As some readers know, I try pretty hard to keep my personal atheism and humanism out of my work in skepticism. Generally I don’t discuss those topics from skeptical platforms like Skepticblog, unless it is to discuss the historical and conceptual boundaries between parallel rationalist movements. Scientific skepticism just isn’t the appropriate platform for me to promote or evangelize for my personal non-scientific theological beliefs. When I do talk about atheism, it is usually in the context of arguing, as I do at length in my recent two-chapter piece “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF) that conflation between atheism and skepticism misrepresents the ongoing religious diversity of the skeptical community and misdirects or erodes the important work that the skeptical movement was organized to pursue.
But today I want to take off my skeptic’s hat again for a moment, and write here instead in my personal capacity as an atheist. I hope you’ll forgive the digression.
I’ve been an “out” atheist for more than 20 years. British Columbia’s a pretty secular place, but you know the drill: living openly as a religious nonbeliever causes some friction almost anywhere. Conflicts with family. That intense woman yelling at you on the bus. That time the wedding dress saleslady made that nasty little scoffing noise at my wife, and cast a small, cold shadow over the most beautiful day of our lives. Atheism may not be a civil rights issue in much of the western world, but atheists know all too well that we face bigoted attitudes both from individuals and from the wider culture.
Some of you know that despite that bigotry—or rather, because of it—I feel little personal affiliation with movement atheism, which does not always extend the tolerance and kindness and dignity toward my religious loved ones that I seek for myself and my nonreligious loved ones. For that reason, it’s been a long time since I felt much in the way of atheist pride. I work in skepticism and identify with humanism, but I merely am an atheist whether I like it or not.
Recently, though, my disconnection from atheism has begun to heal, at least a little, with the rise of voices like Chris Stedman who seem to me to speak more closely to my values. As I think more on the common experience and common challenges of people who live without religion, and find myself drawn again to the defense of the human dignity and complexity and value of atheists, I can’t help but think:
Please, people, try not to lump us atheists in with the skeptics. It’s not a good fit, and it undermines atheists.
Don’t get me wrong—skeptics are just fine, so far as they go. I know some skeptics myself. They’re an eccentric lot, but their hearts are generally in the right place.
As an atheist, though, I have to say this very clearly: skeptics are not the same as atheists. Using the term “skeptic” to say “atheist” is not a matter of employing a synonym, but of concealing one’s atheism behind a euphemism. At worst, this euphemistic language may sometimes be a cynical strategic or political dodge; at best, it is a missed opportunity to forthrightly say, “I’m an atheist, and that’s OK.” As SkeptiCamp founder Reed Esau has put it, “Couching one’s atheism in words other than ‘atheism’ does not exhibit confidence for one’s brand. It’s akin to calling a Gay Pride event a ‘Happy’ event. Sure there are many happy people present, but that isn’t really the point, is it?”1
I’m not willing to be in the closet in that way, and I don’t have to be. My circumstances allow me to be open about my beliefs. I embrace Richard Dawkins’ call to “renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism,” though not because I have any great fondness for the label. Honestly, I wince a little when I hear the word “atheist”—not because it is taboo, but because I am so uncomfortable with the anti-theism, exceptionalist rhetoric, and sometimes even overt religious bigotry to be found within the atheist movement. Yet there’s no getting around the sheer fact of the thing: I am an atheist. I’m even a fairly “hard” or “strong” atheist: I don’t just withhold assent to religious claims, but actively believe that gods and souls and miracles and afterlives do not exist. I can’t demonstrate empirically that my beliefs are correct (as a skeptic, I refuse to pretend I can) and I don’t care if you share them or not—but I believe what I believe, and I’m not hiding.
The Religious Diversity of Skeptics
The “skeptic” euphemism in particular is an especially problematic one for atheists to adopt. To begin with, an awful lot of active movement skeptics believe in god—something like a fifth to a third, depending on the measure. For example, in a 1995 survey of Skeptics Society members, 35 percent answered the question, “Do you think there is a God (a purposeful higher intelligence that created the universe)?” with responses of “Very likely” or “Possibly.” In a more precise 1998 followup survey of Skeptics Society members conducted by Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway, 18 percent of the 1,700 respondents said “Definitely yes” or “Very likely yes” there is a god.2 Recent surveys of attendees of the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amazing Meeting conference similarly find that almost a third of TAM-goers identify as something other than atheist or agnostic. Skepticism’s religious diversity is longstanding and will certainly continue, because the largest skeptical organizations, media, and events are organized around scientific skepticism. As Shermer explained about the mission of my own organization, for example, “membership or involvement in any capacity with the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine is not exclusionary. We could not care less what anyone’s religious beliefs are. In fact, at least two of our more prominent supporters—the comedian and songwriter Steve Allen and the mathematician and essayist Martin Gardner—are believers in God. Other members of our board may believe in God as well. I do not know. I have never asked.”3
The True Face of Atheism
But there is a more important point to be made here, a point I rarely hear expressed: many atheists do not share the beliefs, views, or attitudes that skeptics promote. Sure, some of us do. It happens for example that I personally wear a “skeptical activist” hat when I’m not wearing my atheist or humanist hats. It’s my personal belief that paranormal and fringe science claims can and should be investigated using the tools of science and critical scholarship; that very few of those claims amount to very much because paranormal phenomena are either very rare or nonexistent; and that science is useful and good and worth promoting.
But I know that my fellow atheists have a very broad range of positions on those topics. (On every topic, in fact, except one.) Nor are the atheists who hold paranormal or pseudoscientific beliefs some sort of dismissible fringe within the atheist community. The opposite is true: we can be confident that a majority of people without theistic beliefs are paranormal believers, just as is true for the hefty majority of the population at large. As Bader et al wrote regarding the findings of the Baylor Religion Survey,
Outside the halls of the academy a broader stereotype is often applied to paranormal believers—people who believe in or have experienced the paranormal are “different.” People who do not believe in the paranormal are perceived to be normal; those who believe in paranormal topics are considered weird, unconventional, strange, or deviant.
There is a big problem with this simplistic assessment—believing in something paranormal has become the norm in our society. When asked if they believe in the reality of nine different paranormal subjects including telekinesis, fortune-telling, astrology, communication with the dead, haunted houses, ghosts, Atlantis, UFOs and monsters, over two-thirds of Americans (68%) believe in at least one. In a strictly numerical sense, people who do not believe in anything paranormal are now the “odd men out” in American society. Less than a third of Americans (32%) are dismissive of all nine subjects.4
Some have speculated (or perhaps hoped) that such paranormal beliefs could be less prevalent among religious non-believers, but there’s very little support for that. The Baylor survey, for example, found that that respondents claiming no religion were resolutely in the middle of the pack: nones were roughly as likely (67 percent) to affirm at least one paranormal belief as other groups—slightly less likely than the Catholic or Mainline Protestant groups (both 71 percent), and slightly more likely than the Evangelical (64 percent) and Jewish (62 percent) groups.5 Similarly, in a 2003 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion study, Tom W. Rice found little sign of a consistent or strong statistical relationship between paranormal and theistic beliefs. He noted,
It is also interesting that more than half of the respondents who do not believe in the traditional religious items do believe in many of the classic paranormal items. … This suggests that millions of Americans are doubters when it comes to traditional Christian paranormal dogma, but have no problem believing in classic paranormal phenomena.6 [Emphasis added]
Learning that someone is an atheist tells you next to nothing about their paranormal beliefs…except that they probably have some. It just isn’t the case that atheists view the world through a lens of thoroughgoing naturalism. By and large, we don’t.
Look, I understand the temptation to position atheists qua atheists as especially science-minded or naturalistic or rational. Atheists have been kicked around some, historically. We face a good deal of bigotry today. And, we see a lot of people believing a lot of things that we cannot—things that many of us personally consider preposterous. We’ve been told that we’re blind, damaged, wicked, foolish. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”7 We rightly reject such ugly bigotry—and in rejecting it, we face the dark, all-too-human temptation to reflect it back again. Maybe they’re the “foolish” ones! Maybe atheists are more “rational,” more “scientific,” perhaps even smarter than religious people.
We’ve all heard atheists succumb to that temptation. Perhaps you’ve done it yourself, as I have, in younger days. But we shouldn’t.
To promote the belief that atheists are different than other people does nothing but undermine our humanity. It denies the human complexity of religious nonbelievers. In doing so, it sells out atheists.
This is true—harder to see, but still true—even when the difference we claim sounds positive.
I often meet resistance when I say that atheists should not accept or promote the stereotype that atheists are very clever and fierce, as the New Atheism and the atheist blogosphere seems strongly inclined to do. I’m always surprised by this resistance, because exceptional fierceness and superior cleverness are not the reality of atheists overall. It isn’t even our narrative: the caricature of the acerbic, ultra-rational atheist is a bigoted stereotype that intolerant religious people use against atheists.
And I reject it. Atheists are not “different.” We are not Other. We are just regular people who happen to hold a minority viewpoint on some theological questions. What of it? Minority religious viewpoints are a dime a dozen. Atheism neither makes us less nor more than anyone else, and atheists are ill-served by anyone who tries to say it does. We are not stereotypes, but people—people with every bit of the diversity and complexity of any other large group of human beings.
We atheists pay taxes, and dodge them. We are polite and rude, young and old, kind and cruel. We are doctors and dancers, forklift drivers and cooks and politicians. We vaccinate, and we fear to. We fall in love with science, or are indifferent, or reject it as narrow, reductionist myopia. We atheists see ghosts, and read tea leaves, and recover memories of alien abductions. We write bad plays, transcendent novels, grocery lists. We suck at math, commit crimes, overlook the obvious, find ourselves unable to reason our way out of a paper bag. Just like everybody else.
We atheists are as wicked, as wooly-headed, as foolish and magical as anyone else—and as noble, and as compassionate, and as brilliant.
Why? Because atheists are just like everybody else.
- Esau, Reed. “Taking Pride in One’s Brand.” IndieSkeptics, October 14, 2010. http://indieskeptics.com/2010/10/14/taking-pride-in-ones-brand/ (accessed April 9, 2013)
- Shermer, Michael. How We Believe. (New York: W.H. Freeman/Owl, 2003.) pp. 74–76
- Ibid. pp. xiii–xiv
- Bader, Christopher D., F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2011), p.129
- Ibid. p.93, Fig. 4.2
- Rice, Tom W. “Believe It Or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42:1 (2003) p. 104
- The Bible. Psalm 14:1. Revised Standard Version