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“Maybe atheists aren’t *really* nonbelievers?”

February 4, 2009

So, I mentioned in a previous post about how it was just rather awkward to have atheists compared and associated (in magnitudes of Evil) with murderers.

And you know what, that discussion over at Feminist Mormon Housewives got really interesting. Some of those arguments, regardless of their intended effect, made me much, much, much gladder that I’ve distanced myself away from the church (hah, take that! No despair and doom and gloom has befallen me yet!) Great job, guys. Great job.

Well, I thought that Jon (the commenter, not the original poster) was just one person I’d hear such interesting comments from, but a comment from someone I had been in general agreement with, Lorian, made me smile that sheepish awkward smile. No offense to Lorian; it’s nothing personal, just…an issue that turns my switch.

There are lots of definitions of “atheist.” I wonder which one the man in your example used, or if he labeled himself “atheist” at all. Sometimes people who reach a realization that God is something much bigger, and far less defined, that most of our human imaginings, are labeled atheists, when, in fact, they are simply who call God by a different name.

Oh dear, what have we here.

So, I’ve got so many surprising “facts” to deal with now. First are the facts from Jon… the “fact” that atheists apparently immediately become immoral or amoral or, discounting that implication, the other “fact” that atheism itself is on the same level as real, actual crimes like murder. But now, this JUST IN — the idea that atheists really…are just confused! A reasonable person wouldn’t actually be atheist…he is just a believer in a different sort of God! A more expansive God!

This reminds me of when I wrote on my other blog about this shocking poll result that, according to the Pew Forum on Religious Life, 21% of American atheists believe in God.

Guys, guys, guys. Do words mean nothing anymore? I mean, I really don’t care if you are strong atheist or weak atheist, but when you are atheist, you don’t believe in God. That’s what it really means.

So when I’m crusading that atheists can be good guys, I don’t mean atheists-that-aren’t-really-atheists or atheists-who-don’t-know-what-they-are-talking-about or atheists-who-just-believe-in-a-different-way. Nope. I mean that those Big Bad Atheists, who do not believe in any kind of supernatural higher power or deity, can still be as good of people as you or anyone else. Is that shocking?

Now, I’ll tell you what I could do. In the next few days, I might just post what, if any, kind of deity I could possibly play with (that is, without evidence to the contrary: I am always up to be wined, dined, and have my socks rocked by the mystical, magical, supernatural force that others speak about). Protip: this ‘deity’ would be natural and subject to natural rules (or, to give him more power, he would choose to establish and operate under natural rules). In fact, much like as Arthur C. Clarke noted (any significantly developed technology becomes indistinguishable from magic), that’s really what any god idea would fit.

…Of course, because of the implicit connotations of the supernatural with “god” and “theism,” I think believers and even myself would find it disingenuous to call such an idea god. This god would probably also not be able to be reconciled with any characterization as currently exists anyway. (Unless we consider Will Wright “god” because of his relationship with the Sims or Spore).

Well, it could happen, right?

Well, it could happen, right?

I don’t even…this is more perplexing than I once thought. I’m going to have to sit on this or something.

No, wait! I’ll give Lorian and friends and ultimatum. I’ll say I believe in God as long as all the theists recognize that God 1) is not supernatural, 2) does not rely on supernatural ways and means, 3) probably doesn’t even rely on our worship of him, 4) probably will not give us a “high score” of how we did in life (and certainly, if he does, it will not be based on things such as “belief” or “nonbelief,” “faith” or “lack of faith.) In fact, if we are going to believe in this God, we should recognize that he probably considers us annoying and kicked us out of his house for a reason, so really, we should be working on improving ourselves and making ourselves sufficiently independent so that we too can be “cool kids” who have graduated from the School of Hard Knocks. How’s that?


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  1. I think a lot of uneducated people go for the atheist tag because they are not familiar with terms like Deist or Pantheist. My g/f would be be described as a deist but she holds firmly to being called a Catholic, much to my chagrin.

  2. I can definitely see how some people who take the atheist moniker incorrectly do in fact go on to describe precisely a pantheist worldview of the universe.

    But then, there are things like naturalistic pantheism, which also effectively deemphasize or reject the idea of the supernatural.

  3. So many people want to create so many labels to describe the same thing. I’ve heard many atheists describe this naturalistic pantheism as their own view. I don’t see how this view would apply as theism.

    But really, IMO, people can call themselves a duck as long as people aren’t dying or being injured in some way over this view.

  4. but that’s kinda where I *do* have some concern. Creating so many words for the same thing dilutes the community. so, we’ve got people who say, “oh, I’m not atheist. I’m naturalistic pantheist!” and when you delve deeper into what that entails, it’s not very theistic at all. Yet, when people will conduct their surveys of religious attitudes, they will come to skewed ideas about the number of nonbelievers there are.

    but you also raise a good point that a long as people aren’t hurt (and rights aren’t being trampled), it doesn’t really matter what people call themselves.

  5. It doesn’t help that a lot of people who are simply agnostic also get labeled as atheists (incorrectly, I would say). Some people who are simply agnostic also personally claim the “atheist” label just because it gets better shock-value with mom and dad. Teenage rebellion thing I guess.

  6. Seth, argh, my weak spot!

    The problem I see with some so-called agnostics is that there is vast vast vast vast confusion on what agnosticism is.

    This is a huge pet peeve. I’ve written volumes around the internet on it.

    Agnosticism is simply a knowledge position (that of lacking knowledge, to be specific). Regardless of if you know or don’t know, you still have yet to answer the question: do you believe or not? So, you have to take a position when you’re agnostic. Either, “I believe in (something)” or “I don’t believe in (something)”

    When we get it straightened out, it becomes a lot easier. People begin to understand that they don’t have to “know” to believe. You can be agnostic theist or agnostic atheist and that’s no problem.

  7. Guys, guys, guys. Do words mean nothing anymore? I mean, I really don’t care if you are strong atheist or weak atheist, but when you are atheist, you don’t believe in God. That’s what it really means.

    lol, I share your frustration with stuff like this poll. It’s funny that some people can’t believe that there are plenty of people out there who are normal, well-adjusted, and really don’t believe in the existence of God.

    This is part of the reason I’m on the Internet and who I specifically try to have a friendly dialog with believers (rather than just hanging out on the atheist sites). It’s a question of exposure — once a believer meets a certain number of atheists, their existence stops seeming implausible or astonishing.

  8. Creating so many words for the same thing dilutes the community. so, we’ve got people who say, “oh, I’m not atheist. I’m naturalistic pantheist!” and when you delve deeper into what that entails, it’s not very theistic at all.

    This is an interesting point, probably deserving of a separate post.

    My perspective is that — since atheism is merely absence of belief in God — it makes sense to identify with some other philosophy as well, as a complement. For example, I also identify as a humanist (though I generally identify as atheist first, then go with humanist if someone wants more precision). Not all atheists are humanists (or, say, naturalistic pantheists) so it makes sense to have a way to express what your positive beliefs are.

    Like you, however, I have a bit of a problem with it when people take it as an “instead of” and refuse the title “atheist” even as a complementary identity, even when it fits.

    On a related note, my brother (who is an atheist) has taken to identifying as a “Secular Mormon.” You and I may fit into that category as well. It’s not so bad — I read on this other blog that ‘”Secular Jew” is not code, that really just means straight-up atheist’, so maybe “Secular Mormon” works the same way. 😉

  9. I’ll probably end up writing a second post on it anyway, precisely since that’s one of the ideas I actually teased out in another post.

    Atheism is actually very limited (which I think is a good thing) in what it prescribes: just an absence of belief in God as you say.

    So, in actuality, just from hearing someone’s atheist, you can’t really tell what kind of beliefs they do have. They might be humanist, might be naturalistic pantheist, might be any of these things.

    Secular Mormon? Doesn’t sound all that bad!

  10. Yeah, I think the idea of identifying as a “Secular Mormon” is kind of fun.

    Actually, it was from reading Mormon Matters that I learned that my brother was using (perhaps had coined?) the term. Remember that post I linked you to earlier with the Book of Mormon map we drew as kids? Well, in the comments, there’s a funny exchange where Bruce tries to pin him down on “Yeah, but are you an atheist?”

  11. haha, I saw the post, but I didn’t see Bruce’s interrogation.

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