Sunday, March 29, 2009

Atheism--I'm serious about the A

I keep reading various conservative meditations on What Atheism Really Is or The Function of Atheism or the Meaning of Atheism or what have you--atheism as a function of some other cultural phenomenon, as a path to religion or self-consciously away from it, as a retreat, an excuse, a denial, a certain laziness, and on and on and on.

It gets my back up.

Not because all of the characterizations or critiques I read are inherently negative (though many of the examples and imitations I listed are); not all of them are, and most conservative thinkers that I read are already fair-minded and cautious enough that it's unlikely to catch them in wrathful denunciation of atheism. Even when it is negative, I don't find it surprising that religious people may find atheism intellectually, morally, or spiritually bankrupt; and within their philosophies I don't blame them.

No, my problem is with the seeming necessity that atheism mean or represent something more than what it is. Some self-proclaimed atheists, I think, are guilty of this also, though I speak with less confidence here because I have not followed the work of active--one might almost say missionary--atheists.

I have not followed their work for exactly the same reason I get annoyed with these speculations: I don't care. I thought that was what it meant to be an atheist: not only is there no god, but there doesn't need to be, and it doesn't matter. Therefore, exactly why I believe there to be no god, or the fact that others think there is, makes no difference to me. If I felt the need to argue about it much, I think that would represent a certain uncertainty on my part and I would probably start calling myself an agnostic in fairly short order.

Does the indifference I describe lack principle and motive force to such an extent that it does not deserve even the distinction of an "ism"? Is my perception of the world different enough from, say, Hitchens' that he is an atheist and I am a noncombatant?

It's possible to make that case, intellectually. But I reject it, largely because I am sick and tired of the implication that is impossible really, truly, without denial, vehemence, or even consciousness, to bypass the God Question altogether. I have never once contemplated whether there is a god; just as some believers know in their hearts that there is one, I am quite certain and satisfied that there isn't. I recognize that this represents a leap of faith, but I can't say that my "faith" informs my life: I think that would require thinking about it when not directly prompted by someone else. Even being faced with others' religiosity prompts in me only the curiosity of the anthropologist.

When I say I am an atheist, I mean that I do not think there is a god, higher power, grand deity, cosmic energy, life force, whatever. Moreover, I mean that I consider the whole question nonessential. That is all I mean. I wish other people could stop making it into something more meaningful for the sake of their own spiritual or philosophical comfort; it's very frustrating. I neither want nor need meaning imbued in the term that best describes my religious/spiritual orientation. It's analogous to, say, my trying to tell Andrew Sullivan what it really means to be Catholic, or what it says about him that he calls himself one. No one likes a know-it-all.

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