Tag Archives: Atheist

Wordgames – Why ‘belief’ and ‘non-belief’ are not true opposites

I am always vaguely bothered by how religious people frame the argument of belief. In essence, they are ‘believers’ and I am a ‘non-believer’ or an ‘unbeliever’ or I ‘don’t believe’. They are ‘theist’, I am ‘atheist’. Except, I don’t see it that way. Why is the term that describes me the antithesis to the term that describes them? Now, I don’t go the route of some atheists and say that believers are ‘delusional’ and I am ‘rational’, but I see the point of re-framing the argument, of taking it back for us, the ‘non-believing’ community. It is partly because neither term fits: I do believe in things that aren’t real, like love and democracy, so I am not strictly speaking a non-believer. And it isn’t that I have moved away from god(s); there weren’t any to begin with.

Just so we are all clear on the issue, I want to underline my position. There is no god. There are no gods or divine motive forces. There are no angels, demons, miracles, fairies, or spirits, and there are certainly no leprechauns. There never were. They are fictions humans invented because they were scared of lightning and floods and the dark and death. We made up stories to comfort us in times of suffering and woe, to explain the (then) inexplicable, and we told these stories for so long they became part of the fabric of society. They were woven into our history, given pride of place in the systems of our lives, a position reinforced by blood and persecution, power and politics. But there is no god. There are no gods. There never were.

Let’s dig into a little bit of linguistics, shall we? ‘Belief’ comes from the Old English word belyfan, which means to have faith or confidence in something, in this case, the god of the Christians, commonly (are rather arrogantly) known as God. This word itself is derived from the hypothesised Proto-Germanic word *ga-laubjan, meaning ‘to believe, to love’ (the little asterisk means that we have no actual evidence for the use of this word, but it has been reconstructed from various sources by linguists). This, in turn, is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *leubh-, meaning ‘to care, desire, love’ (you can see how we get the modern word ‘love’ from this root). The prefix ‘non-’ means ‘not, lack of’, and is ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European compound *ne (not) + *oi-no- (one). So, as a non-believer, I do not care for God, I do not desire Him, and I certainly do not love Him (let’s be frank, if ‘it’ is anything it is a ‘him’, because the patriarchy said so, it is described as a ‘father’ and with masculine terms).

Theist/atheist are from Greek roots, a + theos, ‘without’ + ‘god’. The origins of theos are a bit vague, but it has strong connotations of divinity, and was originally connected to the Greek pantheon (you can even see it in there, pan + theon, ‘all gods’). Early Christians themselves were accused of being atheist as they denounced all but one god. It is a pity they fell short at the last hurdle.

Now that we know what the words mean, I feel we are better situated to discuss what they mean. I often feel like believers understand ‘non-belief’ to mean a lack of belief in God, whereas I understand it to mean the other option: I do not believe in God (actually, it’s even stronger than that). There is a subtle but important distinction here. To lack something implies a void which ought to be full, an absence which should not exist. Believers inherently presume that they have something I am missing, some great Truth or Revelation, some greater understanding. Now, they tend to dress up this arrogant position as humility and claim that non-believers are the ones who are arrogantly casting aside God, but again, there is no god to cast aside, and we aren’t the ones claiming that an infinite power has deigned to listen to our every whim and desire, and that everyone else’s magical sky father is wrong. I do not lack. There is no absence. There is no void. And if there is, I have friends and family and comics and poetry and movies and the astonishing beauty of the universe to fill it. I don’t need fairy-tales to help me sleep at night. I do not lack belief; as I have said elsewhere, I do believe in non-real things: I prefer to live a life that believes in love and art, but I recognise these as subjective experiences. I do not believe in a divine force. But here again, I have fallen into the trap of describing myself using negation. There is no divine force for me not to believe in. Even the term ‘atheist’ presumes the position of a god-presence.

These terms are rooted in a position of privilege. Religion and faith hold an unfair and dominant position in most societies. Belief has been the accepted default position in most cultures for most of history. Non-believers have always been a minority, and have therefore been identified in terms defined by the majority: you am X, and I am not-X. This is pretty standard fare for all minority groups; they rarely get to self-designate. So, we who affirm that there are no supernatural forces at work in the universe are identified in contrast to those who do, and on their terms. We are the ones who see reality as it is, but we are named by those who adhere to an absurd and fantastical cosmogony.

You might be wondering, so what? Think of it this way. I am a non-smoker. I think it is weird that I am defined in opposition to what was once a popular pastime which involves inhaling carcinogens. The negation of the term implies that the person who is ‘not’ is the aberrant party, that the negative particle transfers a negative connotation to the individual. Indeed, there is an opposition of terms which conveys this: moral and amoral. There is a pejorative sense to being a non-believer or an atheist that is embedded in the term. You can see this if you flip the concept and think of a term that is socially understood to be a negative: I am not a non-sexist or a non-racist because we all agree (or we ought to!) that sexism and racism are moral wrongs. We don’t really need a non-X construction for these ideas, we just have to not be arseholes. One might argue that this isn’t entirely accurate, that we do have a term that has come to mean the opposite of sexist: feminist. On the contrary, my understanding of the word ‘feminist’ is that it is a very broad, all-encompassing idea of treating everyone equally, so it far exceeds a mere opposition to ‘sexist’. (But, I hate to break it to you, if you aren’t a feminist, then you are a sexist).

Indeed non-belief and atheism can be understood include those who believe in the wrong god(s). They are very ambiguous and unhelpful terms. You too (he said, speaking to a hypothetical religious reader) may seen as a non-believer, an atheist, by another faith. Maybe you don’t believe in Allah or Vishnu or some other divine force. For whatever faith or religion you adhere to, you are a non-believing atheist in all others. So, even you as a believer, have something in common with me: we are non-believing atheists. What divides us is that I and others like me just take this non-belief in all-but-one divine force to its logical conclusion.

What then, you may ask, ought ‘non-believers’ be called? Nothing. We shouldn’t be called anything. It’s like the word racist. I don’t have to describe myself as a non-racist. I am just not racist (as best as I can be within the confines of my own privilege). I don’t need to be described as a non-racist because I do not adhere to the racial prejudices of racists. I’m just not an ignorant arsehole. Except racism is real, and it is really stupid. Like, really stupid. So, it is more like believing in unicorns and Big Foot. I can’t be a-unicornist or a non-Big Foot-er; they aren’t real. Now, while you may be able to believe in unicorns, I cannot believe in unicorns. And equally, I cannot not believe in them – there is nothing for me to believe or not-believe in. A unicorn is a fictional animal, it is something humans invented in our wonderful imaginations, but there is no target at which one can direct belief. There are no unicorns (unless you are child, in which case, why are you reading this, and unicorns are totally real and awesome, like the Ninja Turtles and Jake the Dog). The simple fact of the matter is I don’t believe in fairy tales and other unhelpful and outdated ideas.

Except, of course, that won’t do. I have to be described as something. I have to use words to outline my ideological position. And when I state my position, people will immediately leap to the most common terms: atheist, non-believer. And, frustratingly, I can’t think of a better word. I can’t use ‘secularist’ because that doesn’t encompass the same sense; indeed, I have secular friends who believe religion ought to be an exclusively private matter (I agree). ‘Humanist’ has a similar difficulty. I know some otherwise very rational believers, so ‘rationalist’ won’t do. Objectivist is too abstract, and it has been appropriated by idiots…

I have it. I know what I am.

Free.

I am free of the tyranny of faith, I am free of the burden of belief. I am not beholden to Iron Age concepts of the universe and humanity’s place within it. I am not bound by primitive blood-rites and gross misunderstandings of human biology. I am not tortured by the fear of being punished for eternity by a god laughably described as ‘loving’. I do not have to adhere to a system designed to exclude women, a system often used to oppress and denigrate others. But I am not truly free as these vulgar codes are bonded like a parasite to our modern laws. We do not have to look too far or dig too deep to find the religious underpinnings of sexism, racism, sexual violence, persecution of minorities, and the general abrogation of natural human rights. But I am free in my mind at least, and, slowly, in reality. But until we are all truly free, I suppose ‘atheist’ will have to do.

I assert that we are all equal and have the right to be treated fairly, irrespective of sex, gender, race, belief, or non-belief. The fact that I do not coddle myself with belief in a divine force does not impact on my personal morality or my understanding of ethics – it does, I would argue, improve it, as I am free of the prejudices of faith. I do believe in freedom, which means I believe you are free to believe in divine forces (which definitely do not exist) and that I am free to not, and I look forward to the day when this freedom is paramount. I encourage you to read everything. Read other religious texts, read philosophy, read history and politics. See how faith and belief have shaped the world, and not always for the better. Learn how much of our social ills are rooted in faith and belief in unhelpful and outmoded concepts.

I affirm that there is no god, there are no gods, there never were. We made them up.

I look forward to the day that we are all free.

A Tale of Two Catholicisms

Living as I now do in the UK, I have noticed that religious people here are very different from religious people from my homeland of Ireland. The various forms of Christians I meet here seem to have a very positive perspective on their chosen faiths, even the Catholics. This has puzzled me for a while, but I think it is down to two primary factors. But first, you may be wondering why I am puzzled. It rests in the fact that these people are around my age and are true believers, and I would normally expect people my age and younger to be more tepid in their faith, if not agnostic or atheist.

I grew up in Catholic Ireland. I grew up watching bishops and priests tell people how to think on TV and from the pulpit, not just in matters of faith but on issues of social mores and politics. The Troubles in Northern Ireland were cast as Catholic versus Protestant, as indeed was much of the history of Ireland we learned in school. One might think this would only serve to inculcate a distrust of non-Catholics, but I was always puzzled, baffled by how ‘their’ God was different to ‘our’ God, when it was all basically the same God. We were never really taught why we should believe or the benefits of belief, only that we should and the other side was wrong. I was fairly agnostic at a young age; I liked Jesus, he seemed like a decent sort, but the whole magic thing never really grabbed me.

By the time I arrived in university, I was an atheist, and then the scandals began to hit. The Catholic Church was revealed to be home to paedophiles and rapists, abusers and colluders. And, as I became more aware of such things, I discovered how the Church had oppressed and abused women for generations, stolen children, and generally impeded freedoms. The power of the men of God was shaken and the number of non-believers in Ireland has been rising ever since. And many of my friends think that my atheism stems from this, but I was already a non-believer when the toxic nature of the Catholic Church in Ireland was finally revealed. The revelation of the depths of the corruption within the Catholic Church only reaffirmed my distaste of organised religion.

Religion appears to be a very different thing in the UK. You can imagine my surprise, given the above, when I discovered that young people here seem to willingly join, and participate in, organised religion, even Catholicism. Now, I do live in one of the more believer-filled corners of the British isle, so this may not apply everywhere, but it is weird to me how often I am invited to church or bible study groups. People chat with their priests, ministers are involved in public projects; I have spoken to clerics more often in my brief few years in England than ever in my life in Ireland. Part of the enthusiasm for faith may be that my friends are often converts, and no one is more faithful than a convert. But why convert?

It quickly dawned on me that market forces were at work. And deceit. Well, maybe not outright deceit, but definitely obfuscation. Organised religion in the UK comes in many brands and each one has to compete for attention. They each emphasise their unique selling points and actively nurture their communities. In Ireland, the Catholic Church basically had a monopoly; it could do whatever it wanted and still retain its dominant market position. It didn’t have to work in Ireland as it had already cornered the market, but in the UK it had to appeal to each new generation otherwise it would lose its market share to a competitor. Each religion appears to have adopted an open, friendly, welcoming attitude that is utterly alien to me, raised in the holier-than-thou, don’t speak until you are spoken to, do as we say not as we do approach of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Oh, and yes, they seem to gloss over all the abuse and inherent sexism. It really seems to me that English Catholics happily ignore this very real problem which cuts to the heart of Catholicism, how an organisation which claims to act on behalf of God on Earth could routinely abuse women and children for generations, avoid and confound any legal repercussions, and yet still claim to have paramount moral authority. The systemic corruption and abuse is dismissed as ‘a few bad eggs’, or, to put it in more modern terms, ‘hashtag: not all Catholics’. It’s disappointing. It’s disgusting. It’s delusional. But then again, it’s not too much of leap when your core religious text advocates child sacrifice, whoring out your daughters, incest, genocide, slavery, and all kinds of intolerance. Sure, organised religion does good things too, but I don’t think the scales are tipped the way they would like us to think, and I don’t think they have made due compensation for all their sins.

I think I get the appeal of faith: it is some kind of egotistical or egocentric comfort to people to believe in a guiding force, a divinity that places you at the centre of the universe. I can even see the logic behind religion: I believe in X and I want to hang out with other people who believe X, especially if we are persecuted. That’s fine. I like educators, I love talking to teachers and academics; I like comics and movies and books, I am part of a book club and go to the cinema with friends. I understand the appeal of sharing an experience or outlook. But, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no systemic collusion to hide paedophiles or subjugate women in the groups I attend.

Maybe I would have a more positive view of organised religion if had grown up in a more secular nation, but I suspect I would still have my suspicions. Whenever a religion is in charge, it leads inevitably to corruption, but theocracy has a peculiar kind of corruption that is absolute as it claims a mandate from heaven. It just becomes another form of absolutism, just another stick to beat people with. Competition is good; it drives a brand to refine its message, to create the best possible product for the market, whereas a monopoly leads to stagnation. So, secularism might be good for religion, it might even help it strive to be the best form of itself to win more converts. But, of course, so many competing brands only reveal the intrinsic flaw in any organised religion’s claim to be the indisputable font and arbiter of Truth: they aren’t. The plethora of competing claims may be contributing to the fact that atheism and non-belief are on the rise as these assertions of ownership of the ‘Truth’ are comically numerous and claim to be mutually exclusive.

In any event, I think I am just surprised that intelligent, worldly, and aware people would willingly give themselves over to religion. I am of the opinion that the more you learn and the more you see of the world, the more you ought to realise how chains of faith are forged, and that you can break free of them. I am also deeply concerned by friends who appear good and moral, but tacitly condemn vast swathes of humanity to Hell because they believe in a different version of a divine motive force (and they have a special corner for those who don’t believe in such things).

Some people grow up in certain cultural or familial contexts which reinforce their faiths and religion offers them a sense of place. My friends who have converted seem to have endured a difficult period in their lives and then ‘found God’, and here again the sense of community may be appealing. I can understand the desire to belong to a community, but I don’t understand the willingness to join organisations that believe that humans are inherently sinful, that we have little or limited agency in the universe, that human rights are not universal and paramount, that women should be subservient in reality while offering the empty platitude that they are equal in spirit, that a ‘good’ and ‘loving’ god purposefully makes your life arduous to prove to him that your faith in him is true (those last two really rather twisted when you think about it). And all of these issues arise before we even begin to talk about the non-existence of gods. Maybe that first sip of Kool-Aid helps you forget the structural misogyny, centuries of repression, focus on guilt and sin, condemnation of natural aspects of human biology and character, and flaws in logic and reason. I understand the appeal of religion, but the fact that so many adherents can so quickly gloss over the intrinsic flaws is deeply upsetting. My concerns have been dismissed by my faithful friends because I don’t understand that faith is the important thing, that I focus too much on the material world where it is the spiritual that matters. Well, forgive me for saying, but it’s in the real world that priests fucked children and got away with it for decades, nuns tore babies from their mothers and gave them away without consent, Christian clerics advocated the Atlantic slave trade, women are denied basic human rights on religious grounds, ministers condemn LGBT+ folk and give licence to violent intolerance, and so very much more.

I was never a good Catholic. I think I’d rather go to Hell for being a good person than to Heaven for being a bad one who happened to pick the right divinity. But, of course, there is no heaven, no hell, no gods. Just us. And it’s well past time we cast aside Iron Age beliefs employed to support absolutism, intolerance, and subjugation.

Facebook for Atheists

(Though they might find such a comparison offensive)

I’ve just discovered an interesting social network for atheists, Think Atheist.

I’ve joined up out of curiosity.