What Atheists Get Wrong About Atheism

I just read What Oprah Gets Wrong About Atheism, by Chris Stedman.


I can’t stress enough that I really liked the crux of this article. I, too, find it to be offensive when the religious assume that atheists can’t understand things like “awe and wonder” because we do not see those things through the lens of faith. I know that when I look at a sunset my emotions are not inherently less than that of a religious person watching that same sunset, as Oprah seemed to suggest in the interview that spurred Stedman to write his article.

The article didn’t make me feel any better about the interview itself, however. My feelings on that are pretty conflicted. I thought that Diana Nyad handled Oprah’s lack of understanding about atheism beautifully and that her experience of atheism sounds beautiful, too. But, I found it unfortunate that Nyad immediately fell back on the same tired explanation that most atheists seem to use when pressured to discuss lack of religion with a believer.

If you believe in souls and connectedness, fine. Great, even. But, why must people incessantly confuse these issues with the issue of atheism when arguing with the religious?

Atheists do not believe in deities. We all share that one, simple belief. The reality is that atheists don’t believe in gods/goddesses and that there shouldn’t be anything inherently wrong with that. Just like there is nothing wrong with the fact that most people do believe in some sort of deity. To argue that there is something wrong with atheism is as bigoted as arguing that there is something wrong with Christianity, Islam, or any other religious belief. Anything else said about atheism muddies the water.

Nyad was guilty of perpetuating that confusion this week. She used the terms “wonder” and “awe” but most of us have heard this before under the guise of “spirituality.” I think that people, especially atheists, use the term “spiritual” too broadly and, if nothing else, I’m glad that she chose other words instead.

Being spiritual literally means either that you are religious or that you are full of spirit/soul (which is sort of the root of being religious).

Me rolling my eyes at the term, "spiritual but not religious." Oxymorons make me gag.

Me rolling my eyes at the term, “spiritual but not religious.” Oxymorons make me gag.

In my experience, atheists who call themselves spiritual or “spiritual but not religious” tend to mean something along the lines of, “I love nature and feel connected to every life form because, after all, we’re all made of carbon.” Which is essentially what Diana Nyad said to Oprah. You can believe in the concept of a soul whether you believe in a god/goddess or not but it’s not like all atheists ascribe to the idea of shared spirit among humans, animals, etc.

Of course, if you read Stedman’s article, you can see that he didn’t go to this place. Instead he very nicely explained how, as an atheist, he draws upon the beauty he sees in the world and from his observations of human connection to build his morality and belief in the power of humanism. Still, as a fellow atheist, I read his article and was a bit sorry that he was so nice about all of it. It’s exhausting to have to constantly prove one’s morality to others who simply assume that you can’t be moral if you do not draw your morality from the same place as they do. I really wanted Stedman to go there.

So, I’ll come out and say it: I am an atheist who is neither spiritual nor religious. I believe in the power of humanity to be both compassionate and cruel, to love and to hate. I believe that we should spare others from pain when possible because…well, why wouldn’t you?

Why should good people have to explain themselves anyway? I pay taxes, I like puppies, and I hold the elevator when someone else is running toward it. That’s all you need to know.

Atheists who routinely rely upon the “I don’t believe in God, but I’m spiritual anyway,” shtick may truly believe that (and that’s okay by me) but I think it always sounds a little like pleading for the religious to think nicely of us atheists. I wonder how many atheists adopt this mantra simply to use it as an argument that the religious can understand. Unfortunately, I think that this description encourages religious people to think that atheists are just like them without having yet experienced the wonder of knowing that God exists. After watching Oprah’s face during the interview, I wonder if this is what she was thinking, too.

Let’s stop trying to use the idea of the “spiritual atheist” to make the self-righteous religious set understand that we atheists can be moral, feel connected to nature and humanity, and still put our faith in science. Or, at least don’t use that word simply because it’s more palatable to those that think atheists are weird, wrong, or evil.

Perhaps we have souls or perhaps we are each in possession of a bunch of neurons firing in such a way as to make us individuals who think of humans as having souls. Either way, this is completely unrelated to whether or not we think a god gave us the soul, is in control of it, etc., as Nyad also mentions in her interview. And, it has even less to do with whether we are good people are not.

I am a nice person. Most people that I know think I’m swell. But, I don’t believe that you have some sort of wisp of soul waiting inside to be released into the ether when you die. I do not think that this should make me any more or less acceptable on the spectrum of humanity or among atheists, specifically.

At the end of the day, belief in a higher power has never been a good indicator of one’s moral fiber. Further, I think that most religious people know that. It’s just that some use it as an argument: “you are less than because you do not believe what I believe.” People just have a hard time accepting that we don’t all agree and, since this issue can never be resolved, it is all the more annoying that others can’t be convinced to change.

I wonder at religious people who claim not to understand my disbelief in their God. You may not agree with me but to not understand? That seems deliberately obtuse so I assume these people choose not to understand. And, if by choosing not to understand, you choose not to accept, then we have a problem.

I think that atheists are getting this wrong. Perhaps it’s time for us to stop apologizing and justifying our beliefs to those that choose not to accept us. Time to call a bigot a bigot (even if she is Oprah) and move on.



3 responses to “What Atheists Get Wrong About Atheism

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking post. I’ll have to watch Oprah’s interview, Though I believe in God, my husband does not though sometimes he sounds more like he’s agnostic, and I think that’s because of the prejudice you allude to against atheists. I have no problem with anyone who is an atheist or agnostic – as long as they don’t have any issues with my reading the bible or occasionally going to church, which my husband doesn’t. The freedom of religion allegedly granted to us through the Constitution/various laws in the U.S. should be an umbrella for those who don’t believe in God as well. But we’ve still got IN GOD WE TRUST on our currency. The Pledge of Allegiance still has God’s name in it, and we still have prayer in public sometimes, which seems to fly in the face of the idea that we have religious freedom and/or the right not to worship or believe in God. And it does seem to be an oxymoron if you will, to say that one is an atheist but still spiritual, but who’s to say that God isn’t a squirrel or a polar bear or a gigantic palm tree? Sounds ridiculous, but no one knows what or whom God really is, right? We’ll all find out when we leave this world (or maybe not, who knows). Either way, bickering about it or trying to foist your ideas on others seems to me a waste of time, which is why my husband and I agreed to disagree long ago. Live and let live, I always say. Thanks for this post!

  2. I feel like have to say something about the oxymoron, because I am guilty of saying this. What I’ve found is that (in my experience only!) many people use “I’m spiritual but not religious” as a way to distance themselves from the stereotypes and reputation of organized religion. I hold theistic faith, but I most emphatically do not believe thate religious institutions are doing anyone any favours with their attitudes and practises.

    But then, I believe that human beings need faith. I think we need to believe in something, whatever that “something” is. And yes, my “something” kinda-sorta resembles the Something disseminated from pulpits, if you tilt your head and squint. But I also think that there is a very real difference between “faith” and “religion”. So while I think human beings need faith, I definitely don’t feel that way about organized religion.

    I’m sorry that you end up having to constantly defend yourself, and what you do/don’t believe. That is definitely The Big Suck.

    And damnit, this post makes me miss the debates I used to have with my atheist friend. Which always went strange places, because we’d both play Devil’s Advocate–he’d argue theistically and I’d argue atheistically. And then we’d switch again.

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