What shall we call ourselves?
A friend recently asked,
If you absolutely believe that there is no god, does that make you a fundamentalist? I would say that some non-believers are more fundamentalist in their views than many so-called believers. Similarly, perhaps people like Dawkins could be considered to be ‘non-religious extremists’. Is there a term for a fervent non-believer? (fundamentalist atheist?)
It’s true that some agnostic Humanists (including the late Sir Hermann Bondi, past president of the BHA) assert that it’s arrogant to say there is no god. Bondi called it ‘the arrogance of certainty’. However, I’m with the late Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), who was asked about his atheism and answered,
I really do not believe that there is a god – in fact I am convinced that there is not a god (a subtle difference) … In England we seem to have drifted from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism – both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.’ He also said, ‘God used to be the best explanation we’ve got, and now we’ve got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.
Religion is a belief in and worship of a supernatural power, or a system of faith or worship. Faith means believing something you can’t prove. However, because there are so many religions and so many forms of religious belief, there are multiple fundamentals too. Atheism means without god, or the belief that god doesn’t exist. That’s all. It’s not necessary to qualify it. There’s no such thing as being a little bit atheist, or vaguely atheist.
Professor Richard Dawkins has been called a ‘fundamentalist atheist’ and an ‘extremist’. He is one of the best at articulating the arguments against religion. Others are Sir Jonathan Miller, Sam Harris, and Professor A C Grayling. They upset people who’ve been used to religion being off-limits for critics. When sceptics like us expose the inconsistencies and nastiness in the texts of major religions, and criticise the behaviour of their followers, we’re subjects to cries of ‘extremism’ and told that we’ve caused offence. I say, either you believe or you don’t. I don’t, and I don’t think we should be prevented from saying why not. It’s almost impossible to avoid offending someone when talking about religion. The onus is on the religionists to come up with the evidence to support their claims. I recommend a little book by Prof. Grayling called ‘Against All Gods’, to save myself the bother of repeating what he’s already explained.
It is also time to put to rest the mistakes and assumptions that lie behind a phrase used by some religious people when talking of those who are plain-spoken about their disbelief in any religious claims: the phrase ‘fundamentalist atheist’. What would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Would he be someone who believed only somewhat that there are no supernatural deities in the universe – perhaps that there is only part of a god (a divine foot, say, or buttock?) Or that gods only exist some of the time – say, Wednesdays and Saturdays? (That would not be so strange: for many unthinking quasi-theists, a god exists only on Sundays.) Or might it be that a non-fundamentalist atheist is one who does not mind that other people hold profoundly false and primitive beliefs about the universe, on the basis of which they have spent centuries mass-murdering other people who do not hold exactly the same false and primitive beliefs as themselves – and still do?
However, I’ve stopped describing myself as an ‘atheist’ because the definition is a negative, and how can you say you’re ‘without’ something that doesn’t exist? As Jonathan Miller said in his TV series about disbelief not long ago, he gets annoyed at being expected to defend his lack of belief, or to use of the word ‘atheist’. Dawkins also points out that there are many things we don’t believe, such as fairies, but no one calls him or herself a-fairyist. The prefix ‘a’ simply means ‘without’, from the Greek.
Instead, we who reject all notions of supernatural powers (gods, fairies, Superman, Father Christmas, or whatever) might call ourselves ‘Naturalists’, as opposed to ‘Supernaturalists’, though we might be confused with naturists (people who enjoy physical exercise in the nude) or the sort of naturalists who stalk bugs with magnifying glasses. Then there are the Brights, which sounds like boasting to some detractors. Some prefer to be called Freethinkers or Rationalists. It can all get rather confusing. Maybe I’ll just stick to being a Humanist.