Atheism lost two of its biggest names last week, with the death of Christopher Hitchens on Thursday, December 15th, and Kim Jong-Il on Saturday, December 17th. Although neither of these men believed in God, they could not have lead more different lives. Hitchens was one of the greatest literary minds of his generation, speaking out against religious myths in favor of reason and rationalism. Whereas Kim Jong-Il was the narcissistic, schizotypal, megalomaniacal, dictator of North Korea that starved, worked to death, and subjected his own people to a reign of terror in which they were denied all basic human rights, such as free speech, and anyone could be killed for criticizing the regime.
It could be argued that Kim Jon-Il was not technically an atheist because he actually thought of himself as a demi-god, believing he was the reincarnation of his father Kim il Sung, also know as the enternal leader, who died in 1994 and is still considered the rightful president of North Korea. In fact, Christopher Hitchens said of North Korea that it is the only necrocracy in the world — a country governed by the dead. The fact Kim Jong-Il thought of himself as a god-like figure is reflected in his many official titles, like The Great Sun of Life, Great Man Who Descended From Heaven, as well as Invincible And Ever-Triumphant General and Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love. Although Kim Jong Il might have thought of himself as a demi-god, he was a communist, which are historically known to be atheists, and he certainly did not believe in the Christian god of monotheism. Therefore, it is expected most Christians would jump on this fact, labeling him an atheist and sweeping his atrocities under the blanket of “godless atheism”.
This tactic is often employed by monotheists in the effort to demonize atheism, claiming the atrocities of Pol Pot, Stalin, and sometimes even Hitler proves that atheism is a negative force, and without a belief in God humans are prone to genocide and other manner of crimes against humanity. In fact, I recently had a debate over the issue of Biblical slavery with an old high school acquaintance, who is now self-proclaimed Christian apologist, in which he said:
“The only known places on earth at the moment where slavery exists are either atheistic communist countries, or Muslim countries. It is just a fact, but I will not bother trying to back it up. I do believe that it is very easy to find that out for yourself.”
Although I did try to look this up, I could found no source that supported the claim communist countries promote the practice of slavery in the way that Christians participating in the American and European slave trades promoted the practice of slavery, but a little thing like credible evidence never stopped a Christian from making fallacious arguments in order to demonize atheism. However, this statement caused me to reflect on something that I feel many Christians do not understand about a non-belief in God — simply, that atheism is completely non-informative with regard to morality.
Atheism is simply a lack of belief in religion/God. However, atheists are certainly free to derive beliefs from other political or philosophical systems. Communists have an entirely different set of political and moral goals than socialists, fascists, humanists, and so on. Although none of these belief systems are based in religion, they still impart their followers with a variety of motivations and desires. If one political group of atheists believe it’s ok to have slaves, then they are basing that belief on something entirely different than from where I derived my morality. This is the essential difference between atheism and theism.
Christians are a collective group of people that are bounded to a universal doctrine. Although there are slight differences in belief, that does not change they fact everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and follows his teachings in the Gospels are considered to be “Christians”. However, there is no church of atheism and there is no religious tome or set of dogmatic beliefs under which ALL atheists persist. In fact, the term “atheist” is meaningless, because you do not define something by what it is not.
Bald is not a hair color, just a not playing baseball a sport, or “not being an auto mechanic” is a trade, and a non-smoker is addicted to not smoking. The fact you do not engage in the pastime of collecting stamps does not make you a non-stamp collector, anymore than me not believing in religion makes me an atheist. Atheism is a label theists place on those who do not follow theistic philosophies, and for convenience sake most atheists go along, myself included. Therefore, if anyone is going to attempt to label another person one should do so according to what they actually believe.
Although I find labeling oneself to be a arbitrary practice, because no one set of principles can encompass all the nuances of someone’s individual beliefs, if I absolutely HAD to give myself a label, the closest philosophy I can identity with would be that of Secular Humanism.
The term Secular Humanist is informative. First it tells you my beliefs are secular, meaning apart from religion, and that I am a humanist, meaning I am concerned with human values and promoting human well-being. By digging a little further you would also come to realize that I embrace reason, ethics and justice while rejecting supernatural and religious dogma as the basis of my morality and decision-making.
However, if I were to meet you for the first time and identified myself as an “atheist” it would tell you absolutely nothing about who I am or what I believe, it would only tell you what I am not and what I do NOT believe. I could just as easily be an atheist Neo Nazi as I could be an atheist humanitarian — there is no doctrine that says all atheists must behave a certain way because such a doctrine cannot exist, therefore, atheism cannot exist.
This is why we can have non-believers like Pol Pot committing genocide against his own people and non-believers like Bill Gates that has donated many tens of billions of dollars of his own money to reducing extreme poverty and providing greater access to health care. Atheism does drive anyone to anything.
Pol Pot was the Prime Minster of Communist Cambodia from 1976 until 1979 in which he attempted to build a racially pure society, free of Laotians and Vietnamese, in which he was the leader over a peasant working class. There are several theories as to why he forced the evacuation of the cities, requiring everyone to relocated to the countryside to work on collective farms and forced labor projects. Some believe this was part of his vision for a utopia, which is why he killed the lame, crippled, homosexuals, and anyone he believed to be an intellectual, because they would not make good workers. But whatever the Pol Pot killed 2-5 million of his own people, it was not do the fact he did not believe in god. There were many factors motivating his actions, but atheism was not one of them.
In the same respect, Bill Gates does not help the less fortunate because his lack of belief in God is guiding him to do so. Gates holds many other beliefs and moral philosophies that causes him to spend him money on helping others rather than hording it all for himself, or even from becoming a tyrannical dictator like Pol Pot and Stalin.
Atheism has never inspired anyone to do anything, and that is why I feel like atheists should attempt to distance themselves from this word. Atheist should define themselves according to what they are rather than what they are not, which would help easy the confusion of monotheists that think all atheists follow some universal doctrine, where the most destructive atheists in history somehow justify their misdeeds through a lack of belief instead of their actual political ideologies.
But if non-believers were to no longer call themselves atheists, what should we call ourselves? Freethinkers? Secular Humanists? What term can we use to distance ourselves from the non-label of atheism that would serve to demonstrate what we actually believe? Or do you think this is simple a non-issue? Should we keep referring to ourselves as atheists and force monotheists to elevate their understanding of this term? I’d like to hear you opinion on this matter, because it is something I have been thinking about for quite some time.
In closing, I was very saddened to hear about Christopher Hitchens’ death, for one of the brightest, freethinking minds has been extinguished within the world. However, we still have his words, which contain his passion for reason and the search for truth, no matter where that truth lies. This torch has been passed down through every generation starting with Socrates, and in turn Hitches passes it on to use. Let’s continue to think freely and use our reasoning to combat the outdated superstitions of religious ideologies that would prefer to see their own children die rather than receive medical treatment or blood transfusions, that would prefer homosexuals live in shame rather than receive the full benefits of a free society, and would stamp out scientific understanding rather than have their beliefs legitimately challenged.
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