Belief Structure of an Atheist

A shorter version of this article appeared during 2002 in Identity, the theological magazine of Worth School. It no longers represents my views.

To YOU I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the Loyal Opposition.
(Woody Allen)

Atheism has a bad name in the modern world, and has had one for centuries. In today’s world atheism is no more fashionable than being an
Orthodox Jew. It would seem that the preferred spiritual position for the modern world is somewhere between agnosticism (an agnostic was defined
in 1876 by Prof. T.H Huxley as someone who disclaims both atheism and theism, and who believes that the question of whether a higher power
exists is unsolved and insoluble) and a multi-theism which borrows from many spiritual traditions.

Clearly a belief system does not have to be either popular or fashionable to be worthy but as an atheist I find it interesting that many equate atheism
with anarchism, nihilism and the general degradation of society. I would like to explain how this isn’t necessarily the case, but first some definitions:
Many thinkers divide atheism into two branches – “strong atheism” which covers those who explicitly believe that a God (or Gods) cannot or do not
exist whereas “weak atheism” refers to those simply with an absence of belief in a God (or Gods). You cannot be an atheist through ignorance of
religious teachings.

I would class myself as someone with leanings to “strong atheism” but I personally feel that it is impossible to state that deities cannot exist. As
Nobel laureate Richard Feynman stated in one of his famed lectures on science and religion “doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great
value.” Isaac Asimov sums it up well, writing in 1982:

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually
unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or
an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that
God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.

However having doubt and being an atheist is not about believing in nothing. I’m inspired by a school of thought known as Positive Atheism which
was begun by Gora [Shri Goparaju Ramachandra Rao] (1902-1975) in India. Gora founded the Atheist Centre and worked to end untouchability in
India. He eventually met Mahatma Gandhi and they later worked together toward India’s independence, which occurred in 1947. He also worked with
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an atheist, urging him to support the formation of a secular government in the then predominantly
Hindu nation of India. He later worked to establish a network of charitable organizations rivalling the works of Mother Teresa.

The very essence of Positive Atheism as pioneered by Gora is the notion that atheism implies a proactive ethic. Since no gods exist then for anything
to be accomplished we must do it ourselves. It’s a very empowering and energising perspective.

In addition to Gora’s philosophy I like to spend time integrating the fundamental truths expressed in other world religions. Somewhat like the B’Hai
faith (which regards Moses, Christ and Mohammed as prophets continually re-expressing God’s word to a fallible humanity) I sense that each
religion’s teachings has much wisdom distilled into them. “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” and the one true commandment of
Love ring true as wonderful axioms by which to live.

Some atheists work to provide a philosophical proof that the atheist is superior to others but the majority, including myself, would be delighted just
to see atheists accepted as equals to those with faith in other belief systems. Certainly my atheism does not preclude a healthy respect to those who
have dedicated their lives to a God and exploring the mysteries of human spirituality. Only through humility and by accepting doubt can one live life
as a Positive Atheist.

Another source of inspiration dates approximately 23 centuries from the Greek philosopher Epicurus who has a great deal to say on God and how to
achieve a “pleasant life” without harming others. His views seem extremely relevant to today’s liberal individualism of Western society (as they did to
Tolstoy for a period, as mentioned in a previous issue of Identity), though some mistake his views for hedonism – far from it! Not only did Epicurus
create a lasting philosophical school of thought with followers and many subsidiary writings on how to live a positive life, he also wrote many pithy
thoughts on the nature of a God as proposed by major religions. I include one such quote below, it is an interesting mind game to consider how
people of different beliefs would respond to such charges against their God:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

However I finish on a less dogmatic quote from Epicurus as well as a quote from Gora, both of which highlight the positive nature of atheism. Oh,
and another from Woody, because I just can never resist.

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly
without living pleasantly.

Real morality is possible when the sanctions for morality are also tangible and real.

If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.
(Woody Allen)