First of all, let it be known that sometimes, I’m sure I work for the Best Company Ever. Granted, last week I wanted the entire workforce to die in various creatively horrific ways, but that’s just the nature of what I do. Sometimes I spend 10 hours a day writing copy and trying not to go insane, and other times I spend 8 hours a day laughing, blogging, getting a little work done, and then going out drinking with coworkers. I enjoy extremes, so I get by okay.
Yesterday was our annual company meeting, which included an open bar and delicious sushi. Afterward we invaded our usual little dive hangout, where we packed in a good hundred people and enjoyed more free booze, courtesy of one of our vice presidents who hopped behind the bar and started handing out beer. It was slightly insane.
My point is not to (just) brag about how fun my company is. Late into the evening as I dove into my fourth or fifth Guinness, I started talking about atheism with a coworker (who is also a friend). He asserted that atheism was an organized religion. I explained that it was not a religion at all. He insisted it was, claiming that it was an absolute belief in the nonexistence of God. I pointed out that this was often just confusion over definitions, and then asked him to define atheism. “A-theism,” he said, “is ‘without theism,’ without religion.”
“Well there you go,” I said. “Without religion. Often people define atheism as believing that there is no god, while I think of it as not having any belief in a god. There’s a difference.”
“Well that’s agnostic then,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “the two are pretty closely interrelated. It just depends on your definitions.” Then I tried to give my usual definition of “what I am,” which is to say I’m a philosophical agnostic but a practical atheist — there is no way to tell one way or the other if there’s a god-thing out there, but I live my life as though there’s not. I usually explain that it’s similar to the way most adults treat Santa or the Easter bunny, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster/Invisible Garage Dragon/Invisible Pink Unicorn/Invisible Banana God/insert your favorite analogous being here. Normally this explanation helps people understand my own personal (lack of) belief system. When I’m drinking in a noisy bar packed with other drunks, it’s a little more difficult to articulate my point. It took me a few tries to get all that out in an understandable manner, but eventually I managed to convey the information. I turned away for a moment to say hello to someone else.
About 30 seconds later, I turned back around. My coworker was explaining to someone else that atheism is just another organized religion. Somehow, I did not punch him in the face.
All this brought to mind a few things. First, I thought of the common complaint I hear among skeptical men that there just aren’t enough skepchicks out there to date. This conversation was with a coworker and not a random guy at the bar, but it illustrated how we’re all in the same boat when it comes to finding potential mates that don’t piss you off with weird beliefs and stubborn misconceptions about nonbelievers.
Secondly, the incident reminded me of a video I saw yesterday of Julia Sweeney on Craig Ferguson’s talk show. Julia was promoting the CD version of her excellent one-woman show, Letting Go of God. Craig gave her a bit of a hard time about her atheism, giving the old standby arguments like “some things can’t be explained by science.” Julia held her own, and as usual was very sweet and patient. At one point, Craig claimed the exact same thing as my coworker — that atheism means you steadfastly believe with 100% certainty that there is no god.
It’s not just that people are ignorant of what atheists do or do not believe — I understand that a lot of people, including nonbelievers, use words like atheism, agnosticism, humanism, and freethinker with varying meanings. What annoys me is that you will rarely if ever witness an exchange like this:
PERSON 1: I’m an atheist.
PERSON 2: Oh. What does that mean exactly?
Far more often, the exchange is closer to what I experienced last night, and what Julia went through in front of millions of viewers:
PERSON 1: I’m an atheist.
PERSON 2: How can you be so sure there’s no god?
PERSON 2: Why do you hate god?
PERSON 2: It’s just another religion, you know.
The fact that some people, even when corrected, will continue to misrepresent the philosophical position of another person betrays a fundamental incuriosity that I find infuriating. In Julia’s case, she was on the show to promote her CD, which details a moving journey of self-discovery. None of that was discussed. Instead, the host only offered limp attacks on the blasphemous idea that there might not be a god. I’d be very surprised to see the situation reversed with a theist in the hot seat. If, for instance, Billy Graham showed up to promote a new book that described his own religious journey, would Ferguson grill him on why he believes in a god? Or even on why he believes in a Protestant Christian god as opposed to a Catholic or Muslim god? Somehow, I doubt it.
In the end, I dropped the atheism topic. I realized at that point that there was no use trying to educate someone who had already made up his mind. People like that do not discuss, they argue. Of course, with a neverending supply of beer bottles sliding down the bar like the greatest assembly line ever, maybe intelligent discourse is a bit too much to ask. Still, a skepchick can dream.