Atheism isn’t a guarantee of anything
Something I’ve been reading and enjoying a lot recently is Kids Without Religion, Deborah Mitchell’s blog. Today, she posted another excellent piece about a heroin addict being given some money and finding God. Really, it’s very good. But there’s just one short passage that fired something in my brain and inspired this post. It doesn’t really relate to the basic story – as Deborah says, the addict never explicitly identifies as an atheist – but it touches on something I was thinking about anyway.
This is what prompted me to respond:
It’s also frustrating to hear people say, “I was once an atheist, but then god blessed me with ________.” And it is always some sort of perceived good fortune that recently happened. However, it seems that these folks weren’t really atheists to begin with. How do you suddenly talk yourself into believing there’s a higher power simply because you silently prayed and a stranger gave you cash the next day? This fails any test of formal logic. The two events, in reality, have no correlation.
What makes me uncomfortable about this is that it sounds uncannily similar to the sort of thing I used to hear Christians say in the opposite direction: If you lose your faith, you were never really a Christian; it’s just a superficial reaction to bad things happening; your reasoning makes no sense.
All very No True Scotsman, and I think everyone can do better than tit-for-tat personal criticism, but this highlights something I’ve noticed before – the idea that a “proper” atheist should have made a conscious decision that there is no God. That an atheist should have a strong interest in science, should make every decision based on a careful, rational and logically sound chain of reasoning – basically, that an atheist should be better than other people.
I don’t think that’s right. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods. It doesn’t say anything about how you reached that decision, your knowledge or interests, and it doesn’t make you superhuman. People can honestly be atheists and still be swayed by bad arguments or poor logic. It’s tempting to restrict atheism to clever people, people we admire, people we agree with and who show our beliefs in a good light, but that’s not our call, and it’s not honest. Besides which, one thing atheism really doesn’t need right now is more in-fighting and schisms about who’s in or out.
When people don’t believe in gods, that makes them atheists. Sure, maybe they haven’t considered it much, maybe they’re susceptible to fallacious arguments or just a sudden coincidental experience, but they’re atheists, because that’s what the word means. It doesn’t do anyone any favours to redefine words to suit our preferences.