Let me start this post by saying that I’m not worried about atheism. I get asked about atheism, and its Quaker cousin non-theism, quite often, and the people who ask frequently think that I’ll have some very strong opinion on the matter. If they’re not Quakers, but they know that I am (or if they know that I’m Pagan, or both), they often assume that atheism is a threat to me. You believe in God, the argument goes, so people who don’t are a problem to you.
This is not actually the case. People who simply go around not believing in God aren’t a problem to me, or even to my belief in God/dess, at all. It often turns out that the god they don’t believe in – it’s a man sitting on a cloud, nine times out of ten – is a god I don’t believe in either. Anyway, some days I don’t believe in God. Not believing doesn’t stop me going to Meeting for Worship, and I can see why that might puzzle some people, but the general upshot is that I’m completely relaxed about the existence of atheists.
It gets more interesting once we start to look at how many different kinds of atheists there are. Obviously, one way to think about kinds of atheists is to think about the gods they don’t believe in – a lot of atheism that’s media-popular at the moment rejects a particular picture of a Christian or monotheistic God, for example, but doesn’t get round to rejecting the kind of Goddess-is-World deity which many Pagans talk about. Another way is to think about what atheists do believe in – to focus on science or humanism, for example. This can be misleading, though, because religious believers are also perfectly capable of thinking that humanity is good and science contains useful truth.
There’s a tendency in all these cases to over-emphasise the opposition between ‘atheists’ and ‘believers’. This leads to the creation of a category of ‘theists’ – very few people call themselves ‘theist’, rather than identifying as a member of a specific religion, unless under the influence of philosophy of religion or in reaction to atheism and non-theism. It also leads to a huge amount of confusion when the existence of non-believing religious practitioners is discovered.
Again, though, atheists who are also religious fall into several categories. Some are moral – where the traditional moral atheist leaves behind religious belief for moral reasons, saying, “Any all-powerful deity which exists is too evil to be worshipped”, some people who reject the deity for other reasons still see a need for religion to maintain morality. I think this is weakening as it becomes clearer that full moralities can be produced from humanistic reasoning, but it’s around in a few places.
Some are aesthetic or social practitioners. If you don’t believe intellectually, but you really like stained glass/flowing robes and swords/Evensong/intricate images of Krishna/etc., you might well keep participating. If you don’t believe intellectually, but you really like Seders with the family/Christmas carols/church weddings/the youth group/etc., you might well keep participating. Indeed, this latter category in particular contains a lot of people, and in some religious traditions has a long and noble history.
Some are non-realists or fictionalists. I’ve yet to settle on the best name for this group, but it includes Don Cupitt and many Quaker non-theists. For these people, ‘God’ doesn’t exist as an external reality, or as something ‘supernatural’ (whatever that means), but is a useful fiction, or a poetic image for something which is real but hard to describe. This group can be very keen to talk about God, and to try and dig down to find out what believers ‘really’ believe. In my experience it often turns out that believers believe in ‘something which is real but hard to describe’ and are happy to say that the language they use about God is poetic or metaphorical.
Listening carefully to another position often turns out to help clarify your own. People who identify as atheists, of all the kinds I have described above and more, can have useful things to say about religion. In the public sphere, though, I could wish for some more listening and less noise, on both sides, and for a much more careful examination of positions before anyone sorts people into opposing teams. There are many more useful and interesting ways to disagree about religion – and a lot else going on in Theology and Philosophy of Religion as disciplines – than a debate over ‘God’ ‘existing’.