It’s really okay to call yourself an atheist.

I found this article on J.T. Eberhard’s blog, and he wrote a brilliant post on it.  I have just a bit to add.

Neil Steinberg wrote a little piece about how even though he doesn’t believe in god, he’s not an atheist.  According to him:

“Atheists are zealots… elevating denial of the divine into a kind of faux religion, complete with pieties, and manage to be as aggressive and joyless as those who at least can blame a higher power for making them the way they are.”

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Condescending much?

But that’s not what Neil Steinberg is, no siree bob!  He’s not a miserable atheist wretch who only wants to take joy out of the world.  As he puts it, “I am an agnostic.  Agnostics know what we know but don’t make a fuss. We’re the Unitarians of the nonbelief community.”  That’s so much better, so much nicer.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, but I should start by mentioning that just because Steinberg doesn’t like the definition of words doesn’t mean they don’t apply to him.  He doesn’t have anymore right to change the definition of atheist than Oprah does.  If he doesn’t believe god exists, that means he’s an atheist.  That’s the exact definition of the word.  “A” meaning no, and “theist” meaning belief in god.  No belief in god.  It’s that simple.

Agnostic, however, means something completely different.  The word begins with the same prefix of “A” meaning no, the root “gnostic” means knowledge.  To say you’re agnostic means simply you don’t know.  That’s not what Steinberg claims.  He says, quite specifically, “Readers sometimes accuse me of being an atheist, based on my complete nonbelief in God.”  That’s not an accusation, that’s a description, and an accurate one at that.

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And here’s were we get to my reason for writing about this article.  There is an attitude that’s encouraged by the talking heads at Fox News that atheists are just angry misanthropes who ruin the country for everybody else.  They’re accused of being bullies, told they should just leave the country, and told they’re straight up unamerican, or even that they should just shut up.  And what do atheists do to deserve such abuse?  They stand up and to argue that a government which is supposed to keep itself separate from religious discussion probably shouldn’t be forcing kids to pray to Jesus or endorse one religion over another.  And the method that atheists use to challenge these religious intrusions on public life?  The courts.  Lawsuits.  Also known as the very system designed in our Constitution to challenge the legality of such types of acts.  It’s my guess that atheists wouldn’t have to face the accusation of being bullies nearly so often if the courts didn’t constantly agree that we’re actually right to bring these challenges.

This attitude is so pervasive in our society that even people who in general agree with our views do their best to distance themselves from us.  People I have a lot of respect for like Jon Stewart occasionally have to get a little dig on atheists just so its clear that he’s not to be associated with us, even if he does agree with us.

And this is what I find so infuriating about people like Mr. Steinberg.  His article points out, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of religious intrusion in government and the historical oppression that those of a minority belief faced.

“When you’re not really a victim, pretending to be one feels good, to you, because you don’t understand suffering, so can shroud yourself in the unearned dignity that those who have actually felt oppression — by your forebears, as it turns out — are entitled to. Those who complain about Christmas being edged out of the public realm are like singers who complain that they can’t put on blackface and sing “Swanee River” in a minstrel show. Yeah, that’s a shame, but there’s history here. Christians have been shoving their faith down people’s throats at pain of death for a thousand years, and the key miracle of modern society has been prying their fingers off the levers of government, science and education. Maybe if Christian zealots weren’t ripping pages out of textbooks, maybe if they were weren’t yanking contraceptives out of women’s purses, then Christmas would be welcomed by all faiths. But they do, and thus holiday trappings are a reminder of who has the whip hand, still.”

However, when he mentions someone in his own town who fought against any sort of christian intrusion in government, he callously dismisses him as an embarrassment, not worthy of praise, or even consideration of a modicum of respect.

“Anyone who has lived here long remembers the Buffalo Grove atheist gadfly, storming into board meetings, trying to get crosses off of water towers in such a heat of unpleasant legalistic dudgeon that it indicted the very notion of opposing government-endorsed faith. Northbrook could paint the bleeding heart of Jesus Christ on its water tower and I’d hesitate to complain, thinking of Sherman.”

Steinberg is either shielded so deeply behind a wall of his own cognitive dissonance that basic logic doesn’t have any influence over him, or he’s a complete hypocrite.  I can’t understand how he can say “Christians have been shoving their faith down people’s throats at pain of death for a thousand years, and the key miracle of modern society has been prying their fingers off the levers of government, science and education,” in the same article that he would disparage the very people who fight against such intrusion by Christians in government.

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We’re gonna need a bigger facepalm.

My wife once explained to me that one of the biggest obstacles to feminism was not sexist men, but sexist women.  The women who buy into patriarchal society make it easier for men who don’t understand (or want to understand) the concepts of sexism to dismiss feminism.  This is what’s happening here with Steinberg.  When the very people who agree with atheists refuse to be associated with us, it only reinforces the stereotype that atheist are angry, anti-social pessimist.  That’s just not true.  I wish Steinberg could know my friends and I.  He would see some of the most happy, joy-filled, generous, and kind-hearted people he’s ever met; most of which are proud atheists.

Look, what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot of people out there who are fighting to remove the stigma from the word “atheist”.  It’s okay to be an atheist, I promise.  It doesn’t make you a terrible person.  It doesn’t mean you want to destroy the foundations of society or that you want everyone to be miserable.  I don’t find my atheism or skepticism to be cynical or contemptuous of the rest of society.  Rather, I find it to be liberating and validating.  I think it’s time that Neil Steinberg did too.

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