Mar 18th 2015

We Are All Atheists

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

So a Rabbi and an Atheist walk into a bar. What is funny about this joke entree is that the encounter made real news, in the form of a nice talk about good and evil, with the implication that an atheist cannot tell the difference. In another bulletin, a vast majority of Americans admit they do not want atheists to marry their children. Atheist in-laws are a taboo.

Trouble in Paradise

Eschewing relatives who reject the idea of god is just a small glimpse of the bias against atheists. In North Carolina, elected officials are constitutionally disqualified from office if they "deny the being of Almighty God." But let us not pick on the ignorant bias of the Tar Heel state, for they are not alone in primitive thinking appropriate to the 1600s. Yes, in modern America, we live in an era where public office holders in many states must pass a religious test. Arkansas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas all deny atheists the right to hold public office. Never mind that the Supreme Court ruled way back in 1961 that the U.S. Constitution trumps such outrageous religious discrimination through the supremacy of federal law. Atheists then are denied a right that any other American would take for granted without a second thought.

Outside the borders of the United States, 13 countries enforce laws that revoke citizenship for the crime of atheism; and since it is a crime, atheists cannot get married in these countries. If that were not enough, atheists can be put to death in these 13 Islamic states. An atheist blogger was hacked to death in Bangladesh.

The cold hard fact is that atheists face global persecution, yet attacks are rarely reported in mainstream news. In contrast, any attack on a Christian gets plenty of attention. One piece in the New York Times pleaded, "Who Will Stand Up for the Christians?" Here is a headline you'll never see: "Who will stand up for the Atheists?" The Catholic press emphasized that ISIS is killing Christians, which is true, but ignored that fact that ISIS is killing anybody they deem unworthy of their radical Islamic beliefs, including other Muslims and Jews. Is the killing of a Christian worse than the murder of an atheist or Muslim? Apparently.

Everybody is An Atheist

The deep and terrible irony of this global persecution of atheists is that all of us are in fact atheists, even the most devout, undoubting, dedicated priest, rabbi or mullah.

The word atheist derives from Greek, originally from the adjective atheos, meaning "without god." The term was later invoked by Greek writers to mean "denying the gods." All of us are without or deny the existence of at least some gods, and therefore all of us are atheists. This is undeniable: all monotheistic believers reject all gods, except one. They reject all the Greek elder gods Cronus, Gaea, Uranus, Rhea, Oceanus, Tethys, Hyperion, Mnemosyne, Themis, Iapetus, Coeus, Crius, Phoebe, Thea, Prometheus, Epimetheus, Atlas, Metis and Dione.

Muslims, Jews and Christians all deny the existence of the Greek Olympic gods Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis and Hephaestus. All major religions today dismiss as nothing but myth the Roman gods Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Venus, Cupid, Mercury, Minerva, Ceres, Proserpine, Vulcan, Bacchus, Saturn, Vesta, Janus, Uranus and Maia.

Yet this roster of gods was real to multiple thousands of people for thousands of years, every bit as real as the one god worshipped by Christians, Muslims and Jews today. These Greek and Roman gods were the subject of daily pleas, prayers and sacrifice and the guiding force for much daily ritual. These mighty powers stood for millennia, ruling over their followers for a period of time that greatly exceeds all of Christianity. These gods are now demoted to nothing more glorious than a good story. What would convey upon these gods more or less legitimacy than the god of John, Matthew, Mark and Luke? Nothing.

If asked, Christians, Jews and Muslims today would use numerous and diverse reasons to deny the existence of Greek and Roman gods, who were so important to so many people for so long. Religious folks today are quite convinced that Greek and Roman gods are nothing but myth. I simply extend that reasoning to include the one remaining god. Everybody is an atheist; I merely exclude the existence of one more god than those who consider themselves religious. You deny the existence of Zeus and Jupiter; I deny the existence of Zeus, Jupiter and your one god. Whatever logic and reasoning, or faith, you apply to deny that Zeus and Jupiter are real, I agree, and apply that to your god as well.

This argument, this line of reasoning, is not some semantic sleight-of-hand. Any good Christian or Jew would dismiss outright, as absurd, the possibility that Zeus exists as a real god. He or she would do so with gusto, with no inner doubts, with no hesitation, with unyielding certainty. For identical reasons, using the same logic, and with the same unyielding certainty, we dismiss out of hand the absurd possibility that the god of the Old and New Testament could exist as a real god. We all agree in principle;we're just haggling about a number, with my calculation resulting in one fewer god in the equation.

A Move to Rationalism

Now that we have established that all of us are atheists, the time has come to prove that there are no atheists. Or more precisely, the word atheist should be permanently retired as a description of what we all are. Just as society was able to move past Jim Crow, we need to leave behind the biased idea of atheism. The word embeds a false assumption that god exits; and that there are then people who are "without" that god. Defining anybody or any movement as the negative of another is a bad start. I refuse to be defined as an absence of what somebody else supposedly has; I simply cannot be without something that does not exist. I am not lacking what someone is fortunate enough to possess. The idea is ridiculous. Calling me an atheist is like defining me as a man without a dragon tail, and then denying me my rights because I do not have a dragon tail. I cannot be absent something that is nothing but another's myth.

I am a rationalist, and if others wish to believe in an invisible man in the sky with magical powers, we can label them arationalists. There are not believers and non-believers or theists and atheists; that inverts reality. Instead, henceforth, think in terms of rationalism and arationalism, a world in which the standard is an objective reality, not a 2000 year old myth.

African-Americans were once called "Colored" when civil rights were a distant dream. That word is offensive because of the implication that all others must be compared to the pure "standard" of White. If black skin was considered the standard, all Caucasians would be properly called "a-pigmented" or "uncolored." That only sounds strange because we are so used to the bias. But if we accepted the standard as black, we would indeed be uncolored relative to that standard, so the moniker would make perfect sense. Likewise, the word atheist implies a standard of religiosity in which belief in god is somehow the measure by which all others must be judged. But be clear: religion is no more legitimate as a standard than is white skin.

I stand on a soap box about this because of the power of words to impact our perception. Atheism is a pejorative term in the eyes of believers because it is the negative of them (without something that others have), and with that inherent negativity comes implied permission to discriminate blatantly and openly. Proof is seen in such blatant discrimination, like prohibition in holding public office. Or being killed for harboring rational thought. We can trash or harm that which we do not respect. During the Second World War we called our enemies Japs and Krauts among other degrading epithets in order to diminish them as humans, making them easier to hate, fight and kill. Our cause was just enough without the name calling. Many believers use "atheists" in a similarly derogative vein. The solution is to abandon completely the use of the term atheist, just as polite society no longer uses the "N" word to describe African-Americans, "Rag Heads" for Arabs or "Wet Backs" for those south of the border. Offensive? Yes, just as is the use of the word atheist. Rationalism and arationalism; that is the appropriate distinction.

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