24 February 2011

What's in a name

I've been trying to figure out a conundrum for a few weeks now.

There seem to be two public perceptions of atheists.

The first is that we actually do worship something, and thus have a religion. This belief is popular among Christian fundamentalists in particular, and seems to be busying itself with the assumptions that a) non-belief in something means you believe in it anyway, or something like it, or b) that all atheists share common attributes. I'm fairly sure both of these conclusions are wrong. But perhaps there's some other logical basis that I've missed.

The second is that atheists do not care very much about "big questions", metaphysical nature of the universe, and so on. This one is common among people who've actually studied theology or philosophy and are aware of many atheists indifference to metaphysics as a justifiable study beyond some basic assumption that there is a reality which we experience and interpret and that experiencing any other (usually imagined) forms of reality is beyond our experience or ability to interpret. I'm pretty sure this one is a little more accurate, as there are indeed many atheists who are indifferent to questions about deities or afterlives or some other metaphysical construct popular to religious dogmas. But it confuses indifference to these ultimately subjective questions with an indifference to reality or things like ethics, which seem to have more biological hard wiring behind them and certainly have more utility to their existence.

The problem is primarily I only encounter the former argument. It is rare that a common person is familiar enough with concepts of metaphysics or ethics or even theological analysis of religious beliefs to move past the first perception and actually perceive something of what an atheist is, as a person rather than as what they lack in common with you. And so it gets tedious to explain that a) atheists tend to be a diverse community, some are hardcore secularists, some maybe leaning agnostic, and some just don't believe in god and go about their daily lives without, so defining atheists as holding a core and unified set of beliefs seems a little strange b) that defining people by non-belief is a very, very silly way to look at them. We do not tend to define people by their non-belief in dragons, or goblins, or even zombies or vampires. These are just as imaginary as many atheists see religious deities and the associated mythology contained in canonical text. Why is this one distinction of non-belief so important? Is it so hard to make the leap from a firmly held belief to see that someone else sees your shadows as shadows and not as reality?

I suppose the inverse is equally true for many atheists. We do not tend to do the thought-experiments of what belief is used for by religious persons, to pretend for a little while that the shadows of our minds are real. Perhaps this is because, for the most part, we do not see any real benefits provided by religious belief that do not come with significant costs (benefits seem to be, fosters a sense of community, relative happiness is to be had in extreme belief, and people don't bother you about your lack of faith, costs seem to be, the sense of community is connected to an us-them sensibility which leads to extensive discrimination and out-group hatred, and you're kind of at a loss when someone asks a reasonable question presenting an iota of doubt). Considering atheists do not make up a considerable majority, it is rare that someone encounters one publicly and has to question their own belief or compel them to question their non-belief. So I doubt this is a very troubling problem for the atheist, given that they are, when openly so, confounded by dozens of requests for social conformity. It becomes easier for some to simply lie than to go through the tedious motions of beating back religious piety and its blithe assumptions with reasoned analysis of the theological questions and the psychological explanations for a theistic, anthropomorphizing mind.

But I have to wonder, why is this one question so persistent. The argument that the atheist makes a positive belief to not believe is absurd on its face. Partly because most atheists simply did not care, and did not ask such questions, but mostly because it asks atheists to do something ridiculous and unreasonable; namely to believe in something without any evidence being presented in favor of that belief and without any way to prove that belief. The principle difference between these people is that the religious person looks around and sees an answer for "why" as something external rather than something they have provided themselves, and more importantly, often confuses the answer for "how" as also one for "why".

I am contented with the notion that your beliefs make you feel safer, perhaps feel happier, and provide lines of networking with your fellow man and a reason to get dressed up once in a while. I am not contented that these beliefs are so inflated as to find it absurd when someone else does not share them, such that you must contort their lack of belief into a set of belief of its own, and attempt to blur the lines between how and why among our fundamental questions of the human experience.
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