I’m an Atheist (and So Are You)

fighting-godSo we are all atheists.

All of us who call ourselves humanists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics, nonbelievers, nones–we are all atheists.

And that’s what we should call ourselves.

At least according to David Silverman, in his book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World.

Silverman’s definition even goes beyond that to also include many people who we might not typically think of as part of the freethought community  (presumably this would also extend to members of the Church of “Spritual, but Not Religious”):

  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), i.e., are without theism, you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) but aren’t sure none exist, you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) but rather think God is a metaphor for love, all humanity, etc., you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) because you think the universe is unknowable and we can never know all the answers, you’re an atheist (and an agnostic, see below).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) and you feel you’re educated enough to think you can say definitively there are no god( s), you’re an atheist (a conclusionary atheist like me).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s) but you like/ follow some religious traditions (Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever) in which you were raised and maybe even agree with some of the religion’s nonsupernatural teachings (e.g., “Love thy neighbor”), you’re an atheist.
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), but you wish there were a god and maybe still hold out hope for one to show up, you’re an atheist (hoping and wishing are not believing).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), but you consider yourself “on the fence,” you’re an atheist (until you believe, you’re not a theist, and, no, there is no middle ground— you have a belief that a god exists or you don’t).
  • If you don’t have a belief in any literal god( s), but you “like to think” there is a god, because the story is good and wouldn’t it be nice if it was true, you’re an atheist (and you’re literally proclaiming belief in something you know is a fantasy).
  • If you don’t have any belief in any literal god( s), but you absolutely hate the word atheist— tough shit, you’re still an atheist.

Why this rigid insistence on nomenclature?

Silverman argues it’s because most people don’t understand other terms like “humanist” and “freethinker.” He calls these terms euphemisms and advocates against their use, citing a 2014 study performed for Openly Secular as evidence:

…while more than eighty percent of Americans essentially know what an atheist is, less than half of Americans know what agnostic means, less than 30 percent understand what it means to be secular, and, as you can see, very few Americans know what Humanists and freethinkers (a person who forms their opinions on the basis of reason) are.

I came to a deeper understanding of David Silverman and his work after reading this book, particularly the later chapters where he recounts stories of activism, billboards, legal battles, crashing CPAC conventions, and appearing on The O’Reilly Factor. At the same time, his self-proclaimed “firebrand” approach is not for everyone, and the distrust of atheists runs deep in our culture, as a 2015 study confirms.

Am I an atheist? Yes. But does that mean I always have to identify as one, and only as such?

For most practical purposes I usually simply identify as “Jewish.” I’m proud to affiliate with the traditions of social justice, activism, and advocacy that I feel that term signifies, as well as the value traditionally placed on education and the family connections it represents to me.

At the same time, I also believe it’s possible for me to be honest about my beliefs without always needing to say everything I believe. Especially with new friends and professional contacts, I try to stick to what Thomas Hardy called “the opinions and actions common to all good men.” If I get more specific, I do so later, after the establishment of trust.

A Reflection for Purim

mordechai-1Why wouldn’t Mordecai bow?

Many Jews suspect that it was because the hero of the Purim story would not bow to any man–only to God.

Clearly, whoever made that rule didn’t tell the other patriarchs and matriarchs that bowing to other people was forbidden:

When Joseph came home, they brought into the house to him the present which was in their hand and bowed to the ground before him. (Genesis 43:26-28)

“Judah, your brothers shall praise you; Your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; Your father’s sons shall bow down to you.” (Genesis 49:8)

Then Moses went out to meet his father-in-law, and he bowed down and kissed him…. (Exodus 18:7)

And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground and prostrated himself. (1 Samuel 24:8)

Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your sight that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10)

The real reason has to do with Haman’s lineage. In the Book of Esther Haman is called “Haman the Agagite.” He’s understood to be the seed of Amalek, the group that attacked the Israelites in the desert.

In this day and age we like to believe that it doesn’t matter who your parents were, or where they came from, or what they did. For one example, we may know about Henry Ford’s despicable behavior in the 1920’s, but that doesn’t mean we hold his children and grandchildren responsible for their ancestor’s actions–in fact, we honor them for their contributions to the Jewish community. In this day and age, we tend to believe that the circumstances of your birth shouldn’t dictate what you become, or how you are viewed by others.

But even if we disagree with Mordecai’s principles, perhaps we can admire him for standing on principle. A contemporary equivalent might be choosing not to say the Pledge of Allegiance. And another example comes to mind that may be a bit more a propos.

I don’t often attend traditional Jewish worship services anymore. But I grew up in that world and I remember when people started bowing during the Bar’chu and the Amidah, and also towards the end with the words Va’anachnu korim u’mishtachavim u’modim. I was always pretty uncomfortable with this and, needless to say, on that rare occasion now when I find myself in a Reform or Conservative service now, I don’t bow.

So you might say, I’m following Mordecai’s example–except I take it one step further.