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.