Monday, November 26, 2007

It's Kind of Sad Being an Atheist

Declaring oneself an atheist is, by itself, a purely negative statement. Being atheists means that, in the absence of some proof that a god(s) rules the universe, we don’t believe in any such god(s). We of course feel forced to define ourselves this way in a country where roughly 85% of the population believes literally in heaven and miracles.

But “atheist” is still an uncomfortable designation, since we don’t want to define ourselves solely on the basis of a negative belief. So what are we to do? The answer is not at all obvious. Many of us (including me) consider ourselves to be secular humanists. This means to me that we hold the same beliefs as any right-thinking liberal person: love, appreciation of the beauty of the earth and of cultural human endeavors, and the rights of all people to have access to a happy and fulfilling life. In the atheist Thomas Jefferson’s ringing phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…” (Yes, the rest of that sentence unfortunately mentions “their Creator”, but the impact of the “self-evident” phrase is not lessened thereby).

A movement called The Brights ( has proposed a solution to this quandary. I feel sympathetic to their statement of principles, but personally find it still too undifferentiated. Perhaps we atheists should extend our self-designation slightly to something like: Atheists Who Also Seek to Live Full, Loving, and Generous Lives. Too long a name, of course, but maybe a start.


Paul Geisert said...

The Brights’ Net is a large and very diverse international constituency of individuals who share one commonality: each has a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural. It is not an atheist organization.

A minority of the Brights’ international constituency self-identifies as “atheist.” Large contingents of Brights are agnostics, humanists, rationalists, secularists, naturalistic religion adherents (e.g. certain Buddhists) and secular religionists (e.g. secular Jews), with the largest group probably being “nones” (i.e. those who state they are “none of above” when asked on forms for their religion).

It should be kept in mind that The Brights’ Net is a civic justice/civil rights organization. Consequently, it is committed to creating an open and level civic playing field for diverse worldviews (both naturalistic and religious). Brights recognize a need to better establish the legitimacy and worth of a naturalistic worldview so that persons who have that type of outlook can be fully accepted and participating citizens of society.

Toward that end, many Brights think it worthwhile to engage religious people with civility and mutual regard. They are willing to cooperate on actions of common interest. Concepts such as the separation of religion and government and teaching of evolution in the public schools are but two example areas where reciprocal understanding and collaboration by citizens of all the many stripes would be fruitful.

There is nothing sad about being a Bright!

Paul Geisert
Co-director The Brights' Net

Mojoey said...

I wear a lot of self-described titles: atheist, naturalist, libertarian, existentialist, bright, and even spiritual. I have struggled with the problem you defined. I am basically a nice guy who loves everyone and the world we live in. I find beauty in everything, even the ugly. Atheist just does not cover it.

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Devout Atheist said...

Paul Geisert and Mojoey-

Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful responses to my post.
Paul- I appreciate the extended description of The Brights in your comment. As a belief system, The Brights’ Net has made a good start, but still seems too broad to me. That said, to the extent that The Brights’ Net can lead to effective involvement by its members in political action on civic justice and civil rights, I say more power to you, and would happily join with you.
Mojoey- like you, I also wear many hats beside atheist, definitely including spiritual. As you say, atheist doesn’t cover it. Perhaps we don’t need to broaden our self-descriptions as atheists, but simply add to them, as you did in your comment.
I hope others will continue to explore and contribute to this question.