In this morning’s Guardian, Ian Jack asks himself why he jibes (using the past tense formulation of jibbed, which is surely something that one did on a sailing boat) at being termed an atheist, when he doesn’t believe in god.
I don’t know why I jibbed at the word atheist. It may have been Jonathan Miller’s argument that non-belief in God is a narrow and entirely negative self-description that ignores all the other things you might either believe in or not, from homeopathy through necromancy to the Gaia theory. As a definition it belongs to the same dull category as “non-driver” or “ex-smoker”; not driving or no longer smoking, just like not believing in God, is an inadequate guide to the self. There are so many richer and more positive ways, or so you hope, to summarise your behaviour and beliefs and what you might add up to when the counting is done.
But after the nurse left with her questionnaire, I wondered about other motives for denying a truth about myself.
The article goes on to note that ‘atheism has a scorning ring to it’, and it is partially in this scorn that we must, surely, find the answer. The comments section proffers its usual mix of idiocy, arrogance, rudeness and not-quite-getting-the-pointness, but no-one seems to spot the (sacred) elephant in the room (and no, I don’t mean confusing belief with religion).
The prefix ‘a’ indicates a lack, a negative. Amoral. Aseptic. Atheist thus indicates an intellectual position on the existence of divine beings predicated on the individual’s lack of belief.
When a christian or a muslim or a jain calls me an atheist, they use the word as a pejorative, demonstrating that I, for some reason, lack belief. Lacking belief as a failure. I do not believe something which is (to them) palpably true.
When people ask if I believe in god, I reply simply that my belief system does not embrace a supreme being, or any other supernatural deity, before asking whether theirs does.
In the absence of proof (because if, for example, there was an omnipotent God in the manner assumed by so many, to ensure that its creations had no proof but relied on faith would be a breeze), to hold a position either side of the fence is an act of faith.
The reason atheist is such a poor term is its history. It denotes someone who doesn’t adhere to something palpably true. It is inadequate, patronising and intellectually barren as a term.
Don’t ask me what we ought replace it with, however … I haven’t worked that bit out yet!