Susan Jacoby has an article in the New York Times called “The Blessings of Atheism” lamenting the unfair perception that atheists believe nothing.
This widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive is one of the main reasons secularly inclined Americans — roughly 20 percent of the population — do not wield public influence commensurate with their numbers. One major problem is the dearth of secular community institutions. But the most powerful force holding us back is our own reluctance to speak, particularly at moments of high national drama and emotion, with the combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.
Jacoby rightly points out that a non-theist does not have to go through the useless quest to explain why God lets bad things happen to good people.
It is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
….The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
That is all fair enough, but I think Jacoby is missing the point about why atheists are so easily misheard. She says modern atheists must emulate the great non-theists of the past like Robert Ingersoll. But I think Ingersoll was different than many atheists today, in that the core of his life did not consist in ridiculing religion, but in trying to give people something better.
Ingersoll called himself a “freethinker.’ While his attacks on superstition were un-withering, he did not forge his whole identity around refuting mistakes he thought other people were making, which is why I think non-theists should ditch the name “atheist” and identify themselves with their positive traits like “freethinkers,” “Humanists, “Secularists,” and so forth. I realize that refuting superstition is part of the calling of being a freethinker, but the very word “atheist” sounds like a rebuttal rather than a proposition.
If we went back in time to ancient Greece and wanted to teach an enlightened world view, it would be extremely short sighted to call ourselves “The Anti-Zeus League.” We would get more attention to be sure, and we would have the sick pleasure of rocking other people’s boats, but if we cared about the people and wanted to lift them out of superstition, we would need to give them a new paradigm that wasn’t centered on believing or disbelieving in Zeus at all.
Even thought I am a religious person, I agree with Jacoby’s point. It is extremely unfair to say that atheists are less positive than theists. Still, if a person is consistently being misunderstood, it might be time to come up with some other words that will be more easily heard. “Atheism” is a word that defines the speaker relative to someone else’s belief, and so makes it hard to de-center the conversation from its theological underpinnings. My suggestion would be for non-theists not merely to copy compassionate freethinkers like Robert Ingersoll, but actually to join their ranks by ditching the word “atheist” and coming up with names that describe their own compassionate and rational center.