Saturday, January 8, 2011

Terminology

       I’ve struggled with where I wanted to go with this next post; after the initial explanations of the core issues of purpose and timing, there are many issues that have been bouncing around in my head over the last few weeks, months, years, and each is the base of a limb with many branches. None of them are my own original idea, but I try to put my own take into each, and some are things some readers who know me well may have heard me say before, but each is intertwined with the others and each is equally vital. However, I feel it may be necessary to discuss my reluctant use of the common name for a minority ideological position that I hold, as my grounding for understanding the world is not necessarily derived from the same sources as that of many people.

       I have a problem with the terms “atheism” or “atheist.” Nowhere else in my self-descriptions will you find any other –isms, -ists, or –ians (the expectation to reduce oneself to a series of these being only one of the intellectual handicaps the MyFace era imposes on us). Others may find these labels useful, or comforting, or may even actually be that thing, so much as it is possible for a human to be anything other than just that. My own personal conviction, however, is that generally speaking, the assumption of an intellectual, philosophical, political or religious moniker is the first step towards the shutting down of one’s mind. (This will be the subject of a later post.) Ironically, however, I have a particular beef with the terms “atheism” and “atheist,” yet find these difficult to avoid when describing myself.

      My distaste for the terms is the same that is shared by many of the so-called New Atheists, which is that it defines itself by what it is not. Theism is the term given to any belief that includes a supreme being who interferes in the world through magic and miracles. A-theism then is not believing in that proposition. However, this makes it seem as though the default position of human thought should be belief in magic and superstition, and if you don’t accept that, you get a special label. Historically speaking, this is of course true. Belief in magic, miracles, gods and goddesses is as old as humanity itself. Since the beginning of recorded history with the Sumerian invention of writing about 6,000 years ago, humanity has invented thousands of gods and goddesses that historians have been able to identify. Many people now only believe in one of those deities, rejecting the other thousands minus one. I reject one more. But this is a special line to cross, and one which earns you a special name.

        But the problem is that although it is the historical default position, it is not the logical default position. This is not uncommon. Historically, the default positions on women have been that they are intellectually inferior to men, and thus shouldn’t vote or hold public office, are spiritually inferior and thus have no souls (ironically, they were right about this one) are sexually inferior and so should be treated like chattel, or have their clitoris removed, or are incapable of orgasm… you get the point. It doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power or observation to falsify any of these statements. Men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, but neither sex is categorically inferior to the other.

      Regarding belief in a deity who interferes in favor of my favorite football team when I ask him to, or who cares whether the animal I have braising on the stove has cloven hooves or not (pulled pork tomorrow, mmm…), or whether my ears were scrubbed properly when I bent in submission, it doesn’t really make sense that I should have to attach a label to myself that says, “Yeah, I don’t accept any of that.” I don’t define myself as an a-vampires, a-werewolves, a-ghosts, a-ESP, a-telepathy, a-alien abduction, a-reincarnation, a-magic 32-year old white male. When someone believes in something that no one has ever seen, and can’t be verified in any way, it real isn’t the job of the rest of us to make a point of stating that we don’t believe in it.

      Nor is it our responsibility to justify why we don’t believe. It is the job of the person who believes in something the other person can’t see to explain why they do believe. Personally, I've been in the business of not believing for well over a decade, and have many, many reasons for not doing so. I consider them to be  completely compelling. But those in the business of believing inevitably feel the need to ask, "Why don't you believe?" When you're ready do explain exactly why you do, I'll gladly give you an equal number of reasons why I don't.

      Unfortunately, due to the evolutionary accident (likely though it is) that our species is inclined towards recognizing patterns that aren't there and assigning supernatural explanations to them, I am in the minority (though it grows) and reluctantly accept the fact that I must label my non-belief. Yes, I am atheist.

      (I have to give comedian Ricky Gervais credit for some of the statements here. He didn't say anything I wasn't already thinking, but he made me laugh.)

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