A Negative Word

by Patrick Appel

The e-mails keep pouring in. I'll keep posting them so long as the discussion remains engaging. A reader writes:

I take issue with the word 'atheist' itself. I do not identify myself as an atheist, because it is an entirely negative word -- it doesn't really say anything about what I do believe, only what I don't. And it continues to frame the discourse in the terms of the believer. I understand that for believers (or many believers, anyway) questions about the existence and nature of God are very important. But they are not important to me. I think the question of God's existence is just not very interesting, and my lack of belief in God is not a foundation of my moral or philosophical identity (however much believers want it to be). How could it be a foundation? How could I build a moral and philosophical view of the universe predicated on what I don't believe?

What's important to me is what I do believe -- and that's what I'd rather talk about. The mysteries of science and philosophy -- particle physics, genetics, phenomenology, neurology, astronomy, Camus' struggle with absurdity. There is so much there to talk about that is fascinating and unknown and worthy of study and speculation, that to be constantly dragged back to this obsession with "God" is really just kind of dull. That's one problem people who don't believe in God run into -- all anyone wants to talk about is their non-believing. It keeps the ball entirely in the believers' court, and the discussion entirely on their terms. (When non-believers are allowed into the discussion at all, of course.)

I understand and to some degree appreciate what people like Dennett and Dawkins and Hitchens are doing. They are trying to open up room in the public discourse for non-believers, and to do that without being shouted down takes a lot of huffing and puffing and sharp elbows. I just hope that eventually we can move past the simple acknowledgment that there are non-believers among us (Obama's nod in his inauguration address wasn't much, but it was something), and start talking about what we do believe rather than what we don't. In the meantime, I refuse to define myself in terms of whether or not I reject somebody else's view of the universe. That's way too limiting.