Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Wild about nothing

I wrote this piece for the current issue of Craccum, which is all about religion. It was written hastily and despite a bout of food poisoning, so it is a bit rough.

Dear Matty,

A few days ago, you called me and asked me to write about Atheism for this edition of Craccum. Since then I have done a lot of research and a lot of thinking and I have come to this conclusion:

Atheists do not believe in gods

Will that do? I guess not. I think you said something about wanting two pages. I suppose you could make the typeface really large but the readers might feel cheated. Or you could leave the rest of the space blank to symbolise the absence of belief and the emptiness of life; but that would be a little bit Elam. Then again, you could fill the empty space with pictures you have found on Internet.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking this just is not good enough. You have asked someone who describes himself as an Atheist to talk about Atheism and all he can come up with is a six-word statement of the bleeding obvious: Atheists do not believe in gods. The trouble is, there really is not much more to Atheism than that. It hardlydeserves that capital A; in fact, Atheism is not really an ism at all.

At this point, I could resort to the last refuge of a journalist in need of a story: Google. I could tell you that a search of the word Atheism produces 1,700,000 pages, which is a very large number. I could read some of these pages and tell you what other people think about Atheism. I could quote from Wikipedia, which says there are varieties of Atheism: Strong and Weak, Positive and Negative, Implicit and Explicit. But I think that would confuse matters. Whatever the nuances, Atheism comes down to an absence of a belief.

Now, I find this a relatively simple matter. Some people believe in a god, others believe in many gods, Atheists believe in none. But it seems to cause a lot of confusion, even amongst Atheists. Apparently,Strong Atheists believe in the non-existence of gods while Weak Atheists reject belief in gods. But that is not a very helpful distinction, if it is a distinction at all, which I doubt.

It causes even more confusion amongst believers. I have had so many long, tedious conversations with people who believe so strongly in a god (usually God with a capital G) that they cannot conceive of anybody not believing in any god. They are far happier, on the whole, with people who believe in a different god; these people are just plain wrong, but at least they believe in something. People like me are baffling. The believers usually make things worse for themselves by taking it personally - they assume it is their god with a capital G which I don't believe in and convince themselves that they can persuade me to believe in Him with a capital H if only they try hard enough. But it is not that simple, because I do not have an opposing belief. I have none.

I can see this is not really helping. I'm sorry. Belief is a very difficult subject. Unbelief ought to be a very simple matter but it is complicated by people taking it to be a form of belief.

Myself, I blame the Rationalists and Humanists. As you know, I used to be the Spokesman for the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (Inc) but I am not blaming them specifically. My problem is with Atheists attaching other names to themselves to qualify their unbelief. They do it all the time and they come up with far too many names. There are Rationalists, Humanists, Freethinkers, Non-theists, Anti-theists, Naturalists, Brights and so on and so on. And don't get me started on the Agnostics.

Ignoring all the others, Rationalists bother me because they seem determined to prove that there are no gods. They go on about religion all the time, pointing out errors in the Bible, arguing how God is philosophically impossible. Say what you like about them, but at least they take religion seriously. Far too seriously, in my  opinion. Their error is a tactical one: they are fighting on their opponents ground.
Believers love this sort of argument, because they have been trained in arguing the case for their beliefs. Long, tedious conversations are the inevitable result.

And then there are the Humanists. Now, don't get me wrong; most humanists are thoroughly nice people. Some however, are authoritarian prigs. One such is Dr Bill Cooke, Vice-President of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (Inc). For him, mere Atheism is a bit vulgar. In his long incoherent essays he often expounds the superiority of Humanists like him over us simple Atheists. Here's an example, from one of his editorials in the Open Society, the journal of the Rationalists and Humanists:
Atheism is only about what I don't believe...you can't build a way of life entirely on what you don't believe. The next step of determining our way of life is much more interesting and rewarding. My humanism is about what I do believe and my rationalism is about how I believe it.
What Dr Cooke's Humanism is all about is a bit of a mystery, even though he talks about it all the time. It seems to involve something called Eupraxsophy and the novels of Iris Murdoch. I think it is all a load of pseudo-academic wank, but that is just my opinion.

What it comes down to is that Dr Cooke has a world view: "What label we use to describe the positive world view we build on the foundation of atheism is neither here nor there. I call it humanism. But that such a construction must be built is imperative. There is so much more to being non-religious than simply being an atheist."

No there is not. Simply being an Atheist is quite enough.  Religious people have world views, through which they filter all their responses to the world. Most Atheists do not have a world view. We have opinions about lots of things. Our opinions differ, often. They have precious little to do with our Atheism, which is simply an absence of belief.

I could go on but I would be repeating myself. As I said, it is a difficult matter talking about unbelief. It is much easier to writeCanada News. All I need to do is read Canadian newspapers on Internet and write something about Hockey games and Avril Lavigne. I think Craccum can be proud of its distinction as the only New Zealand student newspaper to feature news from Canada regularly. This Atheism business is a bit more tricky.

Perhaps you should fill up the rest of the space with pictures. But what pictures could you use? It is not as if Atheism has symbols like crosses and crescents or cathedrals or men in funny clothes performing strange rituals. I don't want to tell you how to do your job but maybe you could download some pictures of cute kittens. People like kittens. You will find lots of pictures of kittens on Internet.

Yours faithlessly,



harvestbird said...

When I was an orchestral musician, "having food poisoning" was the expression players used to describe being in the condition of having drunk so much they were too sick to work the next day.

Which is to insinuate nothing, or at least, very little. Call it an asinuation?

Paul said...

I was using the expression in a similar fashion. It would be quite difficult to get food poisoning when you do not eat meat.

I envy your ability to say "When I was an orchestral musician" truthfully.

David Winter said...

Nice piece, the distinction between the 'i just don't choose to believe (now leave me alone)' atheist and the 'not only to I not believe but I can prove definitively there's no reason to believe (now engage me in a long and boring argument)' atheist is hard for some to grasp.

BTW, vegetarian food poisoning (of the bacterial type, not the type, referred to above, induced by fungi's greatest contribution to man kind) can happen - apparently cooked rice is a breeding ground for nasty things.

harvestbird said...

Well, in truth, I never went full-time professional: I couldn't keep up with the drinking.

I can also say "when I was a church organist" truthfully, but my work colleagues used to laugh so much when I said it that I stopped using it to introduce anecdotes (many of which also ended in "food poisoning").

Paul said...

The Brass Section always leaves the stage first and heads straight to the pub with military precision. The Strings always get confused about where they are meant to be going, while the poor harpist is stuck with her instrument until someone comes along to help her.

harvestbird said...

This would explain why the last time I met a harpist in a pub after a gig, I asked her how she was and she exclaimed "Drunk!" much as someone else might say "Engaged!"

There was a change in the orchestral drinking culture round here about 10 years ago, with the arrival of players from former Soviet Republics. Suddenly, a lot of local musicians were shown a whole new level of consumption that they'd previously not thought possible, nor wise.

Paul said...

I have revised my theory of food poisoning. David (nice blog, by the way) is a scientist, he should know; I'm blaming the lentils.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of vegetarian food poisoning: what about ergots?

Paul said...

Now you have given me something else to worry about.

Anonymous said...

I came here quite by accident actually, I was looking up something random on Google. I found this quite an interesting read, not the least of all because you are defending your own personal and abnormal definition of atheism. Yet deriding the people who you feel define atheism differently and 'wrongly'. Have you actually looked up the dictionary definitions of atheism and agnosticism? I'm sure you must have, and obviously words often take on a far deeper meaning than just what is in the dictionary, but it's certainly not a source to just brush off and to be honest, the majority of atheists and especially organized atheists I've met fit the root definition. The atheists that specifically disbelieve the existence of deities as opposed to just, 'well, I just don't believe one way or another' are in fact the true atheists as far as the accepted meaning of the word goes. Likewise, the definition of agnosticism is simply that it is impossible to know for sure if there is, or is not, deities. Your beliefs fit more closely to the accepted definition of agnosticism.

Of course, we define ourselves and the world around us however makes us happy. I'm not trying to change your view, so much as I'm curious about your justification for why you think your personal definition of atheism is inherently more 'correct'. It's interesting because, being agnostic myself, I share your views. I also used to call myself atheist, in the terms of, 'I just don't specifically believe anything' until I realized I had an incorrect view of agnosticism, thinking that it actually meant, 'I believe there is something, just not specific on what' as opposed to just disbelief of ultimate knowledge.

So the root meaning of atheism - and really, if we're talking getting back to basics, this is the one we have to use and not a random person's personal definition - is specifically a disbelief in god or gods. Since there is no concrete proof for or against, it is indeed a belief and not simply disinterest.