Witnessing the Universe

So I’m currently reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett and have just picked up Jerry Coyne’s new Faith versus Fact—books which I am both enjoying immensely, in large part because I do love a well-crafted argument. But this bit of reading has me contemplating the word “atheist,” a word which both writers would apply to themselves. I understand why and how this has become a marker of cultural self-identification, a means of employing an identity in contradiction to America’s unreflective piety, a banner around which people might rally around and, in doing so, find those of kindred spirits. The term doesn’t bother me for what it signifies or for the growing culture that is built around it. Rather, two things nag at me regarding that word:

  • “Atheist” is a relative term. Old accounts of the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire (many of which were grossly exaggerated or invented whole cloth, as Candida Moss so ably demonstrates in The Myth of Christian Persecution) included the Romans labeling these new religious upstarts as “atheists” for their refusal to sacrifice to the genus of the emperor. “Atheist” can be employed to designate a person who doesn’t believe in your particular god. Plus, from a Hindu perspective, anyone who believes in one god is an atheist a million times over for all the deities denied.
  • Why define someone according to what they do not believe? Most disbelievers in deities are also disbelievers in water sprites or angels, yet we don’t burden people with labels for those things whose existence they deny. I guess the term “aleprechaunist” would technically apply to me, but it’s honestly not an important component of my identity. (I am, however, a proud “a-The-Avengers-was-a-decent-movie-ist,” because it wasn’t, and I can demonstrate that fact empirically.)

This is just quibbling about labels, I know. Others have offered such alternatives as secular humanist or “bright.” But one of the biggest problems facing us—in fact, the greatest source of our current problems—is a failure to take seriously the material world in which we find ourselves. Many dogmas, in fact, deny any importance to our brief lives on this planet, in this corner of the galaxy, and that denial feeds into the disregard we have for science, given that science is the very means by which we understand better our material condition, the only reality we can verify. And so maybe it’s time to latch on to another label, one that reflects the pride and enthusiasm with which those of us who revel in the glory of this life and this world wish to share with our fellow human beings—an enthusiasm so deep we would go door-to-door to share it with folks.

Yes, you can call me a Universe’s Witness.

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