Who am I? Why am I here?*
Greetings! I’m PLP of Ask the Atheist fame (or notoriety). I want to start off this series of essays with a discussion of what atheism is and is not, why I call myself an atheist, and why I’m posting here.
“God” is a complex term. Many different people have meant many different things, from the purely mystical to the metaphysical to the metaphorical to concrete beings as physically real as you or me. Ideas about God (or Gods) are myriad, from Spinoza’s rational pantheism and Spong’s postmodernist panentheism to Catholicism, Protestant Fundamentalism and Islam; from animism and polytheism to monotheism to Deism. Thousands of Gods have been proposed.
Everyone has a set of nuanced and varied beliefs about God, simply because the word applies to so many concepts. Even Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Jews all believe very different things about God, and they all say they’re talking about the same God. Throw Deists, pantheists, Buddhists, New Agers, “Cafeteria Christians”, cultists and a few complete lunatics into the mix and the situation becomes even more complex. Just sampling the milennial contradictory dialog between mystics, philosophers, theologians is enough to make the most profound scholar’s eyeballs spin.
No single word is ever going to capture every nuance of what any individual believes and why he or she believes it. I would venture to guess that however narrowly you define any particular religion, you will never find two people who believe exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons. At best you can infer from the label they self-apply only a broad overview of their beliefs.
The same characteristic is true of someone such as myself who self-identifies as an atheist. Atheism literally means a-(without) theism (belief in God). In other words, whatever a theist “essentially” is, an atheist isn’t. It’s a broad term. If you want to know specifically what and why an atheist does or does not believe, you’ll have to ask him; you can’t draw any detailed conclusions from just the label.
The precise terminology and taxonomy of non-belief in God is a very contentious topic within the community of people who do not profess belief. All the various labels, weak atheist, strong atheist, agnostic, apatheist, carry not only denotative meanings but connotations, both emotional and political. About the only agreement in terminology you’ll find is that “nontheist” uncontroversially covers everyone who doesn’t believe in a specific, particular conception of a God. It’s my opinion that this contention is irrelevant. Call yourself what you wish and if anyone wants to know the details, they can ask.
Bear in mind whenever I discuss people in terms of these labels, “atheist”, “agnostic”, “theist”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, I am talking exclusively about self-identification. So far as I’m concerned, if you call yourself a “Christian”, you’re a Christian; if you call yourself an “atheist”, you’re an atheist. I might draw some broad tentative conclusions about your beliefs from your self-chosen label, but, because the labels are purely self-applied, I draw no conclusions with analytical certainty.
So, of course, it behooves me to explain in more detail what I personally mean by calling myself a “strong atheist”.
I restrict the application of “atheist” to conceptions of “God” which specify a personal being, i.e. an identifiable entity which is conscious, intelligent and purposeful. I don’t apply the label to conceptions of “God” which are entirely metaphorical, such as Einstein’s metaphorical use of God to discuss the laws of physics. I certainly believe there are actually laws of physics (or, more precisely, regularities in the way the universe behaves which can be effectively labeled and described). If someone applies “God” to the collection of these laws, I’m not going to disbelieve in the laws of physics just to preserve my label of atheism, but neither am I going to abandon the label which is so useful in describing at least the broad outline of my position on a personal God.
*Bonus points if you can name the source of the quotation