Much of logic deals with definitions. If a dialogue is to proceed, all parties must agree on the terms being discussed. These simple ground rules are too often ignored in the discourse of the mainstream media, fomenting confusion. For the purposes of this article, I would like to clarify two oft-used terms: religious extremist and atheist. A close analysis and clear definition of what each of these terms means can help freethinkers to advance our positions in the public mind.
The phrase “religious extremist” is inherently strange and deeply biased. Muslims and Christians who give fortunes to charity because certain biblical or Qur’anic verses command them to do so are not called “extremists,” though they are clearly taking certain aspects of their religion to an extreme. Both the Bible and the Qur’an exhort followers to commit violence and to give to charity, yet we label only those believers who commit violence as “extremists.” Why is this?
To answer this question, we must ask another one. How would we describe a non-extremist believer? A non-extremist believer would likely be one who chooses to ignore the biblical or Qur’anic verses that command a Christian or Muslim to do violence. If this is the case, when we praise religious people who give to charities because their holy books tell them to but do not commit violence when their holy books tell them to, are we not actually praising their ability to think freely? In other words, is not a non-extremist believer simply one who prizes free thinking above religious commands? (Some thought process is making the believer ignore the doctrines of violence in his or her religion’s scriptures.) If so, why is it that the “faith” of a believer who gives to charity is praised rather than his or her ability to think freely?
In addition, many so-called extremists not only commit violence but also act charitably. Are they not truly following all the commands of their holy books? If so, why are they labeled extremists? Isn’t purist a better term?
The word atheist is a source of much confusion and controversy, even among those who apply the label to themselves. In order to be clear what atheism means, I propose two definitions.
Under the first definition, atheism is a tool that we all use. Even staunch religious believers have worked under the assumption that there is no God they can count on to get certain things done. A Catholic who fills up his car with gas does so because he knows that neither God nor any other being will fuel his car for him. A person who jumps out of a plane with a parachute makes a de facto declaration of disbelief in all possible “flying saviors” who might rescue him or her. This form of atheism is demonstrated through action. Even missionaries display it; after all, they strive to win converts because they know that God won’t convert people himself. Religious charities are atheistic in this way as well—they know that their religious organization must provide aid because God will not. Believers might find this part of the definition annoying, but there is no denying the fact that a disbelief in the omnipotent supernatural must be declared in some way before anything in the real world can be accomplished.
The second definition makes atheism a single branch under the very large heading of “free inquiry.” Free inquiry is a way of thinking that prizes evidence and logic over irrationality and faith. This form of logical thinking can be applied to all sorts of claims. For example, if someone told me that he or she believed in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and, after using free inquiry and logic to study the topic, I concluded that there is no good reason for believing, then I would be an “aflyingspaghettimonsterist.” Since I find little logical backing for believing in the doctrines of Karl Marx, I am an “acommunist.” Whenever I apply free inquiry very narrowly to the topic of religious claims, I find that there is no logical reason to believe in a god or gods or any theological statement. Therefore, I am an atheist. It is only because I live in a country where religious claims are made routinely that my atheism makes me stand out. If I lived in a communist or fascist country, it would be my “acommunism” or “afascism” (both of which are likewise the fruits of free inquiry) rather than my atheism that would make me different from the herd.
Prominent freethinkers often observe that even religious people are atheists when it comes to the existence of gods not their own, but this is not true. To be an atheist means to disbelieve in all theological claims, regardless of denomination. A Catholic cannot call a Hindu an atheist, even though the Hindu may believe in a different god or gods than the Catholic. The Catholic can only say that the Hindu is an “acatholicgodist.” Muslims may declare all Christians to be “aallahists,” but they cannot call them all atheists.
Free thinking lies at the heart of the above definitions, and we should praise believers not for the veracity of their faith but for the level of free thought that they bring to religious teachings. Atheism, too, is defined in two different important ways. The first part of the definition deals with actions. The second merely makes atheism a narrow subset of free thinking; for that reason, I prize my ability to think freely much more than I prize my mere atheism. It is time to place free inquiry at the center of all of our definitions and ultimately (we hope) at the center of public conversation.