How many atheist politicians can you name? Naming Scandinavians is cheating; stick to the U.S. of A., please. Tough, isn’t it? Pete Stark, congressman for California’s 13th district, is the only openly atheist member of either house. Way to go … uh … Fremont, Newark and parts of Oakland! That brings the total for representation of atheists to 1/535, compared to surveys that show atheists making up about 16 percent of adults (all kids are, of course, atheists until they’re indoctrinated). Now let’s compare atheists to Jews. The Pew Forum says Jews make up about 1.7 percent of American adults, and in 2008, had 32+13 representatives in the House and Senate. So there are more than eight times as many atheists as Jews, but Jews are represented 43 times more in the legislature.
This is one of the central reasons for this column’s existence. It is also a perfect topic to tackle alongside the appearance of Richard Dawkins at Campbell Hall (nerd chills!), because of the movement begun by The Richard Dawkins Foundation called “The OUT Campaign.” Dawkins called on nonbelievers to out themselves as such, because we need to stand before we can be counted.
But here we arrive at a tricky question. Might one gather a larger base of support by using a friendlier word? What about skeptic, rationalist, secular humanist or freethinker? Perhaps, but I agree with Dawkins that “atheist” is the proper label. Not only is it dishonest to try to trick people into supporting your cause by using a “softer” term, these other terms already have other meanings. Skepticism, freethinking, rationalism and secular humanism are broad ideologies — beliefs about the way the world ought to be. Atheism is simply the rejection of a claim. Remember, agnosticism/gnosticism is a belief about the possibility of knowledge as to a subject, and atheism/theism is a belief about the existence a deity. Personally, I am an agnostic atheist, who recognizes the impossibility of some knowledge but rejects theistic claims. “Atheism” thus ought to cast the broadest net, including anyone who rejects theistic claims. Even religious people are atheists as to every religion but their own, a mechanism built-in to help theists understand the position. So take Dawkins’ advice, and come out. Don’t be afraid to call yourself what you are!
Connor Oakes is a fourth-year political science major.
Richard Dawkins, the eminent evolutionary biologist and author — who yesterday in Campbell Hall gave a splendid talk — is one major proponent of the case against religion. His book The God Delusion, published in 2006, forms part of what has arguably become the canonical collection of texts scornful of religious faith, alongside Sam Harris’ The End of Faith (2004), Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006) and the late Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007). Though all share a common antagonism towards dogmatic belief in the numinous, Dawkins in particular has been the one to advocate a coming-out-of-the-closet for those of us who have yet to admit publicly that we pay no mind to the fantastical claims of religion. If we have not been subdued by the infantile craving for the supernatural, then why, Dawkins wonders, don’t we just honestly admit it?
There is a trivial sense, of course, in which anyone that would profess to nonbelief is an atheist, and that is by definition: If you lack a belief in any god or gods, then ipso facto you are an atheist, and anyone calling you such would not be mistaken. However, a more popular sense of the term “atheist,” one unfortunately burdened by unfounded negative connotation, has less to do about definition and more to do about, as it were, one’s personality or one’s worldview. To be a proper atheist in this latter sense, it’s thought one must be passionate in some way or other for the cause of atheism — a criterion Dawkins no doubt proudly satisfies. Should we?
Though I would in some measure consider myself an apologist for atheism (to what end would this column be otherwise?), my inclination is to regard my peculiar attitudes toward faith as exceptional, as a view others need not necessarily be ready to take up. Part of the reason is social: Your friends and your colleagues may find no sympathy at all with your openly denying God, and so to come out with the news would be to needlessly brew animosity. Another may be personal taste: perhaps you find atheism an utterly dull affair, and will have nothing to do with scientific or philosophic argument. This is fine.
We need not all be atheists in the final reckoning; that we are sane is enough.
Brian Gallagher is a fourth-year philosophy major.