May 19, 2006

Is "Not Superstitious" a Better Way to Say "Atheist?"

Atheist sticker in Madrid in 2008.
Atheist sticker in Madrid in 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I read a number of atheist blogs and sometimes find certain posts so fascinating that I want to do more than just leave a comment. A post on Separation of State and Superstition caught my attention and sparked the post you are now reading.

In this post, David suggests that the word "atheist" has acquired so much negative baggage that it might be time to replace it with an alternative term. I believe that this may have been the rationale underlying the "brights" movement. Instead of "brights," David suggest that we consider replacing "atheist" with "not superstitious."

David is correct that "atheist" has acquired a negative connotation, but I am not in favor of abandoning its use. Replacing the atheist label with something else will not remove the negative association; it will simply create additional confusion. Instead, we need to do better about defining and explaining atheism.

I am sticking to my previously expressed agreement with George Smith and defining atheism as a lack of theistic belief. When I say "I am an atheist," I am saying that I do not believe in gods of any sort. In other words, I do not accept the proposition "God(s) exist(s)" as true. The theist has not made an adequate case to establish the veracity of this proposition. Thus, identifying myself as an atheist means only that I do not accept the claim that gods exist (i.e., theism).

In addition to being an atheist, I am also a naturalist (or materialist, if you prefer). This is where the "not superstitious" part might come in. It would be a mistake to explain atheism as meaning a refusal to accept all sorts of superstitious belief. I could easily be an atheist and a superstitious person, believing in luck and engaging in meaningless rituals to obtain it (e.g., consider the rituals many baseball players go through before batting). Part of what David is defining as superstition fits into naturalism. Naturalism means that I reject the claim that anything exists other than the natural world. I do not accept any hint of supernatural beings, places, occurrences, etc. Thus, to more fully explain my worldview, I must go well beyond atheism and include naturalism.

Because I could be an atheist and a naturalist and still be superstitious (e.g., believing in luck, fate, astrology, etc.), I need at least one more component. I need a commitment to reason and skepticism as the path to knowledge. In this way, I set criteria for truthfulness that requires the rationality and evidence. Irrational beliefs are by definition rejected. Now luck, psychic phenomena, and other examples of superstition (including religion) can be swept aside. In fact, they must be swept aside because they are irrational and lack sufficient evidence.

I am an atheist, but I am also a naturalist, a skeptic, and one who strives to be rational. Rather than trying to replace atheism with an alternative term that means much more than atheism, I think we should be prepared to explain that atheism is merely one small part of our worldviews and that many other components are necessary to convey all we believe.

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