[also posted at The Exponent]
Atheism- the absence of belief in the existence of deities.
At a large family dinner a few years ago, the conversation turned to the topic of one of my cousins (not present at this gathering). It had been discovered that this cousin no longer believed in the church (!!) which revelation brought about a general round of disappointed head-shaking. But that was not all, the informant continued, "he told me he no longer believes in God!" Gone was the disappointed head-shaking, in it's place was a profound sense of horror.
In my heart (a heart already secretly dealing with questions about the church) I also felt that sense of horror, my own hidden fears that I might lose God.
As manifest by the reactions of my family, the label "Atheist" is a slur, a tragedy, an almost incomprehensible failing, a fate worse than death (well, okay, maybe that's going a bit far, but you get the idea, right?)
[My trusty Webster's dictionary at home has as it's first definition of Atheism; UNGODLINESS, WICKEDNESS. ]
It always intrigues me when I see an individual address a predominately believing audience and refer to their own atheism. It doesn't happen very often. When it does, I try to speak to them about it afterward. Frequently they share the small reservation they feel about stating such a thing out loud in such a setting, there being such a negative stigma attached to the label amongst believers, but that they felt it should be included in their remarks anyways.
I, for one, am always glad they do.
Because, you see, I don't really believe in God anymore, and I'm having to confront my own reservations about admitting this to myself and my peers. (I was recently asked to give a lesson in relief society and was strongly tempted to say "Sure! But I'm atheist, do you still want me to teach the lesson?" But I didn't. I just graciously declined the invitation. Maybe someday.)
I have been delighted to discover the non-theist community is extremely diverse, full of good works, purpose, hope and joy. To discover, as Phil Zuckerman puts it, "Lack of theism does not render this world any less wondrous, lush, mystifying, or amazing."
I have an absence of belief in the existence God.
Which is very ironic because I have always been and still am a spiritual person. But it's not tragic and that's the point I'm trying to get across. There is incredible room for personal growth, for wonder and awe and profundity and mystery within the realms of non-theism. There are amazing people in this world, contributing members of society, friends, spouses, parents etc who do so much good even though they don't believe in God. (Funny isn't it, the impulse to add a caveat about how a person can be good without believing in God.)
I sort of wish I could go back in time to that family dinner and respond to the pronouncement that this cousin was atheist with something like "you say that like it's a BAD thing" and try to get a discussion going that perhaps distilled some of the negative associations with the label.
Maybe next time. :)
Meanwhile, I'll take this opportunity here, on this blog, to get a discussion going.
This is not a post to promote atheism and I want to avoid here any bashing or proselytizing of either theism or non-theism. I'm just curious what your own experiences with the label have been.