Sunday, July 20, 2014

Atheist: The Dirty Word

I am an atheist.

I remember the first time I was brave enough to say those words. I say brave, not because I live in a community where heretical statements are treated as capital crimes worthy of death (though but a few kilometers from where I sit, this is no doubt the horrifying reality), but because saying that word amongst certain folk is tantamount to committing social suicide. For months, I had been calling myself names like: doubter, seeker, or agnostic. While all these labels are true to a point, they are but tools I used to evade having to say that word. 

As of a few weeks ago I said the words: "I am an atheist." It wasn't in front of a big crowd, nor as a rebel cry in the face of religious fanatics; in fact, I believe the first time I said it was actually in the company of my best friend who is also as atheist! Yet, as the words poured forth from my mouth, I felt a rush of power surge through me. It was like I had transformed from being a lost puppy to a strong and confident lion.

In reality however, nothing really changed. I still am full of doubt, I still am seeking rational claims for existence of God, and I still am -- perhaps most importantly -- open to be proven wrong and placed once again, in the familiar arms of my childhood faith.

Why then, did I insist on calling myself an atheist? For that is what I am. A man without a theology.

The word "atheist" in our society as become a sort of dirty word. When said, it has giant waves of negative connotations both on believers and non-believers alike. I imagine that some regard it as synonymous with anti-religion. There are people who actually regard my questions on faith in almost an antipodal fashion since I uttered that word. So long as I was a mere "doubter," there lingered hope for me yet. The moment I latched onto that abhorrent word, my doubts become foul and my influence, a danger.  Obviously, not everyone regards this word in such a negative light, but I, in my believing past, certainly had distaste for it's pronouncement. I am sure there are many others who dislike this harmless word, I therefore feel the need to set the  record straight.

Atheism is not a belief that there is no God or gods. It is the lack of belief in God or gods. To put in differently: "I don't believe in God," is not the same as, "I believe there is no God." Granted, in practice these two are one in the same. That is to say, there will be no difference between believing there is no God, and not believing in God in the way one may act.

However, anyone who truly believes there is no god, that is, he knows there is no god, upon brief analysis will conclude the obvious: To say that anything absolutely does not exist, no matter how unlikely the existence of that thing may be, is an impossible claim to make. One cannot say with certainty that God does not exist. Of course, one can not say that Bertrand Russel's celestial teapot does not exist either.There are those believers who use this as a proof of God! Which is comical yet, intellectually depressing.

With regards to using the unfalsifiable nature of God to bolster one's faith, Richard Dawkins in his (in)famous book "The God Delusion," wrote: "We would not waste time saying so because nobody, so far as I know, worships teapots, but, if pressed we would not hesitate to declare our strong disbelief that there is positively no orbiting teapot. Yet strictly speaking we should all be teapot agnostics: we cannot prove that there is no celestial teapot. In practice, we move away from teapot agnosticism towards a-teapotism."

So, to be in atheist, is to live life as if there was no god. It is to quite literally, not believe in him. We needn't be afraid of the word nor treat it as just another religion. Though I am sure that there are people who claim to know there is no god, this is not, and rather taints, the very intellectual approach which is actual atheism.

Christopher Hitchens in his book "God is Not Great" defined quite accurately and with grand erudition, as was his manner, the "belief" of the atheistic community: "Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, openmindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake."

However it is in fact, because of this popular misinterpretation of the word: atheist, which led me to feel powerful and confident upon allowing that word to escape my lips. Even though, nothing really changed, in a way, everything did. Such is the power of words.