I make this declaration because the day this blog entry is being published, April 23, 2015, has been declared "Openly Secular Day" by the organization Openly Secular. Their "About" page says, "The mission of Openly Secular is to eliminate discrimination and increase acceptance by getting secular people - including atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, humanists and nonreligious people - to be open about their beliefs." They add, "We believe that increasing visibility of secular people will lower prejudice against them, much as it has for the LGBT community."
Although secular people use various labels for themselves, as noted above, I consider myself to be an atheist. Note 1 There are people who share my beliefs (or perhaps I should say lack of belief) who would find it very difficult (indeed, sometimes even dangerous) to "come out" to their family, friends, and acquaintances. Here, in the liberal and college infested greater Boston area, I think I'll have no such difficulties. Thus, I really have no excuse to continue not talking about it, as I have done for most of my life (although this announcement will certainly be no surprise to my family).
As I make this declaration, there are a few points I'd like to make:
My lack of belief is not a choice
So here goes:
My lack of belief is not a choice
Despite common expressions such as, "People are free to believe as they choose", we arrive at our beliefs, we can't choose them. To say that I believe X (whatever X is) is just another way of saying that I perceive X to be true. If it seems to me, for instance, that there's no evidence that Santa Claus is a real person, then I don't believe in Santa Claus. Under those circumstances, I can't simply decide to believe in Santa Claus, by some act of will. It's not possible.
I could decide to say I believe in Santa Claus. Here, I'll write it down right now: I believe in Santa Claus. But I lied. I don't really believe.
I could decide to act as if I believe in Santa Claus. I could stop buying Christmas gifts for my family, and tell people that there is no need because I am confident that Santa will bring them. But acting as if I believe isn't really believing either.
So we can choose what we say and we can choose how we act, but it's impossible for us to choose what we believe.
Well, there is one way a person can choose a belief, sort of. Since we can choose how we act, we can have a belief handed down to us and choose to accept it without investigation. That sort of default acceptance is probably how most people get their religious beliefs - by choosing not to take a hard look and possibly rock the boat.
But I'm an intellectual sort, and tend to insist on evidence. So I did do some amount of study of the God hypothesis (although I'm hardly a theologian), and my perception is that there's insufficient evidence for me to accept it. Thus, I don't believe. It's not that I've chosen to not believe, it's that I don't believe.
I'm not saying it's impossible for me to ever change my mind. I could learn new evidence in support of the God hypothesis, or come to accept existing arguments that I had previously rejected. My mind is always open to change. But for the moment, I don't believe, and that's not a choice.
My lack of belief is unimportant
God exists or doesn't whether I believe or don't, so my lack of belief doesn't affect the universe.
My lack of belief doesn't affect you. If you followed me around for a year, I don't think you'd find me behaving much differently from most other people. You'd notice I don't go to church, but then a lot of believers don't go to church either.
Finally, I'm not sure my lack of belief even affects me. If I came to change my mind based on some variant of the intelligent designer theory (say, the Irreducible Complexity argument), then what would I come to believe? I'd have to conclude that at some time in the past, there must have been one or more intelligences of an unknown nature involved in design and creation of the universe. Okay, how would that change what I do tomorrow? That conclusion gives me no actionable intelligence. It wouldn't change my life in any way.
So all in all, I think my being an atheist is a matter of no importance. Perhaps that's why I seldom talk about it unless asked about my religious belief. But Openly Secular Day has given me a reason to change that.
I'm a good person
I shouldn't have to say this. To believe that an atheist can't be a good person is sheer religious bigotry, no better than anti-Semitism or any other form of religious bigotry. A 2014 Pew survey found that "53% [of Americans] say belief in God is necessary to be moral", a statement which I think is demonstrably false.
By the way, a later Pew survey validates the approach of Openly Secular by stating, "Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist."
I'm moral and ethical in all my personal and business dealings. I feel I've been a good husband and father. I've been married to one woman for 45 years, and I'm faithful to my wife. I need to be judged by my behavior, not pre-judged based on a false, bigoted view of atheists as a group.
There's no evidence that atheists are any less moral than religious believers. If you don't understand how this can be so, you need to educate yourself. You might start with the book Good Without God, by Greg Epstein.
Fortunately, we do seem to be making some progress in changing attitudes on this issue, as witnessed by an article a few days ago in The Christian Science Monitor entitled, Is America beginning to accept atheists? (by Jessica Mendoza, Staff Writer, April 19, 2015). I'm hoping the Openly Secular movement will accelerate that trend.
So there you have it, on April 23, 2015, the first Openly Secular Day. I am openly secular.
Note 1: Why do I call myself an atheist, and not an agnostic? I once was shown a single page with short definitions of various religious beliefs that had come from the Reverend Fred Small, of the First Parish church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It distinguished "positive atheism" from "negative atheism". Although I don't have the page in front of me, the definitions went something like this:
Positive atheism: "I believe God doesn't exist."
Negative atheism: "I don't believe God exists."
If you read my blog entry Science (bis), you'll find that I think that the only reason to believe a hypothesis is that it's supported by evidence. What kind of evidence could support the hypothesis "God doesn't exist"? Things that don't exist can't go around leaving evidence of their nonexistence. I think a universal negative hypothesis of that sort is an ill formed hypothesis, so I can't subscribe to positive atheism.
Thus I define myself as a negative atheist: I don't believe God exists. That simply means that I don't think there's sufficient evidence to substantiate the God hypothesis (in any of its conventional forms).
Does this mean that I'm absolutely sure that I'm right? Of course not. Since we are all fallible human beings, there's always a possibility that any of us is wrong in our beliefs.
There are people whom I would call atheists who prefer to define themselves as agnostics, perhaps to emphasize the fact that they are not absolutely certain about the nonexistence of God. For example, the brilliant mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell seemed to most often describe himself publicly as an agnostic. But you might take a look at his essay, Am I An Atheist Or An Agnostic? Why should atheists feel they have to underline the blindingly obvious fact that no fallible human being can ever be 100% certain of anything?
Anyone who claims to be 100% certain that God exists would be claiming infallibility, which is ridiculous, but we're happy to call someone a believer if he or she thinks the existence of God is highly likely. If someone claims to be 99% certain that God exists, we don't reply, "Ooh, one percent doubt, you're not a believer, you're an agnostic."
So similarly, if someone thinks there's less than a 1% probability that God exists, to my mind you've got an atheist. To require a person to prove that God doesn't exist to earn the title "atheist" is, quite frankly, just an atheist-bashing definition of the word, intended to make atheists look dogmatic and arrogant. In one of the best-known recent books on atheism, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, his chapter on why he doesn't believe in God is called, "Why God probably doesn't exist" (my emphasis).
So believers can be defined as people who assign a high probability to the God hypothesis, and atheists as those who assign a low probability to it. Agnostics occupy the large middle ground. There are agnostics who are 50-50 on the question, but others may be 10-90 or 90-10, that is leaning in one direction or another (although in my experience, most people who describe themselves as agnostics are more likely to lean towards atheism than towards belief). Of course, we don't normally assign numbers to these probabilities, but you get the idea.
So that's why I call myself an atheist. I'm proud to throw my lot in with the highly accomplished scientist Richard Dawkins. I'm an atheist simply because I believe there is insufficient evidence for the God hypothesis. My negative atheism is very literal: I'm an a-theist; that is, not a believer.
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