Atheism is a faith. It’s a deep personal feeling, prior any reasoning, that everything has a material basis. As such, should atheism deserve the same respect as any religion?
I’m an atheist. This is not a secret, but l also don’t tell it too often.
To be an atheist may be dangerous in some places, can be reason for discrimination in others. In Europe, fortunately, it’s fine to be an atheist. A lot of people are.
But even there, the heart of the civilized world, if you declare yourself to be an atheist, be sure, you will be accused of being arrogant, with a big scarlet A.
It’s mostly fine to be an agnostic: to tell that you can’t say anything about the existence or not of gods. This kind of coward version of atheism is usually well accepted, taken as a sign of virtuous humility.
If you declare, however, to be a hard-core atheist — that type who doesn’t believe in life after death, gods, miracles, and other supernatural concepts — you’re going to listen to things like “How can you be so sure that you are right? How can you be so arrogant as to say that 99% of humanity is wrong?”
It’s funny, but this same accusation of arrogance, this same challenge of personal beliefs will never be made against a religious person. If a Hindu, for example, doesn’t believe, say, in the divine nature of Christ, she will never be tagged as arrogant due to that; she will never be asked “How can you be so sure? Are you telling that the 2 billion people who believe that Christ is a god are wrong?” Everyone agrees that it would be insensitive and impolite to question her faith in this way.
In some way, it’s our fault we, atheists, have to hold the A tag. We’ve claimed for ourselves the monopoly on the skepticism. We proudly tell how uniquely rational is our view of the world; how we question everything, including or dearest truths; how we are willing of changing our minds, if we are proved wrong. Then, when we enunciate our certainties, we are fairly questioned “How can you be so sure? Where’s you skepticism, now?”
Let me tell you, my dear theist friend, something we atheists don’t usually tell: at the personal, psychological level, to be an atheist isn’t different from being religious. It’s a matter of faith. The atheist has a deep feeling that only the material world exists. For him, to imagine a world under the command of a god causes the same feeling of strangeness that a Christian feels imagining Poseidon reigning over the oceans.
For us, to consider that our bodies are animated by immaterial souls and, even worse, that these souls could exist without bodies feel as strange as if Superman suddenly appeared in a Yogi Bear cartoon. It just strikes us as wrong, as if something were oddly out of place.
If an angel just appeared in front of me right now, instead of falling on my knees and bursting in tears of sincere conversion, I’m sure that, even frightened, I would intimately question that apparition as part of some elaborate hoax, not take it as a transcendental experience.
The truth is, as any human being, first we feel, then we think. All elegant atheist rationalizations come well afterwards.
Now you may see it: an atheist isn’t necessarily arrogant. We just hold and express our feelings about the world – a faith, if you wish – like any religious person also does. And as the religious person, we need narratives, we need to storify the world. Reason, mathematics, sciences come into play, to build our cosmogony and to support our moral. Naturally, we also need our rationalist priests to help us to put all the pieces of the universal puzzle together. (At this point, I will stop to light a candle to Sagan and another to Dawkins.)
I’m pretty sure that many atheists will disagree from my account on atheism as a faith. They will insist on the rationality of their thoughts. They will argue that their disbelief in any magic world is due to their rational analysis of scientific evidences. They understand faith as a mass-controlling phenomenon aimed at simple-minded people. But this is a naïve atheism, which ironically disregards much of what science has discovered about how our brains evolved and work.
Most probably, theists and atheists have different genetic predispositions towards how they see the world, how they react to authority, how much they tend to anthropomorphize inanimate objects and animals. This means that even within a fully and equally high-educated population (pretty much like people in Europe), we still would see a split between people prone to undergo what they feel as transcendental experiences and others for whom those experiences are no more real than vampires from B movies.
We all, without exceptions, are moved by these primitive feelings. Culture dresses them with diverse narratives, Hinduism, Muslim, Rationalism, you name it.
This acceptance of our common status as beings of faith does not mean any concession to relativism. Science is on a daily basis unveiling more and more about the world, showing that much of what was taken as magical and spiritual in the past can be explained within material basis. If, for instance, a religion can’t accept that biological species have been evolving for billions of years in our planet, this religion is simply and plainly wrong.
You can’t imagine how difficult it is for an atheist to step down from the altar of the pure reason, as I am willing to do here (and without any fake humility). However, it’s more than time to admit that our biology make us equals in our differences. To accept it is one little move towards a more harmonious civilization.
Now that I did my homework, do I still deserve a scarlet A?