Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Credo -- but first, the labelling problem

Our good friend Jane Boatler wants to know why atheists proselytize -- too kind to point out explicitly that this seems a bit inconsistent, as we don't seem to like it when religious people do it.

I think the question may be a bit unfair. People generally try to persuade others to their point of view, and civil debate is a normal, and usually enjoyable, feature of everyday social conversation. Atheists do not, as far as I know, go from door to door or stand at the train station handing out tracts, we don't post quotations from Robert Green Ingersoll or Richard Dawkins in the courthouse, and we don't insist on having the latest findings in cosmology read aloud before every session of Congress. We engage people in discussion on a purely voluntary basis.

That said, it is about time I get upfront and down and dirty with exactly what the heck I do believe. Before I do, however, I need to deal with this difficult label issue. People like me who don't belong to an organized body of belief usually feel that none of the very limited number of available categorical names quite fits us or adequately represents us. It is true that I am quite certain that the entity called God by the various major religions does not exist. (And I note that having written that, I have not been struck by lightning.) However, my beliefs are not centered on that negative proposition. That's just a conclusion, not a central principle.

Some people call themselves realists, skeptics, secular humanists. I'll accept all of those but they require explanation. Also, there aren't any specific criteria for joining any of those groups, so there are definitely people who call themselves by those names who don't agree with me about one or another fundamental question. Humanism, in particular, implies not just certain beliefs about the nature of reality but also a set of values. Actually, some people call themselves humanists because of the values, people whose metaphysical beliefs are quite different from mine.

There was an ill-conceived and ill-received proposition published in Free Inquiry a while back that people like me ought to start calling themselves "The Brights." Since this obviously implies that other people must be "The Dullards" or "The Dimwits," it was not exactly the best public relations idea. And I certainly do not agree with either the implication or the aesthetics of the term.

So I'm going to say that I am a Realist and a Humanist. Shortly, I'll say what those words mean to me and how I go about deciding what to believe. Meanwhile, does anybody care to respond to these labels? What do they mean to you?