What Is Atheism?

In recent times atheists have become that guy, the rude forum guy you don’t want to be. There was a period when fundamentalist Christians sat in the that guy chair. And I’m pretty sure that liberals / conservatives took turns as that guy before there really was a chair since the Internet’s kinda new.

Everyone sooner or later sits in the chair. It’s probably pretty worn and needs to be reupholstered.

Atheists went from being not a thing (just a small niche science / philosophy group) to becoming a big trouble-making thing only in recent history, and now everyone’s known at least one atheist dude who just wanted to shout at people for being dumb because they don’t opine what he does.

I’ve been that jerk. But, I’d argue, I was so less because I was atheist, and more because I was angry at various groups and couldn’t stop myself from being angry long enough to think about the whole thing rationally. (I still have that problem, which is why it’s been hard for me to talk about Serious Political Issues.)

And language isn’t very good at differentiating between similar concepts given similar labels. We have a lot of words that look alike and sound alike but mean different things, and few people take much care to indicate what they mean. For instance:

Atheism refers to the existential position that no god or gods exist.*

Atheist in contemporary parlance, is an identity, usually associated with the position above. And this is why people have a notion of what atheists are and that they’re jerks on the internet.

Some particularly vocal and visible atheists of the latter sort have been coloring the impression of who atheists are and what they’re about. Of course, not all are like that, but that doesn’t make much of a difference when some guy is in your face calling you a fool (or worse) for your religious convictions.

Contrast nontheists, nones and I’m not anything who don’t care or don’t want to get involved in the debate.

And agnostics who are mostly nones who discovered the word agnostic is satisfactory to get most convert-seeking or argumentative sorts to leave them alone.

And New Atheism which is a political movement whose goal is to challenge certain socio-political notions, about atheists (and how they are regarded) and about religions (and how they should fit into society). It’s from the efforts of this movement that the identity of atheist has become popular.

It may be that there’s just a lot of jerks, and that if you get enough people to wear a certain hat, that people will start associating the hat with (chair-sitting) jerks, much like AOL accounts and coffee drinkers.

* Some people would add no more, no less to that, but it’s never so easy. Some people (sometimes called hard atheists) assert a degree of certainty to this notion (much like those who proclaim absolute faith in their religion). We human beings are not very good at assessing what we know, and our certainty of it, and atheists are no exception. Most atheist acknowledge that we don’t know God doesn’t exist, but since we don’t have Her properties, we can’t really begin to speculate what She’s all about. (And so it’s better to speculate about those things regarding which we have clues.)

Myself, I obsess on cautiously deciding to what degree I know things (typically not very) but most of the time I behave for convenience as if most things are certain: Down is down. Red traffic lights mean stop. American money is legal tender. It’s much like not worrying about the problems of traveling near the speeds of sound or light, since I’m unlikely get near either, even in a fast car. I’m pretty safe from sonic booms while jaunting about the city.

Only when I decide to go into a thinky-philosophy mode (no I don’t actually call it that) can I really see that I’m 95%-99% certain about most things I interact with every day, and often less than 50% certain about big metaphysical things like the nature of our reality.

I tend to avoid the term atheist not because it’s become stigmatic but it’s become vague due to the term’s surge in popularity. In the old days, we’d explain ourselves if someone was confused, but now people are eager to presume all atheists are like me — or should be. or all atheists are like him — and shouldn’t be.

As a result, I fall back on old existential terms, such as materialism (contrast idealism) or naturalism (contrast supernaturalism). People don’t assume what they mean (and often don’t know) so it lets me explain.

Incidentally, the simulated reality hypothesis is one of my favorite forms of existential / epistemological peek-a-boo since evidence that we live in a simulated reality (via glitches in the matrix) is impossible to determine without context of how real reality differs.

Of course, we may someday find some evidence intentionally left (e.g. the developers’ signatures) but only if they were left to be found, and only if we figure out that’s what we’re looking at. Not only could the universe be a dream, but we could be characters in that dream, equally as ephemeral as the shadows we occupy.

We may not just be in the matrix, we could be mere programs coded to believe we’re real.

Of course, that we have a variant within String Theory that suggests the universe is only a holographic projection doesn’t instill confidence in our material world. Peek. A. Boo.

Image is of railway distortion in Canterbury thanks to an earthquake. Engineers and seismologists are still trying to understand what happened.


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