Action, Not Semantics, Defines Atheism
By Steve Peterson
At the September Minnesota Atheists meeting with PZ Myers, a classic issue came up in the question-and-answer session: Atheism only defines what we do not believe rather that what we do believe. I argued that many people are proud to be independent, not dependent, even though this also defines only what they are not. Similarly, the Declaration of Independence is primarily a negation of dependence on Britain, but it is not viewed as a pejorative document, at least not because of its title.
The real issue is not one of semantics but of how atheists are perceived. One of the main roles of religion is to control society. Many people see atheists as a threat to that control and see atheism as bringing about the end of civilization. This concept has faded over time, but fear of atheism is still widespread.
One of the best ways we can change this perception is to earn respect through collective action. For centuries, the lone atheist might bring about change for the better, but history would usually ignore his or her atheism. On the other hand, history has been all too willing to credit God for the success of reformers who were religious.
Social media and the growth of organized atheist groups have given atheists an opportunity to influence society’s perception of atheists and have also given atheists a stronger voice in the creation of our laws and the nature of our government.
Sometimes it may not be good enough to rely only on science to solve a problem. Sometimes we may need to expose the anti-scientific goals of both individuals and groups and the harm those goals may cause our shared future. Sometimes we may need to expose the religious zealot who is running for elective office and wants to enforce his or her narrow religious views on everyone. Sometimes it may be best to say we come to our views because we are atheists.
I believe I am but a speck of dust on a planet of dust in the vast universe that will go on whether I live or die, but as long as I am here, my voice is important. Society is in great need of reason instead of superstition. I see this as a positive attitude, not a negative one. Reason is a fundamental part of our being, even if superstition is as well.
Positive atheism as practiced by Minnesota Atheists has actively helped atheists earn respect in our community one event at a time for over twenty years. If we continue to be successful in our work, someday it may become as commonplace and accepted for people to belong to an atheist center as to belong to a church.