In a couple of recent comments on this blog, Eclectic posed what I think is a worthwhile question and one that's worth gassing on about. Namely: Why is it important for atheists to have atheism as a positive identity?
Why do we have intense discussions and debates among ourselves about what to call ourselves -- atheist, agnostic, skeptic, bright, freethinker, naturalist, etc.?
And why is atheism central to our identity at all? Why would anybody identify themselves -- and form organizations, and join online forums, and gas on in their blogs -- because of what they don't believe?
Pertinent quote from Eclectic: "I just don't see how someone can define themselves in terms of atheism. I'm not religious in the same way that most people aren't butlers. You probably haven't noticed the lack." Second pertinent quote: "What activities do you engage in because you are a naturalist, as opposed to say, a lapsed but nominal christian or jew?"
I'd like to answer that question in two ways. First, in my regular voice, and second, in a sort of silly high-pitched whine. (Sorry. The Monty Python references have just been getting to me lately.)
For me, being an atheist isn't just about what I don't believe. In fact, this is one of the reasons that, while I prefer it to most alternatives, I'm not that crazy about the word "atheist." (The other reason is that "atheist" actually isn't strong enough for me. It's not just God I don't believe in -- I also don't believe in the soul, or reincarnation, or telepathy, or the ability to magically attract the things you want in your life just by thinking about them.) I personally prefer "naturalist" (i.e., someone who believes the natural, physical world is all there is)... but most people think that means, like, a park ranger or a botanist or something, so "atheist" it is.
So atheism isn't just about what I don't believe. Atheism is about what I do believe -- a philosophy of life that I think has some real differences from most theistic philosophies (although I also think there are areas of overlap, and the possibility of understanding and connection). It's more than just a belief that there is no God, no soul, no metaphysical energy, no afterlife. It's a belief in...
...what? I could gas on about that for hours and still not be done. But here are some of the high points:
I believe that the physical, natural world is all there is -- and I believe that it's enough. To me, the idea that, out of just atoms and molecules and time, galaxies and life and consciousness and self-awareness and creativity have somehow arisen... that is just awe-inspiring. When I hear people say things like, "There has to be more to the world than what we can see around us," I sometimes think to myself, "What more do you want?"
I believe that the physical, natural world is all there is -- and I believe that I am a part of it. I don't believe that humans have been set apart from the rest of the animal world with some special spiritual quality or purpose. I believe we are an animal species, in the vertebrate subphylum, in the mammalian class, in the primate order. I believe we have unique abilities -- but other living things have unique abilities as well (like coral and spiders and bats), and the fact that we have unique abilities doesn't make us unique. If that makes sense. I believe we have a unusual ability to radically transform our environment (and are often phenomenally short-sighted and stupid about how we go about this) -- but other species can and do radically transform the environment as well. (Read about earthworms sometime. Freaky. Plus there's the whole "plants were poisoning their air with that horrible toxic oxygen until animals evolved who could breathe it" thing…)
I believe that we are essentially an animal species -- and that therefore, genetic hard-wiring plays a significant role in how we behave, how we feel, how we think... in short, who we are. (We don't, for instance, swim upstream to our birthplace to spawn...) I think we have free will as well -- although I'm not sure exactly what that means or how it plays out in a natural cause-and-effect world -- but I think our brains and behaviors are, at the very least, powerfully influenced by genetics, both as individuals and as a species. And I think it's foolish of us to deny that.
I believe that I was unbelievably lucky to have been born at all. I believe that I was born, not because of some divine hand who wanted me to be here, but because of the larger process of natural selection, and the more immediate shuffling of my parents' genetic decks. I believe that the odds of me being born at all -- me as me, not as the sister or brother that could have been born instead of me -- were astronomical, and that it's entirely conceivable that I might not have been born at all.
And I therefore believe:
a) that on the cosmic scale, I'm just not that big a deal -- that while of course I'm the center of my own life, I'm very much at the periphery of everyone else's, and in the vastness of time and space I'm pretty much a dust speck on a flea. I believe that even if the universe were conscious and had the capacity to care about anything, it wouldn't particularly care all that much about me.
b) the flip side of that -- that if I want to be a person the world cares about and have the world be different because I was here, I bloody well have to make that happen myself.
c) that, as Richard Dawkins said, "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." I believe that just having been born makes me astoundingly, astronomically lucky -- and that therefore, griping about the fact that I'm going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping about the fact that it wasn't a hundred billion.
I believe that luck and random chance play an ENORMOUS part in our lives -- much larger than any of us (including myself) really like to acknowledge. And I therefore try not to feel too smug and entitled about every good thing that happens in my life -- or too guilt-ridden and responsible for every bad thing. (In particular, I try to remember that, as a white, healthy, middle-class, college-educated American, I pretty much won the privilege lottery when I was born, and that griping and whining about the petty annoyances in my life is really kind of pathetic. Not that I don't do it anyway... but when I catch myself, I try to knock it off.)
I sometimes think about the places I might have ended up living in instead of San Francisco -- Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, London. And I think about the people in those cities who would be my dearest friends now, who would have been my dearest friends for years, if I'd lived there instead of here. There's a part of me that wants to know those people, that feels the lack of them in my life -- and that recognizes how lucky I am to have the dear friends I have today, and how much it's a matter of chance that I know them at all.
Because I don't believe in a divine hand that put us here, I believe that the question "why are we here?" is essentially meaningless -- that we have no purpose in life except whatever purpose we make up ourselves. I don't, however, think that this makes our lives meaningless. It just makes meaning something we create for ourselves and one another, not something handed to us from outside. And I absolutely don't think that this somehow absolves us of moral obligation -- in fact, I think it underscores that obligation.
I believe that the human mind has a tremendous capacity for self-deception -- and that therefore, when we're trying to understand the world around us, we have to be very careful to quintuple-check our work. And I believe that the scientific method, while far from perfect, is, in the long run, one of the very best tools we have for doing this.
I believe that this life is all we have -- so we damn well better make the most of it. In my woo-woo hippie days, if I missed out on some great experience, I used to say things like, "Oh, well, I'll do that in my next life." I don't say that any more. And because I don't say that anymore, I consider the opportunities I run into a lot more carefully than I used to. I take advantage of them more than I used to; I try harder to really experience them and be in the moment of them... and when I do pass on them, I let myself feel the loss of it, so I'll remember it the next time I'm facing an opportunity, and can make a better decision as to whether I should take advantage of it or not.
I believe that this life is all we have -- so we have a moral obligation to improve it for each other as well as ourselves. I don’t think there's any pie in the sky for the homeless guy on the corner... so I try to help him out in this life.
I believe there are enormous, important areas and aspects of the world that we don't understand -- and that, while that can be profoundly unsettling, it's ultimately okay. I don't feel a need to fill in all the blank spaces in the coloring book with a blue crayon and call it God or divine energy or anything else. I am, of course, intensely curious about all the things we don't know, and one of the things I grieve over the hardest when I think about mortality is the fact that the central mysteries of our age -- what is consciousness, how did space-time begin -- are questions that I may well never know the answer to. But basically, I feel pretty okay looking at big questions and saying, "I don't know." And I think that, as a species, we stand a better chance of eventually answering these questions if we acknowledge that we don't already have the answers.
Now, of course I understand that at least some religious and spiritual believers have reached at least some of these same conclusions. There are religious believers who feel a moral obligation to make the world better; who try to make the most of their short lives; who feel lucky and grateful for the chance to be alive at all.
But -- and I could be wrong here -- I think there are very few, if any, religious believers who share all or even most of these beliefs. (Especially the ones about the universe not putting us here on purpose and not giving a damn about us one way or the other.)
And I think -- although again, I could be wrong -- that a good number of atheists share many or most of them, if not all.
So that's the first part of my answer to the question, "Why is my atheism so important to my identity?" The second part has to do with politics and society... but this post has already gone long enough, so I'll save the rest for tomorrow. (Don't worry -- tomorrow's post is shorter.)