Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What Is an Apatheist?

Apatheist is short for apathetic atheist. In an ideal world, we could all be apatheists. By that I mean, we could ignore in the first place the ridiculous question of a supernatural world, and not have to get organized to counter those who (often violently) push their delusions on the rest of us. I often use a sports analogy: I don't follow pro football. Do I call myself an afootballist? No. Do I have an anti-Superbowl party the first weekend in February? No - usually I go kayaking because the parks and bays are deserted that weekend; it's my version of the American Jewish tradition of going to see a movie and eating Chinese on Christmas. The point is, pro-football fans aren't locking people up for having their business open on Joe Montana's birthday, or telling them they're morally inferior for not knowing who's the leading rusher in the NFC West. Unfortunately the same can't be said for religion. Looking at it this way, it becomes clear that atheism is really a political question more than a philosophical one. If you read this blog, we probably already agree philosophically with each other that religion is all nonsense anyway, so if there's nothing else to it, it must exist for a reason, which of course is the political power of its practitioners. Thinking about the NFL metaphor also gives you a nice soundbite answer to smartasses that try to tell you you're starting a new church by joining a (to them) paradoxical atheist group. You're not organizing around a lack of belief, but rather a positive belief in the power of individual reason and the separation of church and state - in the U.S., the Constitution.

The reason for the wildly divergent survey figures for atheists in the U.S. (anywhere from 6 to 15 percent) is that there's quite a reasonable disagreement over who, exactly, counts as an atheist. What seems clear is that there are fewer people like me (and probably like you) who positively self-identify as "atheist" than there are people who are just normal, reasonable men and women who have no use for churches and dietary restrictions and just want the nutcases to leave them alone. Many people you know are doubtless also in this category. They don't cherish the thought of breathing fire at the devout, and they just want a rational society. It bears repeating that among nonbelievers, this bloc constitutes the majority.

There's no need to further devert apatheists or otherwise push the issue to get these people to declare they've been born-again under the "atheist" banner, as long as nonbelievers and indeed secular-government supporters of all stripes understand that what's first-and-foremost important is keeping religion out of public policy. When we all have to agree on something, the discussion has to be rational and accessible to everyone, and not based on revelation. Not only do apatheists "get" this, but so do plenty of religious Americans - maybe even the majority of them. A Unitarian friend of mine once pointed out that he supported separation of church and state, and it wasn't his small, reasonable, community-oriented church that I should be worrying about, but the glittering megachurch that's squeezing him out. In any event, if you're an American atheist, chances are that your own morality is not that far off from those of more progressive religions - my own score in one survey was 87% similar to liberal Protestants - not surprising given Marc Hauser's work on the topic. Atheism in the twenty-first century is a political question, which is why we should always keep in mind politically-minded organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Check out the list of resources on the right side of this page and GET INVOLVED!

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