January 3, 2017

Curiosity About Atheism

Be Curious! (Curiosity Rover on Mars!) @MarsCuriosity

When I was a Christian, I was thoroughly ignorant about atheism and atheists. I also knew that I was ignorant on these subjects and had no difficulty admitting as much. I could not have provided a coherent definition of atheism, and since I had never met anyone who identified as an atheist, I could not have offered any sense of what atheists were like. The best I would have been able to do at the time is to provide a short list of things I had heard about atheists (e.g., they were evil Communists who hated America and were working to undermine our way of life). Even though I was already questioning some of what I had been told, I would have had little to offer in correcting the widespread misconceptions about atheists.

I have never blamed Christians for being curious about atheism or about atheists. I still remember what it was like to be ignorant on these subjects and to know that I was ignorant. What does irk me from time-to-time are the Christians I encounter who are every bit as ignorant as I was but who are either unaware of it or unwilling to admit it. There is no shame in admitting that one does not know something, and I really wish more Christians could understand this.

I remained ignorant about atheism and about atheists for years. In fact, I continued to be ignorant even after I realized that I no longer believed in gods. I was one of those atheists who could not have defined atheism and was reluctant to call myself an atheist (both because I wasn't sure what it meant and because everything I had ever heard about it was negative). It took me at least a few years and more than a few books to come to terms with the fact that I was an atheist. Since this all took place before the Internet, I expect younger readers to be puzzled as to how this could have been the case. All I can say is that I had virtually no access to information on atheism at the time and that I am glad that times have changed in that respect.

Because I can still recall what it was like to know that I did not believe in gods but to still be unsure what atheism was and to have never met an atheist, I can empathize with atheists who are confused about atheism. Even though it is far easier to find high-quality information on atheism today than it was in my youth, that does not mean that everyone in this position is seeking it out or not facing other obstacles. So while I might catch myself getting mildly annoyed when I see atheists who clearly do not understand what atheism means, I'm more inclined to steer them in the right direction than to insult or publicly shame them on social media.

It is good that people are curious about atheism. Whether they are Christians doubting their faith, religious believers of any sort who simply have questions, or people who no longer believe in gods but aren't yet sure what to call themselves, I think that curiosity about atheism is something we should foster and support. When someone expresses their curiosity or seeks information, my hope is that he or she would find something other than hostility and insults. In other words, I hope that someone curious about atheism would encounter a good ambassador of atheism.