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Atheist identity…?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on September 12, 2013

portion of our show with Randolph. Not all of it got on the show, but worth reading. >

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<Don>

1) Is there an atheist identity?  The idea of not believing something should not, in itself and in isolation, constitute and identity.

<Randolph>

I regard atheism as merely the classification of the “absence of theism,” which implies “absence of belief in deities and supernatural agents.” Nothing more. Nothing less. Exempt from carrying any burden of proof, because it makes no claims about anything, it is entirely unimposing and non-oppressive.

Although I am an atheist, I can’t agree with there being any such thing as an “atheist identity” due to the lack of any doctrine and because there are so many different factors that could be used to identify people. The problem I see with assuming that there is an “atheist identity” is that it implies conformity, which requires extending the meaning of “atheism” beyond the mere classification that it is.

Freethinking and open-minded are two personality traits among many atheists who I know that I think also make it very difficult to create any sense of “atheist identity.” Add skepticism to this list of traits and you’ve now introduced a potential divide between “skeptical” and “non-skeptical” atheists. Although skepticism certainly does play an important role for many who prefer that their choice to be an atheist be rationally justified, it’s not actually required since people can also freely choose to be atheists for non-skeptical reasons as well as for no reason at all.

<Don>

Let me ask you then, isn’t, from what i read as your perspective, the concept of atheist meaningless…it holds no more meaning than saying i am a a-football-enthusiast or a-capitalist?

<Randolph>

That’s right.  It is our conversations about atheism, and sports, and political systems that give them meaning.  It is the power granted by people to sports heroes and politicians that make them influential and effective in a way that makes their meaningfulness real.

<Don>

I think i would counter by focusing on the very thing you seem to trivialize or see as secondary to atheism and that is Skepticism.

From my perspective, an atheist who does not believe ‘just because’ is making no more a statement than “i don’t like broccoli”.

That the rejection of a belief system, which is imposed upon us…more on that later…without cause, is no more intellectually honest than saying “the market will solve all our problems because it’s good” full stop!

<Randolph>

When people say that they are atheists, the statement they’re making is that they aren’t theists, so there definitely is a statement being made.

Atheism should be trivial, but it isn’t because there are strong market forces that have designs to eliminate it.  Just as some religions try very hard to rule the world, commercial market forces seem to create more problems than they solve, and that’s probably why we have so many regulations.

However, I do think that atheism is a very large demographic, and it’s a demographic that’s growing rapidly now, and I think more access to education and information is part of the reason for this.

<Don>

2) Does a religious culture force an identity on us?  For example, are there parallels between being an atheist in a “Christian” nation, or being gay is a straight nation … identity is thrust upon us because we are different.

<Randolph>

Indeed some people do try impose identities on atheists, perhaps to vilify or isolate, just as some try to isolate people for other reasons such as the ones you mentioned, and I think it’s a shame that such intolerance is commonly permitted.

<Don>

I am not sure i agree so much with the idea of “isolate” as opposed to ignore. I think one of the reasons for the ‘atheist backlash’ is not religion so much wanting to suppress atheist but atheist demanding equality.

In that context…by forcing us to demand our right. Again in parallel to queer rights or even racial equality. It is an odd conjunction of both being ‘different’ from the norm as well as demanding not only recognition but equality. Your Thoughts?

<Randolph>

            I think people are demanding freedom, and religion often becomes an adversary to this because it espouses values and virtues that require imposing restrictions and limitations.

            I don’t think equality is a realistic possibility, but I think striving for the fair and equal treatment of people is.  I think that’s the real goal that equality advocates are fighting for.

<Don>

I find it interesting…that in their attempt to both ‘pigeon-hole’ or ghetto-ize athiests, they have often attempted to use the ad hominem attacks…labeling us as a Religion or just as dogmatic as…i don’t know…the Pope.

<Randolph>

Occasionally I also encounter the assumption that atheism is dogmatic or is a belief system that actively opposes belief in deities, and I don’t agree with this application of the “guilt by association” logical fallacy on atheists as if we’re all anti-theists, especially since there are many atheists who aren’t opposed to theism.  In case that seems a bit confusing, because certain terms suffer from varying definitions, consider that the word “theism,” which, when combined with the prefix “anti” to make the word “antitheism,” gains an emphatically “oppositional” property. On the other hand, the “a” prefix, when combined with “theism” to make the word “atheism,” merely indicates the impartial “absence” of theism.

After dividing people into different groups or fitting them into various “identities,” I find it interesting that other efforts to find similarities eventually begin to materialize. It’s as if there’s a “make work” project at play somehow, although I suspect it’s more likely a desire for human kinship and the prevention of loneliness. Although labels and identities are helpful as they are an important part of language and the free exchange of information, the use of labels for nefarious purposes can also have an equally unhelpful effect.

Instead of fostering division, I prefer to embrace diversity as an important strength that depends on personal differences, particularly on a rather large scale, which conformity tends to limit or prevent. Conformity, when escalated to reject diversity, can foster social problems by ostracizing and dividing people. If more efforts were focused on inclusion rather than exclusion, then I think society could be much healthier as a whole.

And that’s one of the beauties of atheism it doesn’t impose expectations. There are no minimum or maximum requirements in any category, aside from “not being a theist,” and since being a theist is also optional, at least in countries like Canada and the USA that value freedom constitutionally, people can choose to be atheists, theists, or anti-theists

as often as they like, and for as long as they like. The most important point is that people don’t necessarily have to accept an identity that’s been thrust upon them, and I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy to try to live up to someone else’s arbitrary expectations, no matter how strongly it’s imposed.

<Don>

Again, i will make the charge…yes, i am an evangelical fundamentalist atheist…the charge that if you have not become an atheist for the ‘right reasons’ you are…well a weak atheist, that if your disbelief has no foundation, then you belief may equally be found?
That without that intellectual honesty, non-skeptical atheist is just…well, a fashion choice.

<Randolph>

            I’m not convinced that atheism needs a foundation, or any justification at all.  The expectation of “being an atheist for the right reasons” is, to me, entirely optional.  Although I have great respect for people like you for having strong, solid, rational reasons to be atheists, I don’t favour making it a requirement because, fundamentally, I don’t consider atheism to be a position that needs defending since it can stand on its own merits — of which the only one I’m aware of is the “absence of theism.”

            To say that it is “without intellectual honesty” is okay with me too because I assume that “dishonesty” is not intended since you very cleverly didn’t call it “intellectual dishonesty.”  As far as non-skeptical atheists are concerned, although I feel that skepticism is a valuable skill that all people should learn because it is so valuable, I see no reason to bar people from using something akin to a mere “fashion choice” to justify atheism.  I think people should have the freedom to make this choice.

<Don>

But what about being “lumpted in”. Some skeptics and free thinkers do not like that term not because they do not believe in these concepts but because some people also call them selves skeptics, for example, but express that term to support that 9/11 was an inside job. Valid guilt or tarnishment by association. If you use that label, is it not in your own best interest that the word maintain its true meaning?

<Don>

3) Do atheists practice the Golden Rule?

<Randolph>

Many try to, but I think the Golden Rule is flawed. The rule that I live by is to “intend to treat others as they prefer to be treated.” This is very different from The Golden Rule, which emphasizes YOU treating others as YOU wish to be treated, which I regard it as flawed because people have different preferences which are sometimes so varied that treating others based on our own standards is actually problematic. For example, consider sexual preferences: The range of interests is so vast from one person to the next that even sexual orientation can seem like a minor point, and this is where The Golden Rule doesn’t work very well, particularly between a straight couple since each partner is attracted and satisfied in different ways.

<Don>

I would add to that affirmative action and race equality…or economic inequality.

<Randolph>

To me, “human solidarity” is most important, but unfortunately division, discrimination, and intolerance work against it. To be human typically includes the ability to question, to think, and to judge, all of which flies in the face of conformity, and this solidarity also notably includes options to celebrate and otherwise enjoy the benefits of being oneself in any manner as one sees fit. As long as that doesn’t include oppressing or harming others against their will, it could be a utopia. I believe that this is where empathy and compassion become major factors, and are also what I’d regard as common traits in human identity which atheism clearly doesn’t try to limit or control.

The values that I hold dear include not oppressing or exploiting others, but trying to be helpful when they need help, offering friendship when they’re alone, and protecting them when they’re in need of nurture. These are all traits that I suspect come naturally to many people, which I regard as some of the finest hallmarks of humanity, and which my alternative to The Golden Rule wholeheartedly embraces the “intent to treat others as they prefer to be treated.”

<Don>

4) Hypothetically, could atheism ever be eradicated?  Why or why not?

<Randolph>

No, not without ending all life. The reason for this is that the alternatives to atheism, theism and antitheism, requires effort by their followers, preachers, and other advocates to practice, protect, and promote it. Atheism is a natural characteristic of life and consciousness, and since consciousness begins without knowledge so it is that atheism persists naturally, at least initially, and as a matter of course regardless of whether it’s labeled. One can deviate from it by becoming a theist, but it will always be an option that is easy to fall back on at any time. On the other hand, every theism is always at risk of being eradicated, even if only by attrition.

Martin Luther once said that “all belief systems ossify over time.” This has happened throughout history which shows examples of religions that have disappeared, for various reasons, including being replaced by other religions. Although I’ve heard that some are making a comeback recently, such as Hellenic Polytheism which worships Zeus and Apollo, and the other Olympian deities, and Asatru which worships Thor and Odin, and so on, it doesn’t appear that these are major trends.

The reason that theism is at risk of being eradicated and atheism isn’t is that any belief in deities requires having knowledge of deities, which must first be learned or invented. It’s required by theism and, to a degree, antitheism, yet atheism is free of these requirements each person starts their life as an atheist without even realizing it, and only truly becomes aware of what it means to not be a theist after learning about theism.

So … the “atheism” label is mostly only necessary when identifying those who aren’t theists, and most likely wouldn’t even recognize it if there weren’t any theisms in the first place. Would that change the fact that every person starts out as an atheist? Obviously not, but this fact also wouldn’t be important, relevant, or significant in the absence of a suitable concept like theism to compare it with, and so atheism will always be immune to eradication.

<Don>

So how do you explain “natural” religion?  As much as it is a pebble in the shoe of atheism, it is undeniable that some form of ‘supernaturalism’ seem to be, forgive the irony, natural. I think we agree that children are born atheist, but it is also true…based on the history of humanity, that we have a predilection to beliefs in supernatural forces…be it Jesus or simply the thunder god of lightning or the rain..

<Randolph>

            I recall a debate wherein Christopher Hitchens pointed out that humans are pattern-seeking mammals.  I think he’s right, and that there’s a tendency for people to seek explanations and default to assumptions instead of leaving questions unresolved.

            Religion is an example of one such assumption, and I regard it as man-made.  The various stories about Jesus Christ, or Thor and his glorious hammer, are two examples of stories that gained a lot of popularity.  The desire for a “higher power” probably helps many people feel less alone in the universe, but it’s not one that I find necessary in my life.

<Don>

5) Do you think that atheism is good for children?  If so, why?  How does it factor into parenting?

<Randolph>

Yes, atheism is definitely good for children. This is because it leaves children free to question everything without intellectual limits, to learn about the world without inhibitions, to be creative without arbitrary boundaries, to enjoy life without irrational fears, and to make friends without irrelevant expectations that are handed down by some ancient tradition based on superstition or a phobia of the unknown.

As a parent, I am convinced that it is my duty to ensure that both of my daughters are really good at learning and problem solving, to inspire them to explore and discover the world around them, and most importantly to also understand themselves although only they can do that honestly, as a parent I am in the ideal position to encourage them and try to guide them in this direction while also nurturing critical and independent thinking skills.

Teaching children to respect themselves and develop their own set of expectations, instead of living up to a set of values and virtues espoused by an imagined authority that relies on guilt trips and scare tactics to force its will upon others, is how atheism factors into parenting. If my children become theists later in life, it won’t change the fact that I still love them as my children, and they know this; our older daughter even asked us about this during dinner one night, and that was our answer. To me, this is also how atheism factors in to parenting, not as tolerance, but as care and acceptance, and respect for children to think freely for themselves.

<Don>

Some would argue…okay, i would argue, that its not ATHEISM that one should teach children but SKEPTICISM…that is they have their rational tool kit…the baloney detector…that a) atheist will be evaluate but also they will be better educated to deal with a world of dubious claims and charlatans?

<Randolph>

            Yes, you’re right, and I agree that skepticism should be the focus because atheism alone doesn’t inspire skepticism.  I regard atheism as “incidental” to skepticism, although, as Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience once observed, “skepticism ultimately leads to atheism.”

Being armed with critical thinking skills is, in my strong opinion, one of the best defenses against the charlatans and quack medical practitioners, and so on, but as it is with most things, skepticism is a skill that requires practice, and it’s one of the reasons Radio Free Thinker is so important – because it provides real-world examples of how to be skeptical, or at least that’s the main reason I’ve become a fan of the show.

<Don>

6) Can you expand on how you teach your own children about ethics and morals, etc., without religious guidance?

<Randolph>

I think it’s wrong. Creationism isn’t science, it’s mythology, so teaching it as if it were science is inappropriate, especially considering the mountains of evidence and logical explanations available that have been gained from its science-based adversary, the Theory of Evolution.

What has been discovered by studying and further developing Charles Darwin’s contributions has helped humankind tremendously. It has even lead to medical scientific advancements like evolutionary medicine that help develop better medicinal remedies in a more adaptive, and possibly predictive, manner. Although I have to admit that this isn’t one of my areas of specialization, it strikes me as wonderful that our species has come this far, and also that we’re still making new discoveries. It’s one of many truly exciting frontiers, and I fear that this constant demand to invade childhood education with religious proselytizing will seriously jeopardize the future, especially if it results in the complete removal of skepticism from the curriculum.

<Don>

7) Some people credit their deities as the source of morality, and claim that without religion people can’t know what is moral. Can you expand on how you teach your own children about ethics and morals, etc., without religious guidance?

<Randolph>

Children, particularly the younger ones, tend to want to please the adults in their lives, and so I feel that it’s very important to teach them “how to think for themselves” rather than “what to think” as dictated by others. Although my wife and I teach them values such as honesty and skepticism, which are complimentary, along with many other virtues that we think will be helpful to them in the future, we also teach them the importance of trying to understand what the possible future consequences of their choices may be, and to also try to consider other options even when the immediate choices facing them seem correct or reasonable.

You see, there are often “grey areas” that are left out when one is presented with a limited set of options, and we believe that making sure children are aware of this fact before they reach their teens ultimately helps them to make better and more intelligent decisions when they’re older.

By thinking about the consequences of one’s choices, and being aware of what’s commonly expected in society, morality comes naturally as a self-determined exercise in free will influenced by empathy and the desire to get along well with others. Religions, on the other hand, provide rigid predetermined sets of values and virtues, but I don’t think that makes them universally moral, contrary to the same common claims that morality is a universal teaching that requires religious guidance. Morality varies depending on a number of factors, including most notably the expectations of society, and I find that religion is inflexibly out of step with this primarily because it seems to be based on teachings from a time that posed very different challenges compared to what people face today.

A few years ago our older daughter’s schoolmates talked about their religious beliefs at school, sometimes as part of their school assignments that are presented to the class. Since they didn’t try to convert anyone, I suspect they probably just talk about their beliefs because religion is emphasized at home.

So, we Googled the internet for information about the different religions her schoolmates talked about. After learning some of the more general points of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and a few others, and how they differ, she wondered how many religions there are and so we found a few web sites that listed a lot of them. I also introduced her to Pastafarianism, heheh, and that Flying Spaghetti Monster with the Invisible Pink Unicorn were instant hits not only with both our daughters but also with their friends that they both mentioned them to. There’s something about a spaghetti and meatballs deity flying around, and also invisible pink unicorns, that appeals to children, probably because in addition to seeing it as “ridiculous” they also see it as something fun, like a playground made of giant spaghetti built for climbing and carnival rides that have a few unicorns.

For children to gain a basic understanding of the various religions, especially when introduced while questions are being asked about it, makes it more meaningful as a way to develop a better understanding of how others view the world. Turning this into a lesson about why people have different moral standards also helps children to realize one of many reasons why people can’t always find agreement on certain matters, and why some probably never will.

In the end, the most important value we taught was the distinction where we respect everyone’s right to hold any opinion, no matter how awful or wonderful that opinion might be. We also teach our children that opinions themselves don’t necessarily deserve respect and should be open to any form of interrogation, scrutiny, and even ridicule. Separating the opinions from the people who hold them is essential to clear discernment and the nurturing of critical thinking. With this kind of clarity in a child’s intellectual toolset, I firmly believe that self-determined morality has a greater potential to foster an attitude of finding value in others in a way that can make life more meaningful and satisfying for everyone.

The following is point I made in a similar discussion last year, and I think it’s appropriate here:  “The greatest gift that we can give to future generations is progress.”

With the passage of time, society changes, and morality that adapts with change is more useful and helpful to a given populace. This is one significant reason why an “objective morality that comes from some inflexible deity” is a fallacy, and preparing the younger generations to think more intensely about decisions and consequences is, I believe, essential for progress to flourish and for survival to become a minor issue in our ever-changing world in the long run.

<Don>

Thank you dropping by. You can check out Randolph’s thoughts, resources and links at: www.atheistfrontier.com
The End!

<Randolph would like it to be know that he scripted his answers not because he is a conscientious guest, which he is; nor because he wished his answers were thoughtful and well presented, again a true characterization. No, he worried that the weight of our listeners ears may have clouded his mind and tied his tongue. As our listeners already know, that was not the case. Thanks again Randolph for a wonderful interview>

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