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More Than an Atheist

As a cultural anthropologist, most of the articles I have written on religion imply rather explicitly that I am an atheist. Most of them examine religion from a cross-cultural perspective, and the explanations I offer for various beliefs and rituals do not presume the existence of a divine being. However, I am uncomfortable having the label “atheist” applied to me. Being an atheist places one in very good company (Lincoln, Einstein, Darwin, Franklin, Twain, Disney, etc.), and I tend to feel a close kindred spirit with those who so identify themselves, but the question, “Are you an atheist?” always makes me feel somewhat awkward, uncertain how to respond.

It is not that I mind having people know that I do not believe in God. I have never been a believer, and I am unconcerned about who knows it. My problem with “atheist” is that it is too negative and does not say enough about what I consider to be true. Very religious people seem to place a great deal of diagnostic significance on whether someone is or is not an atheist. That is because belief in God is all-important to them, so a person who does not share this belief is considered tragically different from themselves.

Admittedly, many atheists readily identify themselves as such and consider their atheism to comprise an essential part of their intellectual makeup. In my case, disbelief in God is only one small component of my worldview. My skepticism regarding God is no more significant to me than the fact that I dismiss both divination and astrology as superstitions. From my perspective, belief in God is merely an example of faith in something supernatural. There are numerous examples of such beliefs all over the world, including ghosts, sorcery, evil spirits, angels, fairies, demons, messianic visions, miracles, and souls. I believe that all of these are contrived concepts.

A cross-cultural and less personal view of God belief comes from the comparative study of religion. Here we see that religion in a tribal society can include one god, several, or none. Religion is a cultural universal, being or having been an important part of the belief system of every society. However, not all religions include God or any other deity. And, of course, there are numerous industrial societies where concern about God is a rather minor matter. So when American evangelicals zero in on whether someone believes in God or not, they are revealing a good bit of ethnocentrism.

I understand that God is all-important to fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Moslems, but those whose universe does not include supernatural beings such as God need not buy into giving God belief such prominence by calling themselves atheists. Of course, this brings up the semantic matter of how we distinguish religious people from nonreligious people. Rather than saying, “I am an atheist,” it might be preferable to explain that, “I am not religious.” However, this would not satisfy me since, although I do not believe in religion, my disbelief encompasses all supernatural things. “Secular humanist” is a better label, one that I accept, but it seems a bit too philosophical, suggesting certain ethical attitudes and commitments. Since some religious people hold these same commitments, I prefer “skeptic” or “naturalist” to explain how I differ from God believers. Admittedly, “skeptic” is rather negative and “naturalist” suggests a given vocation, but both are logically appropriate for identifying someone who is not a “supernaturalist,” not a religious person or someone who believes in supernatural power.

Naturalism, in contrast to supernaturalism, views the cosmos as being created by and consisting exclusively of natural forces and the products of nature (such as gravity, the Earth, and its living occupants). Those who believe in supernatural entities (such as witchcraft and gods), insist that nature is greatly influenced by forces and beings that are not natural. This is the essential difference between my beliefs and those who ask, “Are you an atheist?”