February 10, 2012

Why Being an Atheist is Very Different From Not Believing in the Tooth Fairy

tooth fairyI occasionally hear from atheists who do not like the "atheist" label because it does not specify what is believed, only what is not believed. "I don't believe in unicorns or the tooth fairy," they say, "and I don't call myself an 'aunicornist' or identify myself as someone who doubts the tooth fairy." Right. Because these are equivalent.

If I am feeling patient enough to attempt an explanation, I generally respond with something about how I will gladly spend as much time on unicorns and the tooth fairy when people who believe in them have a comparable influence as that wielded by the religious.

Christopher Hitchens evidently encountered this objection enough that he chose to address it in the introductory chapter to The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever:
True enough - but we do not have to emerge from a past when tooth fairies and Father Christmas (both rather recent inventions) held sway. The fans of the tooth fairy do not band on your door and try to convert you. They do not insist that their pseudo-science must be taught in schools. They do not condemn believers in rival tooth fairies to death and damnation. They do not say that all morality comes from tooth fairy ceremonies, and that without the tooth fairy there would be fornication in the streets and the abolition of private property. They do not say that the tooth fairy made the world, and that all of us must therefore bow the knee to the Big Brother tooth fairy. They do not say that the tooth fairy will order you to kill your sister if she is seen in public with a man who is not her brother.

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