Friday, January 14, 2011

The Antitheist

Last night I engaged in a very interesting debate with my girlfriend, who for purposes of unnecessary confidentiality I’ll call Sophie. Sophie and I started off our discussion on the subject of whether or not atheists (or anyone, really) should push their views onto others. Sophie pointed out that believers oftentimes irritated me, and that I spoke very negatively of them when none were around. I had to agree with her. I told her that I was still struggling to find equilibrium between allowing others to believe whatever they want, regardless of how I feel about it, and actively trying to change their minds about beliefs they hold that I feel are mistaken.

Sophie went on to say that atheism was a belief in the way the world worked, and had to be held with just as much faith as any religious conviction. I found myself unable to recall what I’d read in this article or others on the topic at the time, so I didn’t hold my own very well on that, but we did continue to go back and forth on it. We tussled round and round on the issue, trying to clarify ourselves and make our points as clear as possible. Sophie continued to make the statement that atheism was a belief, to which I repeatedly replied that it wasn’t. I used a few classic analogies: If atheism is a belief, then not playing chess is a hobby; atheism is to belief what bald is to hair color; and so on. She changed her tune a bit to point out that she wasn’t talking about all atheism, just my atheism. Now we were on a different track. She switched from the word belief—which she correctly noted is a loaded term—to paradigm, and I felt much less like we were arguing when that happened. Atheism is a paradigm, just as religious belief is. We finally narrowed things down to a set of succinct points, which I’ll attempt to illuminate below.

Sophie’s ultimate idea was that I wasn’t just passively saying that I didn’t believe in God. Atheism is a big part of my life. It’s a part of my identity. And through my actions and my writings I continuously make it clear that I very fervently believe not only that I don’t have a reason to believe in God, but that I have reasons to believe there isn’t a God. I countered back, saying that I didn’t hold any such beliefs; that as many of my beliefs about the world as reasonably can be examined had been examined, and I was living a life in which I actively strove to learn the truth about the world. But it was a losing battle, and I knew it.

Because what I realized, ultimately, was that she was right.

She drew the following brilliant analogy: I have a map in my mind. This map dictates how I look at the world, how I understand and solve problems, and how I interpret what sort of actions I should take. It’s the roadmap for my life. When I was a Catholic, I had a huge “Catholic City” on my map, and all roads connected to and wove through that locale. When I began the process of deconverting and eventually adopted the mantle of “atheist” (which, as I’ve stated before, was a label I deliberately chose for myself), I changed a few of the roads on the outskirts and swapped out a street sign here or there, but in the end all I did was remove “Catholic City” from the map and replace it with “Atheist City”. She leveled this final accusation at me: despite my claims of neutrality on the issue, I put huge amounts of energy and effort into disproving religion where I can, rather than letting it exist until it interferes with my life. I am not a passive atheist. I am an active one.

And that’s true, I realized. Where I am intellectually is not the same as where I am emotionally. On an intellectual level, I am a “weak” atheist. I do not feel that I have any good reason to believe in God or other supernatural things, so I don’t. If evidence comes to light to the contrary, then I’ll consider it openly, and change my mind if the circumstances warrant. But emotionally, I’m a “strong” atheist. I feel strongly that God does not exist, that God cannot exist. I have reasons to hold this belief, but it is a belief, and there is some amount of—dare I say it?—faith involved in taking that stance. I want to line up these two aspects of myself, but for now, I remain unable to do so. It is as she said: my map still has “Atheist City” on it, and I pursue the spread of atheism in a similar manner to the way I pursued the spread of Catholicism.

All the fervor with which I lived my Catholic life was simply transferred to my atheist life. I recall that when I first decided I was an atheist, I desperately sought out companionship and community. I talked to all of my friends about their religious beliefs. I read hundreds of pages of atheist blogs. I started my own atheist blog, to give myself a voice with which to seek out others. As a Catholic I had a very strong support network. As an atheist, I have pretty much nothing. Nothing that compares, anyway. And while part of me doesn’t mind so much—no more obligations to do things that I don’t want to do every Sunday—part of me misses that sense of belonging to a bigger group. Perhaps my urge to evangelize my atheism is derived from a desire to obtain that sense of community again.

The reasons why my mental and emotional states do not line up are not fully understood, at least by me, but I do have a thought or two. One is that I simply don't know any other way to be. Given the fact that I developed most of my coping mechanisms, mental processing techniques, and other such intellectual devices within the confines of dogma, it’s not surprising that I would struggle to find other ways to analyze problems and events. Another possibility is that I’m acting in this manner as a response to my past life as a Catholic. I was so deeply embroiled in the Catholic world… and now I’m out. I suspect the strength of my aversion and distaste for spirituality in general and Catholicism in particular is an attempt to put as much distance between my past self and my present self as possible. Much like the college-bound rebellious teen with strict parents, I want to be everything that the forces that once controlled me aren’t. I want to be the anti-Catholic. The anti-religious. The anti-believer.

The antitheist, if you will.

But what’s so wrong with that? Tolerance is still important to me. I would never want someone to think that I will not tolerate them simply because of what they believe. Yet my actions do not correspond to what I just said, at times. I occasionally make fun of or mock believers, as if I’m better than them. This is wrong, and I need to stop doing it. Those instances are few and far between; for the most part I am very courteous to believers when I talk or debate with them. I suppose in the end it comes back to the point at which the whole debate with Sophie began: I am still trying to find a balance between letting others have their beliefs and trying to dissuade them from holding what I’ve concluded are incorrect understandings of the world. I made a similar counterpoint to Sophie about politics—she’s very active politically—to the following tune: why do you try to convince the other side that they’re wrong? Shouldn’t you just let them believe what they believe? They have votes, she countered. Ah, I replied, but so do believers, and believers use their beliefs to determine how their votes will be cast. I feel that the differences between these two things are minimal; political beliefs can and often are held with as much zealotry as any religious creed.

The bottom line here (for I do so love bottom lines): I am a much more active atheist than I realized. Sophie showed me that. I’ve made atheism a part of who I am, a part of my identity, a part of how I see myself. I am Dale. I am an atheist. Where I still need to reflect and grow in understanding is in the realm of expressing that atheism to others, and what role it plays in my life. More contemplation is necessary on this. Stay tuned.

ADDENDUM: I asked my dear Sophie to read over this piece for me and give me her feedback. Despite my best efforts to recreate our argument in full, I unfortunately misrepresented what she said on a few points, and I wanted to be sure that I did not put words in her mouth. Here is what she told me, in her own words.

Quote: "Sophie went on to say that atheism was a belief in the way the world worked, and had to be held with just as much faith as any religious conviction."

That's not what I said or meant to say. I recognized a large difference in degree. Maybe I didn't communicate that thoroughly.

Quote: "I used a few classic analogies: If atheism is a belief, then not playing chess is a hobby; atheism is to belief what bald is to hair color; and so on. She changed her tune a bit to point out that she wasn’t talking about all atheism, just my atheism."

My response to this was that you weren't just not engaging in religion, you were actively engaging in anti-religion. And I wasn't talking just specifically about your atheism, but about your flavor of atheism. And I didn't change my tune. I clarified.


  1. It's fascinating that we often don't have a clear idea of what we think until we explain it to someone else or write it down.

  2. Excellent point Paul. I agree. Sometimes it seems like we already understand it in our minds, but when we try to convey the "feel" of it, we discover that the ideas aren't as firmly formed as we thought. Condensing nebula is the expression that springs to mind.

  3. I haven't finished reading this fully yet (as I'm working), but wanted to say that I fully appreciate what you (two) were going through with this. My wife was raised in a non-theist household, which I sometimes feel makes it more difficult for her to fully understand the vehemence with which I approach theists.

    Greg Graffin makes an excellent point in his recent work: atheism is not really a belief system, it is a statement of anti-belief. It doesn't really give a good description of what you (we) ARE, only what we are not. He prefers to stick with Naturalist, as he is a firm believer in the "Natural" sciences. His writing is much better than my quick summary. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to get his book and read it.