20 Years of Being an Atheist Ends Today

It was 20 years ago when I made the conscious decision to be an atheist. I had been agnostic before, and then made a decision that it was no longer a tenable position to hold, and that the atheist label was the one that matched my mindset best. Since I became an atheist 20 years ago, I never once regretted the decision. There hasn’t been anything at all that has moved me from that perspective, until this week.

I’ve seen the light, and I’ve realized that in some ways it was the wrong decision to become an atheist. I think it was what I needed at the time, and now it is not. I even changed my Facebook profile!

So, what changed my mind? Sam Harris did, in his lecture on the “Problem with Atheism”. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that we don’t need a word for not believing in something, and that to attach a charged word to it undermines the position. We don’t need, as he says, a name for “non-astrologer”. We just need to espouse the positive virtues of believing with sufficient evidence, for the quantification of uncertainty, of intellectual honesty and consistency.

So, in an effort to be more positive about my beliefs in evidence, rationality, and science, from now on I am not going to consider myself an atheist. If someone asks me if I believe in God, I will say I don’t believe in Zeus, Thor or Yahweh (or any of the other gods we’ve heaped on that pile we call mythology). If asked what religion I am, I’ll just say “None”.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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6 Responses to 20 Years of Being an Atheist Ends Today

  1. rsmith91487 says:

    While I completely understand the position that you and Sam Harris take on rejecting the “atheist” label, I have to dissent. In doing so, I will use Harris' comparison of rejecting a deity to rejecting racism.

    Harris correcting discusses that people do not go around calling themselves “Non-Racists”. However, there are people who align themselves with such organization as the NAACP, ACLU, or SPLC to combat racism more directly than the general population might do. While this is not a direct label, it is a subtle declaration of their firm beliefs and attitudes in much the same way a label is. In effect, there are calling themselves the “anti-racists”. This, to me, is why I will keep the title of “atheist”.

    To me, labelling msyelf as “atheist” doesn't mean I am defining myself as “against” religion, but rather “for” rational inquiry, research, and conjecture. When I label myself as atheist, I am letting people know immediately that I define my world view in terms of science, mathematics, and other tangible and supported methods of discerning our world-at-large.

    I completely understand Sam Harris' view that becoming an “atheist” seems to regulate us to the likes of vegans or some fringe sub-culture, but if enough of us accept the label and work to improve what being an atheist means to the general population, through meaningful debate, coexistence with our religious bretheren, and shared experiences together, we can change what “atheist” stands for in hearts and minds. Yes, there are many negative connotations attached to the word, but even if we try to reject the label, it will still be internally attributed to us the minute others discover our view of supernatural deities. Whether or not we consider ourselves atheists, others still will. Therefore, I think it most prudent to take back the word and start attributing different, more positive meanings.

    -Ryan Smith

  2. bblais says:

    Thanks Ryan for a thoughtful comment. Let me state a few replies. Your anti-racist organizations, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Civil Liberties Union, or Southern Poverty Law Center are good examples…but notice the names aren't negative (anti-racist, for example) and the people in these organizations will state that they are *for* civil liberties, *for* toleration, *promoting* economic equality. The difference is that it is much better to be standing *for* something positive, rather than against something negative.

    In your words, you “define [your] world view in terms of science, mathematics, and other tangible and supported methods of discerning our world-at-large.” I have no problem with that. I think the term atheist doesn't communicate that at all, and in fact communicates something quite unproductive. I think we both agree with that, and take different perspectives on what should be done. You think we should take back the label, and I think that we don't need the label at all.

    Taking back the label is good, if we can do it, but I am not sure if the term has already been defined by the opponents successfully enough to derail that as a realistic option. Also, as a tactical point, it is easier to make temporary alliances with others on specific topics (like the teaching of evolution in schools) who may disagree with us in other areas. In other words, it is easier to frame the discussion in positive rather than negative terms.

    Finally, I think the term can lead to confusion. I think this is true also for people who say they believe in “God”. When someone says this, everyone (even atheists!) seem to think “yes, I know what you mean”, but in reality there are so many different conceptions. A fundamentalist might say that our country was founded on a belief in God, but they would be the first to put the founding fathers up against the wall for merely believing in a hands-off, Spinoza-type deism. Once someone hears that you're an atheist, the walls come down. This doesn't happen in the same way if you say that you're a scientist, or a rationalist, or support evidence-based perspectives.

  3. rsmith91487 says:

    So, clearly, we need a new, spiffier label that will correctly identify us as the fact-loving, evidence-providing killjoys that we are. Too bad Scientologist is already taken!

    While that was obviously meant in humor, I do think, for better or worse, the world needs labels because, as I said, people tend to instinctively label others, whether consciously or not. If somebody were to ask me if I believed in a supreme being and I were to truthfully answer “No”, they would naturally assume I was an atheist, even if I ferverently denied such a title. Then, if we haven't taken measures to redefine what an “atheist” is, they would naturally go on to make even greater assumptions about my character based on their beliefs concerning atheists, which are generally negative.

    This is why I advocate for increased adoption of the term to coincide with a push by all “atheists” to make sure that everyone understands that we are not here to convert everyone to our ways or to mock and ridicule those with different beliefs. We are here to provide rational, evidence-based explanations for the creation of the universe and all objects in it for all those who want to hear it. That being said, I think campaigns like the American Atheists campaign in Alabama can end up being counter-productive as they simply alienate atheists further from mainstream society, rather than advocating for the acceptance of atheists as a group.

    So, in conclusion, I will wear my label proudly and do my best (i.e. less pointed Facebook posts) to ensure that everyone knows atheists can be friendly too.

  4. bblais says:

    That's why there are Brights (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brights_movement).

    “would naturally assume I was an atheist, even if I fervently denied such a title. ” Certainly, if they asked if I am an atheist I would confirm, because it is accurate (without theism) but it is a term that is unnecessary. Do try to dodge it looks bad, but I don't have to promote it, or identify myself as an atheist to have the same impact.

    “we are not here to convert everyone to our ways or to mock and ridicule those with different beliefs. ” Speak for yourself! 🙂

    Seriously, one of the lessons of science is that not all ideas are worthy of respect: there are some things that are just wrong. It's not personal: I don't mock someone's wrong ideas (unless they are a high-profile politician, perhaps) but I feel it is the intellectually honest thing to do to not pull ones punches with respect to wrong ideas. If this is conversion, then I guess it is. I do want to change people's minds about wrong, and especially dangerous, notions. It's not converting *to* atheism, but *to* rational and evidence-based thinking. The difference I think is important, even if it is “just” terminology.

    I see it like astrology. I do my best to dissuade people from their beliefs in astrology, and to promote proper scientific and rational thinking. At no point do I feel the label anti-astrologer, or aastrologist or whatever would add anything and has the effect of narrowly restricting the discourse.

    As an other point of confusion: everyone is an atheist with respect to all of the other religions, both modern and ancient. Saying you're an atheist is really just saying that you hold that same level of skepticism to one more God.

  5. rsmith91487 says:

    Your last passage was definitely chanelling Dr. Dawkins:

    “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”

  6. bblais says:

    Just to add to this, here's a nice article about so-called “militant atheists” http://www.psychologytoday.com/em/55708

    As for Dawkins, my inspiration is also from Sam Harris who says that “everyone knows what it feels like to be an atheist with respect to Zeus.”

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