This may come as a shock but I actually don’t like atheism, not as a label anyway. After people find out I am not religious they ask ‘Well what are you then?” and my answer is ‘I’m a humanist’ I say this even though I don’t like labels because of my feelings on their threat to individuality in that context. However, secular humanist best fits me as a person. As for other atheists, I can’t say because atheism on its own is almost totally meaningless. There is a growing belief that atheism means a lot more than it is; typically viewed as anti-religion, combative/argumentative, cynical and more morally unrestricted than their religious peers. Atheists are free to fill their existential and philosophical voids in countless different ways but usually follow common sense moralities. However, for a person to say ‘I’m an atheist’ actually says nothing at all about who they are.
Look at atheism from a strictly dictionary definition:
athe·ist noun ˈā-thē-ist : one who believes that there is no deity
This is the only real meaning to the word atheist. Some argue differently but they are only redefining language to suit their own purposes. Those who defend atheism as being more than a lack of belief in a deity identify with atheism as more than it is and that’s OK. If a person creates an identity in making something more than it is so long as they do so peacefully than that is their choice and their right. I support that and it makes me happy they have found their happiness. However identity or not, that doesn’t change what atheism actually means.
Misconceptions of atheism as militant comes from many sources, mostly because of the fairly large jump start religion has had on religious unbelief. The free media has even spawned a ‘new atheism’ which actually hasn’t helped atheists dispel stereotypes about them. Even though I do like what some of what the popular speakers such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have had to say I am not convinced they are helping the world be more peaceful. Paul Kurtz reflected how I feel about ‘New Atheism’ quite eloquently (as philosophers usually do):
“militant atheism is often truncated and narrow-minded…it is not concerned with the humanist values that ought to accompany the rejection of theism. The New Atheists, in my view, have made an important contribution to the contemporary cultural scene because they have opened religious claims to public examination…What I object to are the militant atheists who are narrow-minded about religious persons and will have nothing to do with agnostics, skeptics, or those who are indifferent to religion, dismissing them as cowardly.”
“While I certainly don’t believe that we ought to abandon our criticism of religious fanaticism or allow religious doctrine to dictate public policy, the future of the secular humanist and scientific rationalist movements depends upon appealing to a wider base of support,” (Huffington Post 2010)
Kurtz emphasises alternatives to religion quite rightly as human beings need meaning and support from like-minded thinkers. Kurtz continued:
“This statement aims to be more inclusive by appealing to both non-religious and religious humanists and to moderate religious believers who share common goals. It seeks to foster moderation rather than divisiveness and to spark a genuine conversation about meaning and value and the common problems that confront us all as a nation and inhabitants of planet Earth,”
Kurtz was referring to his most recent humanist declaration and I must say that I really like that for the first time he said that humanists are best identified as what they are for and not against. Max More (one of my early influences) identified this is in 1998:
Crucial to fostering a sense of abundance is being for things, not against things. You may be against many things: crime, war, being overweight, the budget deficit, intolerance, aging. Optimists restate anything they oppose in positive terms. Rather than being against government, be for liberty and responsibility. Rather than being against your company or office manager, be for making improvements. Instead of saying no to drugs, say yes to healthy pleasures. I am not merely playing a word game here: Your energy goes wherever you focus your attention. When you are against something you will expend your time and energy attacking it, complaining about it, and reacting to it. When you are for an alternative, you focus on changing it, creating alternatives, exciting others about new options, and feeling productive and creative—you will be proactive rather than reactive.(More 1998)
This is why, even though I do feel the world will be much better off when religion and other forms of fundamentalism are minimized in public life, I am for humanism as an alternative and human rights in general and not against necessarily against religion.
So, if atheism is so empty how does anyone who doesn’t believe in God and not have religion deal with the existential void? There are countless ways from stamp collecting to political activism, sports, family…an actual list would be a mile long. So whenever an atheist identifies themselves as such it is important to remember that is is never just atheism that makes the person. If a person’s only claim to philosophical ideals is atheism than you would need to get to know better them to understand them and isn’t that what you should do with everyone anyway?