How to spot an Atheist, a definition of terms: Richard Dawkins’ God and Sam Harris’ critique of Atheism

This is a combination of a few posts, which seeks unsuccessfully to grapple with my non-religious-identifier. I know many of you probably have strong opinions on the subject, so please leave your comments.

What does it mean to be an Atheist? I don’t know. Although I’m aware of the contemporary movement known as “New Atheism”, I’m also aware that there is some discussion about what the word itself actually means. Some stick to a straight dictionary definition (the belief in no God/no belief in God), but it seems to me to refer to much, much more. The absence of a belief should have little effect on a person – they may demand the right not to believe but they probably wouldn’t, as many Atheists proudly do, directly confront, criticize and oppose religion.

Atheists believe many things, and I’m not sure that they can even be summed up into one catch-all phrase. They stand for a wide variety of politics and social movements. Am I an Atheist? Also no answer: I’ve always rejected the term and continue to do so, and yet for outspokenly criticizing traditional religion, I’ve often been branded as such.

Here’s what I can tell you: I don’t believe in the tyrannical, capriciously violent god of the Old Testament, and I also don’t believe in the kind and loving god-man of the new. However I don’t feel that this alone makes me worthy of the term. Do I deny the possibility of all gods? No. Yes I understand that this means I must also accept the possibility of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So be it. I’m not affirming its existence, I’m simply refusing to deny the possibility of it – for how indeed can I prove that it isn’t true (being unlikely, irrational and even “impossible” is not in itself a strong enough case for me to conclude the matter definitively.) The god Richard Dawkins takes great lengths to undermine in The God Delusion is the one that, as an evolutionary biologist, he feels can’t exist (the complex God that appeared without developing). Fine. He’s the expert, if he says so, it makes sense to me. But what about the gods of Greek and Rome – who almost always include a backstory about their development, formation, mutation, and deification? We know that the human body is made up of many separate tiny pieces that coexist indifferently to the the fact that together, they create a conscious human being. Is it impossible that we are somehow also involved in a similar arrangement? I will even concede that it may in fact be impossible – which does not negate the usefulness of the thinking exercise. Or what if the word “God” to me signifies a non-conscious, spontaneous relationship of matter in some as yet undiscovered sympathetic community; a concept akin to quantum physics and mysticism. Am I not allowed to use the word “God” for this? Must “God” refer only to the god that doesn’t exist?

Mostly however, coming from the field of comparative mythology and literature, I am not at all concerned with the issue of the existence of God. It is a non-issue for me. What matters is not at all whether God exists, but what people do and say in his name, how the idea of God influences society and culture, and whether it plays a harmful or helpful role in the development and continuation of the species.

All this is why, on the one hand, I prefer the terms “heretic” or “blasphemer” – which is personally very meaningful (read the manifesto). However, I also count myself as part of the contemporary anti-religious movement, and that movement is coming together in the name of science, reason and human rights under the umbrella title of “Atheism”. Since I support this movement and am not willing to bicker over insignificant details about my personal ideologies of divinity, and since I passionately defend an Atheist’s right to be an Atheist without social discrimination or prejudice, I’m displaying the “A” symbol on this site.

Part II: Sam Harris Speaks on Atheism

Here are a few passages I pulled from the following speech given by Sam Harris:

As a matter of philosophy, we are guilty of a confusion, and as a matter of strategy, I think we’ve walked into a trap… the whole discourse will continue to be successfuly marginalized under the banner of Atheism… So let me make my somewhat sedicious proposal explicit. We should not call ourselves Atheists… or anything. We should go under the radar, for the rest of our lives, and we should be decent people who criticize bad ideas.

Harris goes on to talk about spiritualism and mysticism and the unknown knowledge/benefit/awareness they may bring. He warns us of refusing to do our own experiential study about the possibilities claimed by, for example meditation or solitary confinement, and ends with an appeal to “intellectual honesty.”

To judge whether certain experiences are possible, and if possible desirable, we have to use our attention in the requisite ways. months at a time, 18 hours a day, pay undivided to arising of thought. No writing, talking, etc. Our neglect of these phenomenon puts us at a disadvantage. Millions of people have experience of these, if we reject these experiences because of their entanglement with religion, we appear less wise than even the craziest of our religious opponents. Intellectual honesty will always be more durable, deeper and more easily spread, than atheism.


  • Euan

    You are an atheist. An atheist has an absence of belief. I think you’re confusing the term atheist with gnostic, a gnostic knows.

  • Derek Murphy

    I got the following comment when Disqus was turned off, so I’ll answer it here:

    “You are an atheist. An atheist has an absence of belief. I think you’re confusing the term atheist with gnostic, a gnostic knows.”

    First: I don’t necessarily disagree. I do not have a belief in God. I do not have a belief in any Gods. So via the above definition, I should be an Atheist. But I also do not have any belief that there are NO gods – I believe neither one way or the other (either because I simply don’t care enough to do so, or I don’t think the evidence is overwhelming in either direction). So wouldn’t this make me an agnostic? I don’t think the term suits me: I agree that agnosticism is an intellectually safe choice, but I understand the criticism that it is “sitting on the fence” or refusing to take sides. And although I’m a mediator at heart, I’ll stand up for whatever side seems to be facing the most violent persecution or injustice at the time. Moreover, I have no qualms about attacking, refuting, denying or teasing “Gods”, whether or not they exist. In fact I suggest that even if a tyrannical, unjust God exists, it is right (though maybe not smart) to oppose him; which is why I like the term “blasphemer”. Or, because I don’t necessary refuse all religious ideas (but certainly would interpret all of their stories as metaphors for personal growth), the title “heretic” appeals to me.

    If Atheist is the simple absence of belief, it is almost meaningless (as Sam Harriss pointed out (I’ll insert the video above) some day “Atheist” will be recognized as nonsensical, like someone claiming to be a “non-racist”. But actually, regardless of textbook, classical definitions, Atheism today, for better or for worse, does refer to a much broader set of ideals, worldviews, and even passionate anti-religious agendas. Why refer to my absence of belief in God as Atheism when it gives Christians an easy title to identify, bracket, criticize and silence me? I support the fact that a movement is needed, that non-religious need to come together as a force (so I’m displaying the “A”), but why introduce myself as Atheist to a Christian who will then immediately ignore everything I say, any logical argument I put out – not because of the words but because of the prejudice and misconception surrounding the term?

  • Adam Sweet

    The only similarity between atheists is our lack of belief in a god or gods. That’s about it.

    I am atheist. I was born that way. Nobody in my family believe in magic or magical thinking. I grew up without being exposed to lies and hypocrisy of religion. I know many people who were/are not as lucky as I. I am a teacher and I have students, children, whose parents are subjecting them to the brainwashing that is religion. I have to be careful not to speak my mind about it during class, but if a child asks me a question about religion, or if a parent brings up the topic, then I will state as clearly as I can that there has never been proof of a god or gods and until that day that said proof is presented and it can be tested using science, I will not join the ranks of believers.

    • Derek Murphy

      Thanks for your story! Good luck with your journey – I know of several teachers that have been sued for anti-Christian statements in class.

  • Malay Atheist

    What you are is an agnostic atheist. You have no belief in god, at least not in the various traditional definitions of the word; but, you don’t affirm or assert any claim to knowledge of the non-existence of such an entity or entities.