Saturday, November 26, 2011

What Is An Atheist?

Yesterday I was speaking to one of my students about religion and atheism as it influences our society, and he told me that when he was in China his guide proudly stated that China is 85% atheist. This made me scratch my head for a moment. I was pretty sure the number is not actually that high. The reason for this statistic is because in China they only consider people that are members of an organized religion to be religious. All of those people that give offerings to Buddhist temples or pray to their ancestors are counted as atheist.

But wait a minute, I thought. Just because these people are praying to great-great grandma instead of Yahweh they're still practicing a religion aren't they? It's still superstition. They still pray and give offerings and thank a supernatural entity that they believe directly influences their lives. They're not atheist the way, say, Denmark is atheist. My student responded by saying that the reason the Chinese don't count ancestor worship as religion is because it does not bring any rules to society. There's no religious holidays associated with it, no dietary rules and no influence on the lawmaking of divorce or stem cell research or any of that.

**Quick aside** when Chinese people get divorced, who is the child tied to? Since they have the one child rule and all that, if a married couple with a kid get divorced and remarried, which of the two is not allowed to have another child? If you know do tell me

My response to that was that even though there are no religious holidays tied to ancestor worship there are still some cultural rules that are so deeply ingrained they might not even see that they are tied to this practice. The most obvious one is the taboo of going against your parent's wishes and "bringing shame on the family". The role of the elders in your family is so hyped up in ancestor worship that to do something to shame them is the absolute worst thing you can do, which puts enormous pressure on young Chinese people.

While he sort of agreed with me on that point and we moved on to other things it still made me wonder, how do you define atheism exactly? As the root of the word comes to absence-of-theism, it is difficult to pinpoint what does and does not apply. I wish it could be as simple as "people who don't believe in silly things without evidence". If that was the case holocaust deniers, anti-vaxers, 9/11 truthers and children who believe in Santa are all excluded from being atheists. I think it's going to have to be more subtle than that.

Let's look at a couple of dictionary definitions. weighs in like this:

a·the·ism: noun

1.the doctrine or belief that there is no God.
2.disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings.

How about the Cambridge University Press:

someone who believes that God or gods do not exist

A few more different dictionaries all give pretty much the same definition. While they do not talk about the presence or absence of an organized religion with a distinct set of rules, they all mention the lack of belief in God or gods. So now the question becomes this, do the ancestors that are prayed to qualify as gods?
Now when looking up the word "god" we get many more definitions, however I think the first two are the most telling. Let's take the Oxford dictionary as an example:

  • 1 (in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being.
  • 2 (god)(in certain other religions) a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes; a deity:
 While the ancestors prayed to in China do not of course fit the first definition, I do find that they fit the second one perfectly. In light of the slippery nature of the word "god", I think the definition of atheism needs to be extended a little bit:

The disbelief in the existence of a supernatural or superhuman being that has power over nature or human fortunes.
This new definition would also include the god of the Bible, the Qu'ran etc, while also encompassing other "softer" religions like some forms of Buddhism.
Also, If you also want to exclude the believers in all that other silly stuff that doesn't have to do with religion, you can thank Thunderf00t for this little gem of a word:

 A person who bases their views on Physical Evidence and Reasoned Logic

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