This is an open letter to David Silverman, President of American Atheists.
First, a couple of atheist videos of a 2016 David Ruben, Ruben Report and a 2012 Cara Santa Maria, The Point. Both hour-long videos are well met discussions about atheism today.
If you are not an atheist and are curious about atheism today then these two, one-hour-long interview videos are a good start in understanding atheism today. The videos are not debates with religious folk and do not include religious folk. The videos are interviews of atheists talking about atheism in the modern era.
In this letter I argue the campaign for labelling the non-religious should be for the term "evidenced" and not "atheist".
The title of the Rubin Report episode is "Atheism Deconstructed" which is my topic here as well.
First off I do not believe anyone can reverse the pejorative connotations associated with the word "atheist". From a marketing perspective I do not see any financial or other benefit for reclaiming the word "atheist". Of course I'm not the President of the American Atheists either. :)
But that is not my argument.
My argument starts with something I heard first from Sam Harris,
"The word atheist should be struck from the dictionary because lack of belief in something defines nothing."As Sam Harris argues, lack of belief in the Easter Bunny defines nothing about a person. Not a single claim can be made about someone lacking belief in the Easter Bunny. Or anything else. Therefore atheists have nothing common, literally. Which is why, contrary to your claim in the Rubin Report, atheists will never be a voting block. Anti-theists? yes. Atheists, no.
But the religious aspect of the term "atheist" is much stronger than just lack of belief, it is absence of the supernatural. The religious argument goes that a supernatural force guides moral behavior and therefore lack of supernatural force means depravity. That is why we hear the much hackneyed argument that without god then atheists will rape and kill with impunity because there is nothing [supernatural] stopping an atheist. Moral objectivity from the Christian point-of-view comes from god.
If lack of the supernatural force of one particular god means moral depravity then all non-Christians would suffer the same moral depravity. It is either being non-Christian that defines objective, supernatural morality or all gods have the same supernatural affect: Allah, Buddha, and Ganesha, etc. And we know that Christians do not believe Allah, Buddha and Ganesha equate to the Christion god from the first commandment of Old Testament. Therefore, the word atheist is meaningless to Christians because all non-Christians suffer the same damnation, the same moral inferiority.
So far the arguments put forth are that lack of belief defines nothing and then again that being non-Christian means the same thing as being atheist, making the word atheist a moot point.
But wait, there's more!
Michael Shermer in the "The Point" interview linked above makes the case in a different way. He states that religion is just one form of superstition and supernatural belief. He cites more people in the US who believe in astrology than believe in Christianity.
Which brings me to my next point: atheists are not just against religious supernatural belief, but in all supernatural belief. Shermer's point about astrology should not be taken lightly. Nancy Reagan used an astrologer to influence a President. In this I agree with Shermer: the case against non-existent supernatural is much larger than religion.
I experienced the reality of this recently when I visited Guangzho, China and much to my chagrin this 50 year communist country was steeped in the supernatural in ways far more profound than religion. I was kinda prepared for the degree Buddhism I found. What I was not prepared for was the amount of superstition. They even have superstitious holidays regarding numbers like "8". Also, Chinese medicine is homoeopathy far more entrenched and dangerous than anything found here in the US. The degree of supernatural belief in China has nothing to do with belief in god and the term atheist by definition is constrained only to a supernatural god.
To whit, an atheist can be superstitious. See China.
But wait, some more! There is some more?! s'more? lol.
Then there is the Christopher Hitchens' argument regarding ignorance. Hitchens never argued against the term "atheist" and used it all the time. I don't want to mistakenly give that impression. But, Hitchens' take on combating ignorance was even broader than Schermer's.
Hitchens was often asked as such an outspoken anti-theist if he being anti-religious then he was advocating eliminating religion. His answer was always the same, No. Why? Because Hitchens equated religion with ignorance and one cannot eliminate ignorance. Therefore, Hitchens' solution was to educate women world-wide because wherever women are educated then secularism prevails. The point hidden in Hitchens' view is that belief in the supernatural is fundamentally linked to ignorance. This is in addition to the childhood brainwashing that you correctly identify in the interview linked above.
If we combine Schermer's view with Hitchens' view then it becomes clear that belief in any supernatural is the battle and not just "god" in the definition in atheist.
So if the word "atheist" is deficient then what label should be used?
Labelling ourselves as "evidenced" dismisses all supernatural because there is no evidence for anything supernatural. In addition evidenced does define something: the evidence requirement. We require observable, reproducible, quantifiable evidence. No evidence, no belief.
The term "evidenced" gives people a true mental handle on who we are. We require evidence. This stands in stark contrast to "atheist".
Calling ourselves "evidenced" also broadens the audience. How so? It does so in the same way "pro-choice" broadens the audience for abortion rights. One can personally be anti-abortion but publicly be "pro-choice". In our case someone can be personally "supernatural" but publicly "evidenced".
As you point out very aptly in the Rubin interview belief in the supernatural is deeply engrained in someone's identity. Sam Harris was being interviewed by Dennis Prager on a call in radio show I listened too once. Someone called in and pleaded with Sam that while he found all of Sam's arguments against god compelling, the caller had a life-long relationship with Jesus, what to do? Sam's reply was that no one is coming take your imaginary friend away. Just realize that Jesus is just that.
If we use the term "evidenced" then this gives people who want to publicly be on the evidenced side an "in". They can be publicly "pro-evidenced" but personally still believe in the supernatural in those cases where they cannot bring themselves to change their identity.
So, these are my arguments for shifting from "atheist" to "evidenced":
- Lack of belief defines nothing. (Sam Harris)
- All belief in the supernatural should be the cause. (Michael Shermer)
- Supernatural belief correlates strongly with lack of education. (Christopher Hitchens)
- Personal versus public policy. (Pro choice)