Why Not Naturalism Instead of Atheism?
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for…
Just to be clear: I am an atheist; and I agree that, if we nonbelievers are ever to feel “at home” in our own country, then we need to provide a viable alternative to faith-based religion. There are signs that the hegemony historically enjoyed by Christianity in America is slowly but steadily crumbling (e.g., millennials turning away from fundamentalist faith), and nothing could make me happier. But I believe there may be insurmountable problems with trying to promote the term “atheism” as a counterpoint and ultimately a replacement for a traditionally religious worldview.
We nonbelievers have to admit to ourselves that “atheism” is a dirty word in our culture. I wish it wasn’t, but it is. I understand the desire to change that perception, but I think letting it go in order to promote and achieve the kind of world we want to live in is more valuable.
Trying to convince or persuade religious believers that “atheism” is innocuous, or even positive, is a losing battle, psychologically-speaking. Having been finally extricated from a fundamentalist Christian milieu myself in my twenties (I’m now 40), I know the emotional revulsion or sense of taboo that word can elicit in a believer.
So, promoting things like A+ and Ethical Atheism, while clever and well-intentioned, is misguided and a waste of valuable time and energy. Why not promote “naturalism” instead? Michael Nugent writes in the above-referenced manifesto, “Promoting atheism over supernaturalism”; but the opposite of “supernaturalism” is “naturalism” – so why not say so?
I’m aware that the term “naturalism” may carry connotations of “materialism” and “physicalism”; but who besides academic religious believers would make those connections? And which term, atheism or naturalism, would the average believer on the street respond to with more negativity?
The naturalist understands not only that we are not exceptions to natural laws, but that we don’t need to be in order to secure any central value (freedom, human rights, morality, moral responsibility) or capacity (reason, empathy, ingenuity, originality). We can positively affirm and celebrate the fact that nature is enough. Indeed, the realization that we are fully natural creatures has profoundly positive effects, increasing our sense of connection to the world and others, fostering tolerance, compassion and humility, and giving us greater control over our circumstances. This realization supports a progressive and effective engagement with the human condition in all its dimensions. So we can justly call it worldview naturalism: an overarching cognitive, ethical and existential framework that serves the same function as supernatural worldviews, but without trafficking in illusions. By staying true to science, our most reliable means of representing reality, naturalists find themselves at home in the cosmos, astonished at the sheer scope and complexity of the natural world, and grateful for the chance to participate in the grand project of nature coming to know herself.
I believe that presenting atheism/secularism in these terms will do far more in achieving our shared values and goals.