,” makes me think they haven’t met very many atheists, but also I can’t help but wonder if they are projecting. I wonder if very certain people, stuck in their own inflexible view of reality, tend to project certainty onto others when there is none. I encourage everyone who has this response to look within and consider the dogmas they themselves protect.
People blame me and atheism generally for the apocalypse
The most infuriating assumption is this: that godlessness is complicit in all the terrible things plaguing humanity right now: late stage capitalism, environmental collapse, and the epidemic of atomization and loneliness. Being gay, I should be used by now to accusations of causing the end of civilization, but it still rankles me. They point vaguely in the direction of Nietzsche when claiming that everyone in our modern age is actually an atheist, and that this drying up of the transcendent horizon is responsible for our worst modern atrocities.
I’m sympathetic to this view, but only to a point. I do think alienation, atomization, and the commodification of existence are existential threats, and I do sometimes wonder if the loss of transcendence contributes to these horrors. However, that sympathy quickly turns to rage, because atheism and the drying up of that transcendental horizon are not the same thing.
Atheism can be transcendent, holistic, and enchanted. Theism can be cold, commodifying, and dehumanizing. Now that Nietzsche has declared God dead, we have the hard task of creating a structure of meaning, union, community, and compassion without God. To say that atheism = desolation is to concede defeat, and to throw away our future.
The word atheist acts as a trigger, blinding people to who I am and what I stand for. It predisposes them to see me and other atheists in the most uncharitable light. I’m running up against these assumptions so much, and I’m getting so tired of correcting them, that I’m finally ready to forfeit the word “atheist” altogether. I tried the word on for size, and I found it so corrupted by bad faith and lazy assumptions that I just don’t have the energy to wear it anymore. I have other, more important projects: the advancement of compassion, empathy, and the building of a positive nontheistic religion, primarily Satanism.
This annoys me, because I happen to think there is a great deal of value in the word atheist. I also hate giving up on a word to what I see as a corrupt usage. But, I have to choose my battles. Even if I may privately think that everyone else is wrong in their usage, words ultimately don’t have meanings, but usages. I don’t fit within the usage of atheist, and I’m getting so exasperated in trying to explain what I mean by it, that its time I let it go and opt for the word “nontheist.”
Nontheist means the exact same thing: “no God.” But it is not as spoiled by apologists and pop-atheist celebrities. It has a different connotation, and gives me more space to be who I am.
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8 thoughts on “On Forfeiting the Word “Atheist””
You wrote: “Why the obsession with atheism? Some theists act as if atheism is an existential threat to humanity.”
I think it’s a (little) different …. I think it threatens their sense of theism. If becomes to live a virtuous life without believing, then I think all the small moments of doubt that all theists have (and if they claim not to, they’re lying either to you, to themselves, or both) might add up to their own atheism. It’s been my experience that people’s theism is far less well rooted in their identity that they sometimes present to the world, and I think there’s more than a little fear (both within individual people and within religious bodies as a whole) that if we allow atheists to exist without push back that even more believers will find themselves moving in that general direction.
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Atheism threatens the validity of religious hope. Nobody likes their imaginary convictions to be challenged.
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I think you should have listened to the hippie in the back of the room. If I had to use a label for myself I would say it had to be “non-labelist”. The label on an object serves to identify what is it, you can change the label, but that won’t change what it is. A label on a person, however, establishes a prejudice to others in a most basic way. You use the label in order to express the source of your viewpoint to others as a way to separate yourself from others with a different viewpoint. Others use the label the same way, but if they object to your viewpoint then they are motivated to attack it. Even if you share labels, you will have a different definition than those with same label. This devolves into a battle over the value of each others definition, etc. That’s why your better off, in my opinion, with no label at all.
Sure, all labels inspires some measure of prejudice and have their limitations, but I personally find using some labels gratifying and redemptive enough to keep using them. It’s ok, however, that other people are less comfortable with labels. No judgement, and to each their own.
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For what it’s worth, I spent decades without a label for myself. Not because I eschew labels in general, but because I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand how my sense of self related to societies sense of me and of others. When I found a label for that sense of self—non-binary—it was such a freeing, authenticating experience that I can only describe it as if parts of my self, parts of my soul, were finally in alignment. In many ways, it reminded me of my own religious conversion from a loose, secular Judaism to a polytheistic Pagan path. The former label didn’t fit; the latter one felt like home.
Labels matter. Sure, they cause problems, but the matter in ways not just when we try to describe ourselves or others, but how we understand ourselves to be. The luxury of being able to live without labels is a privilege that not all people have for a variety of reasons (skin tone, accent, visible religious paraphernalia, body shape, etc.), and we should cherish the moments when our labels and our identities and the perception of our own self by that self and by others begin to come together.
You are absolutely correct. That’s why I didn’t try to argue the point too intensely. A label can have a positive effect for an individual in a number of ways. I even started looking for my own label shortly after I made that comment. I just finished a post that goes into great detail about my view of labels. Thanks for the feedback! It really helps me justify the post I just made. Have a nice day!
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My own label for myself is “spiritual atheist,” and I take pride in my being. I accept that there is no ruling consciousness or superconsciousness, but because of various personal experiences I have seen there is more to life than an end in death. We have egos that are confined to physical life, minds that can temporarily cross the veil of death, and spirits that exist mainly on the non-physical plane. This is normal for me, my reality.