The Many Faces of Atheism
As I have gone from theist to atheist the one thing that keeps coming up in discussions about what atheism is and how to better define it is whether or not there is such a thing as a strong or weak atheist, or a militant atheist, a naturalistic atheist, a Christian atheist, and so on and so forth.
Some people add descriptors to their atheism, to help define what they believe, or which worldview they lean toward. While others claim the description of atheism depends on which form of theism your are responding to. Both camps may turn out to be right.
On its surface, atheism is like a chameleon, it adapts to its surroundings, the situation, indeed, to the god it states it is rejecting or the theistic claim it is denying. But as many atheists have observed, at its most basic, atheism is just theism without.
Interestingly enough, however, I find that this revelation makes atheism all the more appealing to me--because it means we have here a highly adaptive belief (yes, believe it or not atheism is a form of belief) which contributes to a greater understanding of the world around us. But unlike religion, it doesn't claim to be a divinely revealed truth. In fact, atheism would happily confess its grand mistake if a supreme deity ever did come out with it and reveal "himself" to us. However, it is because atheism doesn't claim to be a revealed truth that it is in no danger of having to prove itself according to the claims it makes. Briefly, let me explain what I mean by this.
Monotheism, like the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all teach that there is one (and only one) God. Now, how do they know? Well, this is the revealed part of religion. A voice from the heavens supposedly came down to them, and said, "I am."
They responded, "Who?"
"I the Lord," the voice declared.
"Who are you Lord?" the multitudes inquired.
"I am who I am," said the Lord.
Nobody ever thought to ask the obvious follow-up question, which would have been, "Oh, Lord, pray tell, art though a smart ass or just a dessert wrought hallucination?"
Instead, these few desert dwelling folk, amid their bouts of heat stroke and fending off dehydration, clustered together in sun scorched caravans far from any recognizable oasis, and cowered in the dirt and worshiped. Nobody knows why for sure, or whether the God which appeared to them was real or just a figment of their sun baked imaginations, but regardless, they erected entire religions based on some very dubious accounts of what constitutes evidence. Indeed, to the modern educated man, these accounts all look like ridiculous myths, and rightly classifies them as such.
Even so, some forms of religion are resilient to skeptical inquiry and doubt. Not because they are true--but because they have become so good at adapting themselves that they have evolved into religions which can survive the environment around them. If the cultural environment becomes enlightened and free thinking, the religion becomes theologically sophisticated and liberal. If the environment consists of mainly uneducated women living under the patriarchy of uneducated and highly conservative men, then their religion reflects this too.
But no matter how much religion adapts itself... it will always be limited by the tenets and articles of faith which help to define it.
Monotheism, for example, must maintain a strict definition of what it means to believe in God. You can't believe in many gods, because that would be polytheism. You can't believe that god is everywhere and everything, because that would be pantheism. What this means, I think, should be clear enough. Religion is always defined by the sort of God (or gods) it presumes to be real. Whether or not these deities exist or not is besides the point--because the believer believes it without question--and in turn their beliefs are dictated by the type of God they imagine to be real.
It is for this very reason that belief in God so often interferes with the truth. If God is said to be a Creator being, and said to have created it all, then when science postulates creation happen perhaps another way, then the religious grow weary of science--not faith. Subsequently, superstition overrides common sense and metaphysical assumptions trump knowledge. The reason, I think, is obvious. If the religious questioned their faith every time they had a doubt, then their belief in God would likely prove meaningless. Not because their concept of God is no longer seemingly compatible with the view of reality they are asked to consider, but rather, because to question the type of God you believe in in the first place is to question the very thing which, as a believer, defines who you are and how you see the world.
Religion is highly adaptive, perhaps for this very reason, because when faced with contradictions or dilemmas, and sometimes even hard evidence which complicates or compromises the believer's faith--they set about attempting to rationalize ways to harmonize the current information with the information they hold to be sacred, revealed, truth. Truth is truth, after all.
This explains how religious defenses truly work. If God created it all, but then science postulates the "Big Bang" singularity spontaneously caused the universe to pop into existence from a previous state of nothingness--these conflicting theories lead to the harmonization that--through no fault of the believer (who pleads ignorance in the face of understanding something as magnificent as God)--it was God who sparked the big bang into existence. Thus faith is salvaged and science, which directly conflicted with their premise, has now become fully compatible. So much so that many believers are quick to use it as support for claiming things like "God is all powerful, beyond understanding, and transcendent, he is immutable, existing beyond the boundaries of space and time." The only problem is, there is no real way to argue against such claims, accept to point out that it seems awfully suspect that the religious, and religion in general, has to continually keep making them.
But somewhere in all this apologetics which try to save the truth from itself, is the crux of the matter. Because eventually you start to see the pattern in what religion can and cannot be. Then one day, you stop to realize that if the God which is claimed to be real was at all real, then the religion would not be limited in such a way. In other words, religion is bound to the limits of human understanding and imagination. Typically speaking, of course, the more primitive the human minds behind religion, the more primitive the religion. On the other hand, atheism is free to be anything--well--anything except for theism that is.
As such, atheism is not bound to human understanding or imagination the same way religion is. In fact, it seems to me to be the opposite. Understanding directly feeds atheism--whereas the lack of understanding, and the ignorance it generates, is what feeds religion.
Atheism, is for the lack of a better word, undefinable--it's unlimited. This makes it difficult to define, perhaps even futile (which is why I don't see the point in adding descriptors to the type of atheist you happen to be--but that's just me) yet at the same time, atheism makes is rather expansive in what it can be--or what it can become. Is there militant atheism? Sure there is. Is there naturalistic atheism? You bet. Christian atheism? I personally know few people who consider themselves Christian atheists. But to me, all of these facets of atheism merely represent different faces of the same thing (another reason I don't specifically feel the need to classify each category or variation of atheism). I think it's time we start to grow comfortable with the idea that there are many faces to atheism.
As atheism grows, matures, and adapts I am sure we will see many more varieties of atheism. I for one, see this as a good thing, because atheism offers more for less, and once people start realizing this more fully--well then, religion will really have to start to compete. Robert G. Ingersoll once sated, "No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science."
I think this description rings true. I've never once heard of a group of brilliant scientists holding a summit and then everyone walking out of it with a firm belief in some kind of deity. But you hear of primitive tribes, shamans, and occasionally uneducated charlatans concocting religions all of the time. All this goes to show that understanding is when we know enough to admit we really don't know that much at all, while religion is pretending to know more than we really can. Conversely, if there was enough evidence to establish the existence of a deity, of God, beyond an inkling of doubt, then atheism would never come to be. The very fact that atheism arises in the first place is a very strong indicator that God probably does not exist.
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