Proud to be Atheist?

It’s A Week!

Uh, perhaps I should clarify.  It’s essentially Atheist Pride/Awareness week (the Supreme Council of Atheists didn’t contact me for naming advice).  The organizing group recommends you set the image above as your facebook profile picture for the week to remind your friends that atheists are all around and are “good without God.”  It’s basically analogous to the British campaign to remind atheists to check “No Religion” (as opposed to Jedi) on the Census.

The instructions are straightforward enough, but the question of what, exactly, we’re affirming is left unanswered.  Hermant Mehta of Friendly Atheist realized the message might be lost at the most basic level, since not everyone will realize the A is meant to connote atheism.  He passed on the suggestion that you make your own personalized sign for your pic.  The diversity of messages participants have chosen highlights the familiar problem of defining atheism.  There really not much content we’d all stand behind.  Defining myself as an atheist, when the definition of atheism is so inchoate can be a problem.

Jen Fulwiler, the former atheist turned Catholic of Conversion Diary took issue with the entire idea of atheist as a self-definition in an article for the National Catholic Register titled “The Danger of Atheist Pride.”  She finds the whole spirit of the week to be unhealthy. She writes:

To say that your guiding belief system is atheism literally means nothing more than not theism. There’s nothing positive to focus on, nothing higher than yourself to which you can submit selfish urges. The process of fleshing out your own views is a process of constant rejection… And, as I know from personal experience, that mentality of constant dismissal of other ideas can fester to the point that the sin of pride becomes your driving force in life.

Obviously, this is not the case with every atheist; some of the most kind and humble folks I know self-identify with that label. It’s also not the case that adhering to a belief system based on positive principles automatically makes you a moral paragon (and I count myself as Exhibit A there). But these two different types of belief systems put people on radically different paths: Atheism is ordered toward rejection and pride, where as positive-principle-based belief systems are ordered toward acceptance and humility.

As I’ve written before, even though atheism in isolation is pretty boring/useless, I still think it’s important for me to think about the public perception of atheism and take action in solidarity with other atheists.  For starters, the public definition of ‘atheism’ is not limited to disbelief in gods.  As some of the commenters on Jen’s article and her piece itself make clear, atheism is associated with license and immorality.  Atheists are seen as without limits and thus uniquely untrustworthy.

You don’t have to use a weird virtue ethicist type of atheist like me as your counterexample (and given the flak I catch, you probably shouldn’t).  The point is to set up something to stand against the stereotype.  The content of the A Week initiative is embodied in the character of the atheists who come out.  The goal isn’t to define atheism, but to weaken the prevailing and inaccurate idea.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Can anyone identify why, exactly, immorality and untrustworthiness, are connoted when one says, "atheist"? Surely it's not from the heavily debated motivations of Pol Pot or Mao, right?Is it philosophical? As in if one is not receiving moral commands from a divine being, then necessarily you are the definer or morality and therefore immoral somehow?Is it empirical? As in, does every religious person keep a mental log of the total number of atheists they know and then statistically determine that over 50% of them are licentious hedonists?Or is it just psychologically conjured? As in, since I subscribe to belief system X, those outside of belief system X who say is false must have some moral shortcoming about them?I find here statement reminiscent of the postlude many tack onto racial statements. When she says, ,—| There’s nothing positive to focus on, nothing | higher than yourself to which you can submit | selfish urges.`—followed by,,—| Obviously, this is not the case with every | atheist; some of the most kind and humble | folks I know self-identify with that label.`—reminds me of something of this sort:,—| [Blacks/whites/Mexicans/Asians] are all| so [fill in negative descriptor here], but | then again, my very best friend is a| [black/white/Mexican/Asian]!`—Maybe I'm imagining that, though.My main point was to query about this connotation and why it exists. My fear is that primarily it's of the third type (psychological and without much evidence) and thus there's not much one can do about it. Personally, I'd like to make a positive impact for the non-believer community.

  • Anonymous

    I think it's odd that she hearkens back to atheists of yore and what they did/would do when she's only 34 and we only have her word for it that she was "raised" atheist, whatever that means. Was there some kind of formal weekly atheist event or atheist summer camp? Or were her parents just not at all religious?If she's going to compare atheists of today with the atheists of her not-so-distant past, then she should take a good look at what Catholics in years past did and didn't do as well. Catholics were much quieter, private people in generations past. Perhaps she should heed her own advice regarding self-glorification. I find Fulwiler's work immature and tedious on a good day, however. Reading through her blog is like grading middle-school "What I Did On My Summer Break" essays.

  • A Philosopher

    Jen's basic problem in her piece is a common one I see in discussions of atheism by believers: she moves unreflectively from "being an atheist" to "being fundamentally defined by atheism". I'm quite happy with the thought that it would be a bit weird to consider oneself as fundamentally defined by one's atheism. But it just doesn't follow from that that there's anything problematic with being an atheist, and even with taking various public actions based on being an atheist.This point should be obvious. After all, it's perfectly clear that you could have a "Jacobean Drama Fan" pride week, or a "Amateur Baseball Player" pride week, or a "Jigsaw Puzzle Enthusiastic" pride week, without thinking that anyone is fundamentally defined by (has their basic values and ends set by) Jacobean drama, or amateur baseball, or jigsaw puzzles. But it's surprisingly hard for a lot of believers to see (the same fallacy shows up in objections to gay pride parades). Presumably it's because they're trying to put atheism in the same conceptual niche that their own religious life sits in, which really isn't the right place for it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17394136098594570091 Timothy

    @A Philosopher: Modern atheism came about amongst religion and as an alternative to belief in God. It's hard not to classify atheism with religions because it provides answers to the same questions religion deals with. What other conceptual niche could atheism be placed in?@Hendy: I couldn't give a universal answer as to why atheism is equated with immorality and untrustworthiness.I always assume (I know, I shouldn't assume) that atheists are materialists (i.e. there is nothing beyond the material world), and that self interest or self gratification is the good which motivates them to act. Therefore, when an atheist confronts a good incompatible with self interest, he or she will choose self interest; or if lying would be conducive to self gratification, that person will lie.So I suppose my assumption (and it's just an assumption) is philosophically based (practical rationality). However, based on my experience, I don't believe atheists are liars or immoral and the one's that I've known weren't liars or immoral, but I only knew a handful.BTW, I stopping over from the Register and enjoyed your post.

  • A Philosopher

    Timothy,Atheism provides an answer to one of the questions that (some) religions deal with – namely, the question "Does God exist?". But it doesn't provide answers to a host of other questions that many religions deal with, such as "How should I live my life?", or "What fate awaits me after death?", or "Is communion in the hand less respectful than communion on the tongue?". People just aren't very thoroughly defined by their answer to that one question, especially when the answer is "no".And on your point in response to Hendy: there are atheists who aren't materialists, and there are atheists who aren't motivational egoists. My very rough demographic estimate is that materialists are probably the slight majority of atheists (some of this depends on how "materialism" is defined — whether, for example, commitment to abstracta (such as mathematical entities) or to mental entities (beliefs, desires) are incompatible with materalism)). Motivational egoists I think are extremely rare among atheists (and everyone else). Certainly de facto motivational egoists are pretty much non-existent (restricted to the sociopaths), and theoretical motivational egoists are also pretty rare (restricted to the undergraduate Randians).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    @Timothy: I always assume (I know, I shouldn't assume) that atheists are materialists (i.e. there is nothing beyond the material world), and that self interest or self gratification is the good which motivates them to act.Yes, it's probably not good to assume, but let me ask if you are trying to assert some kind of connection between the assumption that "atheists are materialists" and the claim that "self interest or self gratification is the good which motivates them to act." Or are those totally independent and unrelated assumptions? Therefore, when an atheist confronts a good incompatible with self interest, he or she will choose self interest; or if lying would be conducive to self gratification, that person will lie.It seems to me that the frequent Christian angst about atheists being immoral and untrustworthy is rooted in a belief that self interest is what motivates all people, not just atheists. What many Christians cannot fathom is why atheists would choose to behave morally if a calculation of personal self interest (which is what motivates everybody) excludes any consideration of divine reward or divine punishment.By implication, they seem to think that if they came to believe that God did not exist, they themselves would henceforth choose to be immoral and untrustworthy.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17394136098594570091 Timothy

    I wrote a long comment and tried to publish it, but it wouldn't publish and everything was gone when I went back.I'll admit my answer wasn't very good. My primary purpose for commenting was to let Leah know that a commenter at the Register saw her comment and followed her recommendation.Basically, what I tried to write in response is that "morality" would have to be defined before anyone can say why atheists would be considered "immoral". Morality can take on many forms: a disposition for following rules, acting so as to achieve some good, or, in the popular sense, not having too much sex.I can't give Hendy a good answer as to exactly why atheism is equated with "immorality" or "untrustworthiness" (though I never heard that atheists are untrustworthy), or whether that is actually the case.@A Philosopher: I wasn't too sure what you meant by "conceptual niche" in your first post. I don't know how you can conceive of atheism without presupposing religion, so it seems natural to group atheism and religion together.Thanks for the responses (and sorry about responding to some parts of those responses). Hopefully I'll be able to post this time.


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