My local newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal, published my letter to the editor explaining – and hopeful demystifying – the word “atheism.” It stayed at the top of the paper’s most popular items list for about five days. Clearly there was interest.
The word still creates significant confusion, fear, and backlash among believers of certain religious claims, particularly here in the Bible Belt. There also remains, despite the rapidly changing religious landscape of the United States, a stigma associated with the word. This stigma was evident to me in a couple of letters written in response to a local secular activist. I reference those letters below. Given that stigma and confusion, I decided to have a go at clearing things up and hopefully removing some of the baggage that travels with the notion of not believing someone’s claims about their god or gods being real.
First some context for the upcoming analogy. If you have a statistics background, then you are familiar with the concept of the null hypothesis. Here’s a quick refresher for those who might’ve avoided statistics like the plague. No to worry, I’ll try to make it painless. When comparing two data sets, the null hypothesis represents the idea that there is no real, on in “statistics speak,” significant, difference between the two. The alternate hypothesis represents the idea that there is a statistically significant difference between them. Simple enough right?
Atheism is just a word that applies a label to the null hypothesis with regard to all claims about gods. It is basically the real world as it is, with no supernatural beings, oversight, or intervention. It is the status quo otherwise known as reality. The alternate hypothesis then would be that a god or some gods do exist In statistics, until there is evidence that suggests any of those alternate hypotheses are true, we do not reject the null hypothesis. The way things are, remains the way things are.
The fact we have a special label for not believing in a specific type of thing, in itself is odd. There are literally countless creations of human imaginations that no one reasonably believes are real, yet there are no words to label those skeptics. You might even be an a-leprechaunist, a-goblinist, a-vampirist, and a-Bigfootist yourself!
When I took to the op-eds with this letter, I was hoping that my explanation might create some doxastic openness among the paper’s predominantly religious readership base. In other words, I was hoping some of them might, after thinking about the analogy, stop and think about why they believe what they do. I remain particularly hopeful I piqued the curiosity of local faith leaders. I’d love to have honest, respectful conversations about what they believe to be true and why. I will keep you all posted on that front. Until then, my letter is below.
Based on the two letters, “Why do atheists always bring God into the equation?” (Dec. 5) and “Atheism does not offer the answers to violence” (Dec. 5) , written in response to Ed Buckner’s letter “Price’s column shows disregard for logic,” apparently there is some serious (and perhaps self-serving) misunderstanding as to what “atheism” means. Here is an analogy that should help clear things up.
Think of a swimming pool. Not just any swimming pool, but an Olympic-sized swimming pool with clearly defined swim lanes. In each lane is a swimmer representing a religion. In lane one, we have Christianity which claims there’s one God named Yahweh, and that God has a son named Jesus who is also the Messiah. In lane two, we have Judaism which claims the same God as Christianity, only there’s no Messiah … he hasn’t shown up yet. In lane three we have Islam, which claims the same God as Christianity and Judaism but instead calls him Allah and says the only way to salvation is by practicing faith according to Muhammad. In lane four there is Hinduism, which has its own set of very different gods, including but not limited to Ganesh, Brahma, and Vishnu. In lane five we have Sikhism which claims the god Waheguru is the one true god. In lanes six, seven, and eight we have Wiccan, Mormonism, and Scientology, each with their own god beliefs and revelations.