The term ‘atheist‘ is about as useful as the term ‘vegetarian.’ We can assume that someone who claims to be a vegetarian doesn’t eat red meat, but they still may have the occasional turkey sandwich or fish fillet. Then there are strict vegetarians who abstain entirely from meat of all kinds. Then there are vegans, who abstain from animal products altogether, including cheese, milk, eggs, and their derivatives. People have a lot of preconceived notions about what vegetarians and vegans are like, including ideas about their eating habits (I once heard a person ask, “What, do they just eat grass?”), food ethics, and attitudes towards meat-eaters. Regardless of our prejudices, however, the only thing ‘vegetarian’ actually tells us is what someone doesn’t eat. Knowing someone is vegetarian still leaves us ignorant of his diet, food ethics, culinary skill, physical health, and opinion of non-vegetarians. We can’t know any of these things until we sit down, have a meal with him, and talk.
The same is true of the term ‘atheist.’ An atheist eschews the theistic spiritualities presented to her, but until we take the time to converse with her about what she does believe, we only know what she doesn’t. An atheist may identify as ‘strong,’ ‘weak,’ ‘agnostic,’ or even spiritual. She may have left religion, or been raised without religion from childhood. She may be stridently anti-theist or dispassionately unconvinced by theistic models. The best way to know what an atheist does believe is to sit down, have a meal with her, and talk. (I mean, the meal isn’t necessary, but if you’re going to delve into someone’s personal life, might as well do it over a meal.)
I started having just this conversation with my sister-in-law tonight and thought I’d share some of the highlights in Q&A form. Spoiler alert–my answers here are far more articulate than they were over the dinner table:
So what do you believe in?
The short answer is that I believe in Humanism, utilitarianism, in leaving this campsite (called society) better than I found it, and employing objective data to problem solving whenever and wherever useful.
What caused you to leave religion?
Evangelism. For me, promoting the product (and I genuinely believe religion is, among other things, a product), caused many insecurities, doubts, and scruples to come to the fore. I had to address them to keep going, and in the end, I couldn’t continue.
Where do you get your ethics from?
I don’t derive my entire ethical foundation from science, but I do employ science to answer ethical questions. For example, biology tells me that variance in gender identity and sexual orientation have genetic and hormonal components. Psychology tells me that romantic relationships with uneven power dynamics tend to be less healthy and fulfilling for both partners overtime. Sociology tells me that product-driven charities (think food distribution) may help individuals in the short run, but may harm communities in the long run by suppressing local economies and creating western dependency. With this information (combined with ideas from non-scientific fields) I decide to give less support to short-term charitable solutions, and more to infrastructural aid; I conclude that feminist principles can benefit my romantic partnership; and I explore the diversity of sexuality and gender as natural phenomena.
I also value subjective concepts like happiness and social functionality. Combinations of lab and social sciences, literary-style criticism, and philosophy are usually enough to help me form an opinion, and I don’t find it necessary for my ethical justifications to stem from a single source.
What have you found to fill the role religion used to play in your life?
As as for the role religion played in my life, it is the social aspects I miss the most. I’m working on that…
Why did you finally give up your faith?
I couldn’t lie to others, and more importantly, I couldn’t lie to myself. My life is simpler and more sensical without the baggage, and I more easily ethical and moral models that appear reasonable to me.
My sister-in-law was respectful throughout our conversation. I was as pleased by her tone as by the questions she didn’t ask, most of which are enumerated here. I don’t take as much offense to these questions as author, Greta Christina, yet her responses to these questions, and explanations for why they are generally inappropriate, are spot-on. Ultimately, the message of the article is one of unity: if you are a person of faith who is curious about how atheists think, first remember that they are quite a lot like you.
Knowing what someone is against may provide great fodder for debate, but it’s a lot more interesting to know what someone is for. It’s easy to turn one’s nose up at something, and it doesn’t take much imagination to publicly flay someone for turning their nose up at something we like. But choosing something to promote, hold dear, and defend regardless of its popularity takes courage. Tribes are defined by division, they may be united by common enemies (‘The enemy of my enemy,’ and all that rubbish…). Movements, on the other hand, are about uniting for a common cause. Revolutions may involve tribes but they are successful because of unexpected, strategic unions among disparate peoples of common need and goal. At least I’d like to think the world works this way.