Are people who identify themselves as "atheists" genuinely non-Christian, or are they merely rebels within Christianity? This question was provoked for me by a religious identity test being promoted on BeliefNet.com - a web site that claims to be "independent and not affiliated with any spiritual organization or movement."
BeliefNet's religious identity test, called Belief-O-Matic, is anything but independent. The introduction to Belief-O-Matic promises to "tell you what religion (if any) you practice...or ought to consider practicing," but the test begins with the presumption that the person taking it exists within a realm defined by belief in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim family of religion, focusing on "your concept of God" without considering possibility that the person taking the test might have a rich, detailed system of belief that has nothing to do with belief in the God or sacred books of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim system.
Consider the first two questions in the 20-question test:
- What is the number and nature of the deity (God, gods, higher power)?
- Are there human incarnation(s) of God (or of gods/goddesses)?
A person who doesn't have a belief in any god can only reply that the question isn't relevant. The response provided for these questions lumps all non-theistic positions into a single category: "No God or supreme force. Or not sure. Or not important."
There's no opportunity anywhere else in the religious identity test for non-theists to explore the particularities of their own beliefs. A few specific political issues are explored, but non-theist models of meaning are not. Non-theists can only declare themselves to be non-theists, and then be done with it. The Belief-O-Matic test doesn't even allow people to distinguish between the irrelevance of theism, uncertainty about theism, and rejection of theism. The ability to distinguish between the positive belief that gods do not exist and the simple rejection of beliefs in the existence of gods is likewise absent.
The presumption in the Belief-O-Matic test is that people who don't believe in gods don't have any particular philosophical or religious beliefs of their own, but exist in a passive state of merely being without theism. They are, in this understanding, merely atheists, bereft of values, living only through rejection.
Such an identity is what the word atheist suggests, of course. It is a word that only describes what people are lacking - that they are without theism.
The only time that the Belief-O-Matic test ever mentions any specific religious tradition, it's the tradition of the Abrahamic religions. The only answers that are specific to any religious traditions are specific to the Abrahamic religions. People of other religious traditions are forced by the Belief-O-Matic test to either accept or reject Abrahamic monotheist principles, but never are Christians, Jews or Muslims forced to contend with the ideas of other religions, or with the ideas of nonreligious people.
It's as if there were a test of geographic location that began by asking whether people lived in Rhode Island or not, and asked many questions about what kind of Rhode Island community people lived in, never acknowledging the possibility of a diversity of communities outside the border of Rhode Island. That test would tell large numbers of people that they were non-Rhode Islanders, but of course, that insight wouldn't be very useful to them.
The only insight that the Belief-O-Matic test has for people who report that they don't believe in gods (or aren't sure about it, or don't think that gods are important) is that they might want to think about practicing secular humanism. Secular humanism, of course, isn't really a particular philosophy or religion. It is like atheism, a negative state - secular meaning without religion and humanism meaning the vague belief that what humans do (rather than gods, spirits, or anything else) is what's most important.
Those of us who are not worshippers of gods can easily be resentful of the limited vision of Belief-O-Matic. We will gain more, however, by considering whether we have limited ourselves with the constricted conceptualization of "atheism".
Focusing on not believing in gods, and in detailing the many many ways in which the beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims are wrong, we only reach the border of the huge non-theist territory. Naming ourselves as "atheists", we only point inside the small land of the theists, and proudly celebrate that we aren't living there.
We stand at beginning of a huge, largely unexplored world, made up of an infinite range of territories. Instead of looking only at the tiny region of theism we have decided not to inhabit, we serve ourselves better to simply turn our backs on theism and walk away from it, exploring instead the huge landscapes that are available to us, considering how we can make use of the resources we find there.