I have been an atheist for over a half century. During most of that time I have wished the term weren’t needed. Believe me, I can find something else to do. (Actually I do anyway. I am lucky to have a plethora of interests, overwhelming to tell the truth.) But what is it about atheism I would like to flee?
To begin with, there’s something unsettling about a belief, a commitment, a philosophy, or self-identity that’s named by what it isn’t. I grew up as a Southerner, not a non-Northerner. I am an American, not a non-European. I am a man, not a non-woman. And on it goes—no need to cover all the nons when it is so specific and quite adequate to get right to the point and say what I am.
But an atheist (that is, an a-theist) is a non-theist in the same way a Caucasian is a non-African. I am against theism, yet this important part of my philosophical makeup requires theism for it to have a name! Bummer. Ask a Muslim what his or her philosophy of life is and the reply will never be non-Christian or non-Zarathustran, even though those names are not a-correct. But ask a non-theist/non-deist the same question and you might well get atheist as the reply.
Clearly, I am an atheist, but seldom would atheist be my reply to the what-are-you question. Atheism is not my philosophy of life nor even a very useful guide for behavior. My more thoughtful reply would be humanist or, more accurately, secular humanist. (There are versions of humanism that are not strictly secular.) I want to share more on what that means to me in a later post, but in the context of this post my focus is on its utility rather than its content.
But I haven’t explained why atheism is—or should become—useless, a descriptor that’s outworn its welcome. Like most adults, I got over believing in Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny, unicorns, and the tooth fairies. Yes, I did once believe these existed. However, I apostatized, falling thereby into the state of unbelief. I lost my faith, though I don’t remember any trauma associated with contemplating a world without these delightful illusions. But it never crossed my mind to call myself an asantaist, affairyist, aunicornist, or abunnyist.
If all the adults around me had kept their faith in santa, the asantaist descriptor may have come in handy. Of course, my point is that atheism is only useful in an environment of deism and theism, wherein the majority expects everyone to believe their way. Someday—maybe—if the human race outgrows its dependence on religious fantasy, atheism will sound as outmoded as aSupermanism.
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