June 2, 2008

American Atheists and Capital A Atheism

I often blog about atheism, but for this post I'd like to address a different and much broader set of beliefs that I (and others) refer to as Atheism - capital A Atheism. This is the sort of Atheism championed by American Atheists. It would be misleading to speak of Atheism as the atheist worldview. After all, there many atheistic worldviews. However, I suspect that Atheism, as used by American Atheists, is one of the most common.

While atheism is neither a belief system nor a worldview, American Atheists describes Atheism as a broad doctrine that goes well beyond atheism.Confused? Yeah, well you're not alone. Many people misunderstand atheism, and it is hard to imagine that multiple overlapping definitions help. Still, I think most atheists would willingly embrace this broader Atheism.

According to American Atheists,
Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units. This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own.
In examining this description, we see that Atheism subsumes atheism (i.e., lack of theistic belief) but adds what has been described by some as naturalism and others as materialism - there is nothing but what is found in nature. I've met atheists who do not share this view, but they are in a small minority.

We also see that Atheism involves the position that mind is a product of the brain and cannot exist independently. This precludes spirits, souls, and life-after-death. In essence, Atheism is a set of closely related beliefs which can be boiled down to physical materialism.

To gain additional insight on how American Atheists have conceptualized Atheism, we can examine the following excerpt from Murray v. Curlett, 374 U.S. 203, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d (MD, 1963):
Your petitioners are Atheists and they define their beliefs as follows. An Atheist loves his fellow man instead of god. An Atheist believes that heaven is something for which we should work now – here on earth for all men together to enjoy.

An Atheist believes that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction, and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it and enjoy it.

An Atheist believes that only in a knowledge of himself and a knowledge of his fellow man can he find the understanding that will help to a life of fulfillment.

He seeks to know himself and his fellow man rather than to know a god. An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that a deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanquished, war eliminated. He wants man to understand and love man.

He wants an ethical way of life. He believes that we cannot rely on a god or channel action into prayer nor hope for an end of troubles in a hereafter.

He believes that we are our brother's keepers; and are keepers of our own lives; that we are responsible persons and the job is here and the time is now.
It is not my intention to hold this out as a complete worldview, and I certainly think it is important for everyone discussing atheism to realize that it is far more limited than this version of Atheism. At the same time, I can easily accept each component of this particular worldview as descriptive of what I believe. I suppose this means that I am both an atheist and an Atheist.