further than atheism - moving beyond rejection to find solid ground of our own This article introduces a series of weekly columns entitled Further Than Atheism.  Written for non-believers of all stripes , Further Than Atheism is an ongoing attempt to explore the territory that lies beyond the rejection of gods that all atheists share.  It is based upon the insight that atheism should be a beginning, not an end in itself.  By focusing merely upon what they do not believe, atheists restrict themselves to mere reaction to the ideas of the religious.  Atheism consists only of negation, but it allows for many possible affirmations as well.  The search for such possibilities is what Further Than Atheism is all about.

Isn't Atheism Enough?

It's easy for those of us who don't believe in God to get defensive.  As children, we're taunted and assaulted by schoolyard bullies.  As adults, we're forced to stand up to the efforts of religious conservatives to take away our Constitutional rights.  Throughout our lives, we're subjected to nearly constant attempts at conversion by church folk who honestly believe that we just need to hear their message in order to be saved.  It's only natural for non-believers to define themselves in terms of their disagreement to those who attack us, so we call ourselves atheists.

The word "atheist" literally means without theism.  Theism is belief in a god or gods.  Therefore, the word "atheist" describes people who live without belief in gods.  Atheists share nothing other than that

Defining by exclusion is an old practice for the religious. The term "pagan", for example, refers to anyone who is not Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Well, that includes a lot of people, including atheists. There's a lot of variety among pagans, and a lot of variety among atheists too. If we learn that someone is an atheist, we still don't know an awful lot about what that person thinks about things other than the existence of gods.

I find atheism to be an insufficient term to describe myself not only because it is so blunt, but because it is solely a negative term.  All that calling myself an atheist does is send a message to religious people that I disagree with them, that I don't believe in the realm of the supernatural.  In order to be an atheist, all I have to do is say no to religion.

Defining myself as an atheist also actually ends up giving more power to religious social institutions.  For example, when my wife and I learned that we were going to become parents, we had many tense discussions about the moral education of our child-to-be.  My wife is a Unitarian and believes in certain supernatural forces and in a relatively abstract version of God.  Her initial position was that our son should be raised as a Unitarian.  When I explained to her that I wanted our son to be allowed to make his own decisions, she seemed concerned.  "He has to have something to start with," she argued.  "I don't want our children raised with nothing!"  It disturbed me that my wife equated my atheism as a simple absence of religion and religious principles.  I believed that, in spite of my rejection of religion, I had a great deal to teach our son about how to live.

It took me a few weeks to realize that by defining myself solely according to what I was not, I had created the impression that I was merely lacking in religious beliefs.  My wife had innocently assumed that because I was an atheist, I had no system of ideas about the proper way to live to pass on to our son.  Once I explained to her that my atheism did not prevent me from having ideas about philosophy and ethics, she understood and agreed that we could be equal partners in the ethical (or as she puts it, "spiritual") upbringing of our son.  Nonetheless, the point had been made.  Because she understood my atheism to be nothing more than a rejection of religious beliefs, she had felt that I was missing out on an important part of being human, and lacking in an essential parenting skill as well.

This misunderstanding illustrates how the refusal of most atheists to move beyond simple rejection of the existence of the supernatural is subtly manipulated by religious institutions to undermine our civil rights and social position.  By describing ourselves only through our disagreement, we leave ourselves vulnerable to accusations from the churches that we are immature, incomplete and deserving of punishment because we just don't care about anyone but ourselves.  Because we spend so much time elaborating the arguments that prove that we are right, we let the religious get away with claiming that they own the moral high ground.  By communicating what we don't believe in to the exclusion of what we do believe in, we enable others to regard us as ungrateful rebels engaged in a bizarre and selfish revolution.

What Is Further Than Atheism?

Atheists are individual.  We don't belong to a church which tells us what we believe, and almost none of us are interested in the creation of such an institution.  We don't tend to come together into groups well.  Our decision to stand apart from the majority shows that we're individualists who don't like to be categorized.  We're skeptics who examine the beliefs of others with a critical eye.  Perhaps these factors explain why we tend to focus on what we don't believe, asserting that rejection of theism is an end in itself.

Such rejection is a fine accomplishment, but there is ample open territory that stretches further than atheism.  Beyond the ideas that we reject is a landscape of other ideas that we implicitly accept but do not bother to claim as our own. In this landscape, there exists a unique place for each of us, defined by beliefs that differ with those of some other atheists but do not undermine our shared atheism.  We all reject religion, but there is still much left to believe in.

Exploring this territory of positive atheist ideas is what Further Than Atheism is all about.  Published online every Monday morning, this column will examine the vast range of beliefs available to atheists: personal, political, social, cultural, philosophical, aesthetic, and sometimes just plain nonsensical.  The ideas presented through Further Than Atheism reflect just one of many possible directions for the development of atheist ideas.  Nonetheless, they reflect the shared essence of the atheist way of life, always provocative but never frivolous, idealistc yet practical, simultaneously original and partaking in a shared need to find meaning in a life that is difficult to understand.



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