Considering the Confines of Atheism

A follow-up to “The Blessings of AtheismNew York Times article by Susan Jacoby (1/6/2013)

"The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now.
The way to be happy is to make others so."
-- Robert Green Ingersoll 

There’s a question on the enrollment form for registering as a Bright. It’s optional, but it asks How did you hear about The Brights’ Net? Many registrants answer it.

Based on the voluntary replies, it appears that a significant contingent of new participants in the constituency of Brights gained first acquaintance with the Brights movement through Richard Dawkins. The famous atheist has written and spoken about the Brights. (Perhaps that exposure is what first led you to the Brights’ website?)

We suspect that the cogency of Dawkins’ presentation in “The God Delusion,” his most widely sold book, has triggered many readers to adopt (venture into) atheist identity. And, of course, many registered Brights already self-identify as atheists. Perhaps they have done so long before encountering The Brights' Network.

Once at, visitors from any direction are introduced to the civic aims of this movement and a somewhat different way to characterize themselves apart from how they relate to religion. And since The Brights’ Net is an educational organization to advance “the naturalistic worldview,” they also encounter here some ideas that go beyond the idea of being an atheist. Atheism is a conclusion about the existence of deity/deities. (“Having a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements” is a broader concept than “atheism.”)

Constituents, when enrolling into the Brights constituency to support the stated civic aims, often do so as atheists and continue to self-identify primarily by their lack of belief in a god. (Depending on their cultural surroundings, they may do so more privately than publicly.) Whether atheistic or agnostic on the specific issue of god-belief, the characteristic of having a naturalistic worldview and participating in the Brights presents a different way of viewing identity. Any individual can utilize either or both, depending on circumstance.

Blessed, or Boxed in (as Atheists)?

The “head work” of becoming an atheist in a religious culture can be a point of personal pride. An individual may be personally gratified by having “thought the way through” to an atheistic conclusion about deity. If the culture in which the atheist resides is reproachful, however, there’s a social burden. The person may be uncomfortable (even unsafe) unless with “like-minded” others.

It can be lonely living in a predominantly religious culture. The OUT campaign of the Dawkins Foundation urges atheists to “come out of the closet” and “let others know they are not alone.” As atheists do so, in many places they will encounter first-hand the cultural presumptions that accompany the concept of “being an atheist.”

Simply voicing some degree of surety in one’s conclusion about deity is sufficient for derision, even in many nations that tout religious freedom. Media in many such countries stand ready to attach the modifier, “militant,” to anyone who openly lives without theism. “Avowed” (atheist) or “self-declared” (atheist) or "self-described" (atheist) are typical dismissive adjectives rarely applied to religious citizens. The fact media make no verbal use of "self-declared" with Christian or Hindu indicates the cultural condescension.

When up against a dominant culture that looks on the conclusion about a god as a negation of the good and the true, atheists who want to enjoy the fruits of citizenship sense a necessity to “add on” to the atheist identity with modifiers. A religion, after all, tends to convey a broad array of attributes, whereas atheism has but its main idea.

Unlike the humanist identity, which tends to incorporate a broader life stance via definitional assertions and manifestos, atheists have to build up the personal identity beyond the term in order to show more attributes and humanity.

Adding on to Atheism

If one doesn’t want to bow to cultural presumptions regarding atheism, then using an add-on modifier of one’s choosing seems to be a requisite.

In her current article, “ The Blessings of Atheism,” Susan Jacoby counts atheism’s focus on “the here and now” as a decided blessing. She seeks to address in her essay the common misconception that atheists “believe in nothing” (a widespread cultural dismissal of the morality of such individuals).

Jacoby wants atheists to start to show the “combination of reason and passion needed to erase the image of the atheist as a bloodless intellectual robot.” Her proposal is that atheists speak out more about their atheism. They should give emphasis to its positive benefits (examples form the bulk of her article). They should show a “combination of passion and rationality” as they advocate for social causes.

It’s true that the focus of many atheists tends to be more on the cognitive (e.g. “Reason”) than on the emotional (e.g., Altruism) attributes of being human. To project more atheistic caring and atheistic compassion in the public sphere seemingly necessitates the use of a modifier along with the identity.

There is the Ethical Atheist. There are forums with proponents of “moral atheism.” The noun is for identity but the added part helps to promote a “Goodness without God” essence. The highly popular atheist blogger (and Bright), Hemant Mehta, also adopted an adjective. As the “Friendly Atheist,” he can project affability and seem more approachable to the regular citizen.

The recent Atheism Plus undertaking is, according to its tagline, “more than disbelief.” It shows both a pride in atheist identity as well as the add-on necessity. It strives to address many contemporary social issues.

In the article about the merits of atheism, Jacoby would address society's needs by asking atheists to speak up more as atheists. She writes, “Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be ‘good without God.’ Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or ‘spiritual, but not religious.’”

Even Then...

When "without theism” stands naked as the lingua franca of a person's identity, one wonders if her desired movement beyond the deity-focus into broader strivings can bear fruit, or even take place. Despite the cognitive and emotional “blessings” of atheism for the atheist, the primary identity as a “nonbeliever” is a hard one to counter/overcome wherever predominant culture views “believing” as delivering a moral capability.

This necessity to "add on" positive attributes remains as one of the burdens boxing in citizens who have a naturalistic worldview and who would like to pursue civic endeavors less confined by the belief battles and boundaries, which, for the atheist, are strongly tied to religion.

Characterizing oneself as having a naturalistic worldview offers individuals a different framework than nonbelief for their actions toward social and civic equity. The alternate framework is intended to serve civic, not religious or nonreligious, impetus. It incorporates what is known about human morality as well as the absence of belief in any supernatural agency or entity..

Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell
Co-Founders of the Brights’ Net

January 2013
(revised 1/11/13)

This article may be duplicated without further permission by any organization wishing to inform others of the nature of the Brights constituency.

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